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Gristmill: Fresh, whole-brain news.


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


Shell’s Alaska mishap has a big PR cost — and a big cost to taxpayers

Even at 6:30 a.m. Alaska time today, three hours before sunrise, there was a hum of activity at the unified command center coordinating the response to Shell's breakaway drilling rig off Kodiak Island on the state's southern coast. The command -- coordinating the efforts of Shell, the Coast Guard, the state, Noble Corporation (the drilling contractor), and local officials -- is responsible for figuring out how badly the 28,000-ton Kulluk is damaged, if it's leaking any of its 143,000 gallons of diesel fuel, and how it can be towed back out to sea. Three days after the rig broke free of two tugboats in bad weather and ran aground, only one of those questions can be answered: It isn't leaking fuel. Yet.

Hoping to figure out the extent of the Coast Guard's role in recovery -- how many of the 600 people working on the response are employees of the agency, or of the state of Alaska -- I called the Coast Guard station in Anchorage this morning, and was quickly referred to the unified command. When I called there, I spoke with Destin Singleton over clamorous background noise. Singleton is the spokesperson for the recovery effort -- and a Shell public relations staffer.


Leaked, useless report suggests fracking is fine for New Yorkers

The New York Times got its ink-stained hands on a report from the New York Health Department assessing the risks associated with fracking, the primary issue at play as the state considers whether or not to lift a ban on the practice. While the report suggests that fracking doesn't pose risks, there are at least two gigantic caveats. From the Times:

The state’s Health Department found in an analysis it prepared early last year that the much-debated drilling technology known as hydrofracking could be conducted safely in New York, according to a copy obtained by The New York Times from an expert who did not believe it should be kept secret. ...

The eight-page analysis is a summary of previous research by the state and others, and concludes that fracking can be done safely. It delves into the potential impact of fracking on water resources, on naturally occurring radiological material found in the ground, on air emissions and on “potential socioeconomic and quality-of-life impacts.” ...

Emily DeSantis, a spokeswoman for the State Department of Environmental Conservation, said the analysis obtained by The Times was out of date. “The document you have is merely a summary, is nearly a year old, and there will be substantial changes to that version,” she said.

Can you spot the caveats? Yes, the report is an aggregation of existing research, not new reporting on any health effects. And, yes, it's outdated.

newy york fracking


Cash for Clunkers program drove right into a brick wall of waste

Hey, remember back in 2009 when President Obama was saving the American car industry by whatever means necessary, including offering cash incentives for trading in old cars for newer, more efficient ones? And remember how a lot of people used that incentive to buy cars that were only marginally more efficient than their junked clunkers?


Billed as stimulus both for automakers and the environment, the Car Allowance Rebates System, better known as Cash for Clunkers, turned out to be clunker itself. Besides fueling more unsustainable new-car-buying consumerism, the program also destroyed thousands of older, functional vehicles -- vehicles that, according to the Automotive Recyclers Association (ARA), were almost 100 percent recyclable. Through Cash for Clunkers, about 690,000 vehicles had their engines destroyed and many were sent to junkyards, bypassing recycling companies altogether.

E Magazine reports:

The ARA issued a report when the CARS program was announced saying that a much more efficient program would have been to encourage recycled parts usage. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration explained at the time that the engines must be destroyed to prevent the vehicles from being resold and taking the road again. For any dealer that did not follow that law, there was a hefty $15,000 fine per infraction against them.


Fiscal-cliff deal ups tax benefit for transit riders

FISCAL CLIFF TRIGGER WARNING! Obviously there's a lot to be annoyed about in this deal, but there are a few bright spots that aren't getting much attention. Renewed tax credits for wind energy are cool, and even more people will benefit from a near-doubling of a tax benefit for transit riders.


The benefit is basically a tiny tax shelter for the dollars you're spending on public transportation, available if your employer participates in a federal program. On Dec. 31, 2011, that shelter was shrunk from $230 a month to $125, while the benefit for people who drive to work and pay for parking was increased from $230 to $240 -- meaning the government was incentivizing people to drive instead of take public transit. Now, thanks to the fiscal-cliff deal, tax benefits for transit takers and car parkers will be equalized -- both will get a benefit of up to $240 a month.

From Transportation Nation:

Read more: Cities, Living