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Gristmill: Fresh, whole-brain news.


Big Coal buries Obama’s renewable-friendly energy regulator

Ron Binz
Ron Binz.

Anybody casting an eye down the desolate hallway of a furloughed federal department might conclude that Congress is incapable of doing anything. But that's not quite true. This week it succeeded in hounding a well-qualified energy regulator out of the energy-regulating job to which he had been nominated.

President Obama had nominated Ron Binz to lead the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. But after being attacked for weeks by coal companies and their Republican (and Democratic) friends in Congress, the former chair of the Colorado Public Utilities Commission on Tuesday gave up any hope of securing the blessing that he needed from lawmakers.

Why all the hate? Because Binz supports solar and wind power -- renewable forms of energy that he has concluded can help America hedge against the economic volatility and environmental hazards posed by fossil fuels.


Florida citrus growers binge on pesticides, endangering bees

Girl in an orange grove
Don't breathe in!

Floridian citrus growers are upping the chemical ante as they struggle to save their groves from citrus greening -- a devastating bacterial infection spread by tiny invasive insects known as Asian citrus psyllids.

While the orange growers used to spray insecticides a few times a year, The Ledger newspaper reports that they are now dousing their groves monthly. (And we recently told you about a Florida's Natural supplier that was accused of spraying its crops every four days with multiple chemicals, killing off honeybee colonies and leading to a $1,500 fine.)

Needless to say, the region's apiarists are none too pleased to see their bees being killed by the insecticides. The Ledger article describes a growing war between Florida's powerful citrus growers and the smaller apiary industry:

Read more: Food


Lawmakers seek answers after oil gushes during Colorado floods

This used to be a hiking trail.
It can be easier to tell what Colorado's floods washed away than what they left behind.

More than 60,000 gallons of oil and other petrochemical-laced fluids are now confirmed to have been spilled from fracking operations during recent floods in Colorado -- and two congressmembers are calling for a hearing into the toxic eruption.

State oil officials have been doing their best to track oil spills and equipment leaks amid floods that killed eight and destroyed 1,800 homes. In an update published Monday [PDF], the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission said it is tracking 14 "notable" oil spills that released an estimated 44,000 gallons. It is also monitoring 12 leaks of "produced" water --  an estimated 17,000 gallons of water polluted with oil and gas residue from fracking operations.

Rep. Jared Polis (D-Colo.) and Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.), the ranking Democrat on the House Natural Resources Committee, think that's pretty effing disturbing. They sent a letter [PDF] last week to committee chair Doc Hastings (R-Wash.) asking him to schedule a hearing into the effects of leaks from Colorado's fracking sector during the floods:

As Congress continues to consider policies to expand domestic oil and gas production, we would benefit from learning more about how disasters like this can impact local communities, states, and federal regulators. We respectfully request that you hold a committee hearing as soon as possible so that we may fully understand the potential grave consequences resulting from this flood.


Frackers are chewing up Pennsylvania’s forests

A Pennsylvania road
Roads carved through Pennsylvania's forests cause habitat fragmentation and reduce biodiversity.

Frackers don't just foul the air and the water -- they trample nature and carve up ecosystems into inadequate little pieces.

That's the message coming out of the U.S. Geological Survey, which studied aerial photographs of a handful of Pennsylvania counties where gas companies are using hydraulic fracturing to tap deposits in  the Marcellus Shale. The survey's analysis revealed sweeping damage and forests fragmented by new well pads, roads, and pipelines.

Jason Bell, a member of Marcellus Outreach Butler, told the Valley News Dispatch that the new study offers yet another example of why more careful regulation of the fracking boom is needed. "Often we don't get a bird's-eye view of what's happening," he said. "It's easy to see one or two wells and think it's having isolated effects."

Read more: Climate & Energy


Climate adaptation goes mainstream in Wisconsin

Federal agencies released their plans for adapting to climate change in February. The European Commission approved its adaptation strategy in April. New York unveiled a $19.5 billion plan in June, prompted by Hurricane Sandy to join the likes of London, Chicago, and Quito, Ecuador.

But climate adaptation isn't just for the big players. Today, Dane County, Wis., which has a population of 500,000, will propose a budget that includes nearly $1 million worth of climate-adaptation spending -- aimed at everything from new storm water infrastructure to sand bags and other emergency equipment.

A storm over Madison
Richard Hurd
A summer storm over Wisconsin's capital, Madison, which is in Dane County.

“We’re looking at warmer and wetter weather and preparing for the potential challenges,” Dane County Executive Joe Parisi told The Cap Times:

Dane County may have already experienced what a warmer Wisconsin could look like. Last year saw a summer drought, a winter of few but major snow events, a quick spring meltdown and then summer thunderstorms that brought flooding.

UW-Madison climate scientists are now predicting that by 2050, statewide annual average temperatures are likely to warm by 6 to 7 degrees Fahrenheit, with three or more weeks per summer where temperatures exceed 90 degrees.

Read more: Climate & Energy


In the renewable energy race, solar power is hot hot hot

Solar panels and wind turbines
It's all good.

Solar power installations are expected to edge out new wind farms this year for the title of fastest-growing clean energy source.

Bloomberg New Energy Finance has projected that photovoltaic plants will add 36.7 gigawatts of capacity this year -- up 20 percent from last year. New wind farms, meanwhile, will add 35.5 gigawatts. That's an awesome figure, too, but it's nearly a quarter less for wind than in 2012. From Bloomberg:

Lower panel costs and government support are accelerating deployment of solar energy even as growth slows in the mature European markets. Wind installations, more than double solar before 2011, are also being slowed by Europe, as well as a lack of clarity on policy in the U.S. and China.


North Carolina rejects federal funds for fracking studies

Smoky Mountains
North Carolina is begging for some fracking.

North Carolina's water department doesn't know if fracking will poison drinking water or despoil wetlands -- and that's just how department leaders like it.

We told you recently that the state is pushing to allow oil and gas companies to use hydraulic fracturing without property owners' permission. It's part of a Republican-led push to hurry-the-fuck-up-already on fracking, environmental and health concerns be damned.

Now comes news that Republican Gov. Pat McCrory's administration has turned down a pair of EPA grants that would have paid for monitoring of water quality and wetlands as the much-ballyhooed fracking bonanza gets underway. Because, um, well, they say it's because the fracking boom isn't happening quickly enough to justify any pre-fracking baseline environmental monitoring.

The state wetlands program's development unit applied for the two EPA grants before Gov. McCrory was sworn into office in January. Under McCrory, however, the unit was dissolved amid a bureaucratic restructure, and the Division of Water Resources turned down the nearly $600,000 worth of federal assistance that the state had previously requested.


Al Gore: Gutless media caves to climate deniers

Al Gore
CGIAR Climate
Al Gore

Should the media be giving as much ink to fossil fuel-funded shills as it gives to the hundreds of climate scientists who collaborated on reports being published by the United Nations?

As coverage of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's latest assessment report reaches fever pitch, some mainstream media outlets are treating climate science as if it were just an abstract political debate. They are falling into the trap of treating it as a mind-numbing to-and-fro argument with no right and no wrong -- instead of something produced through good old-fashioned scientific rigor.

That pisses a lot of people off. One of them is Al Gore.

Read more: Climate & Energy


Government shutdown would close EPA, too

John Boehner
John Boehner's Facebook page
Republican House Speaker John Boehner loves America as much as he loves a styrofoam cup full of coffee.

The chief aim of the congressional Republicans who are poised to shut down the U.S. government over the next 24 hours or so is to block the implementation of President Obama's health plan. But if they do live out their fantasy of paralyzing the federal government, there will be plenty of other consequences -- including the effective shuttering of the Environmental Protection Agency.

Here's the latest from Reuters on the looming government blackout:

The Republican-controlled House of Representatives early on Sunday passed a measure that ties government funding to a one-year delay of President Barack Obama's landmark healthcare restructuring law. Senate Democrats have vowed to quash it.

Read more: Politics


How to clean a lake with an unstoppable oil spill: Drain the lake

Oil spill at Cold Lake, Alberta
Photograph obtained by the Toronto Star
Oil polluting the ground at Cold Lake in Alberta.

We told you in July that tar-sands oil had been leaking into the Canadian wilderness from a drilling site for well over a month -- and that nobody knew how to stanch the flow.

It would be nice to update you on how that leak was finally fixed. No such luck: The oil is still leaking.

More than 12,000 barrels of leaked bitumen has been mopped up, but at least 100 animals have died at the Canadian Natural Resources' Primrose oil extraction site. So much bitumen has flowed into a 131-acre lake that Alberta's environment department has ordered the company to drain it and dredge it before the waterbody freezes over. From Reuters:

The leak, one of four on the sprawling project site, sprung up from an oil sands reserve produced by a process that melts bitumen with high-pressure steam so that it can be moved and processed. The leak has yet to be stopped, and has become the latest focus for environmentalists concerned about the impact oil sands production.

Read more: Climate & Energy