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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.”


It probably shouldn’t have taken Exxon 46 minutes to shut off a broken pipeline

Oil soaks the Yellowstone River shoreline, thanks to the fine folks at Exxon
Oil soaks the Yellowstone River shoreline, thanks to the fine folks at Exxon.

You can imagine the scene at Exxon headquarters. The team responsible for spill response has just learned that a pipeline near Laurel, Mont., has ruptured. "Wow," some team members probably said. A few might have said bad words.

In short order, one pipes up: "What should we do?" Someone suggests shutting the line down partially; this is quickly agreed to. Then, for 46 minutes, the team sits around a heavy oak table, stroking chins and mumbling "hm"s. No one is quite sure what comes next. One guy, like that one kid in fifth grade, is only pretending he's thinking about it; in reality, he's thinking about the movie Captain America (this is in July 2011).

Then someone says: "Maybe we should shut the control valve?" General agreement, nodding. The valve is closed; the flow of oil stops. Hearty congratulations all around. Backs are slapped. The team retires for the day, spending their  commuting time (in their Hummers) elaborating the story to make it more interesting. "Man," one guy plans to say upon opening his front door, "you would not believe the day I had."

Anyway, that's the scenario I imagined on reading this AP story:


A new year, a new Keystone XL blockade

Late Wednesday night, the Keystone XL blockaders launched a new tree-sit in Diboli, Texas, coinciding with kickoff of a direct-action training camp.


Last month, TransCanada, which is constructing the southern leg of Keystone XL, got around an 85-day treetop blockade by rerouting the pipeline. With this new tree-sit, located 150 miles south of the old one, "blockaders have found a location around which the pipe cannot easily be rerouted,” activists said in a statement.

A number of protesters on the ground have been arrested so far today, but the two activists in the trees are still untouched, and there have not (yet) been reports of police using force against anyone. In the past, police have put blockade activists in choke holds, dragged them on the ground, and pepper-sprayed them into compliance.


GOP Congressman’s first priority: Party with the coal lobby

Meet Andy Barr.

andy barr and friend
Gage Skidmore

No, not the guy with the winning smile and the lapel pin in the foreground. The guy doing the deer-in-headlights impression in the background. That's Andy. Or, rather, that's Rep. Andy Barr (R-Ky.), as of a few hours ago.

Barr was elected to the House last November, running on the Republican/Coal ticket. We noted his contribution to the GOP convention, which consisted of hugging a piece of coal as he walked around Tampa. Probably not literally, but who knows.

Anyway, it's only fitting that Barr has chosen as the location of his swearing-in party, that celebration of his officially becoming a member of Congress, the headquarters of the National Mining Association. From

During his campaign, he even had a coal company executive pose as a miner for a commercial he cut. We’ve just been passed on a list of Congressional swearing-in and inaugural parties today, and it turns out Barr is having his party today from 5:30-7:30 PM ET at the National Mining Association (NMA), one of the chief lobbying organizations for Big Coal.


The feds fine Transocean $1.4 billion for Deepwater spill


Ever wonder how much it costs to have a subsidiary role in leaking millions of gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico, killing 11 people and countless sea animals and gutting the regional economy for months on end?

It costs $1.4 billion.

Transocean has agreed to pay a total of $1.4 billion in civil and criminal fines and penalties for its role in the Deepwater Horizon oil spill disaster in 2010, the Department of Justice just announced.

Under a federal court settlement, it will also plead guilty to violating the Clean Water Act. And Transocean will have to take steps to improve safety and emergency response procedures on its drilling rigs.


Did removing lead from gasoline cause crime rates to plummet?

Researchers have proposed many theories to explain the huge drop in crime that started in the early 1990s. Some cite the legalization of abortion. Some think maybe it was cell phone use. Rudy Giuliani credits Rudy Giuliani.

At Mother Jones, Kevin Drum presents a strong case for another contender: lead.

lead house

The biggest source of lead in the postwar era, it turns out, wasn't paint. It was leaded gasoline. And if you chart the rise and fall of atmospheric lead caused by the rise and fall of leaded gasoline consumption, you get a pretty simple upside-down U: Lead emissions from tailpipes rose steadily from the early '40s through the early '70s, nearly quadrupling over that period. Then, as unleaded gasoline began to replace leaded gasoline, emissions plummeted.

Intriguingly, violent crime rates followed the same upside-down U pattern. The only thing different was the time period: Crime rates rose dramatically in the '60s through the '80s, and then began dropping steadily starting in the early '90s. The two curves looked eerily identical, but were offset by about 20 years.

Mother Jones
Read more: Cities, Living


NYC public housing claims it’s going green, but stymies residents’ green efforts

To its credit, the New York City Housing Authority (popularly known as NYCHA) launched an effort five years ago to "go green." "NYCHA is going green," its website announces, by focusing on recycling, energy efficiency, and community gardens.

An apartment tower in Ft. Greene
An apartment tower in Ft. Greene.

And the website is about all the help NYCHA is offering to public-housing residents. But as The New York Times reports, "many residents say the agency has failed to follow through. The agency, they say, has not been supportive of residents’ efforts and has in some circumstances stood in their way."

Residents are encouraged to recycle, but:

[M]ore than half of the 334 public housing projects in the city have no recycling bins, according to agency documents obtained through a Freedom of Information request. That may help explain why the recycling rate is so low in neighborhoods with a large number of public housing projects -- in the South Bronx, home to 14 projects, the rate is just under 5 percent.

Margarita López, a New York City Housing Authority commissioner who leads the agency’s environmental initiatives, said the collection rate was low because in most projects it was easier to throw recyclables in the regular trash.

The agency “has chutes in every floor where people put their garbage through that chute, and they do not separate the recycling material,” Ms. López said. “We have no choice but to encourage people to bring the recycling down to the first floor of buildings. We have no choice but to tell people that this is something you must do for the quality of life and for themselves.”

Read more: Cities, Climate & Energy