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Gristmill: Fresh, whole-brain news.


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:


BP oil spill cleanup continues, three years after blowout

Tar balls on a Louisiana beach in 2010. Unfortunately, the tar balls still aren't gone.
Louisiana GOHSEP
Tar balls on a Louisiana beach in 2010. Unfortunately, tar balls still keep washing ashore.

As the three-year anniversary of the Deepwater Horizon blowout approaches, laborious efforts to remove mats of oil and tar balls are still underway along Gulf of Mexico shorelines.

The U.S. Coast Guard just wrapped up a 10-day operation along a two-mile stretch of Pensacola Beach in Florida that recovered more than 450 pounds of oil from the spill, which was triggered by the explosion of a BP oil rig on April 20, 2010.


Indiana lawmakers, who are also coal company execs, help coal industry

corruption spelled out
Oleg Golovnev
Nothing to see here, folks.

Corporations have not figured out how to get themselves elected to public office, but Peabody Energy and Indiana Rail Road Co. have the next best thing going in Indiana: Both companies have senior employees in the state legislature, and both of those lawmakers have been amending legislation in ways that would enrich their employers at the expense of state residents, public health, and the environment.

From The Indianapolis Star:

A proposed coal-gas plant in Rockport could have a big impact on the pocketbooks of Indiana residents, but legislation that would introduce new ratepayer protections has twice been watered down at the hands of lawmakers whose employers could benefit from the project.


European leaders let cap-and-trade flounder

Europe's parliament building in Germany
Europe: Not so into that carbon-trading thing anymore.

The world's foremost carbon cap-and-trade system is floundering, and members of the European Parliament on Tuesday voted to keep it that way.

About 12,000 power plants and factories operating across the 27 countries that make up the European Union must purchase allowances to release greenhouse gases. The eight-year-old cap-and-trade program, designed to rein in carbon emissions and slow down climate change, is the world's biggest and oldest international carbon-trading scheme.

But there's a problem. Greenhouse gas–producing industrial activity has been slowed down by sour economies across Europe, which has left the market awash with a glut of carbon allowances. The price to buy the right to release a tonne of carbon on the E.U. Emissions Trading Scheme has dropped below $6.50 -- well down from highs of more than $39 in 2006.


Activists to Interior: Stop letting coal companies pillage our land, atmosphere, and treasury

stop sign on a hand

On her first full workday at her new job, Interior Secretary Sally Jewell got a loud message from green groups: Stop selling publicly owned coal for a pittance and destroying our atmosphere.

AP reports:

Environmental groups are calling for a moratorium on coal leasing in the Powder River Basin of Montana and Wyoming until the federal government reviews the program.

Representatives of 21 groups including Greenpeace and the Sierra Club requested the moratorium Monday in a letter to newly confirmed Interior Secretary Sally Jewell. ...

As companies seek to ramp up coal exports, the environmentalists say the government needs to make sure companies are paying proper royalties. They also want more attention given to the climate change impacts of greenhouse gasses emitted when coal is burned.

On the royalty issue, the enviros put it a little more sharply in their letter:


You’re forking out $9,000 a year to own your car

car spewing moneyForget, for a moment, the environmental costs of driving a car. The financial costs alone should be enough to shock you into walking, biking, busing, and sharing.

From USA Today:

The average owner of a sedan has to shell out nearly $10,000 a year to own and operate that car, according to auto club AAA.

A new AAA report shows, on average, the cost of driving 15,000 miles a year rose 1.17 cents to 60.8 cents per mile, or $9,122 per year. Overall, that's a roughly 2% increase on the cost of operating a car last year.