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Gristmill: Fresh, whole-brain news.


Watch every hurricane that formed during the third-most-active season in history

Here, in just shy of four and a half minutes, is the entire 2012 hurricane season. Assuming, that is, that no tropical storms crop up in the next 36 hours or so; hurricane season ends on Nov. 30.

It's pretty, in its way. Humbling, watching the patterns and the flow of the clouds as they work their way slowly around the ocean. For the planet, Sandy was just another spinning formation, made and gone and forgotten.

For us, Sandy was the capstone to what the Capital Weather Gang notes was tied for the third-most-active hurricane season in history.

Read more: Climate & Energy


Senate rejects Inhofe’s anti-biofuels amendment because it’s dumb

Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.). If Pavlov's research was correct, you should be rolling your eyes right now. Inhofe. Eye roll. If for some reason you aren't rolling your eyes, perhaps you don't know enough about him. He's … let's see. Imagine if you combined George W. Bush with Donald Trump with a cartoon oil baron with a spoiled 3-year-old from whom you've just taken a favorite toy. Eye roll.

Inhofe's stock in trade is climate change denialism. (For example and for example.) Representing the oil-friendly state of Oklahoma, it's no surprise. Nor was it a surprise when, earlier this year, Inhofe targeted the military's biofuels program, arguing that an effort to decrease reliance on fossil fuels should be undertaken only if the alternative is the same cost as a petroleum-based option. Which is stupid, because biofuels are trailing diesel fuel on the development and implementation cycle by, oh, a century and a half or so. There's obvious benefit to such experiments, unless you love love love oil love love love it. Which I suspect Inhofe does.


Super-rare fast-food worker strike hits NYC

Would you like to fry up pink slime all day, and still be on food stamps? Well, you're not alone. (Shocking, right?)

New York City food service workers at some of the nation's biggest, baddest chains walked off the job this morning for a super-rare one-day strike against low wages.

Workers are organizing around the Fast Food Forward campaign at dozens of McDonald's, Wendy's, Burger King, Kentucky Fried Chicken, Taco Bell, Domino's, and Papa John's locations city-wide, in an industry that has traditionally been devoid of if not outright hostile to union power. As Josh Eidelson at Salon reports, one 79-year-old McDonald's worker has already been suspended this week for signing up coworkers to the campaign's petition. From Salon:

New York Communities for Change organizing director Jonathan Westin told Salon the current effort is “the biggest organizing campaign that’s happened in the fast food industry.” A team of 40 NYCC organizers have been meeting with workers for months, spearheading efforts to form a new union, the Fast Food Workers Committee. NYCC organizers and fast food workers have been signing up employees on petitions demanding both the chance to organize a union without retaliation and a hefty raise, from near-minimum wages to $15 an hour.

Striking workers detailed strict working conditions and verbal abuse while on the job. Their current wages -- $8.90/hour median in New York City, where the $7.25/hour federal minimum reigns supreme -- don't reflect the economic realities of the booming U.S. fast-food industry. Apparently recession America has a taste for Happy Meals.

Read more: Food


As another coal mine closes, the government says to expect more closures in the future

Peabody Energy announced yesterday that it was closing its Willow Lake coal mine, a facility that employed around 400 people in southern Illinois. Earlier this month, one of those employees was killed by a piece of mining equipment, a factor cited in the closure. But the reason coal companies like Peabody are shutting down mines and declaring bankruptcy is simpler: economics.

I wrote a piece earlier this week at that is sort of a beginner's guide to why coal is doomed over the long term. It is called "Coal Is Doomed," just to get the point across. The argument, in short: Coal is both unhealthy (over the short and long term) and getting less cheap compared to natural gas and renewables. To be even passably healthy, use of coal needs to get more expensive. Even the industry acknowledges the need to be cleaner. And that's the game. (The full piece is a lot more words, so you should go read that, at some point.)

Farewell, my friends.

The Peabody closure is still on the leading edge of coal's decline and may in fact be an outlier. But a new report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office [PDF] largely echoes the argument above: Coal is slipping, badly.


Potential secretary of state candidate Susan Rice faces questions over TransCanada investments

Yesterday, the Natural Resources Defense Council's OnEarth magazine dropped a bombshell. United States Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice, widely rumored to be the leading contender to replace Hillary Clinton as secretary of state, has large investments in both TransCanada, the company seeking to build the Keystone XL pipeline, and other businesses with a stake in seeing it built. The secretary of state, you may remember, is responsible for granting any permit to build the border-crossing pipeline.

In addition to TransCanada stock valued between $300,000 and $600,000, OnEarth outlines the breadth of her investments.

[A]ccording to financial disclosure reports, about a third of Rice’s personal net worth is tied up in oil producers, pipeline operators, and related energy industries north of the 49th parallel -- including companies with poor environmental and safety records on both U.S. and Canadian soil. Rice and her husband own at least $1.25 million worth of stock in four of Canada’s eight leading oil producers, as ranked by Forbes magazine. That includes Enbridge, which spilled more than a million gallons of toxic bitumen into Michigan’s Kalamazoo River in 2010 -- the largest inland oil spill in U.S. history.

Rice also has smaller stakes in several other big Canadian energy firms, as well as the country’s transportation companies and coal-fired utilities. Another 20 percent or so of her personal wealth is derived from investments in five Canadian banks. These are some of the institutions that provide loans and financial backing to TransCanada and its competitors for tar sands extraction and major infrastructure projects, such as Keystone XL and Enbridge’s proposed Northern Gateway pipeline, which would stretch 700 miles from Alberta to the Canadian coast.

Susan Rice and U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack.

OnEarth then describes the possible conflict:


Deforestation in Amazon hits record low

A bit of optimism for your Wednesday: Deforestation of rainforest in the Amazon dropped 27 percent compared to a year ago -- the biggest decline since Brazil began monitoring the problem.

From Reuters:

The figures, based on Brazilian government data gathered by satellite imagery, mark the fourth straight year the overall deforestation levels have slowed. …

Deforestation of Brazil's Amazon region totaled 4,656 square kilometers (1,798 square miles) between August 2011 and July 2012, a 27 percent drop compared to the same period a year earlier, the Environment Ministry said.

Environment Minister Izabella Teixeira held up the fourth year of slowing deforestation as proof that Brazil is doing its global duty in policing the Amazon basin and curbing illegal loggers and ranchers who clear the forest with fire.

And now, a bit of pessimism.

Read more: Climate & Energy


Fracking may release less methane than thought

How much methane leaks out of the ground during the fracking process? There's a long-running debate over that question, and the answer could determine the role of natural gas in a climate-changed world. Natural gas burns more cleanly than coal and oil, but that benefit could be outweighed if fracking causes significant releases of methane, a greenhouse gas that is orders of magnitude more effective at trapping heat than carbon dioxide.

Last year, researchers from Cornell reported that fracked natural-gas wells leak 40 to 60 percent more methane than conventional natural-gas wells -- making fracking a more dangerous source of greenhouse gas emissions than coal.

Citizen Action NY

But today, a team from MIT suggested the Cornell report may be incorrect -- that fracking doesn't result in much more methane emission than standard natural-gas drilling.

From E&E News:

[A]bout 216 gigagrams of methane [emitted] in 2010 ... was due to hydraulic fracturing, a technique in which drillers inject pressurized water, sand and chemicals to fracture shale rock and release trapped gas. Fracking accounted for 3.6 percent of the 6,002 gigagrams of methane emitted overall by natural gas operations in 2010.

The implication is that shale gas drilling operations leak most of their methane from much of the same points as conventional gas drilling operations: pipelines, compressor stations, valves and other point sources. These account for about 96.4 percent of the emissions from a gas production site, the study finds.


Hooray: Obama administration sells more drilling plots in the Gulf

Congratulations to Chevron, the highest bidder in an auction this morning for the right to drill in several plots in the western Gulf of Mexico. BP, as you may have heard, was ineligible to win, because a rig on one of their plots blew up a few years ago.

From Reuters:

Chevron's highest bid of $17.2 million was for a tract about 140 miles (225.3 km) south of Galveston, Texas. ...

Chevron also submitted the top sum of high bids at $56 million, followed by ConocoPhillips at $51.7 million, BHP Billiton at $14.5 million and Exxon Mobil Corp at $5.9 million.

Simmons & Company International said in a note to investors on Wednesday that the 116 tracts that received bids were 3 percent of those offered. The last western Gulf lease sale in December 2011 garnered bids on 5 percent of tracts offered.


Massey coal exec pleads guilty to conspiracy related to fatal 2010 mine explosion

Of the 31 miners who worked in the Upper Big Branch coal mine in West Virginia, 29 were killed in an explosion on April 5, 2010. In May of 2011, the company that owned the mine, Massey Energy, was found to be negligent and reckless in the disaster; that June, the government suggested that Massey had falsified its safety records.

Massey Energy's former CEO, Don Blankenship, is "a really bad dude," as David Roberts wrote in 2006. The 2010 explosion followed a long string of problems and warning signs. Blankenship doesn't seem to have been concerned. As far back as 2003, he told Forbes that his company "[doesn't] pay much attention to the violation count."

Don Blankenship blocks the camera.

Perhaps the threat of jail time for one of Massey's top executives will prompt other coal execs to pay closer attention. From the Associated Press:

An executive who ran several Massey Energy coal companies and worked closely with former CEO Don Blankenship faces criminal conspiracy charges and is cooperating with federal prosecutors, a sign that authorities may be targeting Blankenship himself in the fatal West Virginia blast that was the nation's worst mine disaster in four decades.


The new head of the House Science Committee is indifferent to science

In 2009, Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas) made a funny joke.

"ABC, CBS and NBC Win Lap Dog Award," a press release from his office touted. “The networks have shown a steady pattern of bias on climate change," the funny "award" announcement (it was sarcastic!) read. "During a six-month period, four out of five network news reports failed to acknowledge any dissenting opinions about global warming, according to a Business and Media Institute study." He was incensed that the networks didn't cover the dumb, fake "Climategate" "scandal," which they didn't because it was dumb and fake.

Lamar Smith put out that press release because he toes the Republican Party line on climate change: It's not our fault. It's not the fault, for example, of the oil and gas industry, which has contributed half a million dollars to Smith over his career. His website carefully tiptoes around causation, stating that the "Earth has undergone tremendous change in the past and is experiencing similar change now."

It is only natural, then, that Smith should be the GOP's choice to lead the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology.