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Gristmill: Fresh, whole-brain news.


Chevron faces criminal investigation into attempts to hide pollution

After one of the distillation units at its Richmond, Calif., facility exploded last month, Chevron went into image rehabilitation mode. After this morning's San Francisco Chronicle story, the company's going to have to work a lot harder.

Federal authorities have opened a criminal investigation of Chevron after discovering that the company detoured pollutants around monitoring equipment at its Richmond refinery for four years and burned them off into the atmosphere, in possible violation of a federal court order, The Chronicle has learned.

Air quality officials say Chevron fashioned a pipe inside its refinery that routed hydrocarbon gases around monitoring equipment and allowed them to be burned off without officials knowing about it. Some of the gases escaped into the air, but because the company didn’t record them, investigators have no way of being certain of the level of pollution exposure to thousands of people who live downwind from the plant.

According to investigators from the Bay Area Air Quality Management District (BAAQMD), Chevron ran 100 feet of three-inch pipe from a processing system to a flare tower (used for combusting waste gasses), in the process shunting the gas around a tool meant to monitor waste gas production. The company claimed that the pipe was used to "balance pressure." The BAAQMD "could find no legitimate use for it."

The August refinery explosion. (Photo by stephen schiller.)


House passes terrible ‘Stop the War on Coal’ bill before heading to recess

Photo by ashboy.

We haven't yet mentioned the "Stop the War on Coal Act" in these humble pages, for four reasons. First, there is not a "war on coal," though the world would be a better place if there were. Second, the legislation is basically an attempt to troll advocates for the environment, so to Hell with that. Third, it's not going to pass the Senate, and even if it did, Obama wouldn't sign it, and even if it did and Obama lost and it came before Romney, he wouldn't sign it. Fourth, it's so deeply, cynically political that it's embarrassing.

This bill is loaded with exceptionally shitty nonsense. Kate Sheppard has a good write-up at Mother Jones. (They've had a good week.) She explains that the bill ...

... would take away the power to regulate a lot of things -- mountaintop-removal coal mining, greenhouse gas emissions, coal ash disposal, mercury and air toxins. ...

It's just all kinds of bad -- throwing out many rules dealing with coal and preventing the EPA and the Department of Interior from regulating in the future. That includes both coal mining and coal burning in power plants.

The bill was passed in the House 233 to 175 on Friday, the last thing members did before walking out the doors of the Capitol and down the marble stairs into the sunset. AP summarizes their triumphant year:


Shell sues Greenpeace because it can’t sue its own incompetence

"I am here to drill up your ocean." (Photo by Fabio DiLupo.)

Embarrassing clown show Shell Oil is floating around the Arctic Ocean off the coast of Alaska, probably in poorly patched inner tubes while wearing those beer-can-straw hats. If you don't remember the full history of the company's sheer ineptitude in the area, it's here. It is perfectly fair to assume that it hired a bunch of interns, bought three rowboats and an augur, and gave Arctic drilling a shot.

Anyway, yesterday the company was granted yet another permit to poke around on the floor of the ocean near Alaska. Like a kid who's just coming off being grounded, it's on a short leash -- only allowed to drill into shallow areas and to work on a system to bury the blowout preventer beneath the ocean floor. Shell probably tried to talk back and got yelled at. It tried to get another permit, but that one was rejected because it can't properly operate the containment dome that is supposed to be used in the event of a spill. I think, anyway. I mean, I literally can't even keep track any more. This has been months of trying to track the bajillion errors and complaints and excuses Shell is laying out.

I also love that the argument in response to this from people like Sarah Palin would likely be, "There's too much regulation!" instead of "Thank fucking God that we have processes in place that keep companies with all of the dexterity of Cosmo Kramer from driving up to Alaska and creating conduits between pools of oil and polar bears' faces." More regulation on this shit, please.

But none of that is the point of this post. The point of this post is that Shell has finally figured out who to blame for the fact that it's terrible at the only thing it's supposed to be good at. Who's at fault? Greenpeace.


China, E.U. partner to bolster Chinese carbon trading

No country in the world produces more carbon dioxide than China. On a per-person basis, the nation trails the United States, and is about equivalent with Europe. But overall? There's no contest. China is often used as a cudgel in American politics: Why should our industries slash carbon emissions, the argument goes, when our output pales in comparison to theirs?

Here's an answer: Because China is working to cut its emissions. With support from the European Union, China will, among other projects, develop its own emissions trading schemes (ETSs). Or, in other words: cap-and-trade. From Reuters:

China, the world's biggest carbon dioxide emitter, has struck a deal to work with the European Union to cut greenhouse gases through projects including the development of Chinese emissions trading schemes, the European Commission said on Thursday. …

The European Union will contribute 25 million euros ($33 million) and technical assistance over a four-year period to three carbon-reduction projects.

Apart from helping with the design and implementation of emissions trading schemes in China, the other projects are to assist Chinese cities to be resource-efficient and to cut water and heavy-metal pollution and implement sustainable waste treatment policies.


Victory for raw-milk seller in Minnesota

If your cow looks like this, don't drink its milk.

Another day, another big update on legal issues surrounding milk.

A soft-spoken Minnesota farmer was cleared of violating state laws for distributing raw milk Thursday, a verdict advocates for such foods called their first major legal victory.

The farmer stands in contrast to all of those loud, rambunctious people for which Minnesota is famous.

After a three-day trial and more than four hours of deliberation, a Hennepin County jury found Alvin Schlangen not guilty of three misdemeanor counts of selling unpasteurized milk, operating without a food license and handling adulterated or misbranded food.

The trial highlighted a deep national divide between raw milk advocates who contend unpasteurized dairy products can relieve allergies and prevent illness and public health officials who warn that raw milk can cause serious and sometimes fatal diseases, such as E. coli, salmonella and listeria. …

Read more: Food, Living


Scott Brown and Elizabeth Warren debate climate change

Image by DonkeyHotey.

Unless you live in Massachusetts, you may not be aware that there was a debate in the state commonwealth's Senate race on Thursday. You may also have not been aware that there is a Senate race. (You are hopefully aware that there exists a governmental body called "the Senate.")

The race has drawn a lot of attention for a few reasons. First, the sitting senator, Republican Scott Brown, won election in 2010 in a heavily Democratic state over a candidate supported by President Obama. Second, his opponent is Elizabeth Warren, whose work inspired the president to create the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. Third, the GOP is making a push to control the Senate this year. If they lose the Massachusetts seat, that becomes all but impossible.

As befits a Senate race, the debate focused on national issues, including, among its seven questions, a question on climate change. Video of the full debate is below; the question on climate change begins at 48:19. (An editorial aside: Watching this will bring back memories of high school class president elections in which the smart honor roll student takes on the popular quarterback.)

The question: "Do you believe climate change is real, and, if so, what should the federal government be doing about it?"


Farewell, summer from hell

God, we missed you so much, fall. Don't ever leave* us again. (* Ugh.)

Today is the last day of summer in these United States. It has been a crappy one.

Not, like, your summer. I'm sure your summer was great: ice cream and swimming and lots of time at the arcade, or whatever you do for fun. I mean it's been crappy for these United States.

For one thing, it was hot. 2012 is on track to easily be the hottest year in America's recorded history:

Since January, year-to-date temperatures for the continental US have consistently run well above the 20th-century average with each passing month – reaching a maximum of 6 degrees Fahrenheit above average for the period ending March 31, then declining steadily to 4 degrees F above the 20th-century average for the period ending August 31. …

Still, that 4 degrees is at least a full degree higher than January-to-August averages in any of the five warmest years on record.


Read more: Uncategorized


A man, a plan, a pipeline: The tycoon guiding Romney on energy

Reuters has an extremely long profile of our old friend Harry Hamm: Romney advisor, oil tycoon, patriot.

Some excerpts!

Once again, ladies and gents -- Harold Hamm. (Photo by Continental Resources.)

On Keystone XL

In 2009, the 66-year-old founder and chief executive of Continental Resources formed a lobby group of fellow Oklahoma oilmen and reached out to state governors, landowners and environmentalists along the proposed route. Hamm feared Keystone XL would flood his firm's backyard with cheap Canadian oil.

"We basically stopped Keystone at the border," Hamm said in an interview with Reuters, explaining how the alliance was able to stymie permits for the line. "We didn't want all that oil dumped in Oklahoma."

A year later, in 2010, Hamm turned around and backed the line after his lobbying succeeded in persuading the operator, TransCanada Corp., to add a $140 million extension, or spur. That addition would pick up Hamm's crude and that of other nearby U.S. producers and carry it to the refining hub along the Gulf of Mexico coast.

"When that changed, we felt like we had to support it," Hamm said.

The spur line could allow Continental to net an extra $20 per barrel for the crude it ships down the line. That adds up to as much as $200 million a year for Continental, after transportation costs, according to Reuters calculations that were vetted by industry analysts.

On Romney


Romney opposes key support to wind industry, opposes Obama not helping wind industry

How can you tell when Mitt Romney is talking politics? Both sides of his mouth are moving.

For a while now, we've been blustering about a stupid impediment the wind industry faces -- the expiration of a tax credit for energy producers that puts an incentive on wind energy. The production tax credit (PTC), as its known, exists for a slew of other renewable sources, but only wind's is due to expire on Dec. 31. With an extension of the credit looking unlikely, wind power companies are cutting back on production, uncertain if the same (very high!) level of demand will exist in 2013. And cutting back on production means layoffs.

A wind farm in Minnesota. (Photo by Nic McPhee.)

The New York Times picked up the story:

The tax break, which costs about $1 billion a year, has been periodically renewed by Congress with support from both parties. This year, however, it has become a wedge issue in the presidential contest. President Obama has traveled to wind-heavy swing states like Iowa to tout his support for the subsidy. Mitt Romney, the Republican nominee, has said he opposes the wind credit, and that has galvanized Republicans in Congress against it, perhaps dooming any extension or at least delaying it until after the election despite a last-ditch lobbying effort from proponents this week.

Opponents argue that the industry has had long enough to wean itself from the subsidy and, with wind representing a small percentage of total electricity generation, the taxpayers’ investment has yielded an insufficient return.

Reminder: the oil industry is celebrating its 96th year of receiving government subsidies.


Study on GMO corn requires a non-GMO grain of salt

The Daily Mail is a British tabloid in the classic tradition of tabloids: sensationalized, eager to entertain, shallow. Here's an example headline it ran today: "Michelle thought diet pills could help her drop a dress size. Now she's got just ten years to live." I mean, that's a pretty solid headline right there. Clicking through, the story is a lot less salacious -- anecdotal experiences are prominent, while scientific evidence is mostly used as filler. A good reminder to take what you read in the Daily Mail with a grain of salt.

Here's another one of its headlines, this time from yesterday: "Cancer row over GM foods as study says it did THIS to rats... and can cause organ damage and early death in humans." The article is paired with truly grotesque photos of tumor-swollen rats, and a shot of a protestor dressed as the grim reaper in a field of corn.

Not the lab rats from the study. (Photo by jurvetson.)

Let's let Reuters describe the research behind this story.

Rats fed a lifetime diet of Monsanto's genetically modified corn or exposed to its top-selling weedkiller Roundup suffered tumours and multiple organ damage, according to a French study published on Wednesday. …

Gilles-Eric Seralini of the University of Caen and colleagues said rats fed on a diet containing NK603 -- a seed variety made tolerant to dousings of Roundup -- or given water containing Roundup at levels permitted in the United States died earlier than those on a standard diet.

The animals on the GM diet suffered mammary tumours, as well as severe liver and kidney damage.

The researchers said 50 percent of males and 70 percent of females died prematurely, compared with only 30 percent and 20 percent in the control group.

Wow, right? Yeah, the Daily Mail put a powerful headline on the report, but this time it's clearly warranted!

Except for what's hidden behind that ellipsis up there.

Read more: Food