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Gristmill: Fresh, whole-brain news.


Internal documents show TransCanada hid pipeline flaws before 2011 explosion

In July 2011, a TransCanada natural-gas pipeline in Wyoming exploded. The Canadian Broadcasting Company found internal company documents explaining how it happened: negligence.

“We are in trouble on the Bison project,” the pipelines’ construction manager wrote in a Sept. 18, 2010, internal email that lists problems related to welding and inspection. Construction of the project had started in August 2010.

The U.S. Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) inspected the Bison project in September 2010, and took issue with the quality-assurance of inspections, the qualifications of people working on the pipeline and the procedures used to test the coating on the pipe. …

CBC News also obtained an all-staff internal memo issued by TransCanada CEO Russ Girling on Aug. 11, 2011, in which he acknowledged problems with an earlier phase of the existing Keystone line, and the ill-fated Bison pipeline.

"We have experienced some challenges with the startup of our Keystone and Bison pipelines which has been disappointing for both TransCanada and its customers,” he wrote.

Publicly, the story was different.


Future looks bright for dark skies movement

Bright lights, big nature?

Joe Stylos

Urban studies have consistently shown that good street lighting can significantly reduce crime. But those lights and their inefficient plastic domes also stand to drastically reduce our awesome skyward views.

Enter the growing "dark skies" movement, spreading from Europe to Texas to Africa to try to preserve our ability to just see the dang stars at night.

Some months ago, Austin, Texas, set aside $15 million to upgrade half of the city's streetlights to LED versions that won't send light pollution skywards. Now the rest of Texas' big skies may follow suit.

From The Texas Tribune:

Read more: Cities, Living


An extremely brief overview of a very long debate on energy and the environment

Didn't like the official presidential debates? Underwhelmed by the third-party debate? Fine. Here's a report-back from another debate, this time only about energy and the environment, using high-profile surrogates for the candidates. If you aren't happy now, you may as well resign yourself to your handcrafted "Debates 2012” playset in which you do the voices for both Obama and Romney and also the dial-testing.

Well, to clarify, you should only be happy about this in the sense that you're getting a debate on energy and the environment. The answers to the questions posed aren't gonna thrill you. And only happy if you like very, very brief summaries.

Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney and President Barack Obama during the second U.S. presidential debate
Reuters / Lucas Jackson
It was basically like these two arguing, except two different dudes.

The surrogates:
Joseph Aldy, representing Obama. Faculty at the Harvard Kennedy School, formerly served as special assistant to the president for energy and environment. Here is a story about how he climbed a mountain to say goodbye to some glaciers.
Oren Cass, representing Romney. Domestic policy director for the campaign, formerly of Bain & Co. Here is an article Cass wrote about how Obama is killing oil production (spoiler: as if), just so you get a sense of the guy.

The Washington Post’s Wonkblog did a good job pulling out the key components. Like a delicious sauce, we will reduce those key points even further, to get to the yummy essence of each campaign, to spread out over your ballot. (If you're "one of those," here is the full (long) transcript. I dare you to read the whole thing. Dare you.)


Coal industry tanks as mining costs rise

WV coal protest: mine

If I asked you to go out in your yard (sorry, city dwellers -- a "park") and dig up some rocks, you'd say: no big deal. You go out, grab a spoon, dig out a rock. If I asked you to do it again, in the same spot — no problem. Maybe you need a trowel, but you go and bring me a rock. But then if I ask you to do it in the same spot for 50 years? Eventually getting rocks becomes a giant, expensive pain in the ass.

And that’s the metaphor I’m using to explain how mining costs are knee-capping the coal industry.

We've discussed how Big Coal is on its way out, pushed by super-cheap natural gas. But even if gas weren't cheap, coal is getting more expensive -- in large part (as we noted last year) because the easy-to-access coal has already been mined.

From the Washington Post:

Although it’s commonly said that the United States is the Saudi Arabia of coal with more than 200 years worth of reserves, digging up those coal reserves and delivering them to customers has been getting more expensive.

That’s because of rising costs of transportation, explosives, wages — and geology. In most areas, companies first dig coal from areas that are easiest to access and that have the thickest, richest seams. Over time, however, it becomes more expensive to mine — and more difficult to do so profitably.


Update on Hurricane Sandy: Everyone is doomed

Yesterday, we wrote about Tropical Storm Sandy, making jokes about a European agency that wrote with tangible agitation about "THE STORM’S MENACE- A POWERHOUSE CAPABLE OF WHIPPING THE ATLANTIC INTO A FRENZY AND CHURNING UP DANGEROUS TIDES." Caps in the original, of course.

We laughed it off. LOL, wacky Europeans. This thing is headed out to sea! All this talk about it being a "billion dollar" storm, or a "snor'eastercane" (snow + nor'easter + hurricane), was unwarranted!

Well, yesterday, it became a hurricane. And this morning, NOAA updated its forecast track.

Oh God oh God oh God


Read more: Climate & Energy


As U.S. oil booms and refineries hum, why do we need a pipeline from Canada again?

The American oil industry is booming. (Not literally, you'll be happy to know.) Which means that, with a bit of a lag, the fossil-fuel-refining sector is booming, too.

oil refinery
Boom times in the refinery business.

From The New York Times:

[T]he pipeline that once brought foreign oil from the gulf port of Corpus Christi to Three Rivers has been reversed, sending Texas crude to other refineries along the coast for processing into diesel and other products for export far and wide, from Mexico to the Netherlands.

The drilling boom has allowed many refiners to buy crude at a huge discount -- sometimes $20 or more a barrel -- below international benchmark prices. That is especially true for refineries that operate in the core of the country, where there is a glut of crude from the North Dakota Bakken shale formation because of insufficient pipelines. Historically, until the last couple of years, American crudes typically were priced 50 cents to a dollar higher than international crudes.

The price advantage of United States refiners over their foreign competitors helped the country last year become a net exporter of refined petroleum products for the first time since the late 1940s, producing nearly $10 billion in annual revenue from daily net exports of 370,000 barrels a day of gasoline and diesel.

Over the first eight months of this year, according to the Energy Department, those net exports have surged to 975,000 barrels a day.


Thanks to warming, ozone hole second-smallest in 20 years

The South Pole lives in a state of constant frustration, always overshadowed by its northern counterpart. Santa this; unprecedented ice melt that. Well, guess what, North Pole? The South Pole can make news, too.

And so:

Warmer air temperatures high above the Antarctic led to the second smallest seasonal ozone hole in 20 years, according to NOAA and NASA satellite measurements. This year, the average size of the ozone hole was 6.9 million square miles (17.9 million square kilometers). The ozone layer helps shield life on Earth from potentially harmful ultraviolet (UV) radiation that can cause skin cancer and damage plants.

The Antarctic ozone hole forms in September and October, and this year, the hole reached its maximum size for the season on Sept. 22, stretching to 8.2 million square miles (21.2 million square kilometers), roughly the area of the United States, Canada and Mexico combined. In comparison, the largest ozone hole recorded to date was in 2000 at 11.5 million square miles (29.9 million square kilometers).

The graph below shows how significant the difference has been this year compared to the previous two and the average range for two decades prior. The shift is significant.

Click to embiggen.


How green is LEED anyway?

Between 2010 and 2012, the number of LEED-certified buildings worldwide has nearly doubled. Good green news, right?

A new report from USA Today lays into that program -- Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design -- that's taken the country by storm from San Francisco to New York to that bastion of sustainability (haha, jk), Las Vegas, where the massive, sparkling Palazzo Casino became LEED-certified in 2008.

The massive, sparkling, LEED-certified Palazzo Resort Hotel and Casino lobby.

The U.S. Green Building Council, a building industry non-profit, credited the Palazzo for having bike racks in the garage; room cards telling guests when towels are replaced; landscaping that does not use grass, which local law prohibits anyway; and preferred parking for fuel-efficient cars — spots that on a recent week were occupied by Ford Expeditions, Chevy Tahoes, Range Rovers, Mercedes E320s, Chrysler 300s, Audi A6s, vans, sports cars and a Hummer.

Oof. But that's not all.

Read more: Cities, Living


Sugary sodas make kids wanna smash

No wonder everyone was so angry about Mayor Michael Bloomberg's soda ban.

In a study of nearly 1,900 Boston teenagers, Harvard researchers found that "heavy" consumers of sugary soft drinks (five or more cans per week) were significantly more likely to engage in violent behavior with peers and carry weapons.

Read more: Food, Living


Help sponsor food justice for only 10 cents a day

A report out today (Food Day!) from the UC Berkeley Food Labor Research Center and Food Chain Workers Alliance challenges the belief that raising the federal minimum wage would increase the cost of food for Americans.

And by challenge, I mean it's a swift kick to critics' guts.

Eating ethically for some comes down to the (collapsing, burning) environment; for others, it's the (adorable, sentient) animals. But far less often do we acknowledge the human labor that's involved in the farm-to-table-to-belly journey.

Especially during an economic crisis in which millions of Americans are struggling to make ends meet, this argument raises very real concerns about working Americans struggling to be able to afford to eat out and at home.

This is how much of America has been handling that crisis.

However! The proposed Miller/Harkin bill that would raise the federal minimum wage from $7.25 to $9.80, the report states, would really serve to alleviate struggle.

Read more: Food, Politics