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Gristmill: Fresh, whole-brain news.


Americans cited for hiking on federal lands, but drillers can keep on drilling

Grand Canyon
Stuart Seeger
If you are caught sneaking into Grand Canyon National Park, you will be ordered to appear in federal court.

Americans are being cited for entering national parks during the government shutdown and ordered to appear in federal court. But drilling and logging companies are meeting no obstacles when they continue doing business on supposedly shuttered public lands.

Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.), the ranking member of the House Subcommittee on Public Lands and Environmental Regulation, thinks that's pretty unreasonable. Last week he complained about the disparity in a letter to Interior Secretary Sally Jewell:

Despite the federal government shutdown making national parks, monuments, wildlife refuges and many other important sites unavailable to the public, oil and gas drilling and other extraction activities continue on our federal public lands. The lack of oversight of these potentially hazardous activities greatly concerns me, especially because of the scarcity of manpower to respond to emergencies, pollution issues or other rapid response needs.

I am equally concerned about the many businesses that rely on our public lands. Concessionaires that operate facilities within our public parks and other federal lands have been locked out by the shutdown. So have river and trail guides who rely on public lands and waterways to make a living. Small businesses cannot afford to be cut off from their main -- in some cases sole -- source of income.


Huge North Dakota oil spill went unreported by furloughed feds

Wheat field in North Dakota
This is what a wheat field looks like when it isn't covered with thousands of barrels of leaked oil.

A farmer discovered a huge oil spill -- several times bigger than the recent Mayflower, Ark., spill -- nearly two weeks ago in North Dakota. But because of federal government furloughs, we're only just learning about it.

More than 20,000 barrels of fracked oil seeped from a ruptured pipeline over 7 acres of remote North Dakota wheat fields, oozing 10 feet into the clay soil and killing crops. Farmer Steven Jensen found the mess on his land on Sept. 29.

The National Response Center, which reports oil and chemical spills, posted an alert about the spill on its website this week. Reuters reports that the agency normally posts such reports within a day, but that its work has been stymied by the government shutdown.

But there's really nothing to worry about, says Tesoro Logistics, the company responsible for the spill:


Big builders hoarding fracking rights beneath new homes

Subdivision in Anywhere, Anystate
What lies beneath? Whatever it is, it ain't yours.

Some American developers have begun quietly holding on to the rights to frack and mine beneath the cookie-cutter houses they sell -- and many homebuyers don't realize it.

From a big investigative report by Reuters:

[T]ens of thousands of families ... have in recent years moved into new homes where their developers or homebuilders, with little or no prior disclosure, kept all the underlying mineral rights for themselves, a Reuters review of county property records in 25 states shows. ...

This is happening in regions far beyond the traditional American oil patch, which has a long history of selling subsurface rights.

"All the smart developers are doing it," says Lance Astrella, a Denver lawyer who represents mineral-rights owners, including homebuilders, in deals with energy companies.


One giant coal plant reopening in Minnesota, another shuttering in Massachusetts

Brayton Point
H.C. Williams
This coal power plant, Brayton Point, is shutting down in 2017.

For this coal-news update, we'll get the depressing outlier out of the way first: One of the Midwest’s largest coal-burning plants is about to be fired back up following a two-year hiatus.

A filthy 900-megawatt generator in Minnesota was severely damaged in late 2011. But following $200 million in repairs, Xcel Energy says it should be up and running again within a week. From E&E Publishing:

Once at full power, Sherburne’s Unit 3, combined with two 750-megawatt coal burners, known as Units 1 and 2, should be able to produce 2,400 megawatts of electricity, according to Xcel.

The refired Unit 3 generator will also help burnish Sherco’s reputation as Minnesota’s largest point-source emitter of carbon dioxide, the primary greenhouse gas that scientists have linked to global climate change.

But the development is an unusual one in a world where coal is being slowly but surely kicked to the curb. This week, the private equity firm that just bought the coal-fired Brayton Point Power Station in Somerset, Mass., one of the biggest polluters in the region, announced it would shut down the facility in 2017. From the Providence Journal:

The New Jersey-based energy firm cited a host of issues in announcing its decision to close the plant, including low electricity prices because of the surplus of natural gas and the cost of meeting stricter environmental rules. The move comes just five weeks after it closed on the purchase of the facility from the Virginia-based energy conglomerate Dominion Resources.


Oil industry sues EPA over biofuel mandate

Gas pumps
Old gas pumps, new fuel mandates.

Oil companies are fighting efforts to boost the percentage of biofuels in gasoline. And they're not the only ones -- some green groups are opposed to the biofuels boost too.

The American Petroleum Institute filed a lawsuit this week that seeks to overturn the EPA's renewable-fuel mandate, which requires that gas contain a minimum percentage of biofuel. There's particular controversy over requirements for use of cellulosic ethanol, which can be made from crop waste but is not currently being produced in large supply.  From The Hill:

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) issued the Renewable Fuel Standard in August, long after the agency’s statutory deadline in November of last year. The industry has repeatedly called the standards unworkable. ...

The standards require refiners to use millions of gallons of cellulosic ethanol this year, but the API argues that only 142,000 gallons have been made available to refiners thus far for blending.


Old Russian nukes provide 10 percent of U.S. electricity

Thanks for all the cheap power.

Peace-loving opponents of nuclear energy might find themselves a little conflicted over this one.

U.S. nuclear plants have been using uranium from decommissioned Russian warheads to provide an astonishing 10 percent of America's electricity over the past 15 years. From Agence France-Presse:

Rose Gottemoeller, US under secretary of state for arms control, told a UN committee [that a 1993 arms-reduction] accord was a disarmament success.

Arms control experts call it the "megatons-to-megawatts" deal and hail the accord as a little known but important example of the United States and Russia pressing disarmament. ...

Signed after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the deal was concluded as the two countries sought ways to get rid of warheads under their 1991 Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty.

But Russia has concluded that it's been getting a raw deal, so it's ending the arrangment:


L.A. Times won’t publish climate-denier letters

L.A. Times newspaper box
Jason Eppink

We can't always escape the climate-denying rants of our relatives. Fortunately, though, we won't have to read climate-denying rants from the relatives of others when we pick up the Los Angeles Times.

Last week, in discussing the fight over Obamacare, the Times’ letters editor mentioned in passing that the newspaper doesn't publish letters to the editor that claim there's no evidence of human-caused climate change:

Regular readers of The Times’ Opinion pages will know that, among the few letters published over the last week that have blamed the Democrats for the government shutdown (a preponderance faulted House Republicans), none made the argument about Congress exempting itself from Obamacare.

Why? Simply put, this objection to the president's healthcare law is based on a falsehood, and letters that have an untrue basis (for example, ones that say there's no sign humans have caused climate change) do not get printed.

Read more: Climate & Energy


Arr, matey: Russia charges Greenpeace protesters with piracy

Pirate girl
Dressing like this for the protest was the Greenpeace activists' biggest mistake.

We told you recently that Russian law enforcement suggested Greenpeace activists violated anti-piracy laws when they scaled the country's first offshore drilling rig. And we told you that even President Vladimir Putin scoffed at the notion that the activists were "pirates" -- given that they were obviously protesters, not looters.

But the cops have persisted, charging all 30 aboard the Greenpeace ship, including journalists, with piracy -- a crime that could see them each jailed for up to 15 years.

On Tuesday, a Russian court denied bail to three accused Russians, including a freelance journalist, during a hearing. Protesters from other countries are due to receive their days in court later this week. From Reuters:

Greenpeace says the piracy charges against the activists and crew members are absurd and unfounded and that the conditions of detention have in some cases violated their rights.


California utilities say, “No batteries for you!”

solar panels
No batteries allowed.

California has the nation's biggest "net metering" program, allowing solar panel and wind turbine owners to pump their excess electrons onto their local power grid so they can be sold to their neighbors by a utility company.

But in some cases the state's utilities are refusing to allow customers to take part in the program if they hook up a battery to their renewable energy system. In others, the utilities will allow solar plus battery systems -- but only if customers submit to costly double-metering upgrades.


U.S. government is buying up $300-million sugar glut

The USDA HQ is Candy Land
"Take your kid to work" day at the USDA's Washington headquarters.

Trick-or-treaters in waiting take note: The U.S. Department of Agriculture is buying up a stockpile of sugar, spending about $1 per American resident on a sweet bounty that it can barely give away.

That's because the government has been promoting the planting of more sugar cane and sugar beet crops than the over-sugared country can bear. Meanwhile, the North American Free Trade Agreement has opened an import spigot that has seen Mexican sugar flowing unencumbered into the U.S.

To reduce the financial burden on the agricultural companies that planted all those unsellable, diabetes-inducing crops, the USDA is going on a sugar-buying binge. Bloomberg reports:

Since June, the sugar glut led the U.S. Department of Agriculture to buy sugar to prop up prices, sell it at a loss to biofuels producers and take steps to reduce imports. The efforts have barely dented the surplus.

“The government is still supporting growers to produce more sugar than we actually consume,” Arthur Liming, a Chicago-based futures specialist at Citigroup Inc., said in a telephone interview.