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Gristmill: Fresh, whole-brain news.


Abu Dhabi mega solar plant will free up oil to export

Using a combination of 258,048 parabolic mirrors and the one powerful Arabian desert sun, Shams 1, the new 100-megawatt concentrated solar power plant just southwest of Abu Dhabi, is now cranking out power.


More Shams 1 by the numbers: It's the biggest plant of its kind in the world, it cost an estimated $750 million to build, it should power 20,000 homes, and it's expected to save 175,000 tons of carbon dioxide emissions each year.

The project is a joint venture of state-owned renewable energy company Masdar, French energy company Total, and Spanish company Abengoa Solar.

“From precious hydrocarbon exports to sophisticated renewable energy systems, we are balancing the energy mix and diversifying our economy -- moving toward a more sustainable future,” Sultan and Masdar CEO Ahmed Al Jaber said in a statement.


Los Angeles to ditch coal by 2025

Coal currently powers almost 40 percent of sprawling and thirsty Los Angeles, Calif. But the "era of coal" is sunsetting.

Image (13) los-angelessmaller.jpg for post 31443

By 2025, the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power will phase out all coal-fired power, putting it slightly ahead of the 2027 deadline imposed by the state. The LADWP is the country's biggest municipal utility.

"By divesting from coal and investing in renewable energy and energy efficiency, we reduce our carbon footprint and set a precedent for the national power market," L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa (D) said in a press release.

The mayor's office said the switch will reduce Los Angeles' greenhouse gas emissions to 60 percent of 1990 levels. The fashion's back, but the epic smog might be gone forever. Dumping coal: Even hotter than flannel.

The Los Angeles Times reports:

On Tuesday, commissioners at the Department of Water and Power moved forward with plans to dump the utility's interest in a coal-burning plant in Arizona and convert another one in Utah to natural gas. ...

Villaraigosa declared victory Tuesday, calling the coal divestment plan "game-changing" even though it won't meet the timeline he set. "I believe the only way to get the goal is to set aggressive timetables," he said. "Climbing mountains that have never been climbed before [isn't] easy." ...


Beaver dams block Chevron oil spill in Utah

Beaver dams prevented diesel from reaching Willard Bay
Brian Yeung
Beaver dams prevented diesel from reaching Willard Bay.

Chevron’s third pipeline spill in Utah in as many years on Monday released hundreds of barrels of diesel, polluting a river, coating beavers with the slick, and leading to the closure of a state park and the evacuation of campers.

Dozens of cleanup workers are mopping up the fuel along the northeastern edge of the Great Salt Lake. An estimated 4,200 to 6,300 gallons of fuel leaked after a pipeline laid in 1950 ruptured.

The pipeline was shut down after the leak was detected. Diesel was blocked from flowing into the wildlife-rich waters of Willard Bay by a series of beaver dams.

Two hero beavers covered with diesel were rescued. The dam where they lived will be torn out.


Massive Louisiana sinkhole just keeps on growing

The oil sheen-coated sinkhole, photographed over the weekend by nonprofit On Wings of Care.
On Wings of Care
The oil-sheen-coated sinkhole, photographed over the weekend by nonprofit On Wings of Care. 

A sinkhole triggered in Louisiana by the fossil fuel industry grew to 12 acres over the weekend, and it appears that hundreds of displaced nearby residents will never be able to return to their homes.

The sinkhole has been growing since it appeared in August. It was caused by a salt mining operation that sucked brine out from beneath the Assumption Parish marsh and piped it to nearby petrochemical facilities. Houston-based Texas Brine had apparently excavated too close to the surface, and officials are worried that a similar fate could befall another Texas Brine salt mining site nearby.

Read more: Climate & Energy


It’s the first day of spring! Here comes the toxic green sludge

A sign last year warned of poisonous algae in Sandusky Bay, part of Lake Erie.
Ohio Sea Grant and Stone Laboratory
A sign last year warned of poisonous algae in Sandusky Bay, part of Lake Erie.

Spring officially arrives today, and meteorologists are forecasting heavy rains this season in parts of the Midwest. That sounds lovely -- better than a drought for sure. But those rains will wash fertilizer, animal waste, and other nutrient-rich pollution into Lake Erie, where they are expected to fuel another bumper season of toxic blue-green algae.

As we reported last year, the toxic algae blooms that coated the Great Lakes from the 1950s to the 1970s have returned. Last century's blooms were fed with nutrients from human sewage; the latest iterations are caused by sloppy farming practices. As much as one-sixth of Lake Erie was coated with algae last year, killing wildlife and stinking out homes and holiday destinations.

Read more: Food, Living


Farmland prices soar — along with farm debt

While small-scale producers of fruits and vegetables are scraping by, it's a whole 'nother story for corn and soy farmers. (It's always a whole 'nother story for corn and soy farmers, really.) Well-oiled subsidies, overseas demand, ethanol like whoa, plus a drop in production thanks to the drought are all pushing crop prices up -- and, in turn, prices for the land those crops are grown on.


The New York Times reports on the gleeful farmers, speculating investors, and impending economic doom.

Across the American heartland, farmland prices are soaring. In places like Waco, Neb., and Chickasaw County, Iowa, where the boom-and-bust cycle of farming reaches deep into the psyche, some families are selling the land that they have worked for generations, to cash in while they can. ...

Sensing opportunity, investment firms are buying, too. David Taylor, of Oskaloosa, Kan., said he was saddened to sell his family’s farm but that the prices were too good to resist. ...

“I bawled like a baby,” Mr. Taylor, 59, said. His crop-producing fields sold for $10,100 an acre.

In Iowa, despite the drought last year, farmland prices have nearly doubled since 2009, to an average $8,296 an acre, far surpassing the last boom’s peak in 1979. In Nebraska, the price of irrigated land has also doubled since 2009.

That's given farmers who've chosen to stay a whole lot of value to borrow against, and borrow they are. Farmers' debt load has risen almost a third since 2007.


Thanks for the oil, Iraq, here’s some cancer

Turns out depleted uranium (DU) munitions are a great thing to use when you're going to war, so long as you plan on terrorizing people for generations to come. Military-related pollution is suspected of causing a huge spike in birth defects and all kinds of cancer in Iraq since the start of the Gulf War more than 20 years ago.

The last 10 years of the Iraq War, especially, cost a lot of money that we could've done way better things with and also killed 190,000 people directly, but that doesn't cover the full extent of the damage.

An American soldier stands near a 2006 oil field fire near Kirkuk
An American soldier in front of an oil-field fire near Kirkuk in 2006.

"Official Iraqi government statistics show that, prior to the outbreak of the First Gulf War in 1991, the rate of cancer cases in Iraq was 40 out of 100,000 people," Al Jazeera reports. "By 1995, it had increased to 800 out of 100,000 people, and, by 2005, it had doubled to at least 1,600 out of 100,000 people. Current estimates show the increasing trend continuing." That's potentially a more than 4,000 percent increase in the cancer rate, making it more than 500 percent higher than the cancer rate in the U.S.

More from Al Jazeera:

As shocking as these statistics are, due to a lack of adequate documentation, research, and reporting of cases, the actual rate of cancer and other diseases is likely to be much higher than even these figures suggest.

"Cancer statistics are hard to come by, since only 50 per cent of the healthcare in Iraq is public," Dr Salah Haddad of the Iraqi Society for Health Administration and Promotion told Al Jazeera. "The other half of our healthcare is provided by the private sector, and that sector is deficient in their reporting of statistics. Hence, all of our statistics in Iraq must be multiplied by two. Any official numbers are likely only half of the real number."

Dr Haddad believes there is a direct correlation between increasing cancer rates and the amount of bombings carried out by US forces in particular areas.


Farmers markets are growing, but farmers’ incomes are not

woman selling at farmers market
She's not getting rich.

It's National Agriculture Day! What an appropriate day to celebrate the awesome work of our nation's farmers! The awesome work they are so crappily compensated for, that is.

They may seem to be raking in the cash at all those new local farmers markets, but America's food-growers -- those producing fruits and veg, not soy and corn -- aren't having an easy go of it. NPR's All Things Considered reports:

The market for locally grown food has seen dramatic growth over the last decade. Despite this boost in sales and popularity, evidence suggests that the economics behind the movement still don't favor the farmer. The U.S. Department of Agriculture has new programs to try to prop up small-scale operations, but many local farms only survive because they scrape by on below-market wages, or by doing without things like insurance.

Read more: Food


Summer rains in Southwest arriving late because of climate change

Summer rains are falling later than they used to over the deserts of southwestern United States
Shutterstock / Paul B. Moore
These dark clouds will be coming later and later.

As if the parched Southwestern U.S. didn't have enough problems already, here's another one.

The quenching storms that take the edge off the scorching heat near parts of the U.S.-Mexico border during the hottest months are arriving later than they used to. New research indicates that climate change could push their arrival back nearly until the fall by the end of the century.

That's because it's becoming more difficult for rain-forming clouds to materialize until the atmosphere becomes saturated later in the summer season, when the skies finally explode in rainstorms over parts of Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, and northwestern Mexico.

The fallout from a substantially delayed monsoon season, which is predicted in a new study published in the Journal of Geophysical Research, could include crop failures and increasingly uncomfortable summers.

Read more: Climate & Energy


Natural-gas liquid is gushing near a Colorado creek, and nobody can figure out how to stop it

Officials in Parachute, Colo., have stopped the flow of creek-water into their reservoir in case of contamination from a mystery oil spill.
Garfield County
Parachute, Colo., near where a hydrocarbon spill potentially threatens water supplies.

An unidentified “liquid natural-gas product” is flowing freely into the shallow ground near a creekside gas processing plant in rural western Colorado. After 11 days of cleanup operations and investigations, the source and precise contents of the toxic spill remain a mystery.

Officials at Williams Energy, the presumed culprit in the spill, have not been able to locate the source of the leak, so they have been unable to staunch the flow of underground pollution that is threatening to contaminate Parachute Creek.

More than 60,000 gallons of hydrocarbon gunk have so far been sucked up using vacuum-equipped trucks. The underground pollution plume is believed to have grown to at least 200 feet by 170 feet and is at least 14 feet deep.