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Gristmill: Fresh, whole-brain news.


Keystone blockaders outmaneuvered but not defeated

Following news that TransCanada's Keystone XL pipeline construction crew had outflanked the tree-sit blockaders, protesters say they're more resolved to fight on -- and not just in the trees.

Tar Sands Blockade

"We're escalating in very real ways," Tar Sands Blockade campaign spokesperson Kim Huynh told me this afternoon. The group's Jan. 3-8 action camp has 150-200 registered attendees, who will convene in East Texas from across the country for several days of training in community organizing, leadership, and direct action -- skills that they'll then take back to their own hometowns.

"TransCanada and Valero have offices across the country. We've identified certain targets," Huynh said. But: "We're under no illusions that direct action alone will stop this pipeline. We need a real holistic campaign, and a national, transnational movement."


Winter storm ‘Draco’ will solve, cause many problems

I guess "draco" is the word for "dragon" in Latin. I didn't know that, despite Mrs. Marino spending two years teaching me the language in high school. (We got to choose our own Latin names; I chose "Aesculapius," because I was a dork.) ("Was.")

Draco is also the name for the giant winter storm dropping snow over the Midwest. See if you can spot it on this map. If you know where the Midwest is, it should be easy.

weather map dec 19

This is good news, for a reason that you might not expect: It's precipitation in a region desiccated by drought. As we mentioned last week, cities across the region have been setting new records for days without snow. A lot of those records are about to end.

From Weather Underground:

Blizzard warnings are posted over portions of Colorado, Nebraska, Kansas, Iowa, Illinois, and Wisconsin, and snowfall amounts of up to a foot are expected in some of the affected regions. While the heavy snow will create dangerous travel conditions, the .5" - 1.5" of melted water equivalent from the the storm will provide welcome moisture for drought-parched areas of the Midwest. Though much of the moisture will stay locked up as snow for the rest of the year, runoff from the storm may help keep Lake Michigan and Huron from setting an all-time record low for the month of December, and may also keep the Mississippi River at St. Louis above the -5' stage though the end of December.

Read more: Cities, Climate & Energy


Lions and tigers and bears(!) are moving to the cities


It turns out those scruffy urban coyotes are not alone. From red foxes in London to mountain lions in Los Angeles to bears at Lake Tahoe, more wild carnivores are joining humans in the city. And biologist Stan Gehrt, who studies Chicago's coyotes, thinks we're only going to see more of them.

From Popular Science:

It’s reasonable to assume that these animals are moving to the city because they’re being displaced by climate change and habitat destruction, but that’s only part of the explanation. One of the biggest factors is that there are more large carnivores than there used to be — primarily, Gehrt says, because of successful conservation efforts. As we make our cities greener, they become more attractive to humans and animals alike. Finally, the relationship between humans and large predators is changing. “We’re now seeing generations of certain carnivores that have had fairly light amounts of persecution by people,” Gehrt says. “They may view cities quite a bit differently than their ancestors did 50 years ago. Then, if they saw a human, there was a good chance they were going to get shot.”

Read more: Cities


Something is leaking from the Deepwater Horizon site, but it’s not clear what


The Deepwater Horizon is the gift that keeps on giving. Usually, that gift is more oil. Right now, though, perhaps because of the holidays, it's leaking something unknown. It's a special present that will reveal itself on Christmas, maybe! That's fun. Thanks, BP.

From CBS News:

An "unidentified substance inconsistent with oil" is emitting from several areas of BP's Deepwater Horizon rig wreckage, but no sources of leaking oil were identified. That's according to the Coast Guard, which oversaw BP's recent week-long mission to inspect the undersea wells and wreckage from the 2010 explosion.

The exact content of the leaking substance and how much is coming out is one mystery. But if it's not oil, then it means the source of recurring oil sheens that have recently been spotted around the Deepwater Horizon site remains unknown.

The expression "unidentified substance inconsistent with oil" leaves a lot of leeway for what it might be. Pepsi, maybe? Hair gel? Possibly footballs? Is it stardust? Exposed Kodak film from the 1960s? Maybe it's donuts? Is it blood? I bet it's blood. Creeeepy.


Time’s Person of the Year talks climate a tiny, tiny bit

Obama clapping
mistydawnphoto / Shutterstock
clap clap clap

Well, everyone, it's official: President Barack Obama was the most important person in the world in 2012, as determined by the person researchers at Time magazine. (For context, Time has previously named Hitler, Stalin, and "you" the person of the year. Two of those were deeply undeserved.)

Why did the most powerful man in the world deserve to be named the most important man in the world, again? ("Again" as in "for the second time," since he was also the most important man of 2008.) Because he won reelection, basically, prompting speculation about who would have been named the Person of the Year had Mitt Romney won. Would it have been Mitt Romney? Our world will never know.

Time did mention other reasons for the honor besides the president's successful campaign. In its long article (about 5,000 words), even climate change is mentioned! Once. But that's appropriate; during his first term, Obama mentioned climate change .04 percent of the time.

After the election, Obama began writing goals for his second term on a legal pad.

They soon discovered that the yellow pad included some things spoken of only rarely during the campaign: dealing with the problem of climate change, for instance, emerged as a major thread, despite all the money the campaign had spent in southeastern Ohio praising Obama’s commitment to coal.

Obama grabs a pen. Chews on the end of it, thoughtfully. Slowly but with assurance writes "CLIMATE CHANGE" on a yellow sheet titled, "My Legacy." Looks at it. Nods approvingly. Sets the pen down.


Controversial California oyster farm fights to stay

It's a salty Christmas miracle for Drakes Bay Oyster Company -- albeit a temporary one.


The bivalve purveyor in Point Reyes, just north of San Francisco, was set to be dissolved at the end of the year: equipment dismantled, employees laid off, land vacated. This was the plan all along for the feds, who had issued a 40-year lease to the company with the intent of its expiration on Jan. 1, 2013, at which time the land would be returned to federal wilderness and cute scampering seals on the Point Reyes National Seashore.

After the Interior Department refused to extend the company's lease for another 10 years, Drakes vowed to fight the decision and filed suit. Now it's reached at least a temporary agreement with Interior. From the Marin Independent Journal:

Under the agreement, the oyster company which has long been a fixture in Point Reyes National Seashore may continue activities involving planting and growing new oysters in the water at Drakes Estero, avoiding layoffs of one-third of its 30 employees right before the holidays ...

Under the agreement, the oyster company has withdrawn its request for a temporary restraining order and instead will file a motion for a preliminary injunction challenging [Interior Secretary Kenneth] Salazar's decision.

A hearing is set for Jan. 25 on the injunction.

Everyone loves them some seals, even in molting season (this is saying a lot, seals), and many environmentalists -- the Sierra Club, the Natural Resources Defense Council, other usual suspects -- support closing the farm, citing the importance of pure wilderness. But many other environmentalists support letting it stay, and their voices have grown stronger over the past couple of weeks. Writes Earth Island Journal editor Jason Marks:


NYC’s public transit system will raise fares — because what choice does it have?

New York's Metropolitan Transit Authority and its director Joe Lhota received broad (and largely deserved) praise for the speed with which the city's transit system was brought back online after Sandy. One of the things that made that recovery remarkable was how expensive it was, with the agency tallying $5 billion in expenses linked to the storm. That cost came on top of the MTA's ongoing budget problems.

An empty, dry tunnel under the East River
An empty, dry tunnel under the East River.

Unsurprisingly, then, the MTA today announced plans to increase fares. As reported by The New York Times:

The Metropolitan Transportation Authority voted unanimously on Wednesday to raise the base fare on subways and buses by a quarter, to $2.50, and increase the cost of a 30-day MetroCard by $8, to $112. …

The cost of a seven-day subway or bus pass will also rise by $1, to $30. And the bonus on pay-per-ride MetroCards will decrease to 5 percent, from 7 percent, but will be available to anyone who places at least $5 on a card. Currently, the bonus applies only to purchases of at least $10.

Those increases are 11 percent for a single ride, 8 percent for a 30-day card, and 3 percent for a 7-day pass. Sounds steep -- particularly when you consider that fares have consistently increased faster than the rate of inflation. Then again, so has the number of bus routes and subway lines.

Click to embiggen.
Click to embiggen.

Given that we're talking public transit, it's tempting to label the hikes regressive, disproportionately affecting lower-income users. But it isn't that simple. According to the most recent subway and bus rider data, the demographics of public transit users in the region are probably not what you'd expect.


California releases draft rules for regulating fracking

Jerry Brown, the once-and-current king (governor) of California, yesterday announced a draft proposal for regulating fracking. Because if there's one thing California needs, it's more fissures beneath it. And/or more earthquakes.

Though that's not the tack Brown took. From the L.A. Times:

The proposed rules, released Tuesday, would require energy companies to disclose for the first time the chemicals they inject deep into the ground to break apart rock and release oil. They also would have to reveal the location of the wells where they use the procedure.

Though fracking has unlocked vast amounts of previously unreachable fossil fuels elsewhere, environmentalists and public health advocates in California have raised safety questions about the hundreds of chemicals used -- many of them known carcinogens -- and the potential for drinking water contamination.

I mean, nothing about the earthquakes? Well, you're the governor.

Oil pumps off of Highway 5
Oil pumps near I-5.


Caught on video: Mudslide from rain-soaked hill derails freight train

It's a normal, unremarkable scene: A freight train runs along the edge of a parking lot next to a hillside. The sort of thing you see all the time.

Until the hillside gives way.

This happened yesterday in Everett, Wash., just north of Seattle. The Seattle Times describes how it happened:

The surface slide came off an oversaturated 100-foot cliff that geotechnical engineers had been scheduled to check right after the 66-car train passed, according to [Burlington Northern Santa Fe] spokesman Gus Melonas.

A BNSF-led crew of at least 50 people are cleaning up some of the general grocery store merchandise that spilled -- products including soap, lemon juice, solvents and disinfectants. The Seattle-bound train came from Chicago carrying a wide variety of general merchandise including meat, ovens and other things.

Here's what the rainfall totals in Everett have looked like over the past 10 days, in inches per hour. Sunday and Monday were deluged. And Tuesday, the hillside slipped.

everett rainfall


Walmart bribed its way around Mexico’s environmental rules

BREAKING: Walmart did another terrible thing!


The retail giant is not just the biggest employer in the U.S. -- it also dominates Mexico with 2,275 outlets. And it got there by playing very, very dirty. According to the second part of a New York Times investigation, Walmart de Mexico routinely bribed officials not just to get its plans bumped to the top of the pile, but to "subvert democratic governance." This is how the company successfully built a Walmart in a Teotihuacán alfalfa field a mile from ancient pyramids that draw tons of tourists. (Now those tourists get a view of a boxy Walmart supercenter when they climb to the top.) The local leaders said no, so Walmart de Mexico paid a guy $52,000 and redrew the zoning map itself.

Frankly, this is not very surprising. But it's damning as hell. From the Times:

Thanks to eight bribe payments totaling $341,000, for example, Wal-Mart built a Sam’s Club in one of Mexico City’s most densely populated neighborhoods, near the Basílica de Guadalupe, without a construction license, or an environmental permit, or an urban impact assessment, or even a traffic permit. Thanks to nine bribe payments totaling $765,000, Wal-Mart built a vast refrigerated distribution center in an environmentally fragile flood basin north of Mexico City, in an area where electricity was so scarce that many smaller developers were turned away.