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Gristmill: Fresh, whole-brain news.


U.S. lags woefully behind other rich countries on energy taxes

Americans spent $16 billion last year bailing out farmers affected by the drought. Which might lead a sensible person to wonder whether farmers advocate policies meant to prevent future droughts, thereby potentially saving money -- and their yields -- over the long run.

The New York Times offers an answer:

To understand the complicated politics of climate change in the United States, you may want to talk to Pamela Johnson, president of the National Corn Growers Association’s Corn Board. …

Ms. Johnson’s main concern, and that of most other growers in the association, is not about how to deal with a changing climate -- how to slow the pace of warming and how to adapt to a warmer world with more erratic weather.

Rather, growers worry that political support for crop insurance might flag after a year in which taxpayers paid billions in subsidies to farmers while virtually everybody else faced deep budget cuts.

“We are Americans before we are farmers,” Ms. Johnson said. “We know we have budget problems.” Still, she added: “For our farmers, crop insurance is the main concern. It helps keep us in business.”

Image (1) drought-flickr-lukerobinson.jpg for post 43060

The Times article focuses on the failure of the U.S. to use energy-related taxes, like a carbon tax, to address climate change. While such a tax couldn't "single-handedly" win the fight, as the article claims, it could certainly have an effect.


Multinational oil companies, 2; sovereign nations, 0

The aftermath of a Shell oil spill in Nigeria.
The aftermath of a Shell oil spill in Nigeria, which was apparently not Shell's fault.

Two updates on international lawsuits against oil companies. You will not be surprised to learn that each features good news for the corporation involved.

We wrote last October about a lawsuit filed by four Nigerian villagers, seeking compensation from Shell for years of oil spills that polluted the local water supply. Shell claimed that the spills were the work of thieves and sabotage, not its own negligence.

The update, from the Associated Press:

In its ruling Wednesday the Hague Civil Court rejected most of the case brought by Nigerian farmers and environmental pressure group Friends of the Earth against Shell, saying the leaking pipelines were caused by saboteurs, not Shell negligence.

However, in one case, the judges ordered a subsidiary, Shell Nigeria, to compensate a farmer for breach of duty of care by making it too easy for saboteurs to open an oil well head that leaked on to his land. ...

Shell hailed the judgment as a victory.

"We are very pleased by the ruling of the court today," said Allard Castelain of Shell. "It's clear that both the parent company, Royal Dutch Shell, as well as the local venture ... has been proven right."

The Dutch arm of Friends of the Earth, which represented the Nigerian farmers, welcomed the compensation order for one village, but said it was "stunned" by its defeats in other villages.

Meanwhile, Chevron is contesting an $18 billion settlement levied against it by a court in Ecuador for decades of pollution in the Amazon rainforest. The company has argued that the judgment was the result of corrupt testimony, witnesses, and process.


If named secretary of defense, Chuck Hagel will leave Chevron’s board

Chevron board member Chuck Hagel
Chevron board member Chuck Hagel.

A spot of good news: If Chuck Hagel is confirmed as defense secretary, he will resign his seat on the board of Chevron. While it seems likely that the oil company would prefer he remain, helping guide its strategy as he simultaneously made determinations about the deployment and structure of the largest military in the history of the world, others disagreed.

From The Wall Street Journal:

Chuck Hagel will shed hundreds of thousands of dollars of stock in Chevron Corp. CVX -0.46% and private equity firm McCarthy Group LLC if the Senate confirms him to be the next defense secretary, according to his financial disclosure. …

Mr. Hagel’s assets were valued between $2.9 million and $6.1 million in total. … In addition to his stock holdings, Mr. Hagel earned $116,000 in director fees from Chevron and between $5,001 and $15,000 in dividends.

In addition to divesting Chevron and McCarthy holdings, Mr. Hagel said he would resign his positions with both firms and 25 other entities.


Climate change will be great for Toronto, says insincere troll

Canada's National Post is an admittedly right-wing newspaper. Proudly right-wing. Cringe-inducingly right-wing.

And so, a special comment the paper ran this morning, titled, "Warmer temperatures would be a benefit, not a problem, for Toronto." The essay -- which the title does an admirable job of summarizing -- was written by Lawrence Solomon, who also wrote a book on climate change denial that's actually called The Deniers. And with that, let's begin.

In coming decades, climate change will warm Toronto by 5.7 degrees in winter and 3.8 degrees in summer, the city’s parks and environment committee learned in a consultants’ report tabled Tuesday. The consultants, pointing to potentially dire results, indicate that the city may need to spend billions in upgrades. In truth, rising temperatures would be a boon to the city and its taxpayers.

How so? In short: Less snow! Less salt to melt snow! Fewer potholes! Fewer traffic problems! Fewer accidents! More tourists! A word of caution, though: Solomon also suggests that warming may have peaked, remaining unchanged for the last 16 years (this is not true), and that, in fact, in 2014 "we will begin a 40-year-long descent into what will be Earth’s 19th Little Ice Age." (This is also not true.)

Toronto, a genuinely lovely city
Toronto, a genuinely lovely city.

It does not escape our notice that most of Solomon's perks of warmer weather focus on his ability to drive more safely. Nor does it escape our notice that embracing climate change because it means fewer potholes is like embracing being mauled to death by a bear on a wintry tundra because the grizzly's fur provides shelter from the wind.

Read more: Cities, Climate & Energy


Will 2013 be the year of ag-gag bills?

The U.N. has declared 2013 to be the Year of Quinoa. But it's also shaping up to be the Year of Ag Gag, those bills that make it illegal to covertly investigate factory farms for animal and ecological abuse. From Bruce Friedrich of Farm Sanctuary:

In 2011, the meat industry backed laws in four states to make taking photos or videos on farms and slaughterhouses illegal. In 2012, the industry pushed similar laws in 10 states. This year, we expect even more.

Photo by Shutterstock.

In 2011 and 2012, Iowa, Utah, and Missouri all enacted some version of an anti-whistleblower ag-gag law, while similar proposals were struck down in Florida, Illinois, Indiana, Minnesota, Nebraska, New York, and Tennessee.

This year, more such laws are proposed in Nebraska, New Hampshire, and Wyoming.

Read more: Food, Politics


Right-wingers’ dream town is a new urbanist paradise, but full of guns

Remember this?


This was Glenn Beck's worst nightmare. Sustainable planned communities were going to destroy our future, he feared.

But over the past few weeks, Beck seems to have had a change of heart. He's now promoting his own Independence, USA, a "city-theme park hybrid" to be located somewhere in Texas with abundant "craftmen and artisan" small businesses and stores, a working ranch "where visitors can learn how to farm and work the land," an innovation center, and dedicated mixed-income housing.

Hold on to your hats, though, folks, because Beck is not alone. The dense green community idea is catching on among the right-wing crowd, and these people even use some of Beck's dreaded key words.

Read more: Cities


More vignettes from North Frackota, where rents are sky-high and adultery is illegal

Two updates in our ongoing series on North Dakota (which I like to call North Frackota in an ongoing, futile attempt to get that evocative phrase into the lexicon). The most recent entries in said series, in case you missed them: the massive growth of fracking in the western part of the state is straining its healthcare infrastructure, and the glut of oilmen producing that glut of oil is leading to an increase in inappropriate and illegal sexual behavior. North Frackota: It is now and has always been a paradise.™ (This is a motto I suggest the state adopt.)

Update one: The Minneapolis Star Tribune offers another good look at how the state is being transformed.

Pickups and semis jam long stretches of two-lane highways. Backhoes claw the ground even in frozen January. Recreational vehicles occupy former farm fields next to row upon row of box-like modular living pods.

In Williston, the epicenter of the growth, the local hospital opened a new birthing center, workers are building a giant new rec center and students are overflowing in a school that once sat empty. Civic leaders have been approving building permits and hiring police and teachers and nearly every kind of government worker. …

Lines at restaurants and stores are often frustratingly long, with few workers willing to take service jobs when more lucrative oil industry work is available. Rents have skyrocketed. With mostly men flooding into town to work, women hesitate to go out alone at night. There are more bar fights. Young parents can't find day care for their kids.

In other words, the wealth and growth are unevenly spread and slow to flow outward. The first beneficiaries of the wealth are those industries that deal with flush workers directly. Like realtors.


How coal is keeping its firm grip on miners and elected officials


The coal industry is far more effective at preserving its political and economic power than it is at innovating cheap ways of getting coal out of the ground. In its push for continued relevance, the industry takes no prisoners in the mines or on Capitol Hill.

Consider the case of Reuben Shemwell, as told by Huffington Post:

Shemwell's troubles started in September 2011. After his year and a half as a welder at mining properties in Western Kentucky, [Armstrong Coal] management fired the 32-year-old for what supervisors deemed "excessive cell phone use" on the job -- an allegation Shemwell denied. Furthermore, Shemwell argued that the cell phone charge was merely a pretext for his firing. In subsequent court filings, he claimed the real reason he was canned was that he'd complained about safety problems at his worksite.

According to Shemwell's filings with the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA), the federal agency responsible for protecting miners, Shemwell had refused to work in confined spaces where he'd been overcome by fumes, and he'd complained to a superior that the respirators provided to welders were inadequate. Shortly before Shemwell was fired, he and a colleague also refused to work on an excavator while it was in operation, according to filings.

Not long after Shemwell filed his discrimination complaint, MSHA officials tried to inspect the site where he'd been working. According to court documents, Armstrong chose to shut the site down rather than subject it to MSHA oversight, which management said would be too costly. Ten workers were laid off.

The government decided not to hear a discrimination complaint Shemwell filed, which should have ended things -- albeit unhappily for Shemwell. It didn't.


Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood to ride off into the sunset

Ray LaHood.
Bike Portland


That collective urbanist cry burst forth on the internet this morning when Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood announced he would not be staying on for Obama's second term. In recent weeks, there was speculation that LaHood might remain in his post at the president's urging, but it was not to be.

Read more: Cities, Politics


As Sandy aid finally arrives, FEMA unveils new flood maps

The flooded Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel
The flooded Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel.

Midnight tonight marks the three-month anniversary of Hurricane Sandy making landfall in New Jersey. To celebrate, Congress finally cleared the aid package for victims of the storm. You'll forgive the East Coast if it doesn't send a thank-you note.

From The New York Times:

By a 62-to-36 vote, the Senate approved the measure, with 9 Republicans joining 53 Democrats to support it. The House recently passed the bill, 241 to 180, after initially refusing to act on it amid objections from fiscal conservatives over its size and its impact on the federal deficit.

The newly adopted aid package comes on top of nearly $10 billion that Congress approved this month to support the recovery efforts in New York, New Jersey, Connecticut and other states that were battered by the hurricane in late October.

The money will provide aid to people whose homes were damaged or destroyed, as well as to business owners who had heavy losses. It will also pay for replenishing shorelines, repairing subway and commuter rail systems, fixing bridges and tunnels, and reimbursing local governments for emergency spending.

Obama pledged to sign the bill as soon as it gets to him.

Read more: Cities, Climate & Energy