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Gristmill: Fresh, whole-brain news.


In one Australia town, it’s too hot even to pump gasoline

How hot is it in Australia? (Besides that "so hot that heat maps had to add a color" thing.) From

It was so hot in the South Australian outback town of Oodnadatta yesterday that the local servo stopped selling petrol.

The Outback town has been sweltering through one of its great heatwaves with the temperature soaring above 40 degrees every day this year, reaching a peak of 48.2 degrees yesterday. …

[Pink Roadhouse owner Lynnie] Plate said the Roadhouse couldn't serve unleaded fuel after midday because it was vapourising and wouldn't pump in the extreme heat.

48.2 degrees Celsius is about 119 Fahrenheit, by the way. Warm.

Read more: Cities, Climate & Energy


Va. governor: Tax alternative fuel vehicles, not gasoline

Americans have a weird fetish about gasoline prices. We tend to see the prices posted on the corners near our houses as some indicator of the nation's economic health as opposed to a reflection of the amount international traders are willing to pay for a barrel of oil. As a result, politicians love to make promises about the extent to which they would reduce the price of gasoline; Newt Gingrich rode a lower gas prices pledge all the way to … winning one state in the 2012 primaries.

But pandering politicians have met their match in Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell. From The Hill:

McDonnell, who was considered a potential vice presidential nominee for Republicans in 2012, said his state would be better off without the 17.5 cents per gallon tax on gasoline.

To replace it, McDonnell is calling for a 0.8 percent increase in Virginia's state sales tax to generate revenue that would be dedicated to transportation.

There are, by my quick count, nine ways in which this is stupid. But before articulating them, here's McDonnell's rationale.

"We simply cannot continue to do what we have always done and expect this problem to go away," McDonnell continued. "The gas tax is a stagnant revenue source, and no changes to it will provide a reliable growth mechanism for transportation in the state."

Yes, right. Since the gas tax doesn't raise enough revenue for the state's needs, the obvious solution is to eliminate it entirely. Just as the best solution for America's budget deficit is to eradicate the income tax, since it doesn't cover the bills.

McDonnell speaks at the Conservative Political Action Conference
McDonnell speaks at the Conservative Political Action Conference.


Virginia politician’s job isn’t to worry about Virginia’s future environment

Ha ha, listen to this jerk.

An appropriately flattering photo of Sen. Saslaw.
An appropriately flattering photo of Sen. Saslaw.

From WAMU:

State Sen. Dick Saslaw does not mince words about his support for uranium mining. A Northern Virginia Democrat who is also the Senate minority leader, Saslaw says burying the radioactive byproduct known as tailings underground should be a solution to environmental concerns. And he says he can't be concerned about what might happen [years] from now.

"What about 10,000 years from now? I'm not going to be here," Saslaw says. "I can't ban something because of something that might happen 500 or 1,000 years from now."

So here's a question for you, State Sen. Saslaw. How many years into the future are you responsible for protecting? If you knew that this radioactive byproduct would leach into water supplies by 2300, is that your responsibility? By 2200? Does your decision-making only extend until you retire from the senate? Or does it cover your kids, too? Their kids?


America’s oil imports to hit 25-year low by 2014

Speaking of records, the United States is on pace to see its lowest oil imports in 25 years by 2014. From the Financial Times:

The US Energy Information Administration predicted that net imports of liquid fuels, including crude oil and petroleum products, would fall to about 6m barrels per day in 2014, their lowest level since 1987 and only about half their peak levels of more than 12m during 2004-07.

The figures reflect the spectacular growth of US production thanks to the unlocking of “tight oil” reserves using hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling in states led by North Dakota and Texas.

Commercial oil imports over time. Click to embiggen.
Commercial oil imports over time. Click to embiggen.

That "spectacular growth" (using whichever definition of "spectacular" you find appropriate) has meant boom times for states that sit atop shale deposits -- and has made "petroleum engineer" one of the most secure jobs in the country. The Atlantic provides this chart of the jobs with the lowest unemployment rate in America:

The Atlantic


It’s official: 2012 was the warmest year on record for the U.S.

Congratulations, America. You set a few records last year. To wit, from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration:

  • It was the warmest year in the recorded history of the U.S., dating back to 1895.
  • The average temperature was a degree warmer than the previous high, in 1998.
  • The average temperature in the contiguous U.S. was 55.3 degrees F, 3.3 degrees above the average in the 20th century.
  • Precipitation averaged 26.57 inches, 2.57 inches below the 20th-century average.
state weather records

Only lowly Washington state didn't have one of its 12 warmest years in history.

The Guardian summarizes the data:

Read more: Climate & Energy


Interior pledges ‘high-level review’ of Shell’s Arctic farce

"Unified Command confirms Kulluk is safely anchored," trumpets the most recent update from the Shell-led team responsible for towing the company's errant drilling rig back to safe harbor. One can imagine the movie scene running through the mind of the Shell VP in charge on-scene: He steps up to a cluster of microphones in a hushed room packed with cameras; a pause for effect; "The Kulluk is safe"; pandemonium. A ticker tape parade? Sure, why not. In reality, of course, Shell deserves all of the praise one would afford to a child who just finished mopping up a puddle of his own pee. Nice work, kid. You're a real star.

On Monday, the Kulluk completed its meandering path [PDF] back to safety meaning that, for the first time this year, Shell has no vehicles in distress in the Arctic -- an area where, later this year, it hopes to begin poking holes in the sea floor to extract oil.

At long last, however, the government is expressing some skepticism about the company's competence in doing so. From the Times:

The Interior Department on Tuesday opened an urgent review of Arctic offshore drilling operations after a series of blunders and accidents involving Shell Oil’s drill ships and support equipment, culminating in the grounding of one of its drilling vessels last week off the coast of Alaska.

Officials said the new assessment by federal regulators could halt or scale back Shell’s program to open Alaska’s Arctic waters to oil exploration, a $4.5 billion effort that has been plagued by equipment failures, legal delays, mismanagement and bad weather.


New food-safety rules are not making us feel all that nauseated

A bout of food poisoning is a memorable and vomitous experience. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 48 million Americans each year are sickened by bad food and 3,000 of them die. In the case of food-borne illness outbreaks, like the one we saw this fall in peanuts, it can take weeks and even months to track down the culprit. We'd love for causes to be clear, but of course it's not that easy.

Please stay out of my peanut butter, salmonella.
Please stay out of my peanut butter, salmonella.

The Columbia Journalism Review has a long feature on why it's so hard for scientists and reporters to identify the sources of food-borne illnesses.

The epidemiology of foodborne disease is complicated; there are numerous barriers to definitively linking sick people in multiple states to the same pathogen and a common food product. One of the biggest hurdles is that foodborne illnesses are severely underreported. For every case of Salmonella that is reported, the CDC estimates that some 29 are not. ...

Detecting and solving foodborne-illness outbreaks relies heavily on the capacity and expertise of state and local health departments, which have been hit hard by budget cuts and are often tracking multiple outbreaks or small clusters of disease at once. ...

Even when dealing with confirmed illnesses, it’s difficult to definitively link them to a food product. Health officials use food-history questionnaires to help identify foods that sick people have in common, but it’s not easy to recall what you had for lunch three days ago, down to the ingredient. Cracking the cases can take some time.

It's not just our bad food memories at play here, of course -- industrial farming practices have done wonders to mix our spinach with our pig feces.

But now the Food and Drug Administration is proposing big, new food-safety rules, especially in some key farming states where our food has gotten pretty gross in recent years. The Los Angeles Times reports that the new rules are aimed at transforming the FDA "into an agency that prevents contamination, not one that merely investigates outbreaks":

Read more: Food, Politics


Solar crowdfunding project Mosaic sells out in under 24 hours

Yesterday we told you about the launch of Mosaic, a new Kickstarter-style service that makes it easy to invest in rooftop solar projects. Today comes news that it's already sold out shares in all of its public projects. Talk about pent-up demand!

happy people & solar panel
Solar Mosaic
These people invested in a solar project and now they're happy.

From a company press release:

Mosaic, an online marketplace that connects investors to high-quality solar projects, sold out its first four projects in less than 24 hours with over 400 investors putting in between $25 and $30,000. In total, investors put in over $313,000 with an average investment of nearly $700. ...

To date, Mosaic has raised $1.1M from more than 700 investors to finance twelve rooftop solar power plants in California, Arizona and New Jersey. Mosaic’s latest projects were available to residents of California and New York as well as accredited investors from around the country. ...


Keystone protesters take the fight to TransCanada offices

Not content to protest from the trees, anti-Keystone activists mobilized on Monday at two different offices of pipeline builder TransCanada.

Tar Sands Blockade

Nearly 100 activists took over the lobby of TransCanada's Houston office to dance, chant, prance with puppets, die-in, and then be kicked out by police.

At one point a blockader dropped to his knees and pleaded with a line of police holding batons: "Help! There are eco-terrorists upstairs! They're killing me!" Officers arrested two of the activists once they'd been ushered from the lobby.

Police, who were probably having a bad day, also did this:

Just as the action in Houston died down, eight college students and recent grads were chaining and gluing themselves inside TransCanada's corporate office in Westborough, Mass. They were promptly unchained and arrested, because that's how much TransCanada cares about your Harvard degrees, kids.


Tar-sands operations dump carcinogenic pollution in Canadian lakes

tar sands operation
Poisonous as well as ugly.

Here's yet another way that tar-sands oil extraction sucks. From The New York Times:

The development of Alberta’s oil sands has increased levels of cancer-causing compounds in surrounding lakes well beyond natural levels, Canadian researchers reported in a study [PDF] released on Monday. And they said the contamination covered a wider area than had previously been believed.

For the study, financed by the Canadian government, the researchers set out to develop a historical record of the contamination, analyzing sediment dating back about 50 years from six small and shallow lakes north of Fort McMurray, Alberta, the center of the oil sands industry. Layers of the sediment were tested for deposits of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons [PDF], or PAHs, groups of chemicals associated with oil that in many cases have been found to cause cancer in humans after long-term exposure.

“One of the biggest challenges is that we lacked long-term data,” said John P. Smol, the paper’s lead author and a professor of biology at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario. “So some in industry have been saying that the pollution in the tar sands is natural, it’s always been there.”

The researchers found that to the contrary, the levels of those deposits have been steadily rising since large-scale oil sands production began in 1978.

As scientist David Schindler told British Columbia news site The Tyee, the study's findings should "deep-six once and for all the bullshit that all pollution from the tar sands is natural."