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Gristmill: Fresh, whole-brain news.


World’s energy nearly as dirty today as it was 20 years ago

Shutterstock / Sergiy Telesh
We're still burning way too much of this stuff.

Between 1990 and 2010, the perils of climate change became very clear, as did the urgent need for renewable energy, but we still didn't do much to clean up the world's fuel supplies.

We produced almost as much greenhouse gas for every unit of energy used in 2010 as we did in 1990, according to a new report by the International Energy Agency [PDF]. While the U.S. and other countries have been making strides in moving away from coal, which is the worst of the climate-changing fuels, India, China, and some European nations have been burning more of the stuff.

Read more: Climate & Energy


Flood-drought-flood: Is this the new normal?

Rick Locke
Flooding at the Public Museum in Grand Rapids, Mich.

The good news: Heavy rainfall across the Midwest has helped ease a widespread drought.

The bad news: Rainfall has been so heavy that drought has been replaced by flooding

The scary news: The cycle of flood-drought-flood that has ravaged the Midwest over the past two years is the type of cycle that climate change is expected to bring to the region, and it could become the new normal.

Read more: Climate & Energy


Koch brothers want to buy L.A. Times, Chicago Tribune, six other papers

Charles and David Koch
Charles and David Koch, aka the Kochtopus.

Charles and David Koch -- the billionaire oil-baron brothers who've poured mega-millions into climate denial and right-wing causes and candidates -- are looking to get into the media business. Watch out.

From The New York Times:

Koch Industries, the sprawling private company of which Charles G. Koch serves as chairman and chief executive, is exploring a bid to buy the Tribune Company’s eight regional newspapers, including The Los Angeles Times, The Chicago Tribune, The Baltimore Sun, The Orlando Sentinel and The Hartford Courant.


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