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Gristmill: Fresh, whole-brain news.


A royal(ty) scam: How oil and gas companies shortchange landowners

Steven Jenkins

Discovering you live over an oil or gas deposit, in theory, presents you with a nice retirement plan. Lease the drilling rights to an energy company and you could be looking at thousands of dollars a month in royalties for as long as the fuel lasts. In fact, one of the arguments for expanded domestic drilling holds that those royalties will boost rural economies by putting extra cash in the pockets of local landowners, and funnel extra revenue to the federal government, as around 30 percent of drilling in the U.S. takes place on federal land.

It sounds like a sweet deal, so of course there must be a catch. Those royalties, it turns out, rarely end up being as high as expected, thanks to oil companies’ manipulation of the opaque formulas dictating how much drilling income the landowner ultimately sees. That's according to an investigation by ProPublica:

In many cases, lawyers and auditors who specialize in production accounting tell ProPublica energy companies are using complex accounting and business arrangements to skim profits off the sale of resources and increase the expenses charged to landowners.


“Bee-friendly” plants could be bee killers

A honeybee on a flower
Be a friend to a bee and be wary of "bee-friendly" products.

Beware of buying "bee-friendly" plants -- they might end up killing your friendly backyard bees.

As gardeners have been waking up to the pollinator crisis, many have been planting bee-friendly veggies and flowers and keeping neonicotinoid insecticides away from their plots. But some plants being marketed to these bee-loving gardeners could actually be harmful to pollinators, according to a new report.

Friends of the Earth and the Pesticide Research Institute bought 13 "bee-friendly" nursery plants from Home Depot, Lowe's, and Orchard Supply Hardware in three American regions and found that seven of them were contaminated with neonic insecticides, which have been implicated in worldwide bee declines. Some plants contained two types of neonics. A sunflower plant purchased in Minnesota tested positive for three of them.

Read more: Food, Living


More of America’s wind turbines are actually being built in America

Wind turbines -- made in America

The equipment that’s powering America’s wind energy boom is increasingly being made right at home.

In 2007, just 25 percent of turbine components used in new wind farms in the U.S. were produced domestically. By last year, that figure had risen to 72 percent, according to a new report from the U.S. Department of Energy. And exports of such equipment rose to $388 million last year, up from $16 million in 2007.

This happened even as the U.S. was installing a whole lot of turbines. More than 13.1 gigawatts of new wind power capacity was added to the U.S. grid in 2012, representing $25 billion of investment. That made wind the nation’s fastest-growing electricity source last year, faster even than natural gas–fueled power.


Undercover agents infiltrate anti-Keystone protests

Is this spy a cop or a private investigator? Either way, watch out.

What do you get when you mix America's national security apparatus with TransCanada's determination to build a tar-sands pipeline between Canada and the Gulf of Mexico?

A whole lot of arrests.

Earth Island Journal profiles the infiltration of peaceful Keystone protest groups by police and investigators -- and in so doing paints a troubling picture of a government security force working in league with TransCanada:

On the morning of March 22 activists had planned to block the gates at the company’s strategic oil reserves in Cushing, Oklahoma as part of the larger protest movement against TransCanada’s tar sands pipeline. But when they showed up in the early morning hours and began unloading equipment from their vehicles they were confronted by police officers. Stefan Warner, an organizer with Great Plains Tar Sands Resistance, says some of the vehicles en route to the protest site were pulled over even before they had reached Cushing. He estimates that roughly 50 people would have participated— either risking arrest or providing support. The act of nonviolent civil disobedience, weeks in the planning, was called off.


BP whines some more about how rough life is

Not that big a deal, really.
Not that big a deal, really.

BP killed 11 workers when the Deepwater Horizon rig blew up, and then it obstructed government investigators. That's not editorializing -- the company pled guilty to manslaughter and obstruction charges. Since you can't imprison a corporation, it was punished in other ways. One of those punishments was a temporary ban on getting new federal contracts.

Never one to miss an opportunity to publicly whine about how unfair the world is for an explosion-prone petrochemical giant, BP sued the U.S. government on Monday over the suspension, arguing in court that it is arbitrary, capricious, and “an abuse of discretion.” From Fuel Fix:

BP ... wants a judge to order the EPA to lift the suspension and allow BP to bid for and secure new government contracts.


Even nuclear weapons are going green

Pantex Plant
Pantex Plant
The project's logo.

If the nuclear apocalypse comes, at least it will be a little more climate-friendly.

Construction of five 400-foot wind turbines is beginning today at America's main site for assembling, disassembling, and maintaining its nuclear arsenal.

The 2.3-megawatt turbines are expected to produce more than half of the power used at the Pantex Plant in the Texas Panhandle. When the blades start spinning next summer, the facility will be the largest federally owned wind farm.


Climate-denier politicians under attack by new ad campaign

Sen. Rod Johnson
Sen. Ron Johnson will be the target of a new ad from LCV.

Here comes more bad PR for climate change–denying politicians.

Barack Obama's advocacy group, Organizing for Action, began trying to embarrass denier Republicans earlier this year. Now the League of Conservation Voters is piling on, spending nearly $2 million on TV advertisements aimed at four GOP flat earthers.

Ads unveiled Monday ridicule the voting records and anti-scientific statements of Reps. Dan Benishek (Mich.), Mike Coffman (Colo.), and Rodney Davis (Ill.), and a fourth ad will soon target Sen. Ron Johnson (Wis.). From a League of Conservation Voters press release:


Ozone hole could be making global warming worse

Hole in the ozone layer
A record-breaking hole in the ozone layer in September 2000.

It's like Lord Voldemort joining forces with The Penguin.

Two of the globe's most epic environmental threats appear to be ganging up on us: The hole in the ozone layer could be hastening global warming.

Yes, the hole in the ozone layer. It still exists, though it has been getting smaller because the world rightly panicked and began phasing out the use of CFCs in the 1980s. It was previously thought that the hole was helping to slow down global warming, but new research published in Geophysical Research Letters suggests the opposite. From Nature:

Read more: Climate & Energy


White House calls for more grid spending as climate changes

Power pole felled by Superstorm Sandy
Superstorm Sandy got the better of this power pole in New Jersey last year.

An era of ferocious storms and wildfires is not mixing well with America's aging electrical grid.

The White House published a report Monday calling for a substantial amount of money to be spent fortifying the country's electrical grid, better protecting transmission lines and other infrastructure from storms, floods, and other severe weather events. From the report [PDF]:

Severe weather is the number one cause of power outages in the United States and costs the economy billions of dollars a year in lost output and wages, spoiled inventory, delayed production, inconvenience and damage to grid infrastructure. Moreover, the aging nature of the grid -- much of which was constructed over a period of more than one hundred years -- has made Americans more susceptible to outages caused by severe weather. Between 2003 and 2012, roughly 679 power outages, each affecting at least 50,000 customers, occurred due to weather events.


Carbon offsets plan stirs up controversy in California

Oil refinery
California polluters will soon be able to buy CO2 offsets.

The owners of California’s most polluting industries will be breathing a little easier under a greenhouse gas rule being developed by the state — but their neighbors will not be so lucky.

Californian businesses will soon be allowed to purchase carbon offsets to help them achieve up to 8 percent of required greenhouse gas reductions under the state’s climate change rules. So an oil refinery or factory could sink some funds into a reforestation or energy-efficiency project somewhere else in the U.S. and not reduce its own pollution as much.

The carbon offset rule, being developed by the California Air Resources Board (ARB), will help ensure that the state’s climate change regulations do what they are intended to do — reduce the amount of greenhouse gases going into the atmosphere.