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Gristmill: Fresh, whole-brain news.


Washington comes down with green fever, expected to survive

Two weeks ago, the Department of the Interior announced plans to open public land to renewable energy projects. Yesterday, it became public that the Department of Defense wanted in.

A memorandum of understanding between the two departments [PDF], signed July 20, outlines ways in which they'll collaborate in order to "enhance the energy security and reduce the energy costs" of Defense installations. The San Francisco Chronicle reports:

The military also has a "solar car," of which the less said, the better. (Photo courtesy of the U.S. Army.)

The U.S. Defense Department will encourage companies to build solar power plants and wind farms on 16 million acres of open land surrounding military bases, making each base less dependent on the nation's aging electricity grid.The plan, announced Monday, will help the military cut its $4 billion annual energy bill and help insulate bases from blackouts. About 13 million of the acres involved lie in Western states, primarily California, Arizona and Nevada. …

Solar, wind, geothermal and biomass facilities developed near military bases will be used primarily to power those facilities. But the projects will be big enough that the private companies that finance and build them will be able to sell some excess energy to other users.

Read more: Climate & Energy


Sophisticated energy markets maybe not great at Twitter

The international market that sets energy prices is a sophisticated system, informed by massive quantities of data and deep analysis, aimed at perfecting the balance of supply and demand. It is an elegant tool far beyond the comprehension of a layperson.

Crude-oil futures bounced up over $1 at one point Monday after a false Twitter rumor exposed the oil market's knee-jerk fear of Mideast turmoil.

That big green bar at center? From a tweet. Click to embiggen. (Image courtesy of ForexPros.)

The proper term for this is: derp.

A Twitter account claiming to represent Vladimir Kolokoltsev, the Russian interior minister, tweeted at 9:59 a.m. New York time that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad had been killed or injured, followed by two tweets claiming to confirm the death.

Between 10:15 a.m. and 10:45 a.m., futures for light, sweet crude rose from $90.82 to $91.99 a barrel on the New York Mercantile Exchange.

In the age of rapid-fire tweets, "a well-placed story can move the market, and that looks like what happened," said Phil Flynn, an analyst at Price Futures Group.

Read more: Climate & Energy


Video shows failed attempts to avert nuclear catastrophe after Japanese tsunami

Video via The Atlantic.

Unless you speak Japanese, it's not clear what this video is. You can see that it's a teleconference, with scores of people in various meeting rooms. As it goes on, you can pick up on obvious stress from the participants -- voices raised, exclamations in the background.

Cesium spread around Fukushima. Click to embiggen.

What you're watching is an excerpt of 150 hours of footage from the Tokyo Electric Power Company's (TEPCO) marathon conference following last year's earthquake and tsunami that knocked out the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant. This snippet, from March 14, 2011, shows feeds from TEPCO's headquarters in Tokyo, a remote emergency-management site, and the company's three nuclear plants -- including Fukushima.

The Wall Street Journal explains what can be heard in the unedited recording.

[Y]ou can hear the voice of Fukushima Daiichi plant manager Masao Yoshida cracking as he alerts Tepco headquarters to the hydrogen explosion at reactor No. 3; the confused back-and-forth between plant and Tepco headquarters as they try to avert a meltdown at reactor No. 2 (they weren’t successful); and the grim tones of Tepco brass as they bring up the possibility of evacuating workers from the plant.

Read more: Uncategorized


Temperature increases result in economic decreases

A reliable indicator of economic turmoil. (Photo by Joe Chung.)

An increase in temperature has a measurable impact on national economic health. Imagine how terrible it would be if we were expecting temperatures to rise significantly over huge swaths of the world!

Even temporary rises in local temperatures significantly damage long-term economic growth in the world’s developing nations, according to a new study co-authored by an MIT economist.

Looking at weather data over the last half-century, the study finds that every 1-degree-Celsius increase in a poor country, over the course of a given year, reduces its economic growth by about 1.3 percentage points. …

One consequence of this, borne out in the data, is that the higher temperatures in a given year affect not only a country’s economic activity at the time, but its growth prospects far into the future; by the numbers, growth lagged following hot years.

Read more: Climate & Energy


How the rare earth elements in your iPhone are polluting Inner Mongolia

In your pocket right now, you probably have some lanthanum, some europium, maybe a little cerium. At least, if you have your smartphone with you.

Called "rare earth" elements, these minerals critical to the operation of many modern devices live up to the scarcity implied by their name. Though the metals have been found in America, 97 percent of global supply comes from China. Two-thirds of that comes from an area in Inner Mongolia.

Where is the "do not ruin Inner Mongolia" app?

The Guardian details what the industry means for the surrounding region.

It was in 1958 -- when [Li Guirong] was 10 -- that a state-owned concern, the Baotou Iron and Steel company (Baogang), started producing rare-earth minerals. ... "To begin with we didn't notice the pollution it was causing. How could we have known?" As secretary general of the local branch of the Communist party, he is one of the few residents who dares to speak out.

Towards the end of the 1980s, Li explains, crops in nearby villages started to fail: "Plants grew badly. They would flower all right, but sometimes there was no fruit or they were small or smelt awful." Ten years later the villagers had to accept that vegetables simply would not grow any longer. In the village of Xinguang Sancun – much as in all those near the Baotou factories -- farmers let some fields run wild and stopped planting anything but wheat and corn.

Read more: Living


Is fracking linked to earthquakes? Yeah, kinda, sorta, probably

A lovely, elegant fracking rig that is tangentially related to this story. (Photo by Jeremy Buckingham.)

Injection wells used to dispose of fracking wastewater may be correlated with an uptick in earthquakes, according to a researcher at the University of Texas at Austin. The finding echoes other recent research. From a report at EurekAlert:

Most earthquakes in the Barnett Shale region of north Texas occur within a few miles of one or more injection wells used to dispose of wastes associated with petroleum production such as hydraulic fracturing fluids, according to new research from The University of Texas at Austin. None of the quakes identified in the two-year study were strong enough to pose a danger to the public.

The study by Cliff Frohlich, senior research scientist at the university's Institute for Geophysics, appears this week in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. …

Frohlich analyzed seismic data collected between November 2009 and September 2011 by the EarthScope USArray Program, a National Science Foundation-funded network of broadband seismometers from the Canadian border to the Gulf of Mexico. Because of the high density of instruments (25 in or near the Barnett Shale), Frohlich was able to detect earthquakes down to magnitude 1.5, far too weak for people to feel at the surface.

Frohlich clarified his findings: "You can't prove that any one earthquake was caused by an injection well. But it's obvious that wells are enhancing the probability that earthquakes will occur."

Read more: Climate & Energy


Oil refinery on San Francisco Bay erupts into flames

At 6:15 Pacific time last evening, crude distillation unit Number 4 at Chevron's Richmond, California, petroleum refinery exploded. From the Times:

"I walked outside and saw what looked like a lot of steam coming out of Chevron, way more than usual. I thought they must have blown a boiler," said Ryan Lackay, a 45-year-old employee at a chemical plant next door to the refinery.

"And then all of a sudden it just went whoosh, it ignited."

According to a nearby reporter, other explosions followed. The resulting fire created a massive cloud of black smoke that hung over Richmond and drifted south over the San Francisco Bay. Multiple BART stations were closed; the National Weather Service issued a "shelter in place" advisory to residents of the East Bay area.

Read more: Uncategorized


More evidence of the EPA’s deeply nefarious plot to undermine coal

The red dot on this piece of coal is from the sights of an EPA sniper.

The worst thing about the way in which the EPA is killing coal is how sneaky it's being about it. I mean, you'd think that the agency could just be direct about killing off the coal industry, using its regulations and what-not, but instead it's going through this ridiculously complex effort: shifting the international market for energy; diminishing Appalachian coal seams; making it easier to extract natural gas. I mean, you really have to admire it -- so devious, yet so effective.

Here's one example. The Charleston Gazette ran a feature focused on the slowdown in the coal industry. It's a smart, poignant look at affected workers and how the decline in jobs trickles out through a region that is deeply dependent on coal. And then it turns to the EPA.

The belief in Eastern Kentucky is that federal environmental rules are to blame for the loss of coal jobs -- the "war on coal" that officials in the region decry -- but several analysts said other factors led to the layoffs this year.

Most notably, they pointed to historically low prices for natural gas and the unseasonably warm winter of 2011-12, which left power plants with stockpiles of coal.

Other factors, such as the slow recovery in manufacturing and the broader economy, also have played parts in the drop in demand for coal.

Changes in drilling technology have allowed companies to unlock vast new sources of natural gas in recent years, sending supplies up and prices sharply down.

It goes on and on: increases in production costs, decreases in coal spot prices, etc.

It's obviously the federal government that is fracking up all that natural gas. Without a doubt, the EPA is behind coal-seam depletion in Eastern Kentucky. And clearly government regulation made the winter so warm. (See Senate bill S.451 in the Congressional Record.) And yet the Gazette broadly lets the EPA off the hook.


Gibson Guitars’ noble stand against the government ends with admission of wrong-doing

Late last year, Tea Party groups in Tennessee held a rally in defense of Gibson Guitars. Gibson had been cited by the federal government for allegedly using illegally logged ebony and rosewood. (You can read our reporting on it here.) To some on the right, this was just another case of the feds overstepping their bounds, the nanny state, etc. And this was Gibson! An American institution!

“We will fight, and we will make sure other companies do not face bullies with guns,” [Gibson CEO Henry] Juszkiewicz said at the Saturday rally [last October], according to the Nashville Tennessean. “With your help, we will make permanent changes.”

Yes! Fight the power, Hank! You show those feds who's boss!

And now, an update from the Wall Street Journal:

Gibson Guitar Corp. has agreed to pay a $300,000 penalty under a criminal enforcement agreement with the U.S., arising from allegations that the company violated the Lacey Act by illegally purchasing and importing ebony wood from Madagascar and rosewood and ebony from India.

Read more: Uncategorized


Colorado utility hits high of 57% wind power

wind turbineWhat Mitt Romney might call a "devil flower." (Photo by Eric Tastad.)

Last week, we told you about Mitt Romney's visit to Colorado, made a smidge uncomfortable by his suggesting that he wanted all Coloradans to get fired from their jobs and, worse, move to Wyoming. Well, not really. He only wanted people who worked in the wind industry to lose their jobs, and he didn't take a public position on their state of residence.

If the production tax credit for wind energy -- due to expire at the end of the year -- isn't renewed, thousands of people in Colorado could lose their jobs. Not to mention some of their wind power -- an energy source that provided a record-setting percentage of power to the state's biggest utility on a day in April.

During the early morning hours of April 15, with a steady breeze blowing down Colorado's Front Range, the state's biggest utility set a U.S. record -- nearly 57% of the electricity being generated was coming from wind power.

As dawn came and the 1.4 million customers in Xcel Energy's service district began turning on the lights, toasters and other appliances, the utility's coal and natural gas-fired power plants ramped up production and brought wind's contribution back closer to its 2012 average of 17%. …

Colorado's overnight high-water mark demonstrated that utilities can indeed incorporate cleaner power sources into the mix.

Mind you, this is at the front end of a transition to renewable energy. Wind provides an average of about a fifth of the state's power needs.