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Gristmill: Fresh, whole-brain news.


Possibly on the GOP convention guest list: Hurricane Isaac

Just northeast of Venezuela on this map, you'll see a smear of red. That's Tropical Storm 9. In a day or two, it will be Hurricane Isaac.

On Sunday, the Tampa Tribune ran a column from the head of the University of Georgia's Atmospheric Sciences Program considering how climate change will affect the heavily populated coastal city. On hurricanes in particular, he wrote:

The Tampa area has been spared a direct hit by a major hurricane in recent years, but it is not a question of "if" a hurricane will hit but "when." While the literature is still emerging on climate change and hurricanes, a recent study by NOAA scientists suggests that as the climate system warms, major hurricanes -- Hurricane Katrina or greater -- may be less frequent but more intense. Ocean temperatures are rising as well, and warm water is the fuel for these storms. Stronger storms coupled with elevated sea level clearly means a greater inland storm-surge hazard.


New fuel-efficiency standards coming any day now — and not a day too soon

A car, going green. (Photo by dalee.)

Last week, the EPA and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration announced a delay in the release of the government's new fuel-efficiency standards. The rule was supposed to come out last Wednesday; now its release date is to be determined.

The Financial Times explains what is expected of the new standards:

If, as expected, the new rules reflect draft standards published last year, they foresee a near-doubling of US-made cars’ average fuel efficiency by 2025 from 27.5 miles per US gallon at present to 54.5mpg, under test conditions.

Mr Obama set out the plan in July last year, following an agreement with 13 leading carmakers to support the new standards, which he described as “the single most important step we’ve ever taken as a nation to reduce our dependence on foreign oil”.

The official assessment of the environmental impact of the new regulations, published by the US National Highway Traffic Safety Administration last month, shows that the changes could cut the country’s road fuel demand by up to 1.19tn gallons over 2017-60, a reduction of 18 per cent from the level if the rules were not imposed.

When the new standards were announced, auto manufacturers came out in support of the efficiency increase.

Read more: Uncategorized


If you’re building a power plant and it isn’t natural gas, you’re not trendy

Photo by Gregory Perry.

You've heard us say it before: America produces as much electricity from natural gas as from coal. It's a sea change that has happened incredibly quickly.

Today, the Energy Information Administration outlined exactly how the switch happened.

Most of the new generators built over the past 15 years are powered by natural gas or wind. In 2012, the addition of natural gas and renewable generators comes at a time when natural gas and renewable generation are contributing increasing amounts to total generation across much of the United States.

Or, in graph form:

Click to embiggen.

The Times' Andy Revkin points to this slightly older graph, which makes the trend even more obvious.

In the first chart, keep your eye on the blue relative to the other colors. In the second, look at the yellow. At the end of last year, most new generation capacity added was natural gas. Over the past decade, natural-gas generation has been dominant.


One way to stop coal mining: Cut off the water

WV coal protest: mineA coal mine in West Virginia.

Midwest Energy News has a great story about an Indiana coal company that's trying to start mining in central Illinois. The company, Sunrise Coal, quietly worked for three years to convince local farmers to sign over the mineral rights to their land, creating a 19,500-acre swath over a virgin coal seam, which the company is calling the Bulldog Mine. The coal was ignored for decades because of its high sulfur content, but recent generations of emissions scrubbers have made such coal usable -- and lucrative.

But there's a big problem: water.

Sunrise says they’ll need between 340,000 and 540,000 gallons of water a day for the first few years of operation, and opponents say that number could climb to 750,000 gallons a day once the mine gets going. These totals dwarf the amount used by entire villages in the region. The nearby village of Oakwood, Illinois, population 1,594, for example, uses 130,000 gallons a day, village president Bob Jennings said.

When asked where the mine’s water will come from, [Sunrise spokeswoman Suzanne] Jaworowski said initially, “a collection pond.” When a reporter pointed out that rainwater was unlikely to supply the hundreds of thousands of gallons needed, she said that the company is looking to the village of Homer, Illinois, which borders the mine, for additional water.


Court strikes down major EPA air pollution rule

Sunset at the Fisk coal plant in Chicago. (Photo by vxla.)

This morning, a federal appeals court in Washington, D.C., struck down the EPA's Cross-State Air Pollution Rule (CSAPR) [PDF], an effort to curb particular types of air pollution that originate from a polluter in one state but affect the air of another. The lawsuit was filed by a coalition of power producers, with additional lawsuits filed by a number of other fossil-fuel advocates. Slated to go into effect in January, CSAPR was put on hold until the court's decision.

EPA has estimated that implementation of CSAPR would have dramatic health benefits for downwind residents: 13,000 premature deaths avoided, as well as 420,000 upper and lower respiratory problems. So it's no surprise that environmental organizations have been quick to condemn the decision. The Natural Resources Defense Council labelled the decision "a loss for all of us, but especially for those living downwind from major polluters." The Sierra Club's statement is similar.

States impacted by CSAPR. Click to embiggen. (Image courtesy of EPA.)

As summarized by the court, here's what CSAPR does:

[U]pwind States must prevent sources within their borders from emitting federally determined “amounts” of pollution that travel across State lines and “contribute significantly” to a downwind State’s “nonattainment” of federal air quality standards. That requirement is sometimes called the “good neighbor” provision.

Under CSAPR, if a state like Wisconsin is found to be a source of air pollution (specifically nitrous oxides and sulfur dioxide) in another state, Wisconsin is required to enforce stricter limits on its polluters -- even if that pollution isn't present in Wisconsin itself.

Read more: Climate & Energy


2012: Fewest tornadoes, least ice, most acres burned

For you. (Photo by Shorts And Longs.)

We're living in extraordinary times, everyone. We, as a world, keep setting new records -- kicking climate ass and taking names and then coughing a lot and feeling dizzy. Just today, we have three new records or near-records to put up on humankind's trophy shelf, alongside the one that reads "Fight Against Climate Change: Participant."

U.S. record: Most acres burned by wildfire

As noted by Mother Jones, the United States can boast that 2012 is the burniest year to date in American history. From Jan. 1 until yesterday, some 42,000 wildfires scorched 6.8 million acres across the country. Here's how that stacks up compared to the last decade.

Data from the National Interagency Fire Center. Click to embiggen.

6.8 million is a lot of acres. It’s as if Connecticut, Delaware, and Rhode Island all burned to the ground in their entirety.

Read more: Climate & Energy


Coal train derails in Maryland, killing two

A coal train operated by freight giant CSX derailed in Ellicott City, Md., this morning. From the Baltimore Sun:

Two people have died following the partial derailment of a CSX train carrying coal and traveling through Ellicott City around midnight Tuesday — the second partial derailment this month in Howard County on the railway's Old Main Line. ...

Emergency workers found that 21 cars of an 80-car train had derailed or overturned. According to the police, the train cars were carrying coal and contained no hazardous materials.

According to police and other county officials, rescue workers found two people dead in the wreckage at the scene, and some of the derailed train cars crushed vehicles parked nearby. ...

According to an Associated Press report, the people who were killed were on the tracks at the time of the accident and were not railroad employees.

Read more: Climate & Energy


Bill Koch is building a cool Wild West town and you can’t come

It'll probably look like this, but the donkeys will run on crude oil. (Photo by Caveman Chuck Coker.)

Bill Koch, of the let's-destroy-the-world-for-profit-and-whatthehell-let's-take-out-democracy-while-we're-at-it-lol Kochs, is building a town in Colorado.

It has about 50 buildings, including a saloon, a church, a jail, a firehouse, a livery and a train station. Soon, it will have a mansion on a hill so the town's founder can look down on his creation. ...

This town is billionaire Bill Koch's fascination with the Old West rendered in bricks and mortar. It sits on a 420-acre meadow on his Bear Ranch below the Raggeds Wilderness Area in Gunnison County. It's an unpopulated, faux Western town that might boggle the mind of anyone who ever had a playhouse.

Don't get too excited, loser! You're not invited.

Read more: Climate & Energy, Living


Yet another ship makes it through the ice-light Northwest Passage

Congratulations to the icebreaker Snow Dragon (Xuelong), China's first vessel to traverse the Northwest Passage. (Please note: Snow Dragon is an awesome name.)

"This is the first Chinese ship to sail this route and of course it is important because it's a more than 40 percent shorter route to Europe," [Icelandic scientist Egill Thor Nielsson] said.

The Chinese are even more interested in this route after having found the passage relatively easy.

"It took almost ten days to sail from the East Siberian Sea and through the Barents Sea, and during that time there was real pack ice for only seven days," he said.

Climate change is opening the prospect of commercial shipping via the Northern Sea Route or the Northwest Passage north of Canada.

Ice breaking in front of the Xue Long. (Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.)

A route running across the north of Canada was long-sought by European explorers as a faster route to Asia. Unfortunately for people 500 years ago, their societies hadn't yet mastered the industrialization that would generate the carbon dioxide necessary to warm the atmosphere and rapidly melt the ice blocking their path. But they did eventually, making everyone very happy.


2012 may not end up being the hottest year ever — just close

Last week, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) released its assessment of the state of the global climate. While July was the hottest month ever in the U.S., it was only the fourth-warmest July globally. Sen. James Inhofe is probably heading to the reflecting pool on the Mall for a little victory lap.

Climate change deniers should, however, be hesitant to celebrate. The most obvious reason is that "fourth-warmest" puts this July ahead of 128 other years since records started being kept in 1880. Additionally, the on-land temperature in North America was the hottest it has ever been (even while the United Kingdom saw its coolest July since 2000).

Click to embiggen.

The trend, year-over-year, is clear. Using data from NASA, we looked at "mean temperature anomalies" by year, since 1880. Mean temperature anomalies are a measure of the midpoint of the global temperature's deviation from a standard -- in this case, the temperature baseline set from 1901-2000. (Read more about this measurement.) Here's what each year's mean anomaly looks like, with an orange line depicting the trend.

Click to embiggen.
Read more: Uncategorized