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Gristmill: Fresh, whole-brain news.


U.S. nuclear companies fight new safety measures

Nine Mile Point Nuclear Station in New York could use a couple radiation filters
Constellation Energy Group
Nine Mile Point Nuclear Station in New York could use a couple radiation filters.

How much should a nuclear power plant operator spend to prevent radiation from spewing into the air during an accident, à la Fukushima and Chernobyl?

The answer, according to staff of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, is $20 million per reactor. That's the price tag for a filter that could be fitted to a reactor's vent to capture radiation during an accident.


Enviros slam Keystone findings, threatened species stay silent

Whooping cranes could be killed by the Keystone XL Pipeline, yet they have remained silent on the threat
Kenneth Cole Schneider
Whooping cranes: just one of the species threatened by the Keystone XL pipeline.

Environmentalists lined up over the weekend to condemn a draft State Department report that found no compelling environmental reason not to build the Keystone XL pipeline.

The stretch of pipeline in question would bring tar-sands oil from Alberta, Canada, across the U.S. border and down through Montana, South Dakota, and Nebraska. The southern stretch of the pipeline, which will carry the oil to Gulf Coast refineries, is already more than halfway built.

The draft environmental impact statement concluded [PDF] that the proposed project would damage more than 100 acres of wetlands, increase temperatures in wildlife-rich streams, and threaten vulnerable species. If there are spills from the pipeline, they could dump oil into lakes, aquifers, and rivers.

The project would also lead to an increase in greenhouse gas emissions, but the department determined that if the pipeline is not built, that could trigger more global warming because the industry might then ship its oil via less efficient methods like rail and oil tanker. That claim drew widespread condemnation from activists and scientists.


Meet Obama’s energy secretary pick: Ernest Moniz

Ernest Moniz
Here's Ernest.

Today President Obama nominated Ernest Moniz to head the Department of Energy, as widely expected. If confirmed, he'll replace outgoing Energy Secretary Steven Chu. Moniz, like Chu, is a super-brainy physicist.

Here's what Philip Bump wrote about Moniz last month on the pages of Grist:

Who is Ernest Moniz?

Here's who he is, as articulated by Reuters:

Moniz, a former undersecretary of energy during the Clinton administration, is director of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Energy Initiative, a research group that gets funding from industry heavyweights including BP, Chevron, and Saudi Aramco for academic work on projects aimed at reducing greenhouse gases.


Meet Obama’s EPA pick: Gina McCarthy

Gina McCarthy
Here's Gina.

President Obama today nominated Gina McCarthy to head the Environmental Protection Agency. She currently serves as assistant administrator for the EPA's Office of Air and Radiation under outgoing EPA chief Lisa Jackson.

Lauded and loathed for her climate work, McCarthy, a 58-year-old Bostonite, has had a big hand in recent critical rules such as new auto emissions standards. She used to work as the top state environmental official for Massachusetts under a Gov. Mitt Romney, and then in the same role in Connecticut under another Republican governor, Jodi Rell. But she's still mostly a public unknown, which explains why people are so delighted/disturbed by her strong Boston accent.

McCarthy is squarely on the side of fighting climate change through sometimes aggressive policy-making. Her work in Massachusetts helped lead to the landmark Supreme Court case in 2007 that gave the EPA authority to regulate greenhouse gases under the Clean Air Act. From The Wall Street Journal:


Van Jones: Keystone XL would be ‘the Obama Pipeline’

Activist and former White House adviser Van Jones came out swinging against the Keystone XL pipeline Friday night on CNN, warning that if it's approved it would be a big black mark on President Obama's legacy. His comments came a few hours after the State Department released a draft environmental impact statement finding that the proposed pipeline wouldn't have excessive environmental or climate effects. Jones:

What happens if you've got the Obama Pipeline -- now it's the Obama Pipeline -- and it leaks? His legacy could be the worst oil disaster in American farmland history. ...

If after he gave that speech for his inauguration, the first thing he does is approve a pipeline bringing tar sands through America ... the first thing that pipeline runs over is the credibility of the president on his climate policy. ...

The Obama Tar-Sands Pipeline should not the legacy of the president that gave that speech.

Watch the whole segment:


New York Times kills its ‘Green’ blog

green_main-bLess than two months ago, The New York Times dissolved its environment desk, eliminating its two environment editor positions and reassigning those editors and seven reporters.

Now the paper is swinging the hatchet again, shutting down the Green blog that had been home to original environmental reporting every weekday. The news was announced in a brief post on the blog today:

The Times is discontinuing the Green blog, which was created to track environmental and energy news and to foster lively discussion of developments in both areas. This change will allow us to direct production resources to other online projects. But we will forge ahead with our aggressive reporting on environmental and energy topics, including climate change, land use, threatened ecosystems, government policy, the fossil fuel industries, the growing renewables sector and consumer choices.

The paper says environmental policy news will move to the Caucus blog and energy technology news will move to the Bits blog.

But a Times insider tells Grist that the decision probably means an end to the significant amount of freelance reporting that appeared in the Green blog.


Michigan gov.: Detroit is no longer capable of taking care of itself

From America's capital of industry to its capital of decay, Detroit's post-industrial run hit another pile of bricks today when Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder announced he'll be naming an emergency manager to oversee the troubled city, putting the city government under state control. Snyder's pick will have the power to sell city assets and cancel contracts to try to address Detroit's more than $14 billion in long-term debt and avoid bankruptcy.

Image (1) detroit-flickr-trey-campbell.jpg for post 45478

From Bloomberg:

The move, which the City Council can appeal, punctuates decades of decline in the home town of General Motors Co. (GM) Snyder’s decision may inflame opponents, as the administration of a white Republican seizes control of a community that is predominantly Democratic and more than 80 percent black.

“It’s a sad day, a day I wish never happened, but it’s a day of promise,” said Snyder, who is in his first term. ...

Opponents say state takeovers disenfranchise voters by stripping elected officials of their power over municipalities or school districts, and may protect bondholders at the expense of employees, services and taxpayers.

Just two weeks ago, Detroit's Democratic mayor, Dave Bing, said in his State of the City address: “The picture is not all doom and gloom. Every day there is more hope and possibilities. Like many Detroiters, I, too, am a fighter. We can’t, and won’t, give up on our city.”

Today he struck an upbeat note in a statement responding to the governor's announcement:

“If, in fact, the appointment of an emergency financial manager both stabilizes the city fiscally and supports our restructuring initiatives which improve the quality of life for our citizens, then I think there is a way for us to work together. We have always said that we need help from Lansing to implement our initiatives such as public safety, transportation, lighting and others.”

Detroit's population has tanked in recent years. Just between 2009 and 2011, the city lost more than 200,000 people. Once a city of 1.8 million, it is now home to about 700,000. But those are 700,000 people who aren't likely to agree with white Republican state politics, and Snyder hasn't said yet who his emergency head will be, just that he has someone "in mind."

Read more: Cities


State Dept. on Keystone XL: So not a big deal

The U.S. State Department just released a draft environmental impact statement for the Keystone XL pipeline, and it's not what climate activists have been hoping for.

As The New York Times puts it, the report "makes no recommendation about whether the project should be built but presents no conclusive environmental reason it should not be." According to The Washington Post, the report "suggest[s] that blocking the project would not have a significant impact on either the future development of Canada’s oil sands region or U.S. oil consumption."

More from the Times:

The new impact statement says that extracting, shipping, refining and burning oil from the tar sands produces more climate-altering greenhouse gases than most conventional oil, but less than many of the project’s critics claim. The State Department study says that tar sands oil produces 5 percent to 19 percent more greenhouse gas emissions than other crude, depending on what oil was compared and who performed the calculations.


As BP battles in court over Deepwater Horizon, oil spills are happening all over the place

A "small" spray of crude gushes into the Gulf after a boat crashed into a wellhead
U.S. Coast Guard
A "small" spray of crude gushes into the Gulf after a boat crashed into a wellhead.

BP's Deepwater Horizon oil spill was notable because of the huge number of barrels leaked, the economic and environmental devastation wrought, and the number of people directly affected. But oil spills are not an aberration. Spills are a constant and poisonous cost of the world's dependence upon fossil fuels.

Little attention is paid to this steady stream of spills. That's in part because company and government officials often labor to convince us that each single spill is minor, unimportant, and environmentally benign.

This week, while BP was defending itself in court against claims and potential fines stemming from the 2010 disaster, emergency responders were kept busy dealing with new oil spills in the Gulf of Mexico and around the world.


Energy-efficiency program killed in Louisiana

This guy just killed an energy efficiency program.
This guy just killed an energy-efficiency program.

Ooh, so close. Louisiana was about to become the 47th state to help electricity customers buy efficient appliances and make other energy-saving investments.

The Louisiana Public Service Commission had voted 3-2 to in December to approve an energy-efficiency program. Money raised from a new fee on electricity sales would be funneled back to customers in the form of energy-saving subsidies. But then longtime board member Jimmy Field, a supporter of the program, retired from the commission. He was replaced by Scott Angelle, Gov. Bobby Jindal's former natural resources secretary.

And then commission chairman Eric Skrmetta, who opposed the energy-efficiency program, decided it was time for the commission to cast new votes.