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Gristmill: Fresh, whole-brain news.


Stellar warming will turn Earth into Venus (eventually)

For a snapshot of Earth's future, look to Venus.

Assuming life on Earth survives humanity's fossil-fuel binge (it probably will), it will nonetheless inevitably be doomed by climate change of even-more-epic proportions. We're talking about stellar warming.

Life is only possible on planets that orbit stars inside a particular band of space that enables things like moderate temps, liquid water, etc. Earth currently sits within our sun's habitable zone, but that won't be the case forever: As the sun ages and grows hotter, its so-called habitable zone creeps outward by about a yard every year.

Read more: Climate & Energy


Great Lakes shipping terminal for Bakken oil hits dead end

Lake Superior
Holly Kuchera
Lake Superior.

The Great Lakes have been spared the ignominy of becoming a conveyor for crude oil fracked at North Dakota's Bakken fields.

At least for now.

Plans to build a crude shipping terminal at Duluth, Minn., on the western shore of Lake Superior, have been shelved because of a lack of refining capacity on the East Coast. From Wisconsin Public Radio:

The oil terminal would have shipped crude from the ever-expanding Bakken oil fields in North Dakota, where production has tripled over the past five years and is expected to double in the next six years. It’s a challenge for transportation to keep up with production.

Even so, Superior Calumet Refinery manager Kollin Schade says the size and cost of an oil terminal means they need a refinery on the east coast as a partner.


Court to EPA on Gulf dead-zone rules: Make up your freakin’ mind

Is it time for the federal government to drop the hammer on the farmers whose fertilizer gushes into the Mississippi River, fueling sweeping dead zones in the Gulf of Mexico? The Environmental Protection Agency now has six months to decide.

The deadline comes via a federal judge in New Orleans in response to a lawsuit from the Natural Resources Defense Council and other environmental groups. The enviros argue that states aren't doing enough to tackle the problem, and have petitioned the feds to use the Clean Water Act to take charge. But the EPA has been wishy-washy, neither agreeing nor disagreeing that regulating the nutrient runoff should be its responsibility.

Mississippi River
Travis S.
The Mississippi River is loaded with nutrients that fertilize algae outbreaks.

From the New Orleans Times-Picayune:

[The environmentalists'] petition asked EPA to establish numerical water quality standards for nitrogen and phosphorus pollution in the Mississippi River and the northern Gulf of Mexico. They also asked EPA to establish “total daily maximum loads,” specific numerical amounts of the two pollutants that would be allowed in individual segments of the river and its tributaries.

Read more: Food, Politics


Republican solution to wildfires: Sell the trees!

House Republicans have a cunning plan for tackling the wildfires that have been ravaging the American West this fire season: They want to allow loggers to haul away the trees before they burn.

No forests means no forest fires, see?

Stanislaus National Forest after the Rim Fire
Chris Roberts
The charred aftermath of California's Rim Fire is as vacant as the minds responsible for Congress's new wildfire bill.

The Restoring Healthy Forests for Healthy Communities Act was approved mostly along party lines by the Republican-controlled House of Representatives on Friday. The bill would more than double logging nationwide and turn some forestlands into pasturelands.

But the bill will never become law. President Obama has vowed to veto it if it ever reaches his desk.


Weakened fracking law signed in California

California's Capitol.

Fracking will finally be regulated in California after Gov. Jerry Brown (D) signed a bill that annoyed drillers but also left environmentalists despondent over its mediocrity.

At issue is a nascent effort to frack the Monterey Shale, believed to hold the nation’s largest on-shore oil deposit. (Frackers in the Northeast normally target natural gas; in California, fracking is for oil extraction.) One of 10 fracking-related bills introduced in the state legislature this year called for a five-year moratorium, which was watered down to a one-year stoppage, and then the bill died. It wasn’t alone: Eight other bills fell by the wayside until there was just one left standing: SB4, sponsored by state Sen. Fran Pavley (D).

Some environmentalists cautiously supported the bill until it was gutted at the last minute amid an oil-industry lobbying frenzy; language was dropped that would have effectively put all fracking on hold until environmental reviews were completed. That change led to a collapse in green support.

Al Jazeera explains the amended legislation:


Chevron scores legal and PR victories in Ecuador pollution case

Between 1964 and 1990, Texaco drilled for oil in the Ecuadorian Amazon and left an outrageous mess, dumping 18.5 billion gallons of toxic sludge and wastewater into local waterways. Chevron, which acquired Texaco in 2001, was ordered by an Ecuadorian judge in 2011 to pay $19 billion for the damage. Chevron said, to paraphrase, "Eff you," and has been fighting the judgment ever since.

It’s little wonder, then, that Ecuador’s president is calling for a boycott of Chevron. In launching the “Chevron’s Dirty Hand” campaign last week, President Rafael Correa visited a rainforest area left polluted by the company, plunged his hand into a pool of oil, and held it up for members of the media to photograph.

Ecuador's President Rafael Correa raises an oil-coated hand.
Reuters/Guillermo Granja

A nice photo op, but Chevron is still winning the war.

Here are the latest legal developments from ABC News:


Climate change expected to bring more thunder, hail, and tornadoes

Jerry Bowley
Conditions are ripe for more tornadoes.

Hail-spitting, tornado-spawning thunderstorms are likely to occur more frequently in the U.S. as the climate changes.

That's according to new research that found the two main ingredients needed to produce these intense storms are likely to occur simultaneously with growing frequency as greenhouse-gas levels continue their meteoric rise.

The research could help explain this spring's remarkably deadly tornado season, though it doesn't explain the long calm that preceded it.

Severe thunderstorms typically occur when wind speeds high in the sky exceed those nearer the ground, and when there are also fast updrafts. As the climate changes, these two weather conditions will coincide more often, according to the results of modeling published Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Read more: Climate & Energy


As climate changes, polar bears switch to polluted food

Harp seals
Visit Greenland
A harp seal and her pup: adorable but chemical-laced prey for polar bears.

A warming world is a cruel world for polar bears. Not only is their terrain melting beneath their feet. Now comes news that climate change is pushing East Greenland's population to switch prey and increasingly eat types of seals that are loaded with chemical contaminants.

Polar bears living in East Greenland feed mainly on ringed seals, harp seals, and hooded seals. They may all sound the same to inexperienced seal-meat eaters like you and me. But these species of seals have different lifestyles that lead to different levels of chemical pollution in their meat.

Read more: Climate & Energy


One failed project, another over budget, hint at carbon-capture challenges under EPA rules

OK, but what are you going to do with the carbon after you've extracted the energy?

The EPA's new proposed power plant rules offer an unyielding compromise: If you want to burn coal in America in the 21st century, fine, but you have to clean up after yourself. The rules would basically make it impossible to open a new coal-powered facility unless it has carbon-capture-and-sequestration (CCS) technology that can keep some of its carbon dioxide emissions from being released into the air.

Despite an abundance of underground storage space where CO2 could conceivably be stashed, only a dozen or so carbon-capture projects are operating or under construction worldwide. And in a bad sign for any coal barons who might still be optimistic about the future of coal burning in the U.S., one of the world’s most ambitious carbon-capture efforts has just been abandoned in Norway. That development coincides with news of nearly billion-dollar cost overruns at another CCS project in Mississippi.

Reuters reports that Norway’s outgoing center-left government dropped its plans Friday for a CCS project that it had once likened in ambition to sending humans to the moon. It would have pumped CO2 from a natural gas plant at the industrial site of Mongstad deep underground:


In wake of Colorado floods, officials start counting oil and gas spills

Colorado flooding
Lauryn McDowell
What's in the water?

As floodwaters recede following epic storms that hit the region around Boulder, Colo., a week ago, officials are trying to get a grasp on the extent of oil and gas pollution triggered by the deluge.

Oil spills and washed-out chemical tanks only add to the devastation of the unseasonable drenching, which killed 10 people. Another 200 are still unaccounted for, though that number is falling as phone and internet services come back online.

Nearly 1,900 oil and gas wells were shut down ahead of or amid the flooding, but that wasn’t enough to prevent contamination. On Friday, the state’s oil agency said [PDF] it was "tracking five notable releases" of oil and gas and "11 locations with visible evidence of a release, such as a sheen." It also reported "as many as two dozen tanks overturned."

More from the BBC: