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New culprit in sea-level rise: Pretty Arctic clouds

Clouds over Greenland accelerated last summer's melt.
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Clouds over Greenland accelerated last summer's melt.

Newly published research suggests that Greenland's ice melted super fast last summer, and the world's ice could soon melt faster than anybody had anticipated -- all because of pretty white clouds hanging low above frigid seas.

Last year's Greenland ice sheet melt was considered a 1-in-150 year phenomenon -- the most dramatic melting season since 1979. It was cause for alarm because, when ice melts, it turns into water that raises the sea levels. If Greenland's ice sheet totally disappeared, the seas could swell by an estimated 24 feet, drowning many of the world's coastal cities.

"Of course, there is more than one cause for such widespread change," said University of Wisconsin atmospheric and oceanic sciences professor Ralf Bennartz, one of the authors of a study published today in Nature that concludes that the clouds that drifted over Greenland last summer bore properties that could be likened to a perfect ice-melting storm. "We focused our study on certain kinds of low-level clouds."

Read more: Climate & Energy

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Something smells bad in New Orleans (more than usual)

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What the hell is that smell?

That's the question that residents of coastal southeastern Louisiana have been asking since about 1 a.m. Wednesday.

New Orleans and surrounding cities sit at ground zero for a growing hive of Gulf of Mexico oil and gas drilling and processing facilities. Since early Wednesday, residents report being overwhelmed by yet another mysterious and powerful chemical odor (this one smells either like burning tires or a gas station, depending on who you talk to).

Nobody seems to know where the acrid smell is coming from. But given that it smells like toxic petrochemicals, it's a pretty safe bet that the toxic petrochemicals industry has something to do with it. On Thursday, the Coast Guard said it was investigating whether the odor was coming from a wastewater spill at an ExxonMobil refinery.

Read more: Climate & Energy

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Nevada utility to stop burning coal, which will probably just be burned somewhere else

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More good news on America's shift away from coal: Nevada's largest utility plans to very gradually shutter its dirty coal generators over the next 12 years.

Some of the coal-fired energy sold by utility company NV Energy will be replaced with renewable sources. But 60 percent of their coal-fired energy will be replaced by that cool-kid fossil fuel that contaminates groundwater supplies: fracked natural gas.

Read more: Climate & Energy

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Good news, Arkansas: Tar-sands oil isn’t oil-oil

So far, the thousands of barrels of tar-sands oil that spilled into a middle-class neighborhood in central Arkansas on Friday have driven 22 families from their homes and killed and injured a grip of local wildlife. So far, the oil hasn't contaminated the local lake or drinking water supply, according to ExxonMobil. It's a "major spill," according to the EPA, and the cause is so far still under investigation.

But since it's not oil-oil, ExxonMobil hasn't paid into the government clean-up fund that would help bankroll the epic scrub-down necessary to rid poor unsuspecting Mayflower, Ark., of all that bitumen.

"A 1980 law ensures that diluted bitumen is not classified as oil, and companies transporting it in pipelines do not have to pay into the federal Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund," writes Ryan Koronowski at Climate Progress. "Other conventional crude producers pay 8 cents a barrel to ensure the fund has resources to help clean up some of the 54,000 barrels of pipeline oil that spilled 364 times last year."

Here, this helpful infographic might clear things up for you:

oilversustarsands

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Two new bills aim to save California farmland from rampant sprawl

california_state_capitol_building_wikipedia_180x150.jpgCalifornia's super-productive farmland is being overrun by development projects. Sprawly exurban housing development and even solar projects threaten to gobble up all the Golden State's arable land. As of 2007, California was home to more than 25 million acres of cropland, but that's shrinking by more than 1 percent each year, according to the American Farmland Trust.

All's not lost, though: Two proposed bills could give a boost to California agriculture big and small, and potentially change the way the Golden State develops over the coming years.

Read more: Food, Politics

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Texas cities roping in more wind energy

The electricity that powers Dallas is about to get a whole lot windier.
Shutterstock / Brandon Seidel
The electricity that powers Dallas is about to get a whole lot windier.

Something refreshing is about to blow into Dallas, Houston, and other oil-soaked Texan cities: wind energy. Lots of wind energy.

A wind-farm boom has been brewing in the blustery Texas panhandle, where wind turbines now provide 9.2 percent of the state's electricity. That figure is growing quickly, with more than $3 billion expected to be spent on new wind generation during the next two years alone. Meanwhile, Sustainable Business reports that the world's most powerful battery system is helping to store wind energy produced during off-peak times so that it can be sold when demand for electricity is highest.

But the state's biggest cities are in the east, far away from the graceful wind turbines and snazzy batteries of the west, making it difficult to deliver the renewable energy into most of the state's homes and offices.

That bottleneck will ease by the end of the year, when the state completes a scheduled $6.8 billion effort to double the capacity of power lines from western wind farms to its eastern municipalities. That will provide an even bigger market and new incentives for potential wind power developers eying opportunities in the Panhandle.

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Even the Tea Party is pissed about the ‘Monsanto Protection Act’

Everybody’s gotta pitch in to bring down Hulk, er, Monsanto.
Denis Giles
Everybody’s gotta pitch in to bring down Hulk, er, Monsanto.

Feeling angry about the "Monsanto Protection Act"? You know, the sneakily passed piece of legislation that allows GMO crops to be planted even in defiance of a court order? Well, you’re not alone! The law is so scary that it's inspiring outrage from the far right.

It’s always a delight to see the left and right agree on anything, and when it comes to fighting genetically modified giant Monsanto, it may well take just that kind of a passionate coalition to get anything done.

But it’s not the GMO issue that’s turning Tea Party Patriot Dustin Siggins’ stomach — it’s the precedent this could set for other corporations that might want legal immunity. From Siggins' blog:

Read more: Food, Politics

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Last coal-fired car ferry to keep dumping waste in Lake Michigan

The S.S. Badger, still crossing Lake Michigan by burning coal.
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The S.S. Badger, still crossing Lake Michigan on coal power.

It's bad enough that the S.S. Badger is still powered by coal -- the only car ferry left in the country that runs on the dirtiest of fossil fuels. But what's really going to blow your mind is how the ferry disposes of its coal ash after burning: It is mixed with water into a slurry and dumped overboard. More than 500 tons of it every year. Straight into Lake Michigan. Just like its operators have been doing since the 1950s.

In 2008, the U.S. EPA told Lake Michigan Carferry, the company that operates the Badger, to cut that crap out. The company must switch to another fuel or start dumping the waste somewhere on land, the EPA said. The ferry company responded by asking for more time to study how it would switch over to natural gas, and the EPA was all, OK, but just four more years, and that's it.

That four-year grace period expired over the winter, and guess what Lake Michigan Carferry plans to do once the ferrying season begins next month? That's right, it plans to continue dumping its coal ash into Lake Michigan. And the federal government is pretty much OK with that.

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Americans want more renewable energy and more climate-change prep

Seeing the light.
Shutterstock / Gencho Petkov
Seeing the light.

This is how the typical American thinks in 2013, according to a couple of new polls: “More solar power, please. No more nuclear, thanks though. And let’s get ready for this crazy climate-change thing.”

A Gallup poll of 1,022 people revealed that a whopping 76 percent of Americans think the U.S. should put more emphasis on developing solar power. Even Republicans are into it, with 68 percent of them calling for more solar. Wind is also popular. So too is natural gas, supported by about two-thirds of Americans. Support for oil and coal is split along party lines, with most Republicans favoring efforts to dig up and burn more of the dirty fuels and most Democrats opposing them. Nuclear, meanwhile, is not particularly popular with either party.

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All those fracking jobs come with an increased risk of lung cancer

Indeed.
chriswaits

While all the damage hydraulic fracturing could do to the Earth is pretty well-covered, we mostly overlook the risks it poses to fracking workers. Each well requires thousands of tons of fracking sand full of fine silica, which can penetrate lungs and lead to incurable silicosis and even lung cancer.

To find out how much those frackers were at risk, Eric Esswein, a workplace safety and exposure expert with the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), strapped on a face mask and dug in. NPR reports:

He and his colleagues visited 11 fracking sites in five states: Arkansas, Colorado, North Dakota, Pennsylvania and Texas. At every site, the researchers found high levels of silica in the air. It turned out that 79 percent of the collected samples exceeded the recommended exposure limit set by Esswein's agency.

There were some controls in place, says Esswein, who notes that "at every site that we went to, workers wore respirators."

But about one-third of the air samples they collected had such high levels of silica, the type of respirators typically worn wouldn't offer enough protection. ...

Read more: Climate & Energy