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Gristmill: Fresh, whole-brain news.


League of Women Voters ad asks Obama for climate action

The League of Women Voters hopes to politely intrude on President Obama's last weekend in Hawaii via this full-page ad in the Honolulu Star-Advertiser.

Click to embiggen.
Click to embiggen.

The ‘aina is part of our legacy, Mr. President, and yours. Climate change poses the greatest environmental challenge of our time. A recent report by the Pacific Islands Regional Climate Assessment (PIRCA) makes clear that the fish in our waters and the wildlife habitats in our highlands are threatened. Climate change endangers our very way of life. ...

Mr. President, your legacy is our future. As you return to Washington, please use the authority you have as president to set standards for new and existing power plants under the Clean Air Act and protect our world. Please do what is pono.

I don't know what some of those words mean.


GMO labeling initiative gets rolling in Washington state

Label It Yourself

A ballot measure that would have required labels on all genetically modified frankenfoods failed in California this past fall, but 2013 is a new year with new hope and a new roiling labeling movement, this time in Washington state.

Supporters of a GMO-labeling ballot measure have collected far more signatures than necessary, and if they're certified, the proposal will hit the state legislature in the upcoming session and then likely be on the ballot in November. The movement's colorful spokesperson is spreading the word, as The Seattle Times reports:

"Here we go, Round 2," said the Washington initiative's sponsor, Chris McManus, who owns a small advertising firm in Tacoma. "They got us the first time in Cali, but we're stitched up, greased up and ready to go."

McManus told the Spokane Spokesman-Review that the measure is not a scare tactic.

“A little bit more information never hurt anybody about the foods they eat.”

But opposition is beginning to coalesce. Farm industry representatives call the proposal an attempt to scare people away from food sources that have no known health risks. If the initiative wasn’t about scaring people, asked Heather Hansen of Washington Friends of Farms and Forests, why did supporters deliver their petitions in an old ambulance?


A ‘fusion’ of good news: Solar stocks are ‘hot’ thanks to Warren Buffett’s ‘flare’

It's generally a good sign when Warren Buffett starts investing in your company/industry/country. Known as the "Wizard of Omaha" due to his ability to send little girls back to Kansas, Buffett is the second most famous representative of investment powerhouse Berkshire Hathaway. (His heavily taxed secretary is the most famous.) And when Berkshire Hathaway makes an investment, markets move.

The investment, via SmartPlanet:

[Berkshire Hathaway subisidary] MidAmerican Renewables kicked off 2013 with another major purchase. The company announced this week it has acquired SunPower’s Antelope Valley Solar Projects, two co-located projects in Kern and Los Angeles counties in California.

MidAmerican didn’t disclose the purchase price. However, analysts have pinned the purchase price somewhere between $2 billion and $2.5 billion.

Together, the combined projects will form the largest permitted solar photovoltaic power development in the world, according to SunPower and MidAmerican.

The market action, via the Los Angeles Times:

The SunPower deal, worth as much as $2.5 billion, sent solar stocks on a tear.

SunPower soared as much as 41% to $8.68 a share. Lazard Capital Markets upgraded the company to buy from neutral.

Suntech was up more than 18% to $1.90 a share, while First Solar gained as much as 11% to $35.60 a share.

Solar panel in shopping cart


Climate change may ruin Lake Tahoe’s beautiful blueness

Lake Tahoe
Aaron Hiler

Lake Tahoe is pretty. The water is clear; the mountains surrounding it are beautiful. For half a century, the environmental group Keep Tahoe Blue has fought to preserve the region's environmental sanctity, primarily by putting bumper stickers on Volvos, as far as I can tell.

Turns out that those Volvos are doing more harm than good. From the Santa Cruz Sentinel:

Climate change could profoundly affect the Tahoe area, scientists say, taking the snow out of the mountains and the blue out of the water. ...

New climate models show that in a worst-case scenario average temperatures in the Tahoe area could rise as much as 9 degrees Fahrenheit by the end of the century. That's equivalent to moving Lake Tahoe from its current elevation of 6,200 feet above sea level to 3,700 feet, climate scientists report in a special January issue of the journal Climatic Change. That's as high as the peak of Contra Costa County's Mount Diablo, which gets only an inch of snow a year. …

It's not just the mountains that would look different in a warmer climate, according to Climatic Change. The worst-case scenarios also predict a devastating ecological collapse of the lake and loss of its signature clarity and blue color.

Many lakes undergo a process every year, or every few years, that keeps the lake water well-mixed. As water temperature changes through the seasons, it creates circulation in the lake. The warm water on top of the lake in summer cools off in the fall and sinks, mixing with cold deep water. In a warmer climate, the surface water won't cool off enough to mix with deeper water.

Without that mixture, oxygen doesn't penetrate the lake, changing its chemistry. So long clarity. So long blue.

Read more: Climate & Energy, Living


Chevron’s own firefighters might have contributed to Richmond refinery fire

A small corroded pipe caused the initial blast at a Chevron refinery in Richmond, Calif., this past August, but the oil giant's own firefighters, in their haste, may well have been responsible for the fire's spread.


The San Francisco Chronicle reports on the ongoing investigation, which reveals that early efforts to put out the flames may have actually stoked them.

"One theory we are exploring is that emergency response activities inadvertently accelerated the rate of the leak," said Daniel Horowitz, managing director of the Chemical Safety Board. "We are comparing possible tool marks on the pipe with tools recovered from the incident."

One tool that may have inflicted the apparent damage is a Halligan bar, which has a hook-like implement with a sharp end. Firefighters are commonly equipped with the device to help them gain entry into burning buildings.

Don Holmstrom, the Chemical Safety Board's lead investigator looking into the fire, said the blaze might well have happened even without the apparent puncture, but that the external damage could have been "an aggravating factor."

Investigators have not determined what sparked the blaze, but have raised questions about Chevron's decision to continue to run crude oil through the pipe even as workers responded to the initial, small leak.


W.Va. congressmember compares EPA head to Gadhafi

Here's some political rhetoric for you, via The Hill.

Rep. David McKinley (R-W.Va.) said the change of leadership at the EPA might not be for the better.

“I don't want a repeat of what happened in Libya when we helped topple [Moammar] Gadhafi and then we wound up having al-Qaeda," McKinley told Environment & Energy Daily. ...

McKinley, a member of the Energy and Commerce Committee, is among the many Republicans who say President Obama’s EPA is harmful to the coal industry.

So let's analyze this. Let's break down this statement by the esteemed congressmember from the great state of West Virginia.


Surprise: Shell’s rig ran aground in Alaska because the company was trying to avoid taxes


On New Year's Eve, in the middle of a storm, Shell was trying to tow its Kulluk drilling rig from Alaska to Seattle. Why then? Why risk the bad weather, which, as it turned out, caused the rig to break free from its tugboats and run aground on Kodiak Island?

To avoid paying state taxes, of course. From Alaska Dispatch:

A Shell spokesman last week confirmed an Unalaska elected official’s claim that the Dec. 21 departure of the Kulluk from Unalaska/Dutch Harbor involved taxation.

City councilor David Gregory said Shell would pay between $6 million and $7 million in state taxes if the Kulluk was still in Alaska on Jan. 1.

Ah, but the weather had other plans, sorry to say. Shell will end up having to pay that money after all, and then some.


Notorious Mexican drug cartel branches out into a ‘more lucrative’ venture: Coal mining

Los Zetas are a notorious cartel that evolved from a paramilitary force created by the Mexican government. In 2009, the U.S. government labelled the gang the "the most technologically advanced, sophisticated and dangerous cartel operating in Mexico." Savvy and brutal, the Zetas don't constrain themselves to making money off drugs. They also seek other lucrative opportunities.

Like coal mining. From Al Jazeera:

Speaking to Al Jazeera, [Coahuila ex-governor Humberto] Moreira says that the Zetas gang is fast discovering that illegal mining is an even more lucrative venture than drug running.

"They discover a mine, extract the coal, sell it at $30, pay the miners a miserable salary ... It's more lucrative than selling drugs." …

His accusations have been borne out by the federal government, which also announced that it has found evidence of criminal infiltration in Coahuila's mines. Two hundred government inspectors are heading to the region to investigate mines it suspects are tied to organised crime. ...

The State of Coahuila presents a tempting target for any organised crime group looking to diversify from drug smuggling, kidnapping and extortion. It produces 95 percent of Mexico's coal, churning out 15 million tons a year. Unregulated "pozos", small roadside mines which are often little more than a hole in the road, abound; easy targets for those looking to make quick money.

A member of the Zetas is arrested in Guatemala
A member of the Zetas is arrested in Guatemala.


Congress to act on Sandy aid — but grudgingly, late, and with a fraction of what’s needed

Jenna Pope

Within a few hours, the House is expected to finally address aid for Sandy victims, after GOP leadership broke a promise to deal with it on Wednesday. But, true to form, the House is doing as little as possible. And, true to form, because of ongoing inaction, the government will end up losing more money on the deal than it should have.

CNN reports on today's vote:

The House is poised to vote Friday on a $9.7 billion Superstorm Sandy aid package after delays over fiscal cliff bickering and a warning from federal officials that funds are running out. …

Lawmakers are expected to pass the first portion Friday and weigh in on the remaining $51 billion in broader aid on January 15.

When the House first began poring over the president's aid proposal, Republicans sniffily insisted that it was too large, that they could only in good conscience allow about half of the $60 billion Obama wanted. You know, because fiscal watchdogs and screw the liberal East Coast and so on. Now, the brand-new 113th Congress will vote on only a fraction of that amount, $9 billion or so to pay flood insurance claims.

The reason that the House is even doing this little is that FEMA is about to go broke. From Reuters:

FEMA has told Congress that unless its borrowing ceiling was raised, "funds available to pay claims will be exhausted sometime around the week of January 7, 2013," the agency said in a one-sentence statement.

The FEMA program is essentially the only U.S. flood insurer for residences. It has a $20.8 billion ceiling for borrowing authority.

FEMA estimated Sandy-related flood losses of $6 billion to $12 billion in November, far beyond its cash and $3 billion in untapped borrowing authority.

Today's vote, then, is an emergency step to ensure that FEMA has the money to pay existing claims. As I said: as little as can possibly be done.


Richmond, Calif., fights back against Chevron’s choke hold

Chevron has dominated the town of Richmond, Calif., for 110 years, but that dominance is finally being called into question. Tensions have been escalating for decades, but came to a head after a fire in August 2012 at the oil giant's Richmond refinery belched toxic smoke all over the Bay Area.


When Chevron sought city permits to rebuild the refinery, the Richmond mayor and City Council called for stronger pollution and safety controls. But in December, the city Planning Department approved permits that will allow the company to bring the refinery back to full production with only very minor improvements in emissions.

Last month, Chevron agreed to pay $145,600 to settle 28 different air-quality violations that had taken place at the refinery before the fire. That works out to $5,200 for each screwup, which ranged from not filing reports on hydrogen sulfide and sulfur dioxide pollution incidents to the fact that the the oil giant didn't check part of the refinery for leaks for two years.

For most of its 110 years in Richmond, Chevron -- the town's biggest employer and a big donor to local political campaigns -- has put out fires and paid fines and not looked back, while local residents suffered from sustained health problems. Now, The New York Times reports, the winds are shifting:

“They went through a period of time when they took a very hard-line, confrontational position with the City of Richmond, and I don’t think it was working for them very well,” said Tom Butt, a councilman who has been critical of Chevron and who won re-election in November, despite the oil company’s support for three other candidates. “They were facing a situation where the majority of the City Council were not their friends, and so they decided to try a different position.”