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Gristmill: Fresh, whole-brain news.


Snow near tar-sands mines is contaminated, researchers find

The mantra "don't eat yellow snow" will need to be extended for residents of Alberta: don't eat yellow snow or snow adjacent to tar-sands mines. Seems like it's obvious, but then so does the admonition about eating snow that has been urinated on.

From the CBC:

An Environment Canada study has revealed the presence of contaminants in snow near oilsands mines. ...

The researchers found snow near the oilsands contained toxic substances dangerous to fish eggs. …

University of Alberta biologist David Schindler said the research doesn't surprise him.

“Those Environment Canada studies, I think, confirm my worst suspicions,” he said.

In 2009, Schindler also found contaminants in snow near the oilsands. Later, his team discovered a fish with a tumor, believed to be linked to oilsands contamination.

This is snow from a roadside in D.C. Don't eat this snow, either.


Texas hits new milestone for wind power generation. Yes: Texas.

Near Lubbock, Texas, one can find the American Wind Power Center and Museum, a small barn-like building surrounded by windmills of varying vintage.

Lubbock's wind museum.

There's a reason the museum is in Texas. Farms on the plains used wind energy to pump water into their fields. Windmills are what green-jobs pioneer Van Jones likes to call "cowboy power."

It's fitting, then, that the state should also increasingly be using wind power at a much, much larger scale. Last Saturday morning, it set a new record. From the Star-Telegram:

The state's biggest power grid says electricity provided by wind farms hit a record at 10:21 a.m. Nov. 10, when 8,521 megawatts made it to transmission lines. ...

According to the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, which serves most of the state, wind power at its peak on Nov. 10, a Saturday, accounted for 25.9 percent of all electricity demand, which was at a relatively low 36,423 megawatts. The Wind Coalition, an industry group, also notes that wind power topped 6,800 megawatts the entire day and capped a three-day run that saw wind power remain near or above 5,000 megawatts.

Read more: Climate & Energy, Living


BP agrees to settlement reportedly including billions in fines, manslaughter charges

According to multiple news outlets, British Petroleum has reached a settlement with the Justice Department on criminal charges related to the Deepwater Horizon explosion and spill.

According to the Associated Press:

Oil giant BP has agreed to pay the largest criminal penalty in U.S. history, totaling billions of dollars, for the 2010 oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, a person familiar with the deal said Thursday.

The person, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak on the record about the deal, also said two BP PLC employees face manslaughter charges over the death of 11 people in the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig that triggered the massive spill.

The person said BP will plead guilty to obstruction for lying to Congress about how much oil was pouring out of the ruptured well.

The BBC puts the expected settlement amount at between $3 billion and $5 billion.


California leads the way in green energy, but not green living

At first glance, California seems like the greenest state in the union. Last week, the state's voters overwhelmingly passed Proposition 39, which will close a business tax loophole and send billions to clean energy programs. This week, the state is holding the first auction under its landmark cap-and-trade program. Reuters reports that California is "poised to double down on its investments" in the clean energy sector

"We put our money where our mouths are," said Mary Nichols, chair of the California Air Resources Board, the agency charged with implementing the state's cap-and-trade system.

"We back up what we do in regulation by shifting subsidies from things that pollute and are inefficient to things that are more efficient and make our state more resilient," she said ...

California has long been a bellwether for efforts by states and local governments eager to address climate change. In 2006, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger signed into law a bill that requires the state to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels by 2020. That law survived a challenge at the polls two years ago, when Californians overwhelmingly defeated an oil industry-backed measure to roll it back.

Hearings will begin in January on how exactly to spend the cash generated by Prop 39, some of which is specifically set aside for "new private sector jobs improving the energy efficiency of commercial and residential buildings" and job training "on energy efficiency and clean energy projects."

California: Where solar sprawls as much as the suburbs.

So yes, California is pretty great! But as any Golden State resident could tell you, this is a complicated place full of contradictions. A defeated GMO labeling billPoisoned water. And so, so many cars.

While Californians may be progressive in some respects, we’re still clinging to the suburban dream. A recent report by Arthur C. Nelson for the Urban Land Institute argues that Californians are gravitating toward smaller lots and multi-family living, but demographer Wendell Cox disagrees. He finds that the California dream hasn't changed much over the last 60 years.


U.S. building is going green for profit, not for the climate

As the construction industry dusts off its tools post-recession, green building is on the rise. But the reasoning behind the boom looks less pure than you might think.

A new survey finds that 90 percent of developers and property owners are committed to environmentally sustainable construction, with 56 percent "very" or "extremely" committed -- but how they conceive of that commitment has changed a lot over time.


Efficiency and cost savings seem to be the biggest motivators. While the majority of respondents said they value sustainable building when it comes to air quality and tenant happiness, only 37 percent said it was extremely or very important to minimize their carbon footprints. Only 48 percent of those committed to sustainable construction said they're interested in LEED certification, down from 61 percent in 2008.

The U.S. Green Building Council touts LEED certification as the standard in top-performing energy-efficient buildings, though we know that the rating system is full of loopholes that allow massive, energy-guzzling buildings to be certified eco-friendly.

The motivations for going green might be less than noble, but does that matter if we like the results? Cost savings are the impetus behind the awesome greening of the Empire State Building and other New York projects that are creating new green jobs for previously unemployed workers. Some of those workers are picking up new skills at a South Bronx center for environmental job training, which will continue operations this year despite its federal grant running out. From The New York Times:

Read more: Cities, Climate & Energy


Netherlands may face lawsuit over climate change inaction

It’s surprising news from a country we perceive as a bastion of Euro sustainable living: An activist group, Urgenda, is threatening to take the Dutch government to court over human-rights violations perpetrated, it says, by insufficient measures to fight climate change.

From The Guardian:

The Dutch campaigners believe [human-rights] laws could be used in other countries to force the hand of governments. Marjan Minnesma, of Urgenda, and one of the leaders of the action, said: "We definitely want to give a strong example to other countries. We believe we can take this to the courts and we would like organisations in other countries to look at what we are doing and consider it for themselves."

Their campaign is supported by the Nasa climate scientist Prof James Hansen. "In the climate and energy debate we need more pressure and involvement from the public, willing to defend our rights and those of our children and grandchildren using all the means of our laws to achieve justice," he said.

But what about the country’s attention to infrastructure to protect cities from sea-level rises and new extreme weather? What about Amsterdam's new $150 million investment in bicycling infrastructure? What about all those bikes!! From here, the Netherlands looks about as green as any national government might be. Over there, though, it's another story. Activists say the country's environmental focus has weakened over the past decade ...

Read more: Cities, Climate & Energy


New York’s bikeshare takes another hit, this time from Sandy

The bikeshare in D.C., which for some reason New York is having trouble duplicating.

In some parallel universe, New Yorkers took advantage of the city's massive, distributed (at least in Manhattan) bike-sharing network to get around in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. Maybe Citi even waived fees for the vehicles, eager to get a little bump of goodwill at a moment of extreme need. But, as longtime viewers may remember, despite plans to unveil the 10,000-bike system this year, it got pushed to March of 2013 due to technical glitches.

Or, at least March was the target date in August. It's not clear if that is still the new date, because the system got damaged again. By Sandy.

From the Times:

The storm dumped several feet of water at some points across the Brooklyn Navy Yard, where the city had been storing equipment like bicycles and docking stations in Building 293, near the northern tip of the yard and the waters of Wallabout Bay.

Building 293 was among those that flooded, and a spokesman for the mayor’s office said Tuesday that there appeared to be damage to program equipment, including docking stations for bicycles, as a result. …

Officials said it was premature to estimate whether the flooding could affect the program’s start date, scheduled for next March.


President Obama on climate change: We’ll see

In his first press conference since June, President Obama this afternoon was asked about climate change.

President Barack Obama
AP / Charles Dharapak

Mark Landler of The New York Times asked:

In his endorsement of you a few weeks ago, Mayor Bloomberg said he was motivated by the belief that you would do more to confront the threat of climate change than your opponent. Tomorrow you're going up to New York City where you're, I assume, going to see people who are still suffering the effects of Hurricane Sandy, which many people say is further evidence of how a warming globe is affecting our weather.

What specifically do you plan to do in a second term to tackle the issue of climate change, and do you think the political will exists in Washington to pass legislation that could include some kind of a tax on carbon?

The president's response:


CDC warns about rampant, dangerous use of antibiotics on livestock

Our love of meat is killing us in more ways than one. But get pumped, everyone: The Centers for Disease Control has dubbed this "Get Smart About Antibiotics Week"! And while we may be late to the party, we're excitedly tucking our pants into our boots and heading down to the farm. The factory farm, that is, where (amongst the other usual horrors) rampant antibiotic usage in livestock is threatening the efficacy of the drugs on humans.

Animal Equality
Antibiotics bottles on a pig farm.

In its statement about the week [PDF], the CDC specifically pledges:

To work with regulatory, veterinary and industry partners to promote the judicious use of antibiotics in food animals


To reinforce the judicious use of antibiotics in agriculture by: limiting the use of medically important human antibiotics in food animals; supporting the use of such antibiotics in animals only for those uses that are considered necessary for assuring animal health; and having veterinary oversight for such antibiotics used in animals

This is nice and reasonable of the CDC, but with 80 percent of the country's antibiotics going to the animals we eat, and then into the environment, it'll take a hell of a lot more than a pledge from an agency with no regulatory authority and a week of awareness to shift course from where we're currently headed: a new dark age of medicine, where minor infections could be fatal.


Algae biofuel hits (a few) West Coast gas stations

If you pull into a Propel station in Washington or California (Propel being a chain of alternative fuel stations), you may notice a new offering: Soladiesel. It's a name that hearkens back to the finest tradition of pseudo-sciencey terminology in ads for cigarettes and face creams ("Loaded with Coxyresin®!" "Lab-designed to satisfy your M-Zone™!"), but there's kind of a logic to the name. It actually is a solar diesel! In the extremely indirect sense that algae needs the sun.

From NBC News:

Alternative gas station chain Propel is working with algal fuel creator Solazyme on a month-long experiment, selling algal-additive "Soladiesel" alongside Propel's normal diesel. The special stuff is 20 percent algae oil, while the "original flavor" will have the usual additives. ...

Algae has been proposed for years as an alternative to corn as a way to produce biofuels. Special algae are grown in bulk; when fed certain sugars, they produce combustible oils that can be used as fuel additives. The resulting fuel, biodiesel in this case, produces significantly less pollutants and, Solazyme claims, may in some ways actually perform better.

Solazyme's "Soladiesel"™! Specially formulated for your car's engine, etc., etc.!

A grimy, run-of-the-mill biodiesel station in Europe.