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Gristmill: Fresh, whole-brain news.


Meet Ernest Moniz, who may or may not be the next secretary of energy

Everyone is excited about rumors that President Obama will name Ernest Moniz to run the Department of Energy. Reactions range from "Who is Ernest Moniz?" to "What happened to the other guy?" to "Who was the other guy?"

Well, we are here to answer those questions! (The first one, anyway; we've answered the other two before.) Since you live a fast-paced lifestyle, always on the go, we've broken it up into bite-sized pieces, one bit of info at a time. You are welcome in advance.

Who is Ernest Moniz?

Well, he might be the next secretary of energy -- if Obama nominates him and if the Senate approves him. It is possible that in two months time he will be of very little interest to you, having not been confirmed. Or he will be of very little interest to you because he was confirmed, but you, like most Americans, are fairly indifferent to the office of secretary of energy.

But you knew that. So here's who he is, as articulated by Reuters, which appears to have been first with rumors of his imminent nomination.

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.

Ha ha. Sounds great! We will come back to this part, obviously.

At MIT, Moniz led intensive studies about the future of coal, nuclear energy and natural gas, and he helped attract funding and research momentum to energy projects on campus.

People familiar with Moniz's work said, if chosen, he would bring his own energy and pragmatism to the job. …

Moniz earned kudos for a pragmatic approach toward using research to find ways to reduce carbon pollution from fossil fuels and transition to cleaner forms of energy.

We'll come back to this, too.

What does he look like?

Well, he looks like this:


But more evocatively, he kind of looks like a Founding Father who teaches high-school English in New Hampshire.


How the junk food industry has encouraged us to eat ourselves to death

The latest New York Times Magazine features a lengthy report on the horrifying ways in which processed food purveyors are sneaking tasty but disease-causing extras into our snacks.

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The piece, adapted from Michael Moss' forthcoming book Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us, is well worth devouring. In it, Moss tracks the development of consumer-friendly products such as Cherry Vanilla Dr. Pepper and Lunchables from research and development in the late '80s to the obesity epidemic of our modern times. Moss writes:

So why are the diabetes and obesity and hypertension numbers still spiraling out of control? It’s not just a matter of poor willpower on the part of the consumer and a give-the-people-what-they-want attitude on the part of the food manufacturers. What I found, over four years of research and reporting, was a conscious effort — taking place in labs and marketing meetings and grocery-store aisles — to get people hooked on foods that are convenient and inexpensive. I talked to more than 300 people in or formerly employed by the processed-food industry, from scientists to marketers to C.E.O.’s. Some were willing whistle-blowers, while others spoke reluctantly when presented with some of the thousands of pages of secret memos that I obtained from inside the food industry’s operations. What follows is a series of small case studies of a handful of characters whose work then, and perspective now, sheds light on how the foods are created and sold to people who, while not powerless, are extremely vulnerable to the intensity of these companies’ industrial formulations and selling campaigns.

Does it surprise you that food giants Kraft, Pepsi, and General Mills use extensive research-and-development processes designed to find a consumer's ideal "bliss point"? Does it surprise you that said "bliss point" is a combination of way more sugar, salt, and fat than any of us would load up on a plate otherwise? Does it surprise you that this makes those corporate food giants a huge ton of cash?

None of these things surprised me. Moss' piece is scary, and these corporations' tactics are extraordinary, but they seem right in line with the marketing ploys that have shaped our well-padded American lives for the last three decades. What did surprise me was the story of Jeffrey Dunn.


Farmers markets stand to benefit the poor the most

Farmers markets sometimes get a bad rap for catering to the moneyed set, as though only the well-to-do like to buy their produce in a pleasant, social, outdoor environment, direct from the source.


It turns out that's all a bunch of compost. Low-income shoppers are actually the real farmers-market power users, buying bigger shares of their groceries at the markets than at other stores compared to middle- and high-income shoppers, according to a new report from the Project for Public Spaces.

Read more: Food


Oil company executive swears at analyst, tries to get recording off the internet

Encana is a Canadian oil and gas company that's seen its share of troubles in recent years, as oil and gas companies are wont to do. One of its wells in Colorado exploded last August, killing a worker. In 2009, the EPA found evidence that its fracking fluid was contaminating water in Wyoming. In December, we learned that Encana has a permit from the EPA to do a little aquifer polluting, prompting a bit of blowback for both company and agency.

Encana executives, therefore, will be forgiven for feeling a little frustrated. They're just trying to drill up oil and gas and sell it at a profit while letting your lungs and the atmosphere incur the cost of the pollution, is that so wrong? So when a reporter asked executives a question they found insulting, one responded more colorfully than would be generally recommended. From Reuters:

Encana Corp, Canada's largest natural gas producer, apologized on Thursday because one of its executives cursed after an analyst asked about whether new Canadian investment rules would prohibit its takeover by foreign state-owned entities.

When asked the question by Canaccord Genuity analyst Phil Skolnick, interim CEO Clayton Woitas said: "The answer would be no." Then, in a whispered comment that was clearly audible on a replay of the call, someone can be heard saying, "fucking asshole."

The good folks at Boing Boing got ahold of audio of the comment in question.

Clearly the company is obsessed with gas-filled orifices.

A fucking gashole in Pennsylvania
A fuckin' gashole in Pennsylvania.


International cops are on the pirate fishing case

pirate flag

Pirate fishing is an entertainingly named but actually terrible scourge of the oceans.

"It leaves communities without much needed food and income and the marine environment smashed and empty," according to Greenpeace, which has estimated that there are upwards of 1,000 illegal industrial-scale fishing ships at sea. "Pirate fishing compounds the global environmental damage from other destructive fisheries. Because they operate, quite literally, off the radar of any enforcement, the fishing techniques they use are destroying ocean life." The practice is rampant in Central America and parts of Europe and Africa.

But now the super-intimidating international policing ubergroup INTERPOL is convening for the first time ever to talk about policing these pirates at next week's International Fisheries Enforcement Conference in Lyon, France. "High-level Chiefs in the field of fisheries law enforcement are invited to join together with the aim of sharing expertise and strategies to prevent and combat fisheries crime," says INTERPOL.

Read more: Food


We are learning mosquitoes are basically invincible

monster mosquito

Mosquitoes are, at best, horrible annoyances. At worst? They are genocidal maniacs, responsible for more than half a million deaths a year, transmitting malaria and other diseases. Were causing extinction subject to popular vote, mosquitoes would win in a landslide.

All of that, relative to the moment, is the good news. Now, the bad.

Mosquitoes laugh at your so-called repellant.

Well, they don't laugh, as such, lacking the capacity for forced expulsion of air from their probosci and, likewise, any sense of humor. Point is, the most common chemical used to repel the little idiots is losing its effectiveness. From

A group of researchers from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine discovered that three hours after an exposure to DEET, many Aedes aegypti mosquitoes were immune to the chemical, ignoring its typically noxious smell and attempting to land on irresistible human skin. …

So why did the mosquitoes, as a whole, overcome their dislike of DEET? Previous studies by this group and others have found particular mosquitoes with a genetic mutation that made them innately immune to DEET, but they say that this case is different, because they didn’t demonstrate this ability from the start.

They suspect, instead, that the insects’ antennae became less chemically sensitive to DEET over time, as evidenced by electroantennography on the mosquitoes’ odor receptors after each of the tests -- a phenomenon not unlike a person getting used to the smell of, say, the ocean or a manufacturing plant near his or her house.

In other words, all picnics should now be scheduled for two hours, 55 minutes in length.

Read more: Climate & Energy, Living


Could extreme weather save farmers from extreme weather?

After a seriously dry run, some drought-stricken farmers have gotten a bit of a reprieve. Snow dumping this week on the country's potential future dust bowl is great news for suffering, parched wheat crops.


Reuters reports:

Nearly a foot or more of snow fell across key growing areas in Oklahoma and Kansas in the last 24 hours, and more was coming.

"I feel a lot better this morning," said Kansas wheat farmer Scott Van Allen, who has about 2,300 acres planted to winter wheat in south-central Kansas. "It snowed all night on us. I was getting very concerned with the lack of moisture we've had."

Well, Scott, here are some scientists to rain on your parade (except without any actual rain, sorry). This extreme weather isn't nearly extreme enough to make up for the other extreme weather.

Read more: Climate & Energy, Food


America thinks we need to fix the climate — after we deal with the deficit

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"Americans' Priorities," the graph is labelled. Underneath, four issues, and the extent to which Americans feel they require urgent action, as suggested to Pew Research. And so:

The most important issue for Congress to address this year, supported by 70 percent of Americans? The long-term deficit. Least urgent of the four? Climate change. Incorrect, America.

From USA Today:

There is bipartisan agreement on this: Dealing with the budget deficit is urgent.

That's a change. When Obama took office in 2009, during a cascading financial crisis, Americans put deficit reduction in the middle of a list of policy goals in a Pew poll. Now it has risen near the top. Seven of 10 Americans (including not only 81% of Republicans but also 65% of Democrats) say it is essential for the president and Congress to enact major deficit legislation this year. ...

When asked which of four issues was most pressing -- the deficit, guns, immigration or climate change -- 51% chose the deficit, three times that of any other issue. However, there were some significant differences by race and ethnicity. Hispanics were inclined to choose immigration as the most critical issue; African Americans chose guns.

Here's the breakdown on the urgency question by political party (compared to "everyone", which represents the entire pool of respondents).

Even most Democrats don't see an urgent need for action on climate change -- fewer than half say it's a priority for this year. That's astonishing.


Head of American Petroleum Institute doesn’t see a need to regulate carbon anymore

Last week, Sens. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) announced that they will soon introduce comprehensive climate change legislation. It would make for an interesting debate in the Senate; it would be light years better than policy that exists currently. It also has literally no chance of passing either chamber.

Which has prompted the American Petroleum Institute's Jack Gerard to dig the bill a grave for the purposes of offering a dancefloor. From The Hill:

American Petroleum Institute CEO Jack Gerard said he did not expect the Senate to vote on the bill …

“I think no, it will not get to the floor, and I think the reason it won't get to the floor is the dynamics surrounding carbon has changed,” Gerard told E&E TV.

Specifically, Gerard cited increased use of natural gas, which has helped reduce carbon dioxide emissions in the U.S. over the past several years. However, don't worry: Gerard is still spectacularly wrong.

Jack Gerard (file photo)
Jack Gerard (file photo).


Gas prices are spiking, and it’s not clear why


Here's what gas prices have done over the last month:

gas price one month

This isn't an unprecedented rise; prices went up last February, too.

gas price one year

What's odd, though, is that the recent rise isn't tied to rising crude oil prices, the traditional reason prices fluctuate.

gas and crude price one month

So what's happening? The Washington Post dug into it, noting concerns over Middle East stability, lower production by OPEC, and the continuing high price of oil -- though crude prices dropped significantly yesterday.