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Is the NSA surveillance program really about spying on environmentalists?

350
350.org

At the Guardian, Nafeez Ahmed, executive director of the Institute for Policy Research & Development, has an idea about what might be driving the massive expansion of the NSA's domestic surveillance program that we’ve learned so much about lately. It’s not concerns about religious fundamentalists who hate America. Instead, he suggests, the government is worried about environmental activism:

But why have Western security agencies developed such an unprecedented capacity to spy on their own domestic populations? Since the 2008 economic crash, security agencies have increasingly spied on political activists, especially environmental groups, on behalf of corporate interests. This activity is linked to the last decade of US defence planning, which has been increasingly concerned by the risk of civil unrest at home triggered by catastrophic events linked to climate change, energy shocks or economic crisis -- or all three.

Who would have thunk? It turns out the U.S. government is worried about climate change, after all. At least if being worried about climate change lets them use all their cool spy gear.

Across the government, security professionals are fretting about natural disasters and global oil shortfalls, Ahmed explains. The Department of Defense has written that "climate change, energy security, and economic stability are inextricably linked." They're nervous about what this means: What are people going to do when they realized they're, to use the technical term, totally screwed? The Army's Strategic Studies Institute has suggested that, in the case of a total freak-out, it might be necessary to "use of military force against hostile groups inside the United States."

Who are those hostiles? Why, they might just be environmentalists.

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Coal shoulder: BLM sells controversial coal mining lease, but no one’s buying

Wyoming has enough coal trains for now.
Kimon Berlin
Wyoming has enough coal trains for now.

Today the Bureau of Land Management in Wyoming held a sale for the lease of 148 million tons of coal on public land in the Powder River Basin -- and received not  a single bid, a first for the BLM in the state.

The sale was the first of two that the BLM had planned in the area over the next month, which combined would pave the way for the extraction of 316 million tons of Powder River Basin coal. Cloud Peak Energy had asked the BLM back in 2006 to open the site of today’s lease to mining, presumably to expand on its adjacent Cloud Peak mine. But today, the energy company decided it wouldn’t bid, and no one else stepped up (federal coal leases frequently see only one bidder). Here’s Cloud Peak CEO Colin Marshall in the company’s press release:

We carefully evaluated the estimated economics of this LBA [lease by application] in light of current market conditions and the uncertainty caused by the current political and regulatory environment towards coal and coal-powered generation and ultimately decided it was prudent not to bid at this time. … [W]e believe a significant portion of the BLM’s estimated mineable tons would not be recoverable by us if we were to be the winning bidder in the BLM’s competitive process. In combination with prevailing 8400 Btu market prices and projected costs of mining the remaining coal, we were unable to construct an economic bid for this tract at this time.

In other words, coal in this country is getting more difficult and costly to mine, domestic demand is falling, and Obama has directed EPA to crack down on emissions from coal-fired power plants. Even the coal industry’s hail-mary plan to stay profitable by pushing exports to Asia faces setbacks. We agree with Cloud Peak that starting up a whole new coal-mining operation is probably not prudent at this point.

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By 2050, flooding could cost the world’s coastal cities over $60 billion a year

Hurricane Sandy was a wake-up call for New York City, one of the 20 cities expected to see the most damages from flooding.
Oliver Rich
Hurricane Sandy was a wake-up call for New York City, one of the 20 cities expected to see the most damages from flooding.

In 2005, flooding caused $6 billion worth of damage globally. By 2050, we could be hit with 10 times that much in losses -- and that’s only if the world’s biggest coastal cities make significant investments to mitigate risk. If we do nothing, costs could soar to $1 trillion.

These sobering statistics come from a new study in Nature Climate Change which identifies the 20 coastal metropolises that stand to lose the most when (not if) major flooding occurs in the future. Sea-level rise, subsidence (the land sinking), and increasingly strong storms -- all related to climate change -- increase the risk of flooding. But much of the growing price tag of future flood losses is thanks to the growing numbers of people crowding along the world’s coasts.

Read more: Cities, Climate & Energy

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Tesla Model S rocks safety tests, gets highest possible score

Tesla Model S
The Tesla Model S: sexy and safe.

First the Tesla Model S got the highest score of any car Consumer Reports had ever reviewed, blowing testers away with its “innovation,” “world-class performance,” and “impressive attention to detail.” Now, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has awarded the car its highest rating possible, a five out of five in every category. (Note to luxury sports-car enthusiasts: Grist does not condone reckless driving no matter how high a car’s safety rating or how low its emissions.)

According to Tesla, “approximately one percent of all cars tested by the federal government achieve 5 stars across the board.” More from the company's press release:

Of all vehicles tested, including every major make and model approved for sale in the United States, the Model S set a new record for the lowest likelihood of injury to occupants. While the Model S is a sedan, it also exceeded the safety score of all SUVs and minivans. This score takes into account the probability of injury from front, side, rear and rollover accidents.

The Model S achieved such a high score in large part because it's an electric vehicle. The front of the car has only trunk space where a gasoline engine block would normally be, so it has a much longer “crumple zone” -- the part of the car that absorbs impact in a head-on collision. And the battery pack’s location beneath the floor gives the car a low center of gravity that substantially lowers its rollover risk.

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Fracking frenzy slows as oil and gas assets plummet in price

Not pumping as much as predicted.
Shutterstock
Yes, we know this isn't a fracking pump, but it's way prettier.

You know that domestic oil-and-gas boom that’s been sweeping the country for the past few years, turning places like Williston, N.D., into Sin City? Well, the party’s winding down -- or maybe it was never that ragin’ in the first place. Oil and gas shale assets, possibly overvalued to begin with, are plunging in price thanks to an oversaturated market and wells whose production hasn’t always lived up to expectations.

Bloomberg Businessweek reports:

The deal-making slump, which may last for years, threatens to slow oil and gas production growth as companies that built up debt during the rush for shale acreage can’t depend on asset sales to fund drilling programs. The decline has pushed acquisitions of North American energy assets in the first-half of the year to the lowest since 2004. …

North American oil and gas deals, including shale assets, plunged 52 percent to $26 billion in the first six months from $54 billion in the year-ago period, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. During the drilling frenzy of 2009 through 2012, energy companies spent more than $461 billion buying North American oil and gas properties, the data show.

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Democrats will soon have a big, fat fight over fracking

man and woman boxing
Shutterstock

Most Democratic politicians say nice things about renewable energy and less-nice things about coal and earnest things about the need for climate action. But when it comes to fracking for natural gas, Dems and enviros are increasingly at odds.

Exhibit A: President Obama. He's provided unprecedented support for clean energy. He's making moves to curb pollution from coal-fired power plants. He's saying climate change is a top priority for his second term. But he's just fine with fracking. His administration has yet to impose any regulations on the process; it's only offered weak draft rules so far. It recently approved plans for a third project to export fracked natural gas. Obama thinks natural gas is part of the climate solution, a bridge fuel that will help us make the transition from coal and oil to renewables, as he made clear in his big climate speech in June:

We should strengthen our position as the top natural gas producer because, in the medium term at least, it not only can provide safe, cheap power, but it can also help reduce our carbon emissions. ...

The bottom line is natural gas is creating jobs. It's lowering many families' heat and power bills. And it's the transition fuel that can power our economy with less carbon pollution even as our businesses work to develop and then deploy more of the technology required for the even cleaner energy economy of the future.

Even California Gov. Jerry Brown (D), a long-time booster of clean energy and climate action, is open to fracking.

But as anti-fracking activism heats up around the country, pro-fracking Dems might find themselves increasingly at odds with their base. As we near 2016, any Democrat who wants to replace Obama might have to start singing a different tune.

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Climate scientists are 95 percent sure that humans are causing global warming

When it comes to climate change, the writing is on the wall.
Shutterstock
When it comes to climate science, the writing is on the wall.

Climate hawks are buzzing over leaks from the fifth big climate report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, due to be officially released in September. Spoiler: Scientists are pretty damn confident that we're screwing up the climate.

An earlier draft was leaked in December by climate deniers trying to undermine the case for anthropogenic climate change. News of more recent leaked drafts comes to us from Reuters, which has no such agenda. Reuters sums up the report this way:

Climate scientists are surer than ever that human activity is causing global warming, according to leaked drafts of a major U.N. report, but they are finding it harder than expected to predict the impact in specific regions in coming decades. ...

Drafts seen by Reuters of the study by the U.N. panel of experts, due to be published next month, say it is at least 95 percent likely that human activities -- chiefly the burning of fossil fuels -- are the main cause of warming since the 1950s.

That is up from at least 90 percent in the last report in 2007, 66 percent in 2001, and just over 50 in 1995, steadily squeezing out the arguments by a small minority of scientists that natural variations in the climate might be to blame. ...

Read more: Climate & Energy

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Don’t expect that hybrid minivan any time soon

Toyota Estimate Hybrid
Toyota
The Toyota Estima Hybrid. The Japanese text translates to "Ha ha, you can't have one."

For years, Grist readers have yearned, ached, and virtually begged for a hybrid minivan. Sorry, folks. Keep dreaming.

Toyota has sold its Estima Hybrid minivan (44 mpg) in Japan since 2001, but it has no plans to sell a hybrid or plug-in minivan in the U.S., a spokesperson tells the Chicago Tribune.

Why not? Green-car expert Jim Motovalli explains:

I have brought up the concept of a plug-in hybrid minivan several times to automakers, and they always dismiss it. Their claim: Minivans are big and boxy, and the fuel economy wouldn’t improve that much with a hybrid drivetrain. Plus, they’d be expensive (the Estima is $50,000). Besides, that segment of the market is really not that big, they say.

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Your iPhone uses more electricity than your fridge

So much power at the tips of our fingers.
Shutterstock
So much power at our fingertips.

The global digital economy, also known as the ICT system (information-communications-technologies), sucks up as much electricity today as it took to illuminate the entire planet in 1985. The average iPhone requires more power per year than the average refrigerator. It’s like you’re walking around all day with a fridge’s worth of electricity in your pocket (but no hummus!).

This info comes from a report [PDF] by Mark Mills, CEO of the Digital Power Group, sponsored by the National Mining Association and the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity. So part of the report’s point is that coal keeps the iPhones on. But instead of inspiring gratitude for coal and all the blessings it bestows on us, knowing the source of all that juice just makes the digital economy’s ginormous energy footprint of even greater concern.

As Bryan Walsh points out in Time, the ICT system’s power hunger only stands to keep growing as our devices become ever more powerful and ubiquitous.

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Why your hybrid doesn’t get that promised mileage

Ford C-Max
Ford Motor Company
The C-Max had a mileage fail.

Are you a hybrid owner who's never managed to get the high gas mileage advertised on the car window? You're not alone.

From the Los Angeles Times:

Bowing to criticism that its C-Max hybrid didn't get the fuel economy claimed on its window sticker, Ford Motor Co. has restated the compact car's mileage ratings and said it will ... make a "goodwill" payment of $550 to people who purchased the C-Max and $325 to those who leased the vehicle.

Ford had previously claimed the 2013 C-Max hybrid got 47 mpg for combined city and highway driving. Now it's saying 43 mpg. That's still higher than the 37 mpg that Consumer Reports got when it tested the model.

And it's not just Ford. More from the L.A. Times: