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Gristmill: Fresh, whole-brain news.


Happy 25th anniversary, San Jose’s useless light rail!

For part of the time that I lived in San Jose, Calif., my apartment was downtown, across the street from a light rail station. I used to take the train to work, which was great for the first 80 percent of the ride: The car was almost always near-empty as it chugged along down the middle of streets, passing dozens of automobiles at each stop light. When I reached the stop closest to my office, I'd get off -- and start the 20-minute walk in, having to either walk well out of my way or, if I was in a hurry, dash across a busy highway with no crosswalk. It was an hour's journey, easily, for a trip that took 10 minutes by car without traffic.

My friend Michael and I took to calling the light rail "the Buzz," both because it sounded confusingly like "the bus," which amused us, and because it implied a speedy, futuristic system, which the light rail very much is not. A guy I knew who worked with the union that represented bus and light rail operators called it the "ghost train," since you'd often see it passing by at night, lit up and empty.

Sprawl on the valley floor
Sprawl in Silicon Valley.

The Atlantic Cities' Eric Jaffe has a good look at the light rail as it celebrates its 25th anniversary. From his article:


The New York Times dissolves its environment desk

new york times

Unsettling news from the New York Times: The paper is dismantling its environment desk. As reported by Inside Climate News:

The New York Times will close its environment desk in the next few weeks and assign its seven reporters and two editors to other departments. The positions of environment editor and deputy environment editor are being eliminated. No decision has been made about the fate of the Green Blog, which is edited from the environment desk. …

[Managing editor Dean] Baquet said the change was prompted by the shifting interdisciplinary landscape of news reporting. When the desk was created in early 2009, the environmental beat was largely seen as "singular and isolated," he said. It was pre-fracking and pre-economic collapse. But today, environmental stories are "partly business, economic, national or local, among other subjects," Baquet said. "They are more complex. We need to have people working on the different desks that can cover different parts of the story."

Baquet added that the Times "[has] not lost any desire for environmental coverage. This is purely a structural matter."


RE-volv is making a community pot of solar gold

What if every dollar you donated to a worthy cause generated two, three, or more dollars? That's the idea behind the RE-volv community solar fund project, currently closing in on the end of its first stage of fundraising.

Like Mosaic, RE-volv is tapping the collective for funding to back solar projects. But instead of individuals investing for their own individual good, RE-volv envisions a big pot-o-gold seed fund that would be invested and reinvested in community solar infrastructure. These are investments in solar's future -- essentially donations to RE-volv's fund. Here's how RE-volv explains it:

The Solar Seed Fund will use the donations to finance solar installations on community-serving organizations such as schools, universities, hospitals, and places of worship. RE-volv recoups the solar installation cost and earns a return on the investment through a 20-year solar lease agreement. The lease payments go back into the Solar Seed Fund allowing the fund to continuously grow, and finance an expanding number of solar installations.

According to the group's numbers, once 14 RE-volv systems are in place, the revenue from those systems will be able to fund another solar-power system of roughly the same cost -- and on, and on.


Colorado to scrutinize oil and gas pollution

Colorado suddenly got pretty cool, guys. I'm not talking about the weed thing; that joke is beyond played out. I'm not even talking about the wind energy thing, although I'm kind of talking about that, in a way.

I’m talking about how the state has decided to do more testing to track pollution from oil and gas drilling. From the Colorado Springs Gazette:

Colorado oil and natural gas regulators on Monday approved rules making the state the first to require energy companies to do groundwater sampling both before and after they drill.

The sampling is meant to show whether supplies of drinking water have been affected by energy development.

Seems like something worth testing, I guess!

Here is Colorado Springs, a city in Colorado, because I wanted to add a picture
Here is Colorado Springs, a city in Colorado, because I wanted to add a picture.


1,500 protesters swarm Albany to call for continued fracking ban in N.Y.

While New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) was inside the Empire State Plaza Convention Center yesterday outlining his plan to make New York the "progressive capital of the nation," 1,500 people were outside with a suggestion about one way he can ensure that happens.

For about a year, Cuomo has been weighing whether to lift the state's ban on hydraulic fracturing. Last summer, it seemed that he was close to allowing fracking in certain regions of the state, but instead he postponed the decision and called for research into possible health effects of the practice. (A leaked report suggesting that there were no negative effects has been widely dismissed as insufficient.)
Opponents of fracking took advantage of Cuomo's speech -- and its attendant cameras -- to ensure that the pressure remains high. From EcoWatch:

More than 1,500 New Yorkers from every corner of the state descended on Albany [Wednesday] to rally against fracking outside of Governor Andrew Cuomo’s State of the State address. The group delivered a clear message calling for the governor to reject fracking, implement a statewide ban, and be a leader in clean, renewable energy for New York and the nation. ...

“Governor Cuomo, don’t do this,” said Logan Adsit, a resident of Pharsalia in Chenango County, which is located in the Southern Tier that the Cuomo administration has indicated as a target of fracking. “Don’t poison my family. Don’t poison anyone’s family. This state, which my family has called home for generations, should not become your toxic legacy. That’s what I’ve come here to say today.”


Big 50-year plan could make Detroit greener and healthier

Detroit's city leaders, backed by deep-pocketed foundations, have laid out a new plan for remaking Motor City into a thriving and sustainable metropolis. From Detroit Free Press columnist Brian Dickerson:

[P]rops to Mayor Dave Bing and the Detroit Works project he has championed for telling Detroiters the truth about their limited options for redeeming Michigan's largest city -- and reminding them how quickly those options will narrow if Detroit's elected leaders fail to seize the moment.

The Detroit Future City report unveiled Wednesday is best understood as a municipal triage plan. Squarely confronting the chasm between residents' expectations and the city's capacity to meet them, the report's authors have done their best to apportion the city's dwindling resources across a sprawling landscape of deprivation. ...

Nobody will be forced to move ... But if implemented, the Future City plan would codify the tale-of-two-cities scenario that already exists, formalizing the boundary between neighborhoods that retain critical mass and the more sparsely populated hinterlands where the amenities associated with urban living are generally unavailable.

The new Detroit Works Project 50-year plan for the city is sprawling and ambitious, but unlike a lot of huge strategic plans, it actually doesn’t seem completely insane. Put together after hundreds of meetings, thousands of surveys, and tens of thousands of snippets of community input, the 350-page “Detroit Future City” report is full of big, green ideas.

Read more: Cities


Oil company foils government inspectors with high-tech gadgets (coffee filters)

For those of you who sleep well at night knowing that the government is competently and robustly working to protect the health of our environment, you may want to stop reading now. Here's a story that flew under the radar last week from WWLTV in New Orleans:

An oil company admitted Thursday that coffee filters were used to doctor water samples and cover up the fact that it was dumping oil and grease into the Gulf of Mexico on its platform 175 miles south of New Orleans. …

[W&T Offshore] contractors used coffee filters to clean the water samples before submitting them to regulators.

Also, the company admitted that when they spilled some oil in November 2009, they not only failed to report it to the Coast Guard, but sprayed the oil into the Gulf and then hired a company that worked for three days to clean the platform to make it look like there never was a spill.

The company was fined $700,000 and will pay "$300,000 in community service," whatever that means.

The criminal mastermind's tool for evading government oversight
The criminal mastermind's tool for evading government oversight


Lisa Jackson blasts D.C. on her way out, while Chamber of Commerce shrugs and lobbies

Image (6) congress-washington-dc-flickr-valerie.jpg for post 40321

Presented for your consideration, two views of how the United States should develop and evolve its energy policy.

In an interview with USA Today (yesterday), outgoing EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson railed against obstructive Republican members of the House, and trumpeted the agency's work on fighting climate change during her tenure.

Climate change is "a simple scientific statement," said Jackson, who was in San Francisco on Tuesday to tour the city's new energy-saving Public Utilities Commission building. She said the EPA's so-called "endangerment finding" that greenhouse gases pose a public threat, upheld despite court challenges, has enabled the agency to use the Clean Air Act to start reducing their emissions and "help businesses to look forward to a different future." ...

There's still a way to go, she acknowledged. She said the nation has to get to the point of accepting scientific evidence. She cited the EPA's recent rules that set stricter standards for fine particle or soot pollution, which were based on EPA research -- done at the request of the National Academy of Sciences -- showing that soot is a cause of premature death. "And yet you have people argue about whether soot standards are beneficial," she said.

Another challenge, she said, is Congress. Jackson repeatedly tussled with congressional Republicans and the fossil-fuel industry over anti-pollution regulations. "One of the questions everyone is asking themselves is whether the U.S. House of Representatives is actually going to reflect the will of the people on a lot of these issues, and the will of the people is awfully clear." But people in Washington continue to argue about them "and that's not good for our country," she said.


The ongoing drought may reverse the flow of the Chicago River

The state of Michigan has an advertising campaign, "Pure Michigan," that highlights the state's many natural attractions. The skiing! The parks! The beautiful Great Lakes!

The beautiful, non-potable Chicago River
The beautiful, non-potable Chicago River

I'm curious how they'll rebrand the effort once those Great Lakes become home to raw sewage from Chicago. From ABC 7 Chicago (and via Stephen Lacey):

Read more: Cities, Climate & Energy


Shell probably spilled fuel in an important Arctic bird habitat, of course

We'll start with the good news: Shell's Kulluk rig hasn't spontaneously exploded. It has not escaped the shackles of servitude to roam the Pacific for eternity, earning its keep aboard fishing vessels. Shell has not inadvertently poked a hole in the ocean floor, releasing oil and magma and the souls of the doomed into our atmosphere.

Bearing in mind that none of those horrible things has happened, one quick little update from the highly competent Shell team.

Four survival boats and one rescue boat were dislodged from the Kulluk, either while it was towed or when it grounded on Sitkalidak Island. Each of the survival boats included a 68-gallon capacity diesel tank. Unified Command has been informed that one tank is intact, two tanks have been damaged and one is inaccessible to be able to determine its condition. As such, approximately up to 272 gallons of diesel fuel may have been released from the tanks.

No bigs! Just maybe a few hundred gallons of fuel spilled in the water there. Who's that going to harm? No one is swimming around out there. It's not like there are daycares or playgrounds in the middle of the ocean! Any thoughts, Audubon Society?

The Kulluk grounding occurred within a globally significant Important Bird Area where roughly 180,000 seabirds nest and more than 100,000 Black Scoters, White-winged Scoters, Harlequin Ducks, King Eiders, and Red-necked Grebes overwinter. Kiliuda Bay, where the Kulluk is being towed, is still within the same Important Bird Area.