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Gristmill: Fresh, whole-brain news.


More than half the U.S. is still in drought, and it’s likely to last through April

Do you know where the largest desert in the world is? Go ahead, Google it. I'll wait. The correct answer: the Antarctic. Even though it is cold and covered with snow, it receives very, very small amounts of precipitation. The more you know, etc.

I bring this up to demonstrate that appearances can be deceiving. Right now, for example, it is winter. And despite that, and despite the fact that the United States saw a decent amount of precipitation last week, much of the country is still under drought conditions -- nearly 59 percent of the lower 48 states, in fact.

drought levels

And that is likely to continue. From Climate Central:

Read more: Climate & Energy, Living


Oil companies turn to trains instead of Enbridge’s leaky pipes

north dakota oil train

Enbridge -- the Canadian company responsible for the worst onshore oil spill in American history when a pipe near Kalamazoo, Mich., ruptured in 2010 --  is suffering from oil companies' newfound fondness for rail.

From Bloomberg:

Enbridge Inc.’s North Dakota pipeline system has been underused for the past three months as railroads move more oil out of the Bakken shale play, a refining company told U.S. regulators. …

Railways have emerged as a competitor to pipelines as production from shale fields has grown faster than pipeline space. While rail is typically more expensive than pipelines, railcars can reach markets that pipelines don’t, yielding higher prices for producers.


Nearly half of new U.S. power capacity in 2012 was renewable — mostly wind

As predicted, almost half of the new power-generating capacity installed in the United States last year was renewable.

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission recently released its December update on the nation's energy infrastructure [PDF]. When we last checked on the data, it suggested that some 46 percent of new capacity -- January through October -- was renewable. Well, that ratio improved over the last two months of the year. Ultimately, 49.1 percent of new capacity was renewable.

new generating capacity 2012

Compare that to 2011, when less than 40 percent was renewable.

new generating capacity 2011


Whole Foods CEO John Mackey knows what’s best for you, and fighting climate change ain’t it

You'd think that by now John Mackey would have learned to shut up.

The Whole Foods CEO and cofounder would no doubt be incensed at my saying so, of course, since -- in classic hyper-entitled, superfluously wealthy, privileged white-man style -- he considers suggestions that he do something other than what he wants a threat to the American constitutional experiment. Or, as he puts it: He's a libertarian.

John Mackey explains what workers want
John Mackey explains what workers want.

Earlier this week, Mackey revisited a theme from 2009, insisting that the Affordable Care Act isn't socialism -- it's fascism. As he told NPR:

Socialism is where the government owns the means of production. In fascism, the government doesn't own the means of production, but they do control it -- and that's what's happening with our health care programs and these reforms.

He has (of course) since apologized for the remarks. There's some irony to the claim; in 2007, conservative writer Jonah Goldberg isolated Whole Foods as an example of what he deemed "liberal fascism." So many fascists!

Mackey began his response to NPR with a telling two-word phrase: "technically speaking." "Technically speaking," he said to NPR's Steve Inskeep, Obamacare is fascism. Why is that phrase telling? Because Mackey is trying to (incorrectly) explain basic political science to one of NPR's most capable reporters. The phrase gets to the core of what Mackey's doing every time he opens his mouth: He's telling you that you're wrong and he's right.


New York’s Sandy-flooded South Ferry subway station is still a useless mess

In 2009, New York City's Metropolitan Transit Authority proudly announced the reopening of the South Ferry subway station following an extensive, $530 million remodel. The station is right at Manhattan Island's tip, under the terminal from which the Staten Island Ferry docks and departs. And when Sandy hit, South Ferry became an aquarium.

This is what the station looked like immediately after the storm.

south ferry stop flooded

And this is what it looked like yesterday.

south ferry subway

That's from a gallery of photos taken by Benjamin Kabak, who runs Second Avenue Sagas, a blog focused on New York transit. He took a tour of South Ferry station yesterday, and marveled about how little progress has been made. Here's how he described the tour:

Read more: Cities, Climate & Energy


Green groups and ExxonMobil pony up for Obama’s second inauguration

The Capitol awaits the 2009 inauguration
The Capitol awaits the 2009 inauguration.

On Sunday, Jan. 20, in accordance with the Constitution, Barack Obama will be sworn in for his second term as president. But Sundays aren't great for parties. So on Monday he'll do it again, this time in front of a crowd of hundreds of thousands on the west front of the Capitol. It's a massive logistical orchestration, one that doesn't come cheap. Therefore, like any modern American enterprise, it's open for sponsorship. And like anything else in Washington these days, it's another opportunity for lobbying.

This morning, ExxonMobil announced that it is contributing $250,000 to this "important and historic event." That sum is one-200th of the total cost of the event -- and one-eighth of what the company spent trying to elect Republicans to Congress last year. Nonetheless, it's greatly appreciated, I'm sure, and America will keep a special ember of affection burning in our hearts for ExxonMobil's commitment to our republic. (Maybe not an ember. An oil barrel.)

Even though the inauguration is only a few days away, Exxon still got in on the ground floor. The inaugural committee didn’t announce that it would allow corporate sponsors until recently (it didn't in 2009), and as of Monday, only eight corporations had signed on to sponsor. (One is an affiliate of Southern Energy.) The full, unformatted, hard-to-read list of "benefactors" is available online; if you see anything interesting on it, let us know.


California teams up with Amtrak on high-speed rail

Image (1) high-speed-rail-iStock_000002294764Small-1_309.jpg for post 29333"High-speed rail is well on its way, and it is not turning back," Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood told a train-happy crowd at this week's Transportation Research Board Annual Meeting (#TRBAM for all you plannerds who want to follow along on Twitter).

LaHood is right, and not just because of hefty federal funding earmarked for building infrastructure and boosting speeds.

Today, Amtrak announced it is teaming up with the California High-Speed Rail Authority to find trains that would run at up to 220 mph along both the West Coast and East Coast corridors. By combining their buying power, they could both save serious resources as they look to purchase about 60 trains over the next 10 years -- and the partnership could make California's high-speed rail look a little less pie-in-the-sky. From the Associated Press:

The high-speed rail efforts in California have come under increased scrutiny by members of Congress who say it has become too expensive to build and operate. The more ties it has with Amtrak, the better its future prospects might be, but officials said the announcement was not designed to bolster high-speed rail in California.

"It doesn't make any sense whatsoever to go out and have a different set of standards for California or any other high-speed train," said Amtrak President and CEO Joe Boardman. "So, no, it's about doing the right thing for the United States."


How to get absolutely freaking (almost) everywhere in California without a car

Outside of its cities (and inside a lot of them, too), California is a typical car-happy American state, with about .84 cars for every person. With its miles and miles of looping roadway and ingrained car culture, it can be easy to forget how many other forms of transportation there are in the Golden State, too.

Enter the California Rail Map, one giant badass master map of California's trains, buses, and ferries, showing routes to 500+ destinations throughout the state.

Click to embiggen.
Read more: Uncategorized


So much hope and so many problems for the L.A. river

A new, green future awaits the concrete drainage ditch that we know as the Los Angeles River. But it may have to wait for quite a while.


The Army Corps of Engineers, which originally poured all that concrete about 80 years ago (thanks for nothing, dudes), is teaming up with city engineers on a $10 million study of the potential for restoring the river's ecosystem, creating wetlands for animals and hang-outs for people. From The Wall Street Journal:

The study examines an 11-mile stretch of the river on the city's east side, where some resilient plants have survived in a narrow, muddy strip of so-called soft bottom at the center of the channel.

Efforts to manipulate the river's concrete form without losing its flood-control function will be a "delicate balancing act," said Josephine Axt, the Corps' local planning chief who is leading the study, known as Alternative with Restoration Benefits and Opportunities for Revitalization, or Arbor.

It's like "setting the table," said Omar Brownson, executive director of the L.A. River Revitalization Corp., which coordinates economic-development projects along the river. "We're creating a more attractive destination for investment."

Yes, well, what's a revitalized habitat without the business it attracts? I guess?

The Corps is expected to present the results of the study to the public in June. But that public might not take so kindly to the Corps and their master plans by then. Just last month, the Corps razed dozens of acres of the river's wildlife habitat along the Sepulveda Basin, seriously pissed off the local water agency, violated the Clean Water Act, and potentially also violated endangered species protections.

Read more: Cities


Another Massey executive will go to jail for his role in the Upper Big Branch explosion

A former superintendent at Massey Energy's Upper Big Branch Mine pled guilty today to his role in the 2010 explosion that killed 29 miners. From NPR:

[F]ormer Upper Big Branch coal mine superintendant Gary May was sentenced to 21 months in prison and ordered to pay a $20,000 fine. ...

May pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy and admitted to ordering a company electrician to disable a methane monitor on a mining machine so it could continue to cut coal without automatic shutdowns. The monitor is a safety device that senses explosive amounts of methane gas and automatically shuts down mining machines when dangerous levels of gas are present. …

May also pleaded guilty to deceiving federal mine safety inspectors and hiding safety violations.

A sign near the Upper Big Branch mine in 2010
TV 19
A sign near the Upper Big Branch mine in 2010.

Last November, another Massey executive, David Craig Hughart, pled guilty to conspiracy. At the time, we speculated that his co-conspirators might include former Massey CEO Don Blankenship; now we know that the conspiracy at least included May.