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Gristmill: Fresh, whole-brain news.


California enjoys and/or suffers from a historic baby bust

Despite what my Facebook friend feed may be implying lately, California as a whole is not bursting at the seams with cute drooly babies. In fact, the Golden State is having a population crisis, at least by American standards. According to a new report from the University of Southern California, the state is making a "historic transition": California's fertility rate has dropped to 1.94 children per woman, below the 2.1 rate that replaces and grows the population and the economy. The U.S. birthrate was 2.06 children last year. Demographers are calling the drop, which has affected all racial and ethnic groups, "unprecedented" (and "European").


"Kids are no longer overrunning us. Now they're in short supply," demographer Dowell Myers told the San Jose Mercury News. "It changes the priorities for the state."

Post-baby-boom, California had no population worries. In 1970, kids accounted for a third of the state's population. Now they're projected to make up one-fifth by 2030.

The Wall Street Journal is particularly hysterical about what a lower population might mean for California's economic growth.

"Unless the birthrate picks up, we are going to need more immigrants. If neither happens, we are going to have less growth," said [Stephen Levy, director of the Center for Continuing Study of the California Economy]. The report wasn't optimistic, saying that "with migration greatly reduced…outsiders are much less likely to come to the rescue."

Read more: Living


BP kinda hoping the government can ignore a few hundred million barrels of spilled Gulf oil

British Petroleum, former record-holder for "most inept at U.S. offshore drilling," has a favor to ask of the government. Yeah, sure, the government says that 4.9 million barrels of oil were spilled when the Deepwater Horizon went blooey, but if we could agree it was actually more like, oh, 4.1 million, that would save BP a few bucks.

From FuelFix:

The U.S. government has asserted that the well discharged 4.9 million barrels of oil, or 206 million gallons. BP stated again in its filing Friday that it believes the spill was significantly smaller, though it hasn’t publicly provided its own estimate.

With a finding of gross negligence, the 4.9-million-barrel figure would carry a maximum Clean Water Act fine of more than $21 billion.

How big a dent would this obviously scientifically accurate adjustment make?

Such a ruling could reduce BP’s fine by as much as $3.4 billion if the court were to rule that BP acted with gross negligence when its Macondo well blew out 50 miles off the coast of Louisiana, leading to the worst offshore oil spill in U.S. history.

BP doesn't understand why this little incident has to be so expensive.
BP doesn't understand why this little incident has to be so expensive.


Why the environmental movement couldn’t get cap-and-trade passed

Image (1) capitol-flickr-opalsson.jpg for post 40971
O Palsson

The 2010 failure of the Senate to pass cap-and-trade legislation is a scar the environmental movement tries to ignore but can't stop examining. It sits there, barely healed, still painful -- a reminder of the lost promise of a new president and a brief House majority.

Harvard University political scientist Theda Skocpol has released a long, robust assessment of what went wrong in the political fight [PDF]. It's a detailed document that analyzes the politics of environmental policy leading up to the fight and in the years following, drawing direct contrast with the push for healthcare reform. Why that effort succeeded -- barely -- at the same time that cap-and-trade failed is interesting.

Skocpol's thesis for why cap-and-trade failed can be simplified to a few points: failed organizing efforts by advocates for the policy, an attempt to craft legislation behind closed doors at a moment that demanded transparency, and (of course) massive shifts in public opinion due to the concerted efforts of opponents of action.

It's that first point that is perhaps the most instructive, if I may betray my prejudices. Skopcol notes that environmental groups shifted focus away from the grassroots after winning key environmental protections. "Once those laws and federal regulatory bureaucracies to enforce them were in place," she writes, "the DC political opportunity structure shifted -- and so did the organization and focus of environmental activism. Big environmental organizations headquartered in Washington DC and New York expanded their professional staffs and became very adept at preparing scientific reports and commentaries to urge the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) onward."

Moreover, the organizations focused on responding to public opinion more than shaping it.


Shell’s Arctic drilling flunks even the lax air pollution standards it weakened

In its semi-inexplicable eagerness to get Shell the permits it needed to try to drill in the Arctic last year, the government made an important and ironic concession: The company would be allowed relaxed air pollution standards. The quote the company gave in its effort to be allowed to exceed pollution limits was pretty classic, pointing out that it "demonstrated compliance with a vast majority of limits."


But, anyway, Shell managed to not even meet the more lax pollution standards it insisted on. From the Houston Chronicle:

The Environmental Protection Agency issued two notices of violation [last] week alleging Shell ran afoul of the Clean Air Act permits governing its Kulluk drilling unit used in the Beaufort Sea and the drillship Noble Discoverer, as well as its support vessels, in the Chukchi Sea.

According to the agency, Shell's self-reporting of emissions revealed both drilling vessels released excess nitrogen oxide, leading the EPA to conclude that Shell had "multiple permit violations for each ship" during the 2012 drilling.

The emissions go beyond ones the EPA agreed to grandfather in a waiver Shell sought before it began drilling last year. Shell had asked permission to emit an unlimited amount of ammonia and more nitrogen oxide than originally permitted from the main generator engines on the Discoverer.


Beijing air pollution goes off the charts as electricity use climbs

Allow me to translate the information above. According to the air pollution sensor atop the U.S. embassy in Beijing, the amount of particulate matter (soot) in the air on Saturday at 8 p.m. local time was indescribably bad. At 886 micrograms per cubic meter, the level was "Beyond Index," past the end of a scale that goes from "Unhealthy" to "Very Unhealthy" to "Hazardous." Then: "Beyond Index."

Once, the system got creative. From the New York Times:

One Friday more than two years ago, an air-quality monitoring device atop the United States Embassy in Beijing recorded data so horrifying that someone in the embassy called the level of pollution “Crazy Bad” in an infamous Twitter post. That day the Air Quality Index, which uses standards set by the United States Environmental Protection Agency, had crept above 500, which was supposed to be the top of the scale. …

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, levels between 301 and 500 are “Hazardous,” meaning people should avoid all outdoor activity. The World Health Organization has standards that judge a score above 500 to be more than 20 times the level of particulate matter in the air deemed safe.

In online conversations, Beijing residents tried to make sense of the latest readings.

“This is a historic record for Beijing,” Zhao Jing, a prominent Internet commentator who uses the pen name Michael Anti, wrote on Twitter. “I’ve closed the doors and windows; the air purifiers are all running automatically at full power.”

Other Beijing residents online described the air as “postapocalyptic,” “terrifying” and “beyond belief.”

One broadcaster provided a visual representation of the pollution. He is not sitting in front of a yellow backdrop.


Pinnacles in California named as 59th national park

While California's state parks are perpetually troubled, at least the Golden State can celebrate a new national park. On Thursday, President Obama signed into law a bill by Rep. Sam Farr (D-Calif.) that makes Pinnacles National Monument in central California a protected national park, the 59th in the country and ninth in the state.

Pinnacles National Monument

The San Jose Mercury News has more:

"The park's sanctuary for the California condor and native wildlife, its red crags, caves, impressive displays of spring wildflowers, and opportunities for star-viewing under its noteworthy dark skies make Pinnacles a special place and worthy of its national park status for future generations to enjoy," said Neal Desai, Pacific Region associate director for the National Parks Conservation Association.

Farr had tried to make the bill stronger, but was foiled by House Republicans:

[T]he last Congress, which ended Jan. 3, was the first Congress since 1966 not to designate a single new acre of public land in America as federally protected wilderness, where logging, mining and other development is prohibited.

Farr's bill originally called for designating 3,000 acres inside Pinnacles boundaries as wilderness. The area is where biologists in recent years have been releasing California condors as part of a captive breeding program to bring the species back from the brink of extinction. But that provision was stripped out by Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Wash., chairman of the House Resources Committee.

Read more: Living, Politics


German neo-Nazis take to organic farming


If someone eats organic and/or vegetarian, we tend to make assumptions about their politics. With the notable exception of Glenn Beck, vegan and conservative don't tend to mix. (And he only lasted three weeks.)

Not so in Germany, where a small but vocal movement of right-wing environmentalists with some creepy ideas about food and purity are farming organic crops. The German Green Party's Böll foundation published a book about these "brown environmentalists" last year. The New Yorker introduces us to one of them: Helmut Ernst, a corn farmer, activist, and "not a Nazi" but a supporter of other seriously right-wing policies.

“What we’re seeing is a stable right-wing movement in Eastern Germany,” said Hubertus Buchstein, who is a political science professor at the University of Greifswald and one of the book’s authors. “Some of them have started organic farming—it seems to fit the right wing. Now, instead of being militant, a new strategy is to live in the country and sell organic apples. Some are vegan, very strict.”

Read more: Food, Politics


Fixing a broken gas tax could fix broken roads

Too many people are driving too many dang efficient cars in the Pacific Northwest lately, and Washington and Oregon have had enough. Between those efficient cars and a population that's just generally driving less, gas tax intake has fallen nationwide, meaning less money for road maintenance and repairs that all cars (and bikes!) need. Now some states are looking at new ways to make up the difference.


Starting next month, Washington will begin taxing electric vehicle owners $100 per year, though with about 1,600 electric cars in the state, that's not likely to fill those empty coffers. In Oregon, lawmakers are considering a proposal to tax through a flat fee like Washington or by taxing drivers of fuel-efficient cars based on the number of miles they drive. (A new report to the Washington state legislature says a mileage tax there would be "feasible.")

Some say that taxing based on vehicle miles traveled, or VMT, will be the gas tax of the future not just for West Coast hippies, but for everyone. From CNBC:

Either way, what's happening in the Pacific Northwest is raising a number of questions. The primary one being: Is it only a matter of time until anybody owning a car or truck is paying a special tax based on how much they drive their car?

Supporters of VMT or per mile taxes point out that electric car and even hybrid car owners are paying nothing or very little to help maintain state roads.


Shell gets massive, involuntary aid package from Alaska, U.S. Coast Guard, and you

"I've been working this case relatively nonstop since the 27th."

Petty Officer First Class David Mosley didn't sound all that tired when I spoke with him yesterday, but, then, he's a public affairs specialist, a professional. A few times he stumbled over his words, once or twice forgot specific numbers. On the whole, though, no problems as he walked me through the massive complement of U.S. Coast Guard staff and sea vessels and aircraft deployed to fix Shell's mistake.

U.S. Coast Guard

Two weeks from yesterday, the Kulluk, a drilling rig managed by Noble Drilling and owned by Shell, broke free of its tow lines as tug boats struggled in inclement weather to move it away from the Alaskan shore. On Dec. 31, it ran aground within an important bird area on Kodiak Island. A unified command comprised of representatives of Shell, Noble, the Coast Guard, the state of Alaska, and local representatives spent the next week and half determining whether the rig was safe to move and, ultimately, moving it to a nearby harbor. Some 700 people were involved in the effort by the time it had been safely docked.

How many of that 700 were from the Coast Guard? "That's a very good question," Mosley told me. He noted that "the command center at Coast Guard Center Anchorage was very much involved in the unified command," proving the point by listing just the people who came to mind:

Captain Mehler, the federal on-scene coordinator, all the way down to your storekeepers and yeomen and people like myself, public affairs specialists, who were all swept up and involved in this in some way. The people who provided support on Base Kodiak and Air Station Kodiak, moving gear around and making things happen on the base. Maintenance crews with the helicopters, the C-130s. You've got the crews that were involved with the Alex Haley. We had stationed the Coast Guard Cutter Hickory and the Coast Guard Cutter Spar, both of which are 225-foot buoy tenders that were activated and would have come out to the scene as needed.

U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Alex Haley
U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Alex Haley.


Can fed-up Oregon organic farmers get a GMO ban on the ballot?

Image (2) hill-crops_tall.jpg for post 13741Petitioners in Southern Oregon's Jackson County are pushing a measure onto the ballot that would outlaw the farming of genetically modified crops in the region.

Recently Jackson County organic farmers found genetically modified sugar beet crops planted by the Swiss corporation Syngenta AG as close as one-eighth of a mile from their farms. Until last year, any GMO crop planted within four miles of an organic farm would've been against Department of Agriculture rules. But since then, it's been a farming free-for-all.

From the Mail Tribune:

Ashland seed farmer Chuck Burr said he has a personal reason to support a proposed ban on genetically modified organisms in Jackson County.

He had to throw away $4,700 in chard seed after learning it might have been contaminated with pollen from nearby GMO fields.

"I'm up against it here," said Burr, the owner of the 10-acre Restoration Farm on Old Siskiyou Highway. "I have to make a living, and I have an absolutely constitutional right to engage in commerce.

"And if another company comes in from outside the area and prevents me from doing it, then my rights trump theirs."

Read more: Food