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Gristmill: Fresh, whole-brain news.


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.


North Dakota’s oil boom strains healthcare system

Oil industry worker Bobby Freestone enjoys a day off at a so-called man camp outside Watford, N.D.
Reuters / Jim Urquhart
Oil industry worker Bobby Freestone enjoys a day off at a so-called man camp outside Watford, N.D.

The New York Times continues its excellent series on the ramifications of North Dakota's fracking boom with a look at the state's overstressed, insufficient healthcare system. (Previously: the state's gender imbalance.)

The furious pace of oil exploration that has made North Dakota one of the healthiest economies in the country has had the opposite effect on the region’s health care providers. Swamped by uninsured laborers flocking to dangerous jobs, medical facilities in the area are sinking under skyrocketing debt, a flood of gruesome injuries and bloated business costs from the inflated economy. ...

Over all, ambulance calls in [one western area of the state] increased by about 59 percent from 2006 to 2011, according to Thomas R. Nehring, the director of emergency medical services for the North Dakota Health Department. The number of traumatic injuries reported in the oil patch increased 200 percent from 2007 through the first half of last year, he said.

The 12 medical facilities in western North Dakota saw their combined debt rise by 46 percent over the course of the 2011 and 2012 fiscal years, according to Darrold Bertsch, the president of the state’s Rural Health Association.

The rate of injury shouldn't come as a surprise. In 2011, Bureau of Labor Statistics data indicated [PDF] that workers in mining and oil and gas extraction had an on-the-job fatality rate of 71.6 deaths per 100,000 workers. While lower than rates for fishermen and loggers, it's far higher than other theoretically dangerous occupations. The Atlantic breaks the data down further, if you're interested.

But back to North Dakota. The problem with healthcare access and funding doesn't start at the hospital walls.


Apple CEO wonders who would want to work for an oil company

On Friday, ExxonMobil passed Apple to become the most valuable company in the world. We were all very happy to see that happen, because who really cares about Apple stuff when we've got Exxon's newest offerings to lust after. (True gas geeks know no greater thrill than when Exxon CEO Rex Tillerson busts out his signature "one more thing.")

This is all lies and "jokes"; it is, as we noted last week, disconcerting that oil companies continue to make money hand over fist. (In a few days, ExxonMobil will announce its 2012 earnings, so we'll revisit this theme then.) But we have an ally in our frustration, it seems -- Apple CEO Tim Cook.

Tim Cook, speaking last June
Tim Cook, speaking last June.


Speaking to employees on the current controversies around Apple’s income and future, Cook reportedly told his workers and colleagues that “we [Apple] just had the best quarter of any technology company ever.” Cook expressed this with immense satisfaction and appreciation for his teams that made this happen.

Cook further added, likely referring to gas and fuel juggernaut Exxon, that “the only companies that report better quarters pump oil.” “I do not know about you all, but I do not want to work for those companies,” Cook reportedly said.


Laws banning ‘dooring’ of bicyclists mean well but don’t do much

You're riding along on your bike, minding your own lane, when suddenly a driver flings open a car door right in front of you. If you're lucky, you brake in time or swerve out of the way. If you're not lucky, you could die.

As the Atlantic Cities reports, earlier this week the Virginia state Senate easily passed a bill that makes opening car doors into traffic "unless and until it is reasonably safe to do so" an infraction punishable of a fine up to $100. Not much, but better than nothing, right? Well, not if you're Virginia House Speaker William Howell (R) or Virginian-Pilot columnist Kerry Dougherty, who called the bill "stupid" and "asinine," respectively.

According to Cyclelicious, 40 states plus the District of Columbia have anti-dooring laws of some kind. But come on: How many cyclists do you know who have been doored, and how many drivers do you know who have ever gotten in trouble for it?

Read more: Cities


Where Obama’s new chief of staff stands on climate change

Earlier today, President Obama named his new chief of staff, Denis McDonough. (McDonough will replace Jack Lew, who Obama nominated to bring his unique signature to the Department of the Treasury.)

The president shakes McDonough's hand as Lew looks on
Reuters/Jason Reed
The president shakes McDonough's hand as Lew looks on.

In 2011, Obama's then-chief of staff, William Daley, was identified as being instrumental in killing the EPA's proposed standard on ozone. Which raises the question: How will McDonough approach environmental issues? And especially, how will he respond to Obama's stated prioritization of climate change?

MIT Technology Review looks at McDonough's track record on climate:

Prior to working for Obama, McDonough served as a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress. While there, he argued that the United States -- along with other industrialized countries -- has an obligation to help poor countries deal with climate change related problems and to help them reduce their reliance on fossil fuels. If his writings at the time are any indication, he could push both for market-based policies for addressing climate change and for funding to help poor countries adapt to climate change as it happens.


‘The East’: A stupid eco-activist fantasy film only the FBI could love

This week the "gritty" "fascinating" "illogical" "thriller" The East debuts at Sundance. The film stars Brit Marling as an ex-FBI agent hired by an evil corporation to infiltrate an eco-anarchist group. Watch this while I try to take some deep breaths and calm the fuck down.

The film's writers Marling and director Zal Batmanglij did not exactly do in-depth research before embarking on the project. They could've read Green is the New Red, or gone to a protest action. Instead they spent a summer dumpster-diving. From the Huffington Post:

In reality, Marling and Batmanglij -- who previously teamed up for the 2011 Sundance entry "The Sound of My Voice" -- seem to have nothing but wide-eyed admiration for the people they met during their summer off the grid. "You learned how to hop trains, but you also learned how to take things that are given away to the service industry back for yourself," Marling said. "In many of these collectives, you'll learn: How do you fix your bike? In fact, how do you build it from scratch? If you have a car, how do you convert it to biodiesel? How do you learn homeopathic remedies from weeds you can forage from dumpsters?"

They were foraging weeds from dumpsters. This should tell you all you need to know.

"Marling and Batmanglij's experience among real-life 'travelers' helps give the film authenticity," says one of the most generally clueless articles I've ever read at the (generally clueless) Huffington Post, which ends with the filmmakers saying that the glorious dirty angels they encountered were "so happy, and not in a simple way" and also "very handsome."

Read more: Living, Politics


How the Kochs funneled millions to climate deniers through a secretive nonprofit

Donors Trust, Inc. works "to help alleviate, through education, research, and private initiative, society’s most pervasive and radical needs, including those relating to social welfare, health, the environment, economics, governance, foreign relations, and arts and culture.”

Read that sentence twice. Unintentionally, Donors Trust is giving away its actual goal: Working to alleviate society’s most radical needs, including the environment. Alleviate the environment? That, according to a report from The Independent, it very much does.

The Donors Trust, along with its sister group Donors Capital Fund, based in Alexandria, Virginia, is funnelling millions of dollars into the effort to cast doubt on climate change without revealing the identities of its wealthy backers or that they have links to the fossil fuel industry.

However, an audit trail reveals that Donors is being indirectly supported by the American billionaire Charles Koch who, with his brother David, jointly owns a majority stake in Koch Industries, a large oil, gas and chemicals conglomerate based in Kansas.

Millions of dollars has been paid to Donors through a third-party organisation, called the Knowledge and Progress Fund, with is operated by the Koch family but does not advertise its Koch connections.


2012 was a record year for worldwide crop insurance claims

We get so caught up in the economic damage wrought by Sandy that we forget the damage done by last year's other major environmental crisis in America: the drought. Last year's record dryness spurred a massive increase in crop insurance claims here -- but extreme weather events dropped crop yields in other countries as well. The end result was the most expensive year in history for insurers.

From Bloomberg:

Global crop insurance claims were the highest ever last year after drought cut yields in the U.S., historically the biggest grower of corn and soybeans.

Claims worldwide were worth about $23 billion in 2012, with $15 billion going to growers in the U.S., said Karl Murr, who heads the agriculture unit at Munich Re, the world’s biggest reinsurance company. About 85 percent of farmland is insured in the U.S., compared with 20 percent globally. …

As of Jan. 21, U.S. farmers had collected about $12.35 billion in insurance claims since the marketing year began, surpassing the $10.84 billion at the same time a year earlier, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Risk Management Agency.

Dry lakebed near Stull, Kansas
Patrick Emerson
Dry lakebed near Stull, Kan.

That $15 billion is actually slightly less than was projected a few weeks ago, but still massive. Other countries experienced similar weather-related crop disasters, pushing the global bill into record territory.


McDonald’s new sustainable fish is — surprise! — not so sustainable

This week, McDonald's announced that it will start serving a lot more fast-food fish starting next month, in the form of "Fish McBites" that it hopes will boost sales.

The company also announced that all those bites, plus its Filet-O-Fish sandwiches, will be made from sustainable, wild-caught Alaska pollock, with the Marine Stewardship Council's stamp of approval right there on the box.

Marine Stewardship Council

The MSC "is proud to support McDonald's and its commitment to sustainability." The fast-food giant has been serving four kinds of MSC-labeled sustainable fish in European locations since October 2011.

Is this the part where I'm supposed to say, "Yay McDonald's"? Because yeah, that's not happening.