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Gristmill: Fresh, whole-brain news.


Record-high average gas prices in 2012 are almost certainly great news for oil companies

These prices are actually low by today's standards.
These prices are actually low by today's standards.

The Wall Street Journal is tremendously incensed about gas prices. For the record, it tells us in the headline of an article, gasoline was the most expensive ever in 2012.

The national average price of [gasoline] for the year was $3.60 a gallon, a significant jump from the previous record of $3.51 set in 2011. While 2008 is famous for a huge summer spike that drove the average above $4 a gallon, price[s] weren’t as consistently high as this year, leaving 2008 in third place overall at $3.25. ...

AAA said the national average has broken a daily record high for a total [of] 248 days in 2012, including 134 consecutive days of records. April 5 and 6 marked the highest daily national average of the year at $3.94 a gallon ... while the price dropped to its low point of $3.22 on Dec. 20.

The paper’s heavily conservative readership might be puzzled by this news. After all, this is what domestic oil production is doing:

production over two years

And as we know from Republicans, increased drilling means gasoline prices should be going down. But they aren't (as we've noted before). They're bouncing all over the place.


A new savior for California state parks?

It's been a rough few years for California's state parks. Since 2008, the state has threatened nearly all the parks with closure, only to save many of them at the last minute thanks in large part to private donations. One such donor, ex-Marine General Anthony Jackson, is now taking over the department after the scandalous resignation of the former head, who had helped to hide $54 million in park funds while the system was in dire straits.

CA state parks: Full of pretty and problems.
California state parks: Full of pretty and problems.

Appointed in November, Jackson is now tasked with restoring faith in the department. So far, so good: Kathryn Phillips, director of Sierra Club California, told the Los Angeles Times: "It's kind of shocking how much I like him." She said Jackson "may be exactly the right man at the right time" for the job. Not that the job will be a super-fun one.

Can Anthony Jackson save California's parks?
California Dept. of Parks
Can Anthony Jackson save California's parks?

Restoring the sheen to the state's park system won't be easy.

The discovery of about $54 million that parks officials had hidden will not solve the funding problems. More than $1 billion in maintenance work has been put off over the years. The accounting scandal, including fresh irregularities unearthed last month by Brown's Department of Finance and the state controller, may even make things harder.

"It's going to be difficult to get people in the state of California to rally around parks," said Dan Jacobson, legislative director at Environment California, an advocacy group. "The image of the money found in someone's couch is going to keep popping up."

Jackson comes across as a seriously no-nonsense character, which may not be surprising for a retired Marine general. He doesn't have any background in politics, but he told Bay Nature that's a great thing when it comes to this job.

Read more: Politics


2012 was the hottest year in history in New York, D.C., Louisville, Philadelphia …

A city on fire, literally
A city on fire, literally.

It's not yet official, but 2012 was the hottest year in American history. Recorded history, that is; we'll allow climate change deniers the possibility that the United States was hotter when it was a still-forming Pangeal mass of semi-solid lava. Beyond that, though: hottest ever.

This led to a bumper crop of "hottest year ever!" stories in local media last week. Here's a Google News search for "hottest year." Among the areas noting that accomplishment: Lexington, Richmond, Topeka, New Jersey, Cleveland and Columbus, Philadelphia, New Orleans, Burlington, Louisville, and New York City. In fact, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration indicates that its 170,000-odd monitoring stations in the U.S. recorded 24,280 new record highs over the course of 2012, and 9,728 tied highs.

high and tie records in 2012

Read more: Cities, Climate & Energy


Avis buys Zipcar, delighting investors and unnerving customers

In 2011, Zipcar, the world's largest car-sharing company, was valued at $1.2 billion, but it sold today to Avis for just shy of $500 million. If Zipcar's shareholders approve the sale, it will likely become final in a few months.

Image (1) zipcar-shinya-suzuki-flickr-500.jpg for post 40282

"By combining with Zipcar, we will significantly increase our growth potential, both in the United States and internationally, and will position our company to better serve a greater variety of consumer and commercial transportation needs," Avis Chair and CEO Ronald Nelson said in a statement.

Given the clear downward trend in American car owning and driving, it was only a matter of time until a big corporation got in the sharing game, and the easiest way to do that is always to eat one of the little guys and absorb its start-up life force. According to Nelson, the deal will mean more cars for Zipcar, especially on weekends when most of Avis' fleet is sitting in parking lots. While Avis' rivals Hertz and Enterprise started offering hourly rentals, Avis never did, so the acquisition presents a real expansion of services for the old-timey rental dealership.

It's certainly got investors feeling good -- Zipcar's shares jumped more than 48 percent this morning on news of the deal.


Coal keeps on selling, lawsuits and bad economics be damned

Vile scourge/cheap energy producer
Vile scourge/cheap energy producer.

When I started writing this post, the ticker on the homepage of Peabody Energythe largest private-sector coal company in the world, indicated that it has sold 970,470 tons of coal so far in 2013. Can't find the ticker? It's down there next to the "Environmental Responsibility" box. Yes, really.

An activist group has filed a lawsuit against Emerald Coal Resources, citing extensive pollution in southwestern Pennsylvania. From the Associated Press:

The Center for Coalfield Justice, based in Washington, Pa., filed the federal lawsuit Friday in Pittsburgh against Emerald Coal Resources LP, which operates the Emerald Mine in Waynesburg, Greene County. The citizens' group is being backed by the Earthrise Law Center in Norwell, Mass.

The lawsuit contends Emerald Coal has violated pollution levels for iron, manganese, aluminum and other pollutants more than 120 times in the past 12 months and more than 400 times in the past five years. The group is basing those claims on violations the company has been self-reporting to the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection under Emerald's National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System Permit as part of the federal Clean Water Act.

The parent company for Emerald is Alpha Natural Resources, which recently announced plans to shut a number of mines.

972,199 tons … 972,283 tons …


Kyoto’s first phase expires as greenhouse gas emissions and dirty energy use spike

In 1997, most of the world's nations signed on to the Kyoto Protocol, a treaty intended to fight climate change. The goal was to gradually cut greenhouse gas emissions through the end of 2012, the first commitment period. How'd we do? From the CBC:

The controversial and ineffective Kyoto Protocol's first stage comes to an end today, leaving the world with 58 per cent more greenhouse gases than in 1990, as opposed to the five per cent reduction its signatories sought.

Ah, well. Worth a shot!

If there is anything good that came out of the Kyoto experience, it is that the issue it tried and failed to tackle is now top of mind, says [Steven Guilbeault of Equiterre, a Montreal-based environmental group].

"That's probably one of the biggest accomplishments of the Kyoto Protocol, is making climate change something that's part of our everyday life."

You know what else is making climate change something that's part of our everyday life? Climate change.

climate activists


Shell squeezes one last Arctic screwup into 2012

Shell ended 2012 the way it carried itself the entire year: with utter incompetence. From The New York Times:

One of Shell Oil’s two Arctic drilling rigs is beached on an island in the Gulf of Alaska, threatening environmental damage from a fuel spill and calling into question Shell’s plans to resume drilling in the treacherous waters north of Alaska in the summer.

The rig, the Kulluk, broke free from a tow ship in stormy seas and ran aground Monday night. The Coast Guard was leading an effort to keep its more than 150,000 gallons of diesel fuel and lubricants from spilling onto the rocky shoreline.

The Kulluk, pictured here trying to evolve into a land animal
Coast Guard
The Kulluk, pictured here trying to evolve into a land animal

Happily, the vessel isn't leaking any of its fuel. And, happily, Shell's complete inability to do things right over the last 12 months means that it wasn't actively drilling anything anyway.


Hyper-dysfunctional Congress punts on Sandy relief

Americans like to make fun of Congress. It's a staple of comedy akin to airline food, a joke that was already old by the time Mark Twain rolled around. But rarely have we had cause to mock our elected leaders as we do now, as the least productive Congress in a generation yawns and shuffles out of Washington. As it goes, it leaves behind a stopgap solution to the fiscal crisis -- and a complete abandonment of any aid for those affected by Hurricane Sandy.

John Boehner, who is only a leader in a theoretical sense
Gage Skidmore
John Boehner, who is only a leader in a theoretical sense

Late last night (at least, late by Congress' standards), the House voted to approve the ugly, flawed compromise Vice President Biden worked out with Senate Republicans. The vote happened only after a series of representatives took to the podium to laud the body's fine work and to celebrate a piece of legislation noteworthy in part for simply extending a number of tax benefits that were due to expire. But perhaps the ugliest moment of the year came after that vote, as members representing areas struck by the storm tried to get the House to hold a promised vote on a relief package. It didn't. House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) pointed at majority leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.); a "leadership aide" put the blame back on Boehner.

Members from New York and New Jersey were furious. From the Times-Dispatch:

“This is an absolute disgrace and the speaker should hang his head in shame,” said Rep. Eliot Engel, D-N.Y.

“I'm here tonight saying to myself for the first time that I'm not proud of the decision my team has made,” said Rep. Michael Grimm, R-N.Y. “It is the wrong decision, and I' m going to be respectful and ask that the speaker reconsider his decision. Because it's not about politics, it's about human lives.”

“I truly feel betrayed this evening,” said Rep. Nita Lowey, D-N.Y.

It's not hard to guess why the House didn't want to approve an aid package last night. Even after pushing to slash the president's $60 billion proposal down to $20 billion, Republicans already being lambasted for raising taxes in the fiscal cliff vote (even though it extended existing low rates for some 99 percent of Americans) were undoubtedly hesitant to be seen as then OKing billions in relief to New York City liberals. Tax and spend.


The hottest race of 2013: House climate hawk Markey is gunning for Kerry’s Senate seat

Ed Markey
Martha Coakley
Could Ed Markey be the Senate's newest climate hawk?

The Senate will lose an advocate for climate action when John Kerry becomes secretary of state (assuming he gets confirmed, which seems pretty darn safe to assume). But it could gain another senator who's just as climate-hawkish if Ed Markey wins the race for Kerry's soon-to-be-vacated seat.

Rep. Markey (D-Mass.) announced last week that he intends to run in the special election next spring or summer to fill Kerry's spot. He's not the only Democrat who's talking about a run, but he's the most senior and high-profile, so the establishment swiftly got behind him, hoping to avert a primary fight.

Kerry didn't outright endorse Markey, but he praised him effusively, calling him "the House’s leading, ardent, and thoughtful protector of the environment." Kerry continued: “He’s passionate about the issues that Ted Kennedy and I worked on as a team for decades, whether it’s health care or the environment and energy or education."

Markey is arguably the most passionate, outspoken climate advocate in the House. You might remember him from such legislation as the Waxman-Markey climate and energy bill, which was passed by the House in 2009 and then died a slow and painful death in the Senate. Markey was the one and only chair of the House Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming during its existence from 2007 to 2010. Though Republicans killed the committee when they took control of the House two years ago, that hasn't stopped Markey from pushing energy and climate issues into the spotlight -- and writing about his efforts on Grist.


Wind-energy tax credit would get extension under ‘fiscal cliff’ deal

wind turbine and American flag
Tennessee Valley Infrastructure Group Inc.

It appears that a deal in the works to avert the so-called fiscal cliff would extend a critical tax credit for the wind-power industry for one year.

"The potential agreement that's being talked about ... would extend tax credits for clean-energy companies that are creating jobs and reducing our dependence on foreign oil," President Obama said at a press conference today.

The production tax credit (PTC) for the wind industry expires today. With its status up in the air, wind companies across the country have been laying off workers and putting projects on hold. If the PTC isn't renewed, 37,000 jobs could be lost, according to the American Wind Energy Association.