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Gristmill: Fresh, whole-brain news.


Ohio fights a multi-front war against blight

Good samaritans in Ohio may be getting a reprieve from potential misdemeanor charges.

Today the state House is voting on a bill that would allow people to clean up vacant, blighted properties without fear of a trespassing charge. This measure essentially gives residents more power to improve their neighborhoods, harnessing NIMBY instincts for good. From The Columbus Dispatch:

Some residents hesitate to take care of the properties around them because they risk trespassing charges, said Tiffany Sokol, office manager of the nonprofit Youngstown Neighborhood Development Corp., which boards up and cleans up vacant properties. The bill would allow individuals to clean up blighted land or buildings that have clearly been abandoned.

“Very ugly, nasty places,” [said Sen. Joe Schiavoni (D), the bill’s sponsor]. “These properties are an eyesore, a danger to their neighbors.”

East Cleveland
Blight in East Cleveland.

The Rust Belt is only getting rustier, and Ohio communities have tried a number of strategies to fight neighborhood blight. Yesterday, The Columbus Dispatch and a city website published the names of negligent owners of more than 100 blighted properties. The city called it a fight for neighborhoods.

City Attorney Richard C. Pfeiffer Jr. said anything is worth a try.

“If it gets their attention, good,” he said.

Read more: Cities


Republicans are having lots of fun objecting to Sandy relief funding

Oh my God, some politicians are dicks.

The federal budget for 2013 is $3.8 trillion dollars -- $3,800,000,000,000. Last week, President Obama requested that some $60.4 billion be used to help the Northeast recover from Sandy. $60.4 billion is a lot of money, but it's a small percentage of what the government spends each year. It's under six days worth of spending -- going to rebuild infrastructure and restore the lives of those displaced by the storms.


But it's also an opportunity for assholes to grandstand, and God forbid they should let such an opportunity pass. From Reuters:

Republican Senator Jon Kyl of Arizona said on Tuesday that Obama's Sandy request was simply "too much."

"At $60 billion? In this time when we're trying to solve the deficit problem?" he told reporters.

The resistance could put the Sandy aid bill at risk of becoming a pawn in the tense negotiations over the year-end "fiscal cliff" of automatic tax hikes and spending cuts, although members of both parties have said it is essential for Congress to approve new disaster relief funds before the end of the year.

In 2010, Kyl's home state of Arizona received $64.4 billion from the federal government without having neighborhoods wiped out by a storm. In this time when we're trying to solve the deficit problem?!?


Department of Energy announces millions in grants to offshore wind projects

There is some good news in the wind industry: The federal government has announced a large investment in offshore wind.

From the New York Times' Green blog:

The federal government is stepping up its efforts to kick-start the offshore wind industry by awarding $28 million in grants to seven projects that are developing varying kinds of power-generation technology.

The Department of Energy said Wednesday that each developer would receive up to $4 million to complete the engineering, design and permitting phases of their projects in six states. Three of the seven will then be selected to receive up to $47 million over four years, subject to Congressional appropriations, for construction and installation, with the aim of having them begin commercial operation by 2017. So far, no offshore wind farm is operating in American waters.

The Department of Energy also has a surprisingly cool map of the grant recipients. (You may need to zoom out.)


As deadline for saving wind industry nears, wind advocates fold

I've just returned from an expedition to the Yucatan Peninsula to see for myself. And I can confirm: The Mayan prediction of the end of the world is real and the threat is imminent. Two minor caveats, though. The first is that the key date isn't Dec. 21, it's Dec. 31. And the second is that all of civilization isn't at risk -- just the U.S. wind industry. So that's kind of good news, I guess.

What's putting the wind industry at risk, as you may remember and as the Mayans savvily predicted, is the expiration of the wind production tax credit, an incentive given to electricity producers to use wind energy. It's a key prop for the industry, allowing it to compete in a sector heavily biased toward long-standing fossil-fuel-based systems. First introduced under President George H. W. Bush, the credit (and other similar renewable credits) has been regularly renewed since. With the production tax credit in place, wind has seen growth. Without it?


If not renewed, industry advocacy group the American Wind Energy Association predicts the loss of 37,000 jobs -- and perhaps a complete collapse in new wind installations.

Over the course of the summer, the future of the wind PTC was uncertain. In June, even conservative stalwarts like Karl Rove came out in support of extending it. But in September, Mitt Romney, who had yet to begin his post-election tour of middle America, came out forcefully against an extension. With Romney leading the party, the effect was to solidify Republican opposition to the tax credit, greatly complicating the situation for proponents.

Those calling for an extension, including AWEA, have seemed stumped on how to get an extension passed on Capitol Hill. Even Democratic members of Congress have been surprisingly indifferent to the issue -- particularly in light of fierce, hypocritical, Koch-backed opposition.

With 18 days left before expiration, the fight is picking up. On Wednesday, former President Clinton brought his campaign mojo to Chicago, celebrating the Midwest's spike in wind installation. A group of veterans stormed D.C. to push for a renewal and the jobs that would result. Even religious leaders are speaking out, with the Evangelical Environmental Network and others holding a press conference this morning arguing that the transition to cleaner energy sources is a moral imperative, given the health damage done by fossil fuels.

Opponents have also moved into action: Exelon, a nuclear energy provider, is asking its employees to contact Congress to oppose the extension. A coalition of groups linked to fossil fuels held its own press conference today. (Spoiler for everyone, everywhere: Press conferences are always useless and you should stop having them.)

Yesterday afternoon, a breakthrough by AWEA. No, it hadn't cobbled together enough votes to win the fight. Instead, it agreed to support an appeasement, a gradual decrease in the PTC until it goes away completely. From AWEA's letter to congressional leaders [PDF]:


U.K. reapproves fracking, because it’s jealous of how cool we are

Colonists in America once bristled at the authoritarian decrees of the King of England. Taxed without recourse, conscripted, yoked to dictates from a man who'd never set foot on this continent, they rebelled. After a years-long war, America won its independence. Only a few decades later, though, England wanted to reclaim what it had lost, invading the still-young United States, all but burning its capital to the ground.

Today, proud Americans, two centuries after those acts, we have our ultimate revenge. The United Kingdom has just reapproved fracking.

A sad British woman wants to end U.S. energy hegemony. Too bad, British woman!
A sad British woman wants to end U.S. energy hegemony. Too bad, British woman!

From CNN:

Britain's government lifted its ban on a controversial mining process known as hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, Thursday, allowing companies to continue their exploration of shale gas reserves.

Energy Secretary Edward Davey said the decision was subject to new controls to limit the risks of seismic activity.

A halt was called to fracking last year after two small earthquakes in Lancashire, northwestern England, where Cuadrilla Resources was exploring for shale gas.


Public transit use is up — again!

America hasn't exactly turned into a train-crazed utopia just yet (have you noticed?) but we're getting there!

New data released by the American Public Transportation Association this week shows a 2.6 percent bump in transit use over last year.

“With seven consecutive quarters of ridership increases, it’s obvious that public demand for public transit is growing,” said APTA President and CEO Michael Melaniphy. “As Congress works to resolve our country’s deficit problem, it also needs to work to resolve the transportation deficit. Otherwise public transit and highway funding will be facing an annual $15 billion shortfall in the next 10 years.”

APTA broke its findings down by location and type of transportation, some of which were bigger winners than others. Heavy rail enjoyed a 3.6 percent increase in ridership.


Light rail increases (4.2 percent!) were due at least in part to system improvements and expansions.

Read more: Cities, Living


From bike shares to urban farms, Philadelphia is on the rise

It's been a banner year for urbanism in the City of Brotherly Love.


A West Philadelphia project led The New York Times' piece on brownfields redevelopment today, and a new report released this week finds that the city's community development corporations are cleaning up blight, rehabbing houses, and adding millions to Philadelphia's tax base.

Yesterday, Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter (D) officially launched a city Office of New Urban Mechanics dedicated to city innovation and problem-solving. "New Urban Mechanics will have the flexibility to experiment, the ability to re-invent public-private partnerships and the strategic vision to create real change for Philadelphia. I am excited to establish the Office of New Urban Mechanics as a civic innovation tool for urban transformation," Nutter said in a statement.

Like a lot of "urban innovation" initiatives these days, that is really vague! It could encompass everything from apps for tracking and fixing potholes to brainstorming around some of Philadelphia's big projects still in the works.

One big project: a bike share! Philadelphia wants to get one rolling. From the local CBS affiliate:

The city envisions getting a business plan together by next spring, then selecting a vendor, with the first bikes hitting the streets in 2014.

“We will need $3 million of city capital money,” says deputy mayor for transportation Rina Cutler, “then we hope to raise an additional five or six million in federal, state, and private funds.” ...

Cutler says they’re still working out how users will pay for the bicycles. Credit or debit cards might ensure that the bikes don’t get stolen, but she says they also want to figure out a cash model or cell-phone technology for payment that shows up on your phone bill, so they don’t eliminate low-income users.

Or the office could help set up a new city land bank to fight blight and grow Philadelphia's urban core. In October, the Pennsylvania state legislature passed a bill paving the way for a Philly land bank. A recent surge in demand for central city housing has motivated the city -- with its 40,000 vacant lots -- to establish the bank. But there's no telling yet if the bank will give preference to big developers or small nonprofits, or put everyone on a level playing field.

Things are looking great for Philadelphia! Except maybe (maybe!) when it comes to the city's burgeoning urban agriculture scene. This summer, the city approved new zoning rules that acknowledge upwards of 350 community gardens and farms spread across 753 different parcels. From Next American City:

Read more: Cities, Food, Living, Politics


King tides give California coast a taste of warmer, wetter future

THE KING TIDES ARE COMING. Through the end of the week, California will be experiencing its highest tides of the year, the "king" kind, that come around each winter. It may be galactic gravity that's pulling the water closer, but it looks a lot like climate change! The tides will be as high as +10.1 feet in some places.


From The San Jose Mercury News:

"Flooding would be a concern if we had a storm system coming through," said Matt Mehle, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Monterey. Instead, the rising water will offer a teachable moment, scientists say. Already, the ocean off California has risen 8 inches in the past 100 years. As the earth warms, polar ice melts, and the warmer ocean water expands, increasing sea level. That rate of sea level rise is accelerating. A National Academy of Sciences report in July found that, relative to sea levels in 2000, the California coast south of Cape Mendocino is projected to experience sea level rise of 1.5 inches to 11.8 inches by 2030, and 4.7 inches to 24 inches by 2050, and 16.5 inches to 65 inches by 2100.

Just because the Golden State won't have a Sandy-sized catastrophe doesn't mean there can't still be a lesson in all this. The Mercury News calls this "a giant science project" but I call it "scaring people into better behavior." The California King Tides Initiative is collecting citizens' photos of the tides in an effort to educate the public about what higher sea levels might actually look like.

Read more: Climate & Energy


People aren’t connecting extreme weather to climate change — at least, not on Google

This morning, Google unveiled its "Zeitgeist 2012" report, a look at what the world searched for over the past 12 months. (Well, over the past 11-and-a-third months, anyway.) The No. 1 trending thing people searched for was Whitney Houston, which: OK. But when it came to news events, the most captivating thing was Hurricane Sandy.

Which got us thinking: Did those searches for Sandy prompt more searches on climate change? And the answer is: yes, but not many.

Here's what search traffic for "Hurricane Sandy" looked like over the course of the year, across the globe. (In all graphs, 100 represents the peak search volume.)

And, here, searches for "climate change" and "global warming."

See that tiny little tick up at the end of October? Yeah, that's correlated to Sandy.

Read more: Climate & Energy


Forecast for the Northeast by 2070: Much warmer, much rainier winters

Yesterday, four places in the Northeast saw record high temperatures, two in New York and two in Massachusetts. Over the past week, the number of record temperatures was much higher, spread throughout western New York and into Rhode Island. That's because, in the Northeast, late fall is the new late summer. And winter is the new fall.

According to scientists from the University of Massachusetts, that pessimistic assessment will probably be accurate for the region by 2070. From the press release:

A new high-resolution climate study by University of Massachusetts Amherst climate scientists, the first to apply regional climate models to examine likely near-term changes in temperature and precipitation across the Northeast United States, suggests temperatures are going to be significantly warmer in all seasons in the next 30 years, especially in winter. Also, they project that winters will be wetter, with more rain likely than snow. ...

Overall, the researchers say the region is projected to warm by some 2 to 3 degrees C by mid century, with local changes approaching 3.5 degrees C in winter. Precipitation will go up as well, particularly in winter, but again not uniformly across the Northeast. ...

"The only clear signal of change for precipitation is noted in winter, which appears to be heading toward wetter conditions, consistent with current trends," [Michael Rawlins of the Climate System Research Center] says. Winter precipitation is projected to rise significantly above natural weather variability, around 12 to 15 percent greater from southwest Pennsylvania to northern Maine, with the exception of coastal areas, where projected increases are lower.

"But we shouldn't expect more total seasonal snowfall," he adds. "Combined with the model-projected temperature trends, much of the increase will occur as rain. We're losing the snow season. It is contracting, with more rain in early and late winter."

Having grown up in the Snow Belt -- a region that traditionally gets massive lake-effect snowfall during the winter -- I just want to say: That sucks.

Read more: Cities, Climate & Energy