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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.


TransCanada outmaneuvers Keystone XL pipeline blockaders

A bit of bummer news from East Texas, and this time there's no pepper spray involved. Protesters are still tweeting and blogging per usual, but it appears the Keystone XL pipeline blockade may actually be over. TransCanada apparently realized back in October that while it might not be able to go through the tree-sitters, it could easily go around them.

Tar Sands Blockade

Inside Climate News reports:

TransCanada, the pipeline's builder, acquired an easement in October to build the pipeline slightly west of the tree blockade and the original route. Construction is now nearly finished on the property, and the protesters will soon call it quits.

"It's a sad time at the tree blockade," said Ron Seifert, a spokesperson for the Tar Sands Blockade, the activist group behind the campaign. Seifert said it's probably days before the tree village decamps, though no official decision has been made. ...

"As we speak, the pipeline is being trenched around the western end of the blockaded area," he added with disappointment. The "blockade will essentially become symbolic and come to an end."

Read more: Climate & Energy


An oil spill at a bird sanctuary caps Staten Island’s terrible year

For some reason, the fossil fuel industry has it out for Staten Island. First, Superstorm Sandy brought a 14-foot storm surge, worsened by warmed, raised seas. And now, an oil spill, just offshore.

From The New York Times:

Oil from a barge spilled into the waters off Staten Island, spreading to a bird sanctuary on an island in Newark Bay, the Coast Guard said on Saturday.

Workers placed a boom on the surface of the water to contain the oil, added absorbent materials and notified the authorities, [Coast Guard spokesman Petty Officer Erik] Swanson said.

The oil was coming from one of the Boston 30’s tanks, which was carrying 112,000 gallons. The barge is owned by Boston Marine Transport of Massachusetts.

According to the Coast Guard's most recent update, 156,000 gallons of oil/water mixture has been recovered.


Adorable little Michigan town has big plans for cutting carbon emissions

Ann Arbor is a small town in Michigan that, like so many small towns across the Midwest, has been hard-hit as industry has increasingly moved away or overseas. A pleasant place with small hills and tree-lined streets, Ann Arbor has never had any distinguishing characteristic: no classic architecture, no famous music hall, no museums of note. Just a standard small town with a little main street, like so many other thousands littering the region.

But now, at last, Ann Arbor has done something to help it stand out, something of which -- after so many years! -- it might rightly be proud.

ann arbor train station
This is the town's train station! Adorbs.

From (it doesn't even have a real newspaper!):

The Ann Arbor City Council took action Monday night to adopt a Climate Action Plan, a 188-page document that outlines dozens of ways to reduce the community's carbon footprint.

Building on previous environmental goals set by the City Council, the new plan recommends three targets for reducing greenhouse gas emissions in the coming decades.

That includes a goal of reducing the entire community's emissions by 8 percent by 2015, by 25 percent by 2025, and by 90 percent by 2050 — all relative to 2000 baseline levels.

I mean, first of all it's cute that such an insignificant town has a city council! Just goes to show you that democracy can take root in even the driest soil.

Read more: Cities, Climate & Energy


Bringing back chestnut trees could fight climate change and give us tasty treats

When Nat King Cole first recorded "The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire)" in 1946, American giant chestnut trees had been nearly wiped out by a foreign fungus. Billions of native trees were felled by the disease. If you want to roast those sweet babies over an open fire this holiday season, they'll likely be of the imported-from-China variety.


A hundred years ago, it was a very different scene, NPR reports:

The American chestnut was king of the forest. One of every four hardwoods in the eastern woodlands was a chestnut. They grew so tall -- up to 100 feet -- they were called the redwoods of the east.

By the mid-20th century they were "pretty much obliterated," and now the only seasonal street-food treats are those crusty sugared peanuts. An American tragedy.

Efforts to revitalize the country's chestnut stock have been ongoing for decades, but they're not just aimed at holiday treats (because researchers have other crazy priorities).

Why is it so important to bring back the chestnut tree? Advocates say the trees were critical to the economy of rural communities and the ecology of the forests. Some even say chestnuts can help with global warming.

"Some" being scientists, like the ones who penned a 2009 Purdue University study on new hybrid chestnut trees and their carbon-fighting superpowers.

Read more: Climate & Energy, Food


The U.S. could lose 34 million acres of forest by 2060

Do you like trees? I like trees. Trees are pretty interesting, right? And, if my fourth-grade science teacher is to be believed, they exhale oxygen, which is a nice complement to the way my lungs work. It is with regret, then, that I must inform you that trees are going away. Not all of them. Just 34 million acres of them across the United States.

That figure is the worst-case scenario according to the U.S. Forest Service's forecast of how expanding residential and industrial areas will combine with climate change to wipe out an enormous amount of forested land.

Some key points (and graphs) from the report, "Future of America’s Forests and Rangelands" [PDF].

  • Urban and developed land is expected to increase between 41 and 77 percent by 2060.
In each chart below, different "RPA" figures indicate different forecasting models.
In each chart below, different "RPA" figures indicate different forecasting models.
Read more: Cities, Climate & Energy


Traffic deaths are down, but pedestrian and cyclist deaths are up

Fewer people are dying in car accidents in the U.S. (except in California, where it's been raining lately and people have been very confused). Traffic deaths fell 1.9 percent in 2011, hitting their lowest level since 1949.

That's great news for drivers, who haven't been getting a lot of good news in their driver-lives lately. Here's the bad news: Drivers are killing the rest of us. The Los Angeles Times reports on new federal transportation figures:

Federal officials highlighted the overall decrease in [traffic] deaths. But at least one traffic safety group said the figures were alarming, particularly a 3% increase in pedestrian deaths and an 8.7% increase in cyclist fatalities from 2010 to 2011.

"We are still concerned about the numbers of cyclists and pedestrians at risk on our roadways," said Paul Oberhauser, co-chairman of the Chicago-based Traffic Safety Coalition, which is partly funded by the traffic safety camera industry. "This new report is a reminder we still need to be cautious and share the road."

Rory Finneren
Read more: Cities, Living


How ExxonMobil may cause a civil war in Iraq

When George W. Bush decided that the United States (and its "allies") were going to invade Iraq, there was some small amount of outcry. Opposition focused on three areas: speculation that Bush only wanted to open the country's oil markets, concern that an invasion would spark civil conflict, and some displeasure that the administration lied about Iraq's arsenal of weapons. (In retrospect, these critiques were pretty fair.)

A policeman stands guard near a pool of oil that leaked from a damaged pipeline in Basra province.
Atef Hassan / Reuters
A policeman stands guard near a pool of oil that leaked from a damaged pipeline in Basra province.

So it's with some anguish and a sense that the cosmos has again rearranged itself that we report another hiccup in Iraq's already turbulent passage to stability. At the center of it: one of the oil companies for whom several hundred thousand American troops kicked open the door.

From the Washington Post:

With their opposing armies massed on either side of the contested border dividing southern and northern Iraq, leaders in Baghdad and the semiautonomous Kurdistan region are warning they are close to civil war -- one that could be triggered by Exxon Mobil.

Although leaders on both sides are negotiating a walk back from the brink, they also say their armies could easily be provoked into battle. ...

“The prime minister has been clear: If Exxon lays a finger on this territory, they will face the Iraqi army,” said Sami Alaskary, a member of parliament and close confidant of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. “We don’t want war, but we will go to war, for oil and for Iraqi sovereignty.”

ExxonMobil is not the first company to attempt to walk the line between Kurdistan and Iraq proper. Earlier this year, Chevron announced a deal with the Kurds and was black-listed by Iraq. Exxon's leases are closer to the informal border with Iraq, raising the government's ire.

Read more: Uncategorized


By 2017, the world will be burning enough coal for another U.S. and Russia

Coal mine

Extremely good news for the world: Over the next five years, oil will fall from the top spot as a source of energy.

Extremely bad news for the world: Coal will replace it.

From The Guardian:

Coal consumption is increasing all over the world -- even in countries and regions with carbon-cutting targets -- except the US, where shale gas has displaced coal, shows new research from the International Energy Agency (IEA). The decline of the fuel in the US has helped to cut prices for coal globally, which has made it more attractive, even in Europe where coal use was supposed to be discouraged by the emissions trading scheme. …

According to the IEA, demand from China and India will drive world coal use in the coming five years, with India on course to overtake the US as the world's second biggest consumer. China is the biggest coal importer, and Indonesia the biggest exporter, having temporarily overtaken Australia.

According to the IEA's Medium Term Coal Market Report, published on Tuesday morning, the world will burn 1.2bn more tonnes of coal per year by 2017 compared with today -- the equivalent of the current coal consumption of Russia and the US combined. Global coal consumption is forecast to reach 4.3bn tonnes of oil equivalent by 2017, while oil consumption is forecast to reach 4.4bn tonnes by the same date.

The calculus, in brief: The U.S.'s natural gas boom has dropped demand for coal, making U.S. coal cheaper. That cheaper U.S. coal helps drive down costs for the fuel internationally, where it's already cheap and accessible. So in five years' time, we'll be burning as much coal as we do now, plus the amount of coal currently consumed by another Russia and another United States.


Crunching the numbers: Will you see a white Christmas?

snowy field

There are two questions that arise at the end of every year. The first is: Did I fulfill all of my resolutions this year? And the answer to that is always no, unless you are lying to yourself. The second is: Will we have a white Christmas? And, pretty soon, that one's going to always be no, as well. Unless you move to, say, Canada.

This year is one of the bubble years, a year in which a white Christmas is still possible. Yes, it's warmer than usual -- in fact, it's the warmest year in American history -- but the worst long-term effects of warming haven't yet made December snowfall an improbability. So let's ask the question.

Spoiler: For most of the country, the answer is always no. If you live in Miami, it likely never occurs to you to even ask it, unless the query comes up as you're singing a Christmas carol. Angelenos, the same; snowfall is something to be visited on mountaintops, not seen in drifts around a palm tree.

Read more: Climate & Energy, Living