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Gristmill: Fresh, whole-brain news.


Another week, another oil tanker hijacking

Last week, we explained why piracy has shifted from Africa's east coast to its west. In short: higher security near Somalia combined with a new strategy near Nigeria. In at least one hijacking, pirates sought a tanker's cargo of oil instead of ransoms for crew members.

Or, rather, in at least two hijackings. From the AP:

A French-owned oil tanker missing off Ivory Coast with 17 sailors on board likely has been hijacked, an official with an international piracy watchdog said Monday, in what may be the latest attack by criminal gangs targeting the ships to steal their valuable cargo. Meanwhile, a sailor died in a similar attack Monday near Nigeria's largest city.

Details remained scarce Monday about the fate of the ship, flagged in Luxembourg. The ship had been reported missing Sunday and officials believe it fell victim to the same pirates operating throughout the Gulf of Guinea, said Noel Choong, a spokesman for the International Maritime Bureau in Malaysia.

Pirates surrender to a U.S. Navy vessel near Somalia in 2011
Pirates surrender to a U.S. Navy vessel near Somalia in 2011.


Super Bowl power outage somehow Obama’s fault, apparently


A CBS announcer was mid-sentence, probably scrambling to fill time during what looked like an increasingly lopsided football game, when he went silent. Well, he probably didn't go silent -- but the broadcast did. For a few seconds, the network showed a dimly lit stadium, and then cut to commercial.

For more than half an hour, much of the New Orleans [car company name] Superdome was dark -- a length of time that, by my informal calculations, was twice as long as the amount of time the teams were actively playing football. It was undoubtedly embarrassing to all involved -- the city, the venue, the network, the league. And, somehow, the president.

No one is quite sure what happened. Talking Points Memo shares the official cause identified last night:

Shortly after the beginning of the second half of the Super Bowl in the Mercedes Benz Superdome, a piece of equipment that is designed to monitor electrical load sensed an abnormality in the system. Once the issue was detected, the sensing equipment operated as designed and opened a breaker, causing power to be partially cut to the Superdome in order to isolate the issue.

This morning, a CBS reporter suggested a malfunctioning monitor was to blame.

Read more: Cities, Climate & Energy


Right-wingers want to teach kids that climate change is a fairy tale

Photo by Shutterstock.

Last month, Arizona, Colorado, and Oklahoma all introduced bills that would make teaching about climate change in public schools less a science and more a political debate. The bills -- based on model legislation from the supremely evil American Legislative Exchange Council -- would require schools to teach that climate change is "controversial" and not widely accepted scientific fact.

From DeSmogBlog:

In the past five years since 2008, among the hottest years in U.S. history, ALEC has introduced its "Environmental Literacy Improvement Act" in 11 states, or over one-fifth of the statehouses nationwide. The bill has passed in four states [-- Louisiana, South Dakota, Tennessee, and Texas] ...

ALEC's "model bills" are written by and for corporate lobbyists alongside conservative legislators at its annual meetings. ALEC raises much of its corporate funding from the fossil fuel industry, which in turn utilizes ALEC as a key -- though far from the only -- vehicle to ram through its legislative agenda in the states.

The bills use almost the exact same language. Oklahoma's, for example, calls for ...


California high-speed rail construction not exactly moving at high speed

The Golden State is set to begin construction on its much-vaunted (and much-moneyed) high-speed rail project this summer, a line that would run from Southern California to the San Francisco Bay Area. Amtrak is on board and the Department of Transportation is pumped, but despite having less than six months to go until they break ground, California hasn't bought the land where the train is supposed to go yet. Like, none of it, not "a single acre." Oops.

drawing of California's planned high-speed train
California High Speed Rail Authority

The Los Angeles Times reports:

The complexity of getting federal, state and local regulatory approvals for the massive $68-billion project has already pushed back the start of construction to July from late last year. Even with that additional time, however, the state is facing a risk of not having the property to start major construction work near Fresno as now planned.

It hopes to begin making purchase offers for land in the next several weeks. But that's only the first step in a convoluted legal process that will give farmers, businesses and homeowners leverage to delay the project by weeks, if not months, and drive up sales prices, legal experts say.

If the first 130 miles of rail aren't completed by 2018, at a spendy rate of $3.6 million each day, the project stands to lose federal funding.

One major roadblock will be Central Valley farmland that has been skyrocketing in value due to a booming global tree-nut market. The longer California drags its feet, the more expensive those farms, and in turn that train, will turn out to be. The first stretch of the project is only 29 miles, but involves the purchase of about 400 different parcels, many of them fancy farmland that owners are reluctant to part with.


Lawmakers call for end to animal-deafening, oil-finding offshore surveys

When oil companies are trying to figure out where to drill offshore, they drag an array of seismic air guns behind a boat as it sails around the ocean. Submerged air guns fire bursts of air downward to create sound waves that travel to the ocean floor and rebound back up to sensors. Here's what that looks like from the surface:

Underneath, however, it's much less entertaining. Arrays contain dozens of guns, each of which produces a burst with tens of thousands of times as much energy as a jet engine, according to Oceana Deputy Vice President Jacqueline Savitz, as reported by FuelFix. Good for getting sonar readings on the ocean floor. Bad for any animals that are swimming in the vicinity.

This is one reason that New Jersey lawmakers wrote a letter to President Obama, asking him to stop seismic surveys on the East Coast. The other reason: Who wants an oil well offshore? From FuelFix:


Keystone XL decision unlikely before June — and that’s good news

anti-Keystone protestors

Well, Keystone XL protestors, kiss your springs goodbye. Looks like you'll be fighting TransCanada's proposal to run a mega-pipe from the Alberta oil sands to Oklahoma until June.

From Reuters:

The Obama administration's decision on the Keystone XL oil pipeline will not be made until at least June, a U.S. official said, which would delay the project for months and frustrate backers of Canada's oil sands.

"We're talking the beginning of summer at the earliest," said the source, who did not want to be identified due to the sensitive nature of the TransCanada Corp project, which has been pending for more than four and a half years. "It's not weeks until the final decision. It's months."

This can actually be considered good news. As we've noted multiple times, insufficient distribution outlets for tar-sands oil means that its sale price is plummeting -- meaning that developing the oil sands makes less and less economic sense.


Chevron reports record profits — and will spend some of them undermining California pollution standards

chevron logo

Another day, another oil company reporting massive quarterly and annual profits. Today: Chevron.

From the Associated Press:

Chevron Corp. posted a 41 percent gain in net income for the fourth quarter as the company produced more oil and gas, improved the performance of its refinery business and realized a gain from swapping assets in an Australian natural gas field.

Chevron Corp. posted net income of $7.2 billion for the quarter on revenue of $60.6 billion. That's up from $5.1 billion on revenue of $60 billion a year ago.

It was the biggest fourth quarter profit in the company's history.

Emphasis added, so that you can marvel.

And what will Chevron do with its gobs and gobs of money? One million dollars of it will go to pay a fine levied by the state of California. And some will go to undermining that state's carbon-reduction rules.


Energy Secretary Steven Chu to resign

Image (1) steven-chu-flickr-center-for-american-progress-action-fund.jpg for post 47006
Center for American Progress Action Fund

In a letter posted at the Department of Energy website, Secretary Steven Chu announces plans to resign his post.

I’ve always been inspired by Dr. Martin Luther King, who articulated his Dream of an America where people are judged not by skin color but “by the content of their character.” In the scientific world, people are judged by the content of their ideas. Advances are made with new insights, but the final arbitrator of any point of view are experiments that seek the unbiased truth, not information cherry picked to support a particular point of view. The power of our work is derived from this foundation. …

I came with dreams, and am leaving with a set of accomplishments that we should all be proud of. Those accomplishments are because of all your dedication and hard work. …

While I will always remain dedicated to the missions of the Department, I informed the President of my decision a few days after the election that Jean and I were eager to return to California. I would like to return to an academic life of teaching and research, but will still work to advance the missions that we have been working on together for the last four years.

In the short term, I plan to stay on as Secretary past the ARPA-E Summit at the end of February. I may stay beyond that time so that I can leave the Department in the hands of the new Secretary.


Toppled U.K. wind turbines likely an act of sabotage

Yesterday we had a spot of fun, a larf, talking about a wind turbine that fell over in the U.K. (Hence, "spot of fun," "larf." Real Americans don't talk like that.) We noted that it was weird it fell over, because we are professional journalists™ and we notice when things are weird.

Turns out, it was weird. From the Telegraph:

An investigation into the collapse of the first turbine in Bradworthy, Devon, during a 50mph gale last weekend has revealed that bolts are missing from its base.

The turbine was initially thought to have been brought down by the wind, despite being designed to withstand winds of up to 116mph, but the new evidence could suggest a case of foul play, councillors said.

It came as a second, 60ft turbine was spotted "lying crumpled on the ground" just 18 miles away in Cornwall, on a farm owned by the family of a Lib Dem councillor.

"Lib Dem councillor" is British for "farmer," I think.

A turbine in Devon, looking a bit nervous
A turbine in Devon, looking a bit nervous.


CO2 emissions from energy production drop to 1994 levels in the U.S.

The headline at The Guardian says almost everything you need to know: U.S. carbon emissions fall to lowest levels since 1994.

Carbon dioxide emissions fell by 13% in the past five years, because of new energy-saving technologies and a doubling in the take-up of renewable energy, the report compiled by Bloomberg New Energy Finance for the Business Council for Sustainable Energy (BCSE) [PDF] said.

The reduction in climate pollution -- even as Congress failed to act on climate change -- brings America more than halfway towards Barack Obama's target of cutting emissions by 17% from 2005 levels over the next decade, the Bloomberg analysts said.

By the end of last year, America's emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions had fallen 10.7% from the 2005 baselines.

The caveat:  The carbon emissions discussed are those related to energy production. Energy production isn't all CO2 emission, but it's a lot of it.

So here's what that reduction looks like. Since 1974, levels of energy-related carbon emissions have seen two peaks. As indicated above, we're on a downward trend, something David Roberts explained last year.

Click to embiggen.
Click to embiggen.