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Gristmill: Fresh, whole-brain news.


For sale: Ocean floor, ready for drillin’

This could all be yours.

If you're free on March 20, 2013, something to add to your calendar: The government is auctioning drilling leases for the Gulf of Mexico. Some 38 million acres in over 7,000 blocks will go up for bid.

According to the Interior Department’s Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, which oversees offshore energy leases, the tracts on the auction block eventually could produce 460 million to 890 million barrels of oil. …

During the last central Gulf lease sale in June, energy companies offered more than $1.7 billion in high bids for more than 2.4 million acres. The spending was spurred by pent-up demand for the acreage, after a previous central Gulf lease sale was effectively canceled because of the 2010 oil spill.

All that delicious oil, yours for the extractin'. If, you know, you have millions and millions of dollars.


Even as L.A. pollution drops, cars are giving kids asthma

Breathing well in Los Angeles is much easier than it used to be. Just try not to be a child near a freeway.

Last month, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) made an announcement: The presence of certain air pollutants in Los Angeles has dropped consistently over the past half-century. Volatile organic compounds (VOCs) -- key contributors to the ozone that comprises smog -- have plummeted 98 percent since the 1960s. The list of ways that VOCs impact health is long. But even a big reduction in VOCs doesn't mean L.A.'s air is clean -- much less uniformly clean throughout the city.

The ideal freeway for kids' lungs. (Photo by m.joedicke.)

The National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) decided to figure out how air quality fluctuated throughout the city. Looking at the amount of ozone and nitrogen dioxide in the air, the NIEHS sampled air quality across Los Angeles. Its findings were stark [PDF].

We estimated that 27,100 cases of childhood asthma (8% of total) in [L.A. County] were at least partly attributable to pollution associated with residential location within 75 [meters] of a major road. As a result, a substantial proportion of asthma-related morbidity is a consequence of near-roadway pollution, even if symptoms are triggered by other factors. Benefits resulting from a 20% regional pollution reduction varied markedly depending on the associated change in near-roadway proximity.

Read more: Cities, Climate & Energy


Romney coal-miner ad provokes complaint to FEC

Progress Ohio, an advocacy group in the state, has filed a complaint with the Federal Election Commission about the Mitt Romney ad featuring miners forced to attend a Romney rally.

This ad.

[The complaint alleges] that the owner of Murray Energy Corp. made an illegal corporate contribution to Republican Mitt Romney's presidential campaign by forcing his employees to attend an Aug. 14 rally at the Century coal mine in Beallsville, Ohio.

Brian Rothenberg, executive director of Progress Ohio, told reporters today that he would "be open" to dropping the complaint if the Romney campaign pulls a TV ad featuring several dozen coal-smudged miners on risers behind Romney at the event, or if it alters the ad to exclude the miners.

That's never going to happen, of course. This is just an attempt to call out Romney for an ad that's ridiculous. Which it is! But, come on. Romney's proud of the ad. He's probably happy to have the thing still in the news -- saves on having to buy air time for it. Besides, it's becoming increasingly apparent that Ohio will go for Obama, making the already-slight impact of the ad even less important.


Ice isn’t the only thing melting in the Arctic

This is a melting ice cube, in case you forgot what "melting" is. (Photo by Steven DePolo.)

A recent estimate from climate researchers suggested that the melting of Arctic sea ice could result in the warming equivalent of 20 years of CO2 emissions, due largely to the loss of huge swaths of the color white. White, you'll remember from elementary school, reflects light -- including sunlight. More white means less absorbed heat.

Other researchers made another discovery: On-land snow is also white. From NPR:

A study by Canadian researchers finds that springtime snow is melting away even faster than Arctic ice. That also has profound implications for the Earth's climate.

Springtime snowmelt matters a lot: It determines when spring runoff comes out of the mountain to fill our rivers. And Chris Derksen at Environment Canada in Toronto says snow also reflects sunlight back into space, helping to keep the Earth from heating up too fast.

"When you remove the snow cover form the land surface, much as when you remove the sea ice from the ocean, you take away a highly reflective, bright surface, and you expose the bare land or tundra underneath, and that absorbs more solar energy," he says.

Read more: Climate & Energy


Amtrak high-speed train will be slightly higher speed for a little bit tonight

Photo by Travis.

The Acela, Amtrak's "high-speed" rail line, is not actually high speed, hence my putting that term in quotes. At least: it wasn't, until today, sort of.

New Jersey's senators are excited.

Today, U.S. Senators Frank R. Lautenberg (D-NJ) and Robert Menendez (D-NJ) applauded Amtrak for taking an important step to advance high-speed rail on the Northeast Corridor by conducting a test run of high-speed trains in New Jersey. The initial test run is expected to take place tonight between Trenton and New Brunswick, where Amtrak will test its high-speed Acela Express equipment at 165 mph, which is 5 mph above the expected future maximum operating speed of 160 mph and 30 mph above the current maximum speed of 135 mph.

Trains in other (far better!) countries go up to 200 miles an hour, so that's not that great. But: Yeah! Alright! Faster Amtrak! A trip of 400 miles that used to take just under three hours will now take ... two and a half. And the 20-or-so-minute trip between Trenton and New Brunswick will be shortened by, like, five?


Vermont’s lieutenant governor has super-smart opinions on wind energy

Lieutenant governors never do anything. It's the Joe Biden of positions, and I don't mean in the sense that it's comparable to the vice presidency. But if it has any value, it's as a ladder rung in a political career, so people actually contest for it.

Scott suggests that a sign be hung from the bottom of this, reading, "Except wind people because we hate you."

One such contest is underway in Vermont, where the incumbent Republican Phil Scott is being challenged by Democrat Cassandra Gekas. There aren't any polls (that I can find), so it's not clear who's currently leading. But I have been able to figure out who's leading the race for IQ points.

The future of wind power in the state has become a key issue in the race for Lt. Governor.

Incumbent Republican Phil Scott supports a two year moratorium on all major wind developments in order to study the environmental impact of these projects.

This is from the Donald Trump school of talking-out-of-your-ass.

(Needless to say, that school lacks certification on this or any other planet.)


The N.Y. Times tells us how much energy the cloud uses — but not why it matters

The New York Times is two parts into a five-part series assessing the impact of the internet on our environment -- specifically, the cloud, the facilities and companies that store data and serve up sites and apps. Part one, "Power, Pollution and the Internet," focuses on the data centers that run servers 24 hours a day, using diesel generators as backup in the event of a power failure. Part two, "Data Barns in a Farm Town, Gobbling Power and Flexing Muscle," published today, focuses on one such facility owned by Microsoft that has led to power issues in both the electric and political senses.

The first two installments have done a good job of raising an important issue: A digital world is predicated on electricity. Electrons can't flip bits if they don't flow. What reporter James Glanz aims to do is articulate the extent of that electron flow. Oh, and while he's at it, critique the industry.

Some of the main points raised by Glanz.

  • "Online companies typically run their facilities at maximum capacity around the clock, whatever the demand. As a result, data centers can waste 90 percent or more of the electricity they pull off the grid, The Times found."
  • "Energy efficiency varies widely from company to company. But at the request of The Times, the consulting firm McKinsey & Company analyzed energy use by data centers and found that, on average, they were using only 6 percent to 12 percent of the electricity powering their servers to perform computations."
  • "To guard against a power failure, they further rely on banks of generators that emit diesel exhaust. The pollution from data centers has increasingly been cited by the authorities for violating clean air regulations, documents show."
  • "Nationwide, data centers used about 76 billion kilowatt-hours in 2010, or roughly 2 percent of all electricity used in the country that year …"

The series (the first piece in particular) includes odd asides dinging tech companies. Like this, for example.

Improving or even assessing the field is complicated by the secretive nature of an industry that is largely built around accessing other people’s personal data.

It's a strange point to raise in the middle of an article about power consumption, perhaps revealing the reporter's bias against the industry, regardless of what the data shows.


If we criminalize arsenic in rice, only criminals will have arsenic-rich rice

This is a bag of rice, as you can see because it is labelled "RICE." (Photo by Shutterstock.)

Recent revelations that rice produced in some regions of the South have abnormally high levels of arsenic have prompted some congressmembers to spring into action. From the Hill:

Three House Democrats have proposed required federal standards on arsenic levels in rice and rice products after a recent Consumer Reports investigation that found high levels of arsenic in rice cereal. … The Reducing food-based Inorganic and organic Compounds Exposure (RICE) Act would require the Food and Drug Administration to set a maximum allowable level of arsenic in rice. [Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.)] and other members noted that currently the only FDA rules on arsenic, a chemical that is poisonous in high doses, are related to bottled water.


  • Stop with the acronyms. Seriously.
  • I'm sure that the regulation-friendly House Republicans will rush to pass a bill that would have a negative economic impact on mostly Southern farmers.
  • Too bad the House just ended its session on Friday.


  • People would eat garbage -- literally garbage from a Dumpster -- if it contained enough sugars and saturated fats. So maybe limiting the amount of poison they ingest makes sense.
Read more: Food


Saudi Arabia turns to its other natural energy source: the sun

If you're looking to identify the mecca for solar power, here's a humble suggestion: Mecca.

According to a Bloomberg report, the holy city in Saudi Arabia is accepting bids to build 100 megawatts of solar capacity to power the city.

The plans are the latest indication that the desert kingdom is stepping up efforts to diversify its sources of energy as economic and population growth threaten to erode Saudi Arabia’s status as the world’s biggest oil exporter.

The central government is seeking $109 billion of investment for building a solar industry, aiming to get a third of Saudi Arabia’s power from the sun by 2032 compared with almost none now. The target is almost as much as the $136 billion invested worldwide in solar energy last year, according to Bloomberg New Energy Finance.

Mecca during the Hajj, 2008. (Photo by Al Jazeera.)

That's the interesting flip side to the effort: Even Saudi Arabia recognizes the need to diversify its power production. Its current electricity production, you'll be unsurprised to learn, is about 60 percent from burning oil and 40 percent from natural gas. That's not sustainable, particularly given that, as we reported earlier this month, the nation may be a net importer of oil by 2030. Diversification is a smart strategy -- and solar is the smart way to go about it.


PBS ombudsman explains how NewsHour got its climate change report wrong

"It was not the PBS NewsHour's finest 10 minutes."

Those are the first words of PBS ombudsman Michael Getler's response to the network's much-derided recent report that provided climate skeptics -- including a source with ties to the execrable Heartland Institute -- with a platform to argue against established science. Here's the report. Don't watch it if you have a history of high blood pressure.

The ombudsman outlines a number of problems with the report, but centers on Anthony Watts, a blogger and retired meteorologist who's linked to Heartland.