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Gristmill: Fresh, whole-brain news.


Obama admin wants hundreds of tiny nuclear reactors built in U.S.

Small nuclear reactors are just like big nuclear reactors, but smaller. And portable.

The Department of Energy is working on a strategy that could see as many as 50 small modular nuclear reactors built by the private sector every year by 2040. Many would be sold to the U.S. government; others would be exported and some more might even be imported.

The strategy is being pitched as a way to plug energy holes as the nation's coal power plants are retired. Never mind all that cheap wind and solar that's coming online, hey Obama?


Protesters target firms angling for a piece of pipeline profits

Tomorrow marks the start of a week of actions and information sessions nationwide aimed at throwing a monkey wrench into the Keystone XL pipeline construction. There are 24 planned events across 20 cities.

Tar Sands Blockade

Want to march and chant? Want to dance? Want to learn how best to lie limp in front of a bulldozer or U-lock your neck to a piece of heavy machinery? (Protip: A little Maalox and water will wash that pepper-spray out right quick.) Rallies, protests, flash mobs, trainings, and Idle No More round dances will take place from Seattle to Washington, D.C., rain or shine. The whole effort is spearheaded by the tireless folks at Deep Green Resistance and the Tar Sands Blockade.

Read more: Climate & Energy


Obama to require climate assessments for big projects like highways and pipelines

'Say, Jack, what if we used NEPA to slow down them there rising seas?'
White House
"Say, Jack, what if we used NEPA to slow down them there rising seas?"

Industries that warm the globe, take note: It might be time to freak out.

The Obama administration will soon start requiring federal agencies to consider climate change when analyzing the environmental impacts of major projects that need federal approval. This would include pipelines, highways, coal and natural-gas export facilities, and even new logging roads, if they're on public land or subject to federal oversight.

That’s according to Bloomberg, which reports that Obama will be issuing new guidance under the 1970 National Environmental Policy Act, which requires the federal government to conduct environmental impact assessments for significant projects.

The change wouldn't mean that any project affecting the climate would be nixed, but industry lobbyists worry it could lead to more delays and lawsuits.


Are municipal utilities more resilient during disasters?

Boulder, Colo., wants to dump its investor-owned utility and start up a publicly owned one that's more in line with the city's pinko-commie agenda aggressive environmental goals, as Grist's David Roberts has written about (twice). But even cities and towns without pinko-commie tendencies are looking to switch to municipal utilities in order to lower rates and get faster responses to outages caused by our new extreme weather.

Not everyone agrees, though, that public utilities are better capable of getting their act together in an emergency. The New York Times reports:

In Massachusetts after Hurricane Irene in 2011, for instance, municipal utilities in some of the hardest-hit areas were able to restore power in one or two days, while investor-owned companies like NStar and National Grid took roughly a week for some customers. According to an advocacy group called Massachusetts Alliance for Municipal Electric Choice, government-owned utilities on average employ more linemen per 10,000 customers than the private companies. ...

Read more: Cities, Climate & Energy


U.S. to help Pacific islands cope with climate change

International help is on its way for Vanuatu, which is threatened by climate change
Shutterstock / Karin Wassmer
Some help is on its way for Vanuatu, which is threatened by climate change.

Unless you're among the growing number of Americans whose homes are powered entirely by renewable energy, every time you switch on a light you're doing your part to sink a Pacific island.

Many of the thousands of tropical islands that dot the Pacific Ocean are low-lying and will be among the first countries to sink as the world's seas continue their steady rise.

But beyond the risks posed to their very survival, these islands face additional acute threats from freshwater shortages, coral bleaching, higher temperatures, and other hazards wrought by climate change. This despite the fact that their inhabitants have low carbon footprints and are contributing relatively little to the climate problem.

It is against this backdrop that the U.S. has spent the past year preparing aid projects designed to help a dozen Pacific island countries brace themselves against the growing threats posed by global warming.

Read more: Climate & Energy


E.U. car efficiency info may be more ‘creative’ than accurate

When it comes to legit auto fuel-economy data, a new report suggests there may be some sugar in the gas tank.

Activist group Transport & Environment says European car makers are consistently "optimizing" their cars' performances on fuel efficiency and emissions tests, i.e. cheating. Overall, T&E estimates that European car manufacturers are falsely claiming their cars are 25 to 50 percent more efficient than they really are.

"It's lots and lots of small tweaks," T&E's Greg Archer told the BBC. "And they all add up."

The report accuses car-makers of all sorts of MacGyver-like fuel-efficiency tricks used just during testing: taping up tiny cracks around doors and windows to reduce air resistance; lightening their cars; using special lubricants; slicking up test tracks; and stopping the car's battery from recharging. "Creative, but legal," according to The Guardian.

Click to embiggen.
Transport & Environment
Click to embiggen.

All that alleged trickery adds up to car drivers thinking they're getting a more efficient, cheaper vehicle, and officials thinking they're getting lower emissions and a cleaner environment. From The Guardian:


Big Sugar could get a big government bailout

sugar.jpgTrigger warning, healthy eaters. The USDA is considering a big sugar bailout. Here's how that would work: The agency would buy 400,000 tons of sugar from surprisingly productive sugar companies in order to give those sugar companies enough cash to pay back the the $862 million they borrowed from the USDA last October. And then you would riot in the streets because what the hell is going on, USDA?!

The Wall Street Journal reports on the part before the rioting:

The USDA makes loans to sugar processors annually as part of a program that is rooted in the 1934 Sugar Act. The loans are secured with some 4.1 billion pounds, or 2.05 million tons, of sugar that companies expect to produce from the current harvest. That comes to almost a quarter of total U.S. output that the USDA forecasts for this year.

If domestic sugar prices bounce back before a final decision [on the bailout] is made, the USDA would back away from plans to intervene in the market, [said USDA economist Barbara Fecso]. A final decision could come as early as April 1. ...

The loan program was designed to operate at no cost to taxpayers. A June 2000 study by the Government Accountability Office, then called the General Accounting Office, estimated the program's cost to the U.S. economy at $700 million in 1996 and $900 million in 1998.

The bailout would help bolster the price of sugar, therefore driving up the cost of sweetened goods. But even if you hate sugar and all the terrible things it does to our bodies, you're still paying for it.

Is that enough, though, to ally carrot and cupcake lovers in what New York Magazine wishes were a militant social movement?


U.N. to poor people: Sorry, pollution and warming will hit you hardest

The Chinese are fed up with pollution
Shutterstock / Hung Chung Chih

It's that time of year again. You're enjoying unseasonably warm weather / digging out from under an unexpected snow storm, looking forward to a summer full of invasive mosquitos, and oh, what's this? Why, it's another U.N. Human Development Report with terrible news about the planet!

The report celebrates advances in developing countries, improved conditions for the poor, and the "dramatic rebalancing of economic power" worldwide, i.e. the rise of Brazil, China, and India to crush Western white people. But it warns all that could be lost with climate change, deforestation, and air and water pollution. As usual, and as noted in past U.N. reports, the poor have the most to lose.

From The Guardian:

"Environmental threats are among the most grave impediments to lifting human development … The longer action is delayed, the higher the cost will be," warns the report, which builds on the 2011 edition looking at sustainable development.

Read more: Climate & Energy


Pipeline struck by tug still burning, yards away from oil-laden barge

This photo, taken Wednesday, shows how close the barge is to the burning tug and pipeline. Inside the barge and not visible from the outside is 2,200 barrels of crude oil, according to the Coast Guard.
Coast Guard
This photo, taken Wednesday, shows how close the oil barge, on the left, is to the burning tug and pipeline. The barge contains 2,200 barrels of crude oil.

A tugboat and a gas pipeline continued to burn in Louisiana on Thursday -- and connected to the burning tug is a barge laden with 2,200 barrels of crude oil, potentially ready to catch fire or spill.

The tug crashed into the liquid petroleum pipeline in Bayou Perot, 30 miles south of New Orleans, on Tuesday evening in shallow water after its crew steered into an area that vessels are not supposed to enter.

Not only was the no-go area clearly marked with white stakes, but the crew apparently plowed right over the warning stakes. "The tug and barge was in the middle [of a marked pipeline area]," Coast Guard spokesman Tanner Stiehl told WWMT. “It had taken down some of the white stakes and was in the middle of that area.”

Miraculously, all of the barge's crude has remained safely aboard so far, as emergency crews sprayed water over the barge to keep it cool and over the nearby flames. More than a dozen emergency response boats were floating near the fire on Thursday, with 40 emergency workers on hand ready to respond to a spill. A ring of floating absorbent boom was laid around the barge to help contain the oil if it leaks.

Read more: Climate & Energy


Extreme weather and GMO crops devastate monarch butterfly migration

It's not so much the butterfly effect as the butterfly affected: We knew monarchs had it bad as of late, but there was some hope for their winter migration -- until scientists conducted a census.


In just two years, the annual migration of North American monarch butterflies has declined by 59 percent, and scientists are blaming extreme weather and "changed farming practices," according to the New York Times. In other words, monster storms and monster Monsanto.

The area of forest occupied by the butterflies, once as high at 50 acres, dwindled to 2.94 acres in the annual census conducted in December, Mexico’s National Commission of Natural Protected Areas disclosed at a news conference in Zitácuaro, Mexico. ...

The latest decline was hastened by drought and record-breaking heat in North America when the monarchs arrived last spring to reproduce. Warmer than usual conditions led the insects to arrive early and to nest farther north than is typical, Chip Taylor, director of the conservation group Monarch Watch at the University of Kansas, said in an interview. The early arrival disrupted the monarchs’ breeding cycle, he said, and the hot weather dried insect eggs and lowered the nectar content of the milkweed on which they feed.

That in turn weakened the butterflies and lowered the number of eggs laid.

But an equally alarming source of the decline, both Mr. Taylor and Mr. Vidal said, is the explosive increase in American farmland planted in soybean and corn genetically modified to tolerate herbicides.

Read more: Climate & Energy, Living