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Gristmill: Fresh, whole-brain news.


Green and lefty groups band together, pledge millions to fight right-wing evildoing

Andy Kroll at Mother Jones writes about "the massive new liberal plan to remake American politics":

A month after President Barack Obama won reelection, top brass from three dozen of the most powerful groups in liberal politics met at the headquarters of the National Education Association (NEA), a few blocks north of the White House. Brought together by the Sierra Club, Greenpeace, Communication Workers of America (CWA), and the NAACP, the meeting was invite-only and off-the-record. Despite all the Democratic wins in November, a sense of outrage filled the room as labor officials, environmentalists, civil rights activists, immigration reformers, and a panoply of other progressive leaders discussed the challenges facing the left and what to do to beat back the deep-pocketed conservative movement.

At the end of the day, many of the attendees closed with a pledge of money and staff resources to build a national, coordinated campaign around three goals: getting big money out of politics, expanding the voting rolls while fighting voter ID laws, and rewriting Senate rules to curb the use of the filibuster to block legislation. The groups in attendance pledged a total of millions of dollars and dozens of organizers to form a united front on these issues—potentially, a coalition of a kind rarely seen in liberal politics, where squabbling is common and a stay-in-your-lane attitude often prevails. ...

The liberal activists have dubbed this effort the Democracy Initiative. The campaign, Brune says, has since been attracting other members—and also interest from foundations looking to give money—because many groups on the left believe they can't accomplish their own goals without winning reforms on the Initiative's three issues.

As Sierra Club Executive Director Michael Brune puts it, "We're not going to have a clean-energy economy if the same companies that are polluting our rivers and oceans are also polluting our elections."


N.Y. Gov. Cuomo lays out a plan to fight climate change, increase clean energy

This is the clarion call -- issued via, um, Twitter image -- that New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) put forth this afternoon in his State of the State address. (The state of the state, in Cuomo's one-word summary? "Rising." So there's that.)

Remaining the progressive capital of the nation is a bold goal for a politician to elucidate, particularly one who is almost certainly going to run for president in four years. Making New York the progressive capital of the nation will likely not be seen as an asset by voters in Mississippi. Not that it matters.

To this goal, Cuomo has decided to go bold(er) on green energy. Cuomo's plan has four components:

  • $1 billion matching fund to "spur the green economy." Details on this to come, presumably, though initial comments suggest it will be used in part to encourage adoption of green energy use.
  • Extend the state's NY-Sun solar jobs program. Cuomo aims to add $150 million a year to a program that encourages solar panel installations to spur job growth.
  • Build an electric-car charging network.
  • Create a new state cabinet-level position on energy. Cuomo has already tapped a top aide to Energy Secretary Steven Chu, Richard Kaufmann.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo, in listening mode
Gov. Andrew Cuomo, in listening mode


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. ...