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Gristmill: Fresh, whole-brain news.


Big Coal loses out in Indiana, despite employing two state lawmakers

Matt Ubelhor is a Peabody Energy executive and an Indiana lawmakers. Where do his allegiances lie?
Indiana state
Rep. Matt Ubelhor moonlights as a Peabody Energy employee. Or is it the other way around?

Tough break for the coal industry in Indiana. Plans to build a $2.8 billion plant in Rockport to convert coal into synthetic natural gas have been doomed by new safeguards that protect ratepayers.

That's despite the best efforts of two senior coal industry executives who serve as lawmakers in the state legislature. There, they had tried, unethically and unsuccessfully, to prevent their colleagues from imposing the new standards, which will protect the state's gas and electricity customers from being ripped off.

Former Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels’ (R) administration signed a deal with the plant developers in 2011, which Indiana University researchers found would leave the state's ratepayers on the hook for all of the financial risks associated with the project. The researchers concluded [PDF] that the project would hurt the state's economy in the long run.

The deal was negotiated when natural gas prices were much higher than they are today, and when coal-to-gas technology was seen as being more lucrative. A court has ordered that the contract must be amended, and the newly approved state legislation will trigger a tough review before any amended deal can be signed.


Weird wintry weather and the climate-change link

May snow in Boulder, Colo.
Kara Brugman
May snow in Boulder, Colo.

It was high time to pass around a few cold ones in the shade of an awning in Amarillo, Texas, just a few days ago. Now it's time to hunker inside, drink whiskey neat, and play charades.

The city broke a heat record on April 30, reaching a scorching hot 97 degrees. Then it got hit by unseasonably cold weather that has swept through the nation's heartland. A couple days after reaching 97, the temperature bottomed out at 33 degrees, with the cold snap bringing some snow.

The topsy-turvy weather in Amarillo is emblematic of the climatic incoherence reigning across the country. The coasts are basking in spring weather while the Rockies, Great Plains, and Midwest are being smacked by snow storms.

The unseasonably late chill appears to be one of many symptoms of the changing climate. But before we dive into that, let's take a look at the extraordinary weather pummeling the Midwest. From The Weather Channel:

Read more: Climate & Energy


Court says N.Y. town can outlaw fracking

A bridge out of Dryden, N.Y. Frackers are welcome to take it.
Russ Nelson
A bridge leading out of Dryden, N.Y. Frackers are welcome to use it.

A small New York town prevailed Thursday in a court battle against the energy industry, which wants to frack the ground beneath the townsfolk's feet despite a local law that forbids the practice.

A moratorium is in place on fracking in New York, but Dryden and dozens of other municipalities around the state have passed local ordinances banning the practice in case the state prohibition is lifted. Drillers argued in court that the town's fracking ban violated state law (a law unrelated to the moratorium), and that they should be allowed to drill for gas there despite the locals' wishes.

A state trial court judge ruled last year in favor of Dryden. That ruling was appealed, and, on Thursday, Dryden, with the support of public-interest law firm Earthjustice, prevailed again in a state appeals court. Attorneys for Norwegian company Norse Energy Corp. vowed to appeal the latest ruling to a higher state court. That means the dozens of local fracking bans in New York aren't safe just yet -- but the two legal victories so far are a  promising sign.


Fracking threatens to escalate the West’s water wars

dry lakebed
Patrick Emerson

One of fracking's few but feverishly touted upsides is that the natural-gas boom it's spurred could help America move toward energy independence; it's a crucial piece of Obama's “all-of-the-above” energy strategy. But in building up our fuel supply, fracking threatens our supply of another crucial natural resource – water.

A new report from nonprofit Ceres (which maintains a neutral position on fracking in general) reveals that nearly half of the country's fracking wells are located in water-stressed regions -- in particular Texas and Colorado, where 92 percent of fracking wells are in extremely high-water-stress regions. Ceres compiled its report using data from the World Resources Institute -- which considers an area extremely water-stressed if 80 percent of its available water supply is already allocated for municipal, industrial, and agricultural uses -- and, a voluntary national registry of fracking wells' locations and water usage.

FracFocus shows that between January 2011 and September 2012, the 25,450 wells in its database used 65.8 billion gallons of water, or the amount of water 2.5 million Americans use in a year. Because the site doesn't have data for every single well in the country, fracking's total water impact is likely even higher.


Atlantic coastal waters are the hottest since measurements began

A view of warming waters, from Cape Cod
A view of warming waters, from Cape Cod.

Would you like some broiled flounder with your serving of climate apocalypse?

Well, you're going to have to broil it yourself, because record-breaking temperatures in the Atlantic Ocean are driving the fish away from fast-heating waters toward more hospitable depths and latitudes.

The Atlantic Ocean's surface temperatures from Maine to North Carolina broke records last year, reaching an average of 57.2°F, nearly three degrees warmer than the average of the past 30 years.

That's according to new data published by National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which says the jump in average temperature from 2011 to 2012 was the largest recorded one-year spike in the marine region, which is known as the Northeast Shelf Ecosystem. Last year's average temperature was also the highest recorded there since measurements began 150 years ago.

Read more: Climate & Energy


Go (slightly) greener by getting your groceries delivered

          Be lazy, be green.

Do you drive to the grocery store? That's not very green, nobody needs to tell you that. New research suggests you could halve the carbon footprint of your shopping just by putting your feet up and getting your groceries delivered to your door.

That's according to calculations by University of Washington engineers. They point out in a paper published in the Transportation Research Forum journal [PDF] that delivery trucks follow efficient routes as they drop off groceries at customers' homes.


ExxonMobil’s tar-sands pipeline leaks again

Crews responding Wednesday to an oil spill in Doniphan, Mo.
Lori Arbeau via KFVS
Crews responding Wednesday to an oil spill in Doniphan, Mo.

ExxonMobil's 1940s-era Pegasus pipeline has been shut down since it ruptured more than a month ago in the Arkansas town of Mayflower, spilling tar-sands oil and making a big mess. But the company is legendary when it comes to spilling oil, and it wasn't going to let a little pipeline shutdown hold back its oil-spilling ways.

The very same pipeline that blackened Mayflower has leaked oil into a yard and killed plants in Doniphan, Mo., some 170 miles northeast of Mayflower.

From KFVS Channel 12:

"My grandfather noticed an oil spill that was in the yard [on Friday, April 26,] and it got bigger so we were concerned that it was going to go into the well water because we have well water to drink," said Lori Arbeau.


Climate hawk Markey wins primary, moves one step closer to Senate

Ed Markey
Martha Coakley campaign
Markey, one step closer to the U.S. Senate.

On Tuesday, Rep. Ed Markey handily won the Democratic primary for Massachusetts’ special election to fill the Senate seat recently vacated by Secretary of State John Kerry. In June’s general election, Markey will go up against Republican candidate Gabriel Gomez, an ex-Navy SEAL, son of Colombian immigrants, successful businessman, and political outsider who has never held office.

Markey, one of the most passionate environmentalists in Congress, coauthored the big climate bill that passed the House in 2009 but failed in the Senate. A 20-term House veteran, he ran on his long liberal track record, but he also got a boost from green backers. The League of Conservation Voters spent nearly $850,000 in support of his campaign. Meanwhile, San Francisco rich-guy do-gooder Tom Steyer spent more than $400,000 on “online ads and microtargeting,” according to Mother Jones; many of those ads attacked Markey’s primary opponent, South Boston “conservative” Democratic Rep. Stephen Lynch, for his support of the Keystone XL pipeline. And it doesn’t look like Steyer plans on closing his pocketbook after this early victory, MoJo reports:


Climate-denying GOP rep wants to take science-funding decisions away from scientists

Lamar Smith
Rep. Lamar Smith, thinking deeply about science.

Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), a climate skeptic who somehow became chair of the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology, wants Congress to meddle in decisions about which science research efforts should get government funding.

Perhaps that’s because scientists have a scary track record of finding out bothersome stuff. Like about climate change and whatnot.


Uranium mining is coming soon to the Grand Canyon area

Paul Fundenburg

So much for that ban on uranium mining near the Grand Canyon that Obama imposed early last year. The U.S. Forest Service just went ahead and gave a Canadian company approval to begin mining for uranium a mere six miles from the Grand Canyon National Park’s South Rim entrance, which nearly 5 million people visit every year.

Canadian company Energy Fuels Resources says its rights to mine the area, granted in 1986, should be grandfathered in, and the Forest Service concurred. In response, three environmental groups and the local Havusupai Tribe filed suit in March against the feds. They say the 1986 environmental impact review that originally gave the mine clearance needs to be updated. From The Arizona Republic:

Opponents say newer studies indicate pathways for trouble. One study, conducted in preparation for an old development plan at Tusayan, found that groundwater pumping at that Grand Canyon gateway sucked water from the vicinity of the mine. Another, by the U.S. Geological Survey, included models based on known subsurface geology funneling water toward Havasu Springs.

The Forest Service had no way of knowing these things before the 1986 approval, Northern Arizona University hydrogeologist Abe Springer said.

“Nobody ever asked the question” back then, he said.

A spokesperson for the mining company argues, naturally, that the review is still adequate, and calls the old Canyon Mine, now set to reopen in 2015, “tiny.” But Roger Clark, director of Grand Canyon Trust, one of the plaintiffs in the suit, compares the area -- which will be stripped of vegetation -- to the size of a Walmart parking lot, and tells The Guardian about other contamination concerns:

Clark argues that uranium's radioactive properties only become dangerous once it is brought up out of the ground and exposed to air and water. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, such properties include radon gas, a substance that was not regulated when the government conducted its initial study of the mine in 1986. The lawsuit contends that radon and other chemicals could pollute the area.

The mine is located on a site sacred to the Havusupai and other tribes, including the Hopi, Zuni, and Navajo.