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Gristmill: Fresh, whole-brain news.


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.


Calories make you fat, but sugary calories make you fat and diabetic

Pick your poison
Valerie Everett
Pick your poison.

The more readily available sugar is your country's food system, the more likely you are to get diabetes.

That's the conclusion an exhaustive worldwide study of diets, obesity rates, and Type 2 diabetes. It found that for every 150 calories of sugar that could be drunk or eaten daily by a resident of each of the countries studied, whether that sugar was squeezed out of sugar cane, beets, or corn, each resident became on average 1.1 percent more likely to develop the disease. (The researchers didn't analyze how many calories individuals actually eat and drink, but rather how many calories are available to people through their national food supply chains. Some of those calories are wasted without being consumed.)

A 12-ounce can of soda typically harbors about 150 sugary calories (which scientists, including the authors of the new study, confusingly call kilocalories). Many candy bars contain more calories than that, though not all from sugar.

Read more: Food, Living


How the USDA plans to plant around climate change

A few weeks ago, the Department of Agriculture released a pretty devastating report on just how bad climate change is going to suck for things we plant in the ground in America. Short version: T minus 25ish years until we hit Armageddon-like scenarios for agriculture and forests.

That might sound hopeless, but Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack is not discouraged. The Natural Resources Defense Council's Switchboard blog reports on a followup speech Vilsack gave this week, saying the USDA will help farmers adapt to climate change and become part of the climate solution.

"We're going to be very aggressive in this effort because we understand and appreciate, after the floods of 2011 and the drought of 2012, that folks need this assistance now," said Vilsack. "And by doing this, by taking these actions, we can help to mitigate and help to manage risks."

From the Switchboard blog:


Al Gore’s ‘Reality Drop’ gamifies climate news commenting

Today Al Gore's Climate Reality Project dropped Reality Drop, aimed at dispelling climate myths by getting you invested in a weird new social network.

The Reality Drop website highlights articles on climate change, both bad and good, and gives you pre-written, smart, science-y language that you can cut and paste into their comment threads. Depending on how active you are, you can move up the police-style ranks from "rookie" to "lieutenant."

Mashable says Reality Drop "gamifies the climate change conversation":

"No matter how much is occurring in the world with extreme weather, the industry keeps feeding denial. Though not all denial occurs online, we want to give people the tools to respond quickly and sharply to that denial," Maggie Fox, CEO of Climate Reality, told Mashable.

"It's time for us to go on the offense in a space that we can not only dominate, but change opinions."

Basically, Reality Drop wants you to troll for change.


Japan is going nuclear again, Fukushima be damned

After the March 2011 Fukushima Daiichi nuclear meltdown, Japanese leaders vowed to phase out nuclear power over the next two decades, but new Prime Minister Shinzo Abe isn't having any of that.

The reactors at Fukushima
The reactors at Fukushima.

Speaking to Parliament on Thursday, Abe said nuclear plants around the country would restart after meeting stricter safety standards and instituting upgrades, an expensive process that could take months if not years to complete. Japan used to get a third of its energy from 50 nuclear plants. From The New York Times:

On Thursday, Mr. Abe said that Japan had learned the need for tougher safety standards from the Fukushima accident, which forced more than 100,000 people to evacuate. He said the new safety standards will be enforced “without compromise.”

Mr. Abe also said Japan would continue seeking energy alternatives to reduce its dependence on nuclear power, even without going so far as to eliminate it.


Drought is taking a toll on the Texas beef industry

Where's the beef? Well, it's not in West Texas these days. It's always been kind of dry and desolate, but the last two years of epic drought have taken a serious toll on the region, driving in tumbleweeds and driving out agriculture and related business.


Earlier this month, a West Texas Cargill cattle processing plant suspended operations, leaving about 2,300 residents of Plainview out of work, more than 10 percent of the town's population. The company says it's not a permanent closure, but let's be real, Cargill: This is looking a lot like devastating dust-bowl economics, round two. From The New York Times:

Dozens of former plant workers have already moved, finding new jobs with the plant’s owner, Cargill, or other companies outside Plainview or outside the state, many pulling their children out of the town’s 12 public schools. When workers receive their last paychecks in three weeks, the question is whether they will stick around. And then, the more existential question, can the town survive without those who leave?


ExxonMobil wins and regular folks lose in $1 billion pollution ruling

Guess who wins.
Thomas Hawk
Guess who wins.

Susan and Robert Lazzaro buy bottled water for cooking and drinking. Their jacuzzi sits empty and baths are out of the question. They limit their showers to two minutes or less.

And like many other homeowners in Jacksonville, Md., the Lazarros fear that the savings they invested in their home were wiped out when a local ExxonMobil gas station leaked for more than a month in 2006, poisoning the groundwater upon which they depended.