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Gristmill: Fresh, whole-brain news.


Texas is thinking about giving its oil and gas inspectors guns

This is the kind of story that people look back on after a tragedy and say: Well, that was a bad idea.

The Texas Railroad Commission, which regulates oil and gas development, is considering arming its employees. From NPR:

In announcing his initiative, [Commission Chair Barry] Smitherman cited “recent shooting tragedies around the country”. In response to questions from StateImpact, he elaborated in an email: “At the Railroad Commission, many of our employees -- such as our field inspectors -- often work alone in remote, desolate areas of the state that can pose dangers. It is my position that Commission employees have the right to protect themselves.”

One Texan who agrees is Gary Painter, sheriff of Midland County where oil drilling is booming.

The sheriff said Railroad Commission inspectors can sometimes encounter resistance from crews on drilling rigs, crews he said that can be “on the edge” because of long hours and the use of drugs to stay sharp in spite of their fatigue.

I'm no expert, but it seems like maybe there are some other things that need to be fixed before we throw guns into the mix.

An image from Barry Smitherman's Facebook page
From Barry Smitherman's Facebook page. Click to embiggen.


TransCanada accidentally starts building Keystone XL on land it doesn’t own

Job opening at TransCanada: Director of Making Sure That We Actually Have the Right to Build Our Pipeline on This Plot of Land. New position, competitive salary and benefits.

From FuelFix:

TransCanada contractors building the Keystone XL pipeline mistakenly planned their route and cleared several hundred feet of land through public property they had no right to work on, an Angelina County [Texas] official told FuelFix.

Officials noticed the mistake after protesters set up in trees in Angelina County to oppose work on the pipeline, which is intended to link the Texas coast with Canadian oil sands fields.

TransCanada cleared trees, soil and other foliage from a 50-foot wide strip of land owned by the county without any prior agreement for work there, Angelina County Attorney Ed Jones said.

“I would say it was a surprise to the county,” Jones said.

I would say so! "Hey, Jim, know why those backhoes are ripping up vegetation on that right-of-way?" "No, Tony, I sure don't. Seems like something we would have heard about, being county employees and all."

I told TransCanada I owned this and they could build a pipe in it; I am waiting for my check
I told TransCanada I owned this and they could build a pipe on it; I am waiting for my check.


Beijing’s recurring air pollution grounds flights, puts kids in the hospital

Imagine you're an airline pilot. Which of the cities below looks like the more appealing one for landing a large jet?

To the left, an image of Beijing's air taken last week when the pollution monitor on top of the U.S. Embassy measured a fairly low level of particulate pollution (29 parts per million per volume). To the right? The air yesterday, at a level of 462. If you chose the image at left, congratulations. Airlines in Beijing agree with your assessment.

From Huffington Post:

Thick, off-the-scale smog shrouded eastern China for the second time in about two weeks Tuesday, forcing airlines to cancel flights because of poor visibility and prompting Beijing to temporarily shut factories and curtail fleets of government cars. ...

The U.S. Embassy reported an hourly peak level of PM2.5 -- tiny particulate matter that can penetrate deep into the lungs -- at 526 micrograms per cubic meter, or "beyond index," and more than 20 times higher than World Health Organization safety levels over a 24-hour period. …

Visibility was less than 100 meters (100 yards) in some areas of eastern China, the official Xinhua News Agency reported. More than 100 flights were canceled in the eastern city of Zhengzhou, 33 in Beijing, 20 in Qingdao and 13 in Jinan.


Are you a terrible person for eating quinoa?

The quinoa debate has ravaged the internet these past few weeks -- kind of like how selfish Westerners with a taste for gluten-free grains are allegedly ravaging the livelihoods of South American farmers.

Quinoa growing in Bolivia.
Quinoa growing in Bolivia.

Joanna Blythman kicked off the brouhaha earlier this month with a piece for The Guardian contending that the fast-growing Western appetite for quinoa has priced the Peruvian and Bolivian poor out of the market for the delicious, protein-laden (and kind of sperm-resembling) grain. "[T]here's a ghastly irony when the Andean peasant's staple grain becomes too expensive at home because it has acquired hero product status among affluent foreigners preoccupied with personal health, animal welfare and reducing their carbon 'foodprint,'" she writes.

The piece sparked a quinoa pile-on. Esquire called it "the quinoa quandry" (groan). "The more you love quinoa, the more you hate Bolivians," declared a Care2 headline. "A long time ago, 'Bolivian marching powder' meant cocaine. Now it could mean quinoa," wrote a Yahoo! News correspondent who was having a really bad day with ledes. And I think Technorati may actually for reals be suggesting here that "America just needs to send a few hundred Chick-fil-A's to Peru and Bolivia."

Blythman's moral panic about quinoa is not baseless, but it is somewhat misled, and definitely misaimed.


Waste heat from cities can heat up other parts of the planet

Cities aren't perfectly efficient energy machines, you guys. They're great, especially when transit and density make it possible for city dwellers to use less energy, but cities still release a lot of waste heat out of tailpipes and chimneys. And all that waste heat has to go somewhere.


According to a new study published in Nature Climate Change, that waste heat is disrupting the jet stream and warming up other parts of the world, thawing winters across northern Asia, eastern China, the Northeast U.S., and southern Canada. From Reuters:

That is different from what has long been known as the urban-heat island effect, where city buildings, roads and sidewalks hold on to the day's warmth and make the urban area hotter than the surrounding countryside.

Instead, the researchers wrote, the excess heat given off by burning fossil fuels appears to change air circulation patterns and then hitch a ride on air and ocean currents, including the jet stream. ...

Read more: Cities, Climate & Energy


One step forward, one step back for tar-sands protesters

It's a bittersweet moment for direct environmental action against nasty tar-sands pollution. (So many moments are bittersweet in the fight against nasty tar-sands pollution ...)

On the sweet side, Canada's Idle No More movement has gone global today, mobilizing protests around the world to highlight mistreatment of indigenous peoples and the environment. The movement has been galvanized by plans to pipe tar-sands oil across First Nations land in British Columbia and by the Canadian government's attempts to roll back environmental protections for most of the country's waterways. Actions are already rolling across Canada, at U.N. headquarters in New York, and as far away as Australia and Greenland.

"This day of action will peacefully protest attacks on Democracy, Indigenous Sovereignty, Human Rights and Environmental Protections when Canadian MPs return to the House of Commons on January 28th," organizers said in a statement.

But for the bitter: The Tar Sands Blockade, which is fighting ongoing construction of the southern leg of the Keystone XL pipeline in Texas, faced a significant setback in court on Friday.

Read more: Climate & Energy


Marco Rubio: ‘Changing the weather’ isn’t something government can do

We got so caught up in our excitement over John Kerry's comments on climate and clean energy last week that we completely missed Sen. Marco Rubio's (R-Fla.) take on the topic.


According to Politico, here's how Rubio responded after Kerry argued at his confirmation hearing that clean energy is a $6 trillion market.

That’s too much effort to put on climate change, according to Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, a leading early contender for the Republican presidential nomination in 2016.

“I don’t think it’s the most pressing foreign policy issue facing America,” Rubio told POLITICO outside Kerry’s confirmation hearing on Thursday. “There’s a lot of things government can do but changing the weather isn’t one of them.”

Rubio is a guy who took a quarter of a million dollars from fossil fuel interests for his campaign. A guy who called for more offshore drilling as he lamented the Gulf oil spill. A guy who shortly after Election Day declared that the age of the Earth is "a dispute amongst theologians" and said he couldn't weigh in because "I'm not a scientist, man."


Famed climate economist Nicholas Stern: ‘I underestimated the risks’ of climate change

You will be forgiven for not knowing who Nicholas Stern is. In short, a former chief economist for the World Bank, he began service in the office of Britain's Chancellor of the Exchequer. There, in 2005, he was asked to produce what became a definitive assessment of the economic effects of climate change. Published in 2006, the "Stern Review Report on the Economics of Climate Change" suggested that climate change would result in a 5 percent drop in the annual gross domestic product in perpetuity, and that stabilizing the climate would itself cost 2 percent -- a massive sum.

Nicholas Stern at Davos, 2009
World Economic Forum
Nicholas Stern not being listened to at Davos, 2009.

Last week in Davos, however, Stern suggested that his conclusions were wrong. They were too optimistic. From The Guardian:

In an interview at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Stern, who is now a crossbench peer, said: "Looking back, I underestimated the risks. The planet and the atmosphere seem to be absorbing less carbon than we expected, and emissions are rising pretty strongly. Some of the effects are coming through more quickly than we thought then."

The Stern review, published in 2006, pointed to a 75% chance that global temperatures would rise by between two and three degrees above the long-term average; he now believes we are "on track for something like four ". Had he known the way the situation would evolve, he says, "I think I would have been a bit more blunt. I would have been much more strong about the risks of a four- or five-degree rise." ...

"This is potentially so dangerous that we have to act strongly. Do we want to play Russian roulette with two bullets or one? These risks for many people are existential."


Today’s oily news: Refiner wants to ship oil on Great Lakes, oil barge spills in Mississippi

A refinery in Superior, Wis., wants to cut in on the rail industry's sweet deal: shipments of oil from North Dakota. The company doesn't own trains. But it does sit at the tip of Lake Superior.

Lake Superior, covered in white instead of oily black
Lake Superior, covered in white instead of oily black.

From the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel:

Petroleum refiner Calumet Specialty Products Partners is exploring whether to build a crude oil loading dock on Lake Superior, near its Superior, Wis., refinery, to ship crude oil on the Great Lakes and through connecting waterways, the company said Friday. …

Pipelines are the cheapest way to move petroleum products, [analyst Ethan] Bellamy said, but their delivery points are fixed. Railcars, barges and ships can move to different delivery points. That allows crude to go to the highest bidder.

And what could go wrong?

Josh Mogerman of the Natural Resources Defense Council noted that a pipeline spill two summers ago of Canadian tar sands oil fouled Michigan's Kalamazoo River, a Lake Michigan tributary.

"That should give anyone who cares about the Great Lakes pause," he said.

Well, yeah. But that was a pipeline. When is the last time a boat carrying oil leaked into a waterway? I mean, besides yesterday.


Fox News guy is mad that Obama talked about climate change instead of ‘pressing issues’

Over the weekend, Fox News once again allowed its employees to say things on-air, which the media company somehow fails to understand is generally a risky proposition. But Fox seems committed to letting them do so, and therefore you get things like this.


On "Fox News Watch" (which is not, as you might assume, a weekly catalog of all of the ways in which Fox News has failed), talkers worried that "cheerleading" from the media for Obama's inaugural address "threatens to overshadow reporting." And Fox News hates it when cheerleading obscures objective coverage.

From the Washington Post:

Jon Scott, host of “Fox News Watch,” made clear that he wasn’t part of the adoration crowd. Here’s his take on Obama’s speech:

We heard during the inaugural address, we heard about climate change, we heard about gay rights, we heard about lots of issues but nothing much about the deficit and some of the pressing issues, you know, the really pressing issues of our time.