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Gristmill: Fresh, whole-brain news.


BP’s federal penalty for the Gulf spill is final: $4 billion


And that's that. From CNN:

A federal judge in New Orleans Tuesday approved a $4 billion plea agreement for criminal fines and penalties against oil giant BP for the 2010 Gulf oil spill, the largest criminal penalty in U.S. history.

U.S. District Court Judge Sarah Vance imposed the terms that the Justice Department and BP had agreed to last November, which include the oil company pleading guilty to 14 criminal counts -- among them, felony manslaughter charges -- and the payment of a record $4 billion in criminal penalties over five years.

Once you add in the $1.4 billion levied against Transocean, the total bill for polluting the Gulf of Mexico and killing 11 workers is $5.4 billion. Or, if you're so inclined, $5.3 million a day since the explosion on April 20, 2010.


Good news for peer-to-peer car-sharing

It's a good news day for peer-to-peer car-sharing, and those hideous and somewhat disturbing furry pink mustaches I keep seeing around San Francisco.

The detachable pink mustache alerts ride-seekers that this ride is a Lyft.

Today the California Public Utilities Commission said it has reached an agreement with Zimride, the parent company of fast-growing California ride-share purveyor Lyft, to suspend a cease-and-desist notice and $20,000 citation against the company. The PUC is still reviewing its regulations on car-sharing programs in the Golden State and hasn't yet reached similar deals with Uber or Sidecar, which are technically still outlaws, though they don't have the creepy mustaches to match.

This was good timing for Lyft, which announced this morning that it would be expanding to Los Angeles neighborhood by neighborhood in an attempt to cover all that concrete sprawl. And it's not just Lyft that has its sights set on bigger and better car-sharing markets. From Techcrunch:

The move into L.A. marks the first expansion market for Lyft, which became available to riders in San Francisco last summer. To expand into Southern California, the company sent a team to recruit drivers and build the initial community infrastructure in the city. That means interviewing drivers, inspecting their cars, and generally attempting to instill the Lyft culture into the new market. ...

Lyft isn’t the only ride-sharing service that is looking to broaden its footprint. San Francisco-based competitor SideCar recently launched its service in the Seattle area, and is looking to expand even more aggressively in the coming months.


Republicans are very satisfied with the quality of the environment

Stock image for "polling." This is not how Gallup does it, I don't think
Stock image for "polling." This is not how Gallup does it, I don't think.

The Gallup Organization -- purveyors of fine polling products such as its Nov. 5 prediction that Romney would win; employers of possible future Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel (join the club); defendants in a lawsuit filed by the federal government alleging that the company inflated its prices -- released a poll yesterday. Let's look at it!

The top headline was that Republicans and Democrats differ more in their opinions on gun laws than on any other topic: 28 percent of Democrats are satisfied to some extent with existing laws on guns, compared with 59 percent of Republicans. Fine. Not surprising.

Here's what's interesting: The numbers related to "quality of the environment" -- a poor replacement for environmental laws, mind you -- broke down as 51 percent satisfaction among Democrats and 61 percent among Republicans. On "energy policies," 44 percent of Democrats are satisfied compared to 31 percent of Republicans.

Click to embiggen.
Click to embiggen.


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.