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Gristmill: Fresh, whole-brain news.


Laws banning harassment of cyclists spread like a wonderful virus

Cyclists may be the happiest commuters, but not when they're getting shit from passing drivers. Flashback to the summer of 2011, when Los Angeles passed an ordinance to make harassing cyclists a civil and suable infraction. Throw a thing at a cyclist and they can take you to court and seek damages -- revolutionary!

digable soul

L.A. City Council President Eric Garcetti at the time said, “If L.A. can do it, every city in the country can do it.”

Well, we're not quite there yet, but in the year and a half since L.A. passed its law, Washington, D.C., and the California cities of Berkeley, Sunnyvale, and Sebastopol have all passed similar ordinances. Healdsburg, Calif., is now considering one, too.

To be fair, Columbia, Mo., was actually the first city to enact an ordinance banning harassment of cyclists in 2009, but it didn't include the all-important civil infraction bit. L.A.'s law and those modeled after it make it possible for cyclists to take their harassers to civil court, where there is a lower burden of proof.

Read more: Cities


Motor vehicle deaths rose 5 percent in 2012

A hopefully non-fatal accident
A hopefully non-fatal accident.

The National Safety Council yesterday released its estimates of 2012 motor-vehicle deaths in the United States. And: bad news. From the report [PDF]:

Motor-vehicle deaths up 5% in 2012.

Motor-vehicle deaths in 2012 totaled 36,200, up 5% from 2011 and marking the first annual increase since 2004 to 2005. The 2012 estimate is provisional and may be revised when more data are available. The total for 2012 was also up 2% from the 2010 figure. … The estimated annual population death rate is 11.49 deaths per 100,000 population, an increase of 4% from the 2011 rate. The estimated annual mileage death rate is 1.23 deaths per 100 million vehicle miles traveled, an increase of 4% from the 2011 rate. …

The estimated cost of motor-vehicle deaths, injuries, and property damage in 2012 was $276.6 billion, a 5% increase from 2011. The costs include wage and productivity losses, medical expenses, administrative expenses, employer costs, and property damage.

The deadliest month on the roads was July, followed by August and June. The safest: February -- not a surprise, since it's the shortest month.

Read more: Living


In his first major address as secretary of state, Kerry nods at climate change

Secretary of State John Kerry, the man ostensibly charged with yaying or naying the Keystone XL pipeline permit, gave his first major speech in his new position this morning at the University of Virginia. I say "ostensibly" because any final decision on Keystone will come from the president, of course. And if you didn't know the speech was coming from John Kerry, you'd be forgiven for thinking that it was coming from the president, too.

The sign language interpreter offers her critique of Kerry's speech
State Dept
The sign language interpreter offers her critique of Kerry's speech.

As indicated in his prepared remarks [PDF], Kerry articulated what he sees as America's core diplomatic values: security and stability, human rights, health and nutrition, gender equality, education. He then noted the biggest challenge facing the world at large:

We as a nation must have the foresight and courage to make the investments necessary to safeguard the most sacred trust we keep for our children and grandchildren: an environment not ravaged by rising seas, deadly superstorms, devastating droughts, and the other hallmarks of a dramatically changing climate.


While protestors surrounded the White House, Obama was golfing with oil executives

Obama playing golf closer to home
Obama playing golf closer to home.

When some 35,000 protestors descended on Washington, D.C., on Sunday, they hoped to send a message to President Obama: Kill the Keystone XL pipeline. Show real leadership on the climate. From the Mall up to the White House they marched, hoping that Obama would see the crowd and read the signs and be moved.

But Obama wasn't there to see the crowd. He wasn't in the White House. He was in Florida, playing a round of golf with two directors of Western Gas Holdings, a subsidiary of Anadarko Petroleum focused on natural gas fracking. From the Huffington Post, which broke the story:

Obama has not shied away from supporting domestic drilling, especially for relatively clean natural gas, but in his most recent State of the Union speech he stressed the urgency of addressing climate change by weaning the country and the world from dependence on carbon-based fuels. …

But on his first “guys weekend" away since he was reelected, the president chose to spend his free time with Jim Crane and Milton Carroll, leading figures in the Texas oil and gas industry, along with other men who run companies that deal in the same kinds of carbon-based services that Keystone would enlarge. They hit the links at the Floridian Yacht and Golf Club, which is owned by Crane and located on the Treasure Coast in Palm City, Fla.

Not only are Crane and Carroll with Wester Gas Holdings, Carroll is also the chair of CenterPoint Energy, which provides residential and commercial electricity and natural gas -- and which just today announced it is accepting bids for proposals to transport its oil out of the North Dakota Bakken region.


Honda partners with SolarCity to subsidize solar panels for customers

Among the options that will soon be available to Honda customers in certain markets: cruise control, automatic transmission, solar panels for your house. Which is admittedly odd.

The New York Times explains the car company's new offer:

Through a partnership with SolarCity, a residential and commercial installer, Honda and Acura will offer their customers home solar systems at little or no upfront cost, the companies said on Tuesday. The automaker will also offer its dealers preferential terms to lease or buy systems from SolarCity on a case-by-case basis, executives said.

The deal, in which Honda will provide financing for $65 million worth of installations, will help the automaker promote its environmental aims and earn a modest return, executives said. …

And SolarCity, one of the few clean-tech start-ups to find a market for an initial public offering of its stock last year, will potentially gain access to tens of millions of new customers through Honda’s vast lists of current and previous owners.

A United States Marine Corps engineer opens solar panels on a solar-powered water purification system in Afghanistan
United States Marine Corps
Another satisfied Honda customer, in the future, maybe.

It's an interesting strategy by Honda, a reinforcement of the company's ongoing efforts to sell itself as environmentally friendly. And it's not only buyers of efficient Hondas who stand to benefit from the offer; you can buy a giant gas-guzzler from another car company and still take Honda up on its deal.


The Keystone XL pipeline could create as many as 20 long-term jobs

anti-Keystone protestors
There are more people in this picture than may have long-term jobs with the pipeline.

Last week year, Bloomberg did a little digging into the oft-mentioned "thousands of jobs" that would result if the Keystone XL pipeline were built. What they found, as they say, might surprise you, if you are surprised when fatuous political arguments turn out to be erroneous.

From the article:

The debate in Washington has focused on short-term construction and manufacturing jobs, rather than on permanent ones. Estimates for construction and manufacturing employment range from 2,500 to 20,000, depending on assumptions of how much of the project’s budget will be spent in the U.S. The company says some of the steel will be made in Canada and India.

TransCanada Vice President Robert Jones said permanent jobs would be “in the hundreds, certainly not in the thousands,” in a Nov. 11 interview on CNN.

Calgary-based TransCanada says construction will create 20,000 “new, real U.S. jobs.”

TransCanada left out one adjective: temporary. Over the long term, though, that number drops a little bit. Once construction is complete, there won't be 20,000 jobs -- there will be more like 20.


In a blow to Republican rhetoric, China announces plan for a carbon tax

When Marco Rubio says that America "is a country, not a planet," he's saying that we don't need to bother cutting pollution because we're not the worst offenders. If China, which burns nearly as much coal as the rest of the world combined, isn't trying to limit its pollution, why should we? Rubio's wording may be unique, but his rhetoric isn't -- it's a key argument for the Republican Party. As long as China's emitting unchecked carbon pollution, why can't we?

Premier Hu Jintao meets with President Obama
Premier Hu Jintao meets with President Obama.

Well, so much for that argument. From Xinhua, the official press agency of the Chinese government:

China will proactively introduce a set of new taxation policies designed to preserve the environment, including a tax on carbon dioxide emissions, according to a senior official with the Ministry of Finance (MOF).

The government will collect the environmental protection tax instead of pollutant discharge fees, as well as levy a tax on carbon dioxide emissions, Jia Chen, head of the ministry's tax policy division, wrote in an article published on the MOF's website. …

China is among the world's largest emitters of greenhouse gas and has set goals for cutting emissions. The government has vowed to reduce carbon intensity, or the amount of carbon dioxide emitted per unit of economic output, by 40 to 45 percent by 2020 in comparison to 2005 levels.


The success of London’s congestion charge, in three maps

Bike commuters in London
Bike commuters in London.

Streetsblog, a network of sustainable-transportation-focused websites that you should read regularly, used the occasion of the 10th anniversary of London's congestion pricing system to review its effectiveness. As you probably know, congestion pricing is a tool by which cities limit automobile and other traffic to certain areas by charging a fee for access. In London, that fee is £10, or about $15.

Has it worked? Streetsblog says yes -- or, it did for a bit.

In its first few years, the London charging scheme was heralded as a solid traffic-buster, with 15-20 percent boosts in auto and bus speeds and 30 percent reductions in congestion delays. Most of those gains appear to have disappeared in recent years, however. Transport for London (TfL), which combines the functions of our NYCDOT and MTA and which created and operates the charging system, attributes the fallback in speeds to other changes in the streetscape and traffic management …

The congestion charge also raised millions in revenue, some $435 million in 2008 alone.


Why the fracking boom may actually be an economic bubble

Fracking proponents like to use an evocative economic metaphor in talking about their industry: boom. The natural gas boom. Drilling is exploding in North Dakota and Texas and Pennsylvania. Only figuratively so far, but who knows what the future holds.

The Post Carbon Institute, however, suggests in a new report [PDF] that another metaphor would be more apt: a bubble, like the bubbles of methane that seep into water wells and then burst.

PCI presents the argument in its most basic form at

[T]he so-called shale revolution is nothing more than a bubble, driven by record levels of drilling, speculative lease & flip practices on the part of shale energy companies, fee-driven promotion by the same investment banks that fomented the housing bubble, and by unsustainably low natural gas prices. Geological and economic constraints -- not to mention the very serious environmental and health impacts of drilling -- mean that shale gas and shale oil (tight oil) are far from the solution to our energy woes.

PCI's strongest argument may be on the rapid depletion of drill sites. The case is made using the data in this graph, showing the amount of oil extracted over time from wells in the Bakken formation in Montana and North Dakota.


100% of electric capacity added in U.S. last month was renewable

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, the agency which informed us that almost half of all new electricity generating capacity added in the U.S. in 2012 was renewable, has released its data for the month of January. You ready for this?

Here's how January 2013 compares to January 2012 in terms of new capacity:

Notice anything? Let's spell it out directly. Here's how new capacity broke down last January. Brownish sources are fossil fuels. Green are renewable.

And here's this January.

That's right: Every single megawatt of new generating capacity added in the U.S. last month was renewable. Every single one.