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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


Almost half of all coal burned in the world is burned in China

Speaking of air pollution in China, here's a disconcerting graph from the U.S. Energy Information Agency.


The EIA explains:

Coal consumption in China grew more than 9% in 2011, continuing its upward trend for the 12th consecutive year, according to newly released international data. China's coal use grew by 325 million tons in 2011, accounting for 87% of the 374 million ton global increase in coal use.

China now uses 47 percent of the world's coal. It's an almost unfathomable figure.

Read more: Climate & Energy


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