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Gristmill: Fresh, whole-brain news.


Fracking drives potentially explosive demand for potentially explosive ammonia factories


The U.S. could soon be home to a lot more ammonia factories -- not a comforting thought after a deadly explosion at an ammonia fertilizer plant in Texas on Wednesday evening. You can blame the fracking boom.

Ammonia is used to produce fertilizer, industrial explosives (like those used in mining), plastics, and other products. It's becoming cheaper to produce in the U.S. because one of its main feedstocks is natural gas, and natural gas, in case you haven't heard, is being fracked here at a breakneck pace and sold for bargain-basement prices.

Australian company Incitec Pivot this week announced [PDF] that it will be building a hulking new $850 million ammonia facility in Waggaman, La., just outside New Orleans. Construction could begin within six weeks, with the plant expected to come online in 2016. The announcement is being characterized by Australia’s media as a blow for the manufacturing sector Down Under, but Incitec Pivot can't resist the siren song of cheap American natural gas.


Wisconsin left way, way behind in wind energy boom

The state of Wisconsin is seriously lagging in the wind power boom that’s sweeping much of the rest of the nation -- and it's not because it lacks for wind.

From Midwest Energy News:

In 2012, a year that saw a nationwide surge in wind farm installations as developers rushed to beat expiring tax credits, Wisconsin added only 18 megawatts of capacity.

By comparison, Michigan and Ohio, with much lower wind potential, had already installed 138 MW and 308 MW in just the first three quarters.

Compared to other Midwestern states, Wisconsin ranks at the bottom in both wind projects under construction and in queue, according to the American Wind Energy Association.


Silly New York town board drops ban on talking about fracking

Shutterstock / Michael G McKinne

No, you crazy members of the town board of Sanford, N.Y. No, you cannot ban people from asking you to ban fracking during town board meetings.

The board members grew weary of constantly hearing from constituents on the controversial practice of hydrofracking for natural gas. Fracking is not currently allowed in New York, but if that changes, residents of the town, which is near the border of the heavily fracked state of Pennsylvania, fear that their community would be one of the first fracked and their water supply one of the first poisoned.

So the board passed a law in September that banned anybody from mentioning the issue during public comment periods at its meetings. Instead, the board members suggested that fracking opponents put their concerns in writing to the town clerk for review.

Which was obviously illegal. After the Natural Resources Defense Council and Catskill Citizens for Safe Energy filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court seeking to reverse what had been dubbed a "gag order," the town board relented. It voted last week to rescind the obviously illegal order.


Keystone XL opponents dominate raucous Nebraska hearing

speaker in cowboy hat at hearing
Reuters / Dave Weaver
Randy Thompsen tells State Department officials why Keystone XL is a terrible idea.

More than 1,000 people traveled from far and wide to snowy Grand Island, Neb., on Thursday to tell the State Department what they think of plans to build the Keystone XL pipeline. Commenters had a maximum of three minutes apiece to speak their minds during the hearing at the Heartland Events Center, which, according to Reuters, is "a venue more used to hosting monster-truck derbies and antique shows."

Thursday's eight-hour hearing allowed members of the public to formally comment on the State Department's draft supplemental environmental impact statement on the pipeline. It's the only hearing State is expected to hold on the report, which effectively concluded that there is no environmental reason not to build the pipeline. That conclusion is, of course, hotly disputed, especially in the wake of the recent spill from a tar-sands oil pipeline in Mayflower, Ark.

The Lincoln Journal Star describes the crowd at the hearing:

[H]undreds of critics with rural addresses, young, old and in between turned out in red, white and blue shirts with the words “Pipeline Fighter” spread across their chests. Tribal leaders also weighed in strongly against the project.

There to counter them were busloads of union workers from Omaha, plumbers, welders and pipeline fitters wearing blue and orange shirts, many of them bearing the words “Approve the KXL pipeline so America works.”

But the sides were not evenly matched: "for every voice of support there were at least a dozen against" the pipeline, reports The New York Times.


This bipartisan energy-efficiency bill might actually be able to pass Congress

Jeanne Shaheen and Rob Portman
U.S. Senate
A Democrat and a Republican, working together. Weird.

Sens. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) and Rob Portman (R-Ohio) have come up with an energy-efficiency bill that they think has a real chance of passing the U.S. Senate. And then the U.S. House. In this Congress. Really!

From Politico:

The legislation, known as the Energy Savings and Industrial Competitiveness Act, focuses on improving energy efficiency in commercial buildings, the manufacturing sector and the federal government.

Among other things, the bill strengthens building codes to make new homes and buildings more efficient, creates a new Energy Department program called SupplySTAR to improve the efficiency of companies’ supply chains and requires the federal government — the country’s largest energy user — to adopt strategies to conserve the electricity used for computers.

It's a scaled-back version of a bill they introduced last year. To preempt conservative objections, it drops a provision that would have expanded a Department of Energy loan program. After Solyndra, "Department of Energy loan program" is not a phrase Republicans are warm to.

A bipartisan duo -- Reps. David McKinley (R-W.Va.) and Peter Welch (D-Vt.) -- will be pushing a similar bill in the House.


Court rescues Belizean coral from offshore oil drillers

Dr. John Bullas

The world's second-largest barrier reef was saved from offshore drilling by activists who successfully sued the government of Belize over the issue.

Belize issued contracts to energy companies in 2004 and 2007 that allowed them to drill around the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef. But the government officials awarded the contracts to inexperienced drillers and didn't bother studying the environmental impacts first. That's actually kind of understandable: I mean, what could go wrong?


Peabody Energy screwing former coal workers out of health care

A coal worker holding the actual heart of Peabody Energy chief executive Stephen Howlett
A coal worker holding the actual heart of Peabody Energy CEO Gregory H. Boyce. 

If there's anything darker than coal, it's the hearts of coal company executives. They ask workers to risk their lives to extract the filthiest of all fossil fuels -- and then they screw over those workers.

On Thursday, police arrested 14 people in St. Louis, Mo., during the latest in a series of large union-organized protests against such dark-heartedness by Peabody Energy. Workers say the company robbed them of desperately needed retirement health benefits through a cynical corporate maneuver.

The coal giant spun off a subsidiary in 2007 called Patriot Coal, which then bought up some business assets from Arch Coal. Patriot assumed many of Peabody's and Arch Coal's worker liabilities -- it's legally on the hook to pay for the health care and other retirement benefits of former workers and their families.

But oh, guess what, Patriot declared bankruptcy. Now it's asking a bankruptcy court to allow it to weasel out of more than $1 billion worth of health and other benefits owed to retired miners, many whom never worked for Patriot and many of whom were left ill by their former jobs.

Read more: Climate & Energy


One ag-gag bill is dead in California, another is approved in Tennessee

Animal activists will be able to secretly document systematic animal abuse in California without violating state law.
This little piggy might be better off in the Golden State.

A California state lawmaker withdrew a bill Wednesday that would have prevented animal activists from documenting systematic cruelty inflicted upon farm animals.

Unlike in other states, where similar ag-gag bills have been approved or are winding their way through legislatures with little public fanfare, the bill sponsored by Rep. Jim Patterson (R) triggered an outcry of opposition in California.

Patterson's legislation had been pushed by the California Cattlemen's Association, a lobbying group that represents ranchers and beef producers. The bill was was disingenuously framed as an effort to clamp down on animal cruelty -- kind of a war-is-peace deal, except on animal farms.

The latest version of the legislation, before it was yanked, would have required anybody who filmed or photographed abuse of livestock to turn over the evidence to law enforcement authorities within five days. That was framed as an effort to immediately rectify abuses. Because Patterson and the California Cattlemen's Association love animals so, so much. In reality, it would have made it almost impossible for animal activists to legally document long-running, systematic patterns of animal abuse; instead they would have been forced to blow their cover every time they filmed a single transgression or else risk being prosecuted and fined.


Fertilizer facility blast in Texas claims multiple lives, destroys homes

A fertilizer mixing and storage facility exploded in rural Texas on Wednesday evening, killing at least five people, injuring more than 160 others, destroying homes, and filling the air with noxious fumes.

burning fertilizer plant
Reuters / Mike Stone

As many as 15 are feared dead, including five firefighters who responded to the fire that preceded the extraordinary blast at the facility in the small town of West, near Waco.

From The New York Times:

Homes and businesses were leveled in the normally quiet town of West, and there was widespread destruction in the downtown area, Sgt. W. Patrick Swanton of the Waco Police Department said Thursday morning.

“At some point this will turn into a recovery operation, but at this point, we are still in search and rescue,” he said.

Five to 15 people were killed and more than 160 people were being treated at area hospitals, Sergeant Swanton said, while also emphasizing that those early estimates could change. As many as five firefighters are still missing, he said.


10 states to sue Obama admin for dragging feet on climate rules

Delay after delay ...

While there's virtually no chance of meaningful climate legislation passing through Congress, there are meaningful climate actions that the Obama administration can take on its own. Two big ones would be regulating carbon dioxide emissions from new power plants and from existing power plants.

But the administration is dragging its feet on both counts. A draft regulation for new plants was proposed more than a year ago, but the EPA missed a deadline this past Saturday for making it final. "EPA is likely to alter the rule in some way in an effort to make sure it can withstand a legal challenge," The Washington Post reported on Friday, noting that the agency has not set a timetable for its finalization.

As for regulation of old power plants -- which spew about one third of U.S. greenhouse gases -- an EPA official said last week that the agency intends to propose a standard within 18 months.

Ten states, two major cities, and three big green groups are fed up with the delays. On Wednesday, they gave notice of their intent to sue. From the Los Angeles Times: