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Gristmill: Fresh, whole-brain news.


BP, Shell, Statoil accused of fixing oil prices

Have we been paying too much for gas?
Shutterstock / Rob Wilson
Have we been paying too much for gas?

The good folks at BP, Shell, and Statoil would never break the law and screw over their customers in a quest for inflated profits, surely.

Yet that is the very accusation coming out of Europe, where the industry giants are suspected of colluding to fix prices for crude, biofuel, and refined oil products at artificially high levels, allowing them to reap greater profits than the laws of supply and demand would dictate in a truly competitive economy.

Offices of the companies were raided last week by European Commission officials, and the Justice Department is being urged to investigate whether the alleged price fixing spilled over onto American shores.


BP wants U.S. government to reduce court-ordered oil-spill payouts

BP logo covered in oil
There's still a big black mark on BP.

BP has gone crying to mummy over the big payouts it's having to make because of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster. It wants the U.K. government to ask the U.S. government to step in and give a hand.

BP says it's being forced to make overly large payments to companies in the Gulf Coast region that claim to have lost business because of the spill, and it says those payments are jeopardizing BP's own financial recovery and potentially putting the company at risk of a hostile takeover. The payments are being calculated by a court using a formula to which BP agreed.

But now BP has filed an appeal in court against that agreement, claiming that the compensation amounts are overinflated or, in some cases, entirely unnecessary. The company recently warned shareholders that the $8.2 billion it previously anticipated forking out in compensation was a significant underestimation.


New York Times editorial calls for Obama to get moving on climate

Get to work, Mr. President!
Shutterstock / Spirit of America
Get to work, Mr. President!

The New York Times editorial board is worried that atmospheric carbon dioxide levels recently hit 400 parts per million. And it's worried that President Barack Obama doesn't seem to be doing anything about it.

In an editorial published on Saturday, the Gray Lady called on Obama to quickly use his executive powers to tackle climate change:

The prospects for broad-based Congressional action putting a price on carbon emissions are nil. The House is run by people who care little for environmental issues generally, and Senate Republicans who once favored a pricing strategy, like John McCain and Lindsey Graham, have long since slunk away. Meanwhile, Republicans on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee have spent the last two weeks trying to derail Mr. Obama’s nominee to run the Environmental Protection Agency — a moderate named Gina McCarthy. Ms. McCarthy has served two Republican governors (Mitt Romney was one) but is considered suspect by the right wing because she wants to control carbon pollution, which is driving global temperatures upward.


Huge tar-sands waste pile grows alongside Detroit River

A gift to Detroit from Canada's tar sands fields.
Detroit's Petroleum Coke PilesFacebook page
A gift to Detroit from Canada's tar-sands operators.

A riverside refinery that has operated in Detroit since the 1930s began refining a new type of oil in November: tar-sands oil from Canada.

In the few short months since it began handling the Canadian oil, the refinery has already spewed out a three-story mountain of black waste covering an area the size a city block. That mountain is still growing, and it is not covered with anything to prevent tiny carbon particles from blowing over the city.

The waste can't be legally used as fuel in the U.S., so the Koch brothers have bought up the pile and plan to sell it to be burned in poorer countries that enjoy freedom from all of America's bothersome environmental regulations.


California grocery chain turns food waste into electricity

Wasted food is digested here.
Kroger Co.
Wasted food is digested here.

One California food company has a novel plan for dealing with food waste and cutting down the power bill: Feed it to bacteria. The Kroger Co. plans to chuck all food gone past its sell-by date into an industrial silo, where microbes will break it down to release methane. That methane will in turn be burned to generate electricity.

Kroger's new food-to-energy plant is designed to make the most of the vast amount of food that spoils before it can be sold to customers, while reducing the company's electricity bills. Sludge left over from the new energy plant will be used as agricultural compost. The L.A. Times describes the operation, which was built in a Compton, Calif., distribution center that serves hundreds of Ralphs and Food 4 Less stores:

Several chest-high trash bins containing a feast of limp waffles, wilting flowers, bruised mangoes and plastic-wrapped steak sat in an airy space laced with piping. Stores send food unable to be donated or sold to the facility, where it is dumped into a massive grinder -- cardboard and plastic packaging included.

Read more: Climate & Energy, Food


Take a photo of a glacier — it’ll last longer

Glaciers, such as this one in Argentina, are melting and releasing their reserves of water.
Glaciers, such as this one in Argentina, are melting and releasing their reserves of water.

Farewell, great lakes of ice and frozen rivers.

Scientists used satellite images and gravity measurements to peer more closely than ever before at the torturous drip-drip-drip from the world's glaciers. What they discovered is not really much of a surprise: Ice Age glaciers have been methodically chiseled away by the warming effects of fossil fuel burning.

Global warming and black carbon are working fast: Glaciers outside of the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets are collectively losing an estimated 571 trillion pounds worth of ice annually, the researchers reported in a paper published Thursday in the journal Science.

Glaciers? Icesheets? Potatoes, potatoes, you say. Here's the difference: The world's ice sheets cover vast swaths in Greenland and Antarctica. Meanwhile, glaciers are rivers and lakes of slow-moving ice. You can find them at high altitudes in alpine regions around the world, and you'll find them in lower elevations (including on and around ice sheets) as you approach the poles.

Although these glaciers contain just 1 percent of land ice reserves, they contribute about as much to the rising seas as the melting ice sheets. The individual contributions of glaciers to the rising seas may be relatively small, but the cumulative impacts of their melts are substantial.

The researchers concluded that melting glaciers are causing the oceans to surge by 0.03 inches yearly, which works out to 30 percent of the total annual rise in recorded sea levels.

Read more: Climate & Energy


Draft fed rules would let frackers do whatever they want, but they’re still not happy

You were saying?
Shutterstock / spirit of america
You were saying?

For everyone who was hoping the Obama administration's proposed new rules for natural gas drilling on public lands would make a difference, the just-released new draft amounts to a big "frack you."

Federal rules governing fracking on public lands are being updated, ostensibly to help manage the boom that's polluting America's groundwater and shaking free vast volumes of cheap natural gas. Environmentalists were disappointed a year ago when the Department of Interior released a fracker-friendly draft of the new rules. But they submitted reams of comments and had hoped that the proposed regulations would be tightened up in this draft.

Instead, the opposite happened.


Moniz confirmed as energy secretary, McCarthy’s EPA nomination advances

Ernest Moniz
Here's Ernest.

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) stopped throwing a temper tantrum and took a deep breath for long enough Thursday to allow the Senate to unanimously confirm Ernest Moniz as secretary of energy.

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology physics professor and fossil fuel-industry fan was confirmed with a 97-0 vote. The vote had been delayed more than three weeks by Graham in protest over $200 million of planned nuclear energy budget cuts in his state.

Moniz served as an energy undersecretary in the Clinton administration and he is replacing Steven Chu, also a physicist, who is stepping down from the department's top job.


Ag-gag bill chokes in Tennessee


It appears ag-gag bills can't even hoof it in farm country: Tennessee joins a roster of states who are strangling ag-gag bills before they can reach the killing floor.

Tennessee lawmakers had narrowly approved a bill that would have required anybody who filmed animal abuses to turn over the footage to law enforcement within 48 hours or risk being fined. That would have prevented undercover animal activists from documenting systematic animal abuse by agricultural workers, helping factory farms get away with cruelty.

But Gov. Bill Haslam (R) called BS on the bill and said that he plans to veto it. From a statement issued by the governor on Monday:

First, the Attorney General says the law is constitutionally suspect. Second, it appears to repeal parts of Tennessee’s Shield Law [which protects journalism] without saying so. If that is the case, it should say so. Third, there are concerns from some district attorneys that the act actually makes it more difficult to prosecute animal cruelty cases, which would be an unintended consequence.

Read more: Food, Politics


Heady Colo. farmers plowing ahead with hemp farming

What do you do when the federal government won't let you plant a sustainable, super-useful crop on your own land? Well, if you're Ryan Loflin, you do it anyway.


As of this week, Loflin has planted America's first real crop of industrial hemp in more than a half-century.

The 40-year-old farmer from Springfield, Colo., has been scheming for months. "I believe this is really going to revitalize and strengthen farm communities," Loflin told the Denver Post in April. Now he's leased 60 acres of his father's alfalfa farm to plant and tend the hundreds of hemp starters he's already been grooming.

Hemp, for those who aren't familiar, is a variety of cannabis that -- sorry kids! -- won't get you high. Strong, nutritious, and super sustainable to grow, hemp is used for everything from rope to cereal. It requires few herbicides, and has even been called carbon negative by some boosters. And while it's illegal to grow it in the U.S., it's not illegal to sell. Right now imported hemp -- the only legal kind -- accounts for about $500 million in annual U.S. sales, according to the Hemp Industries Association.

So what if it were homegrown, Loflin-style?