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Gristmill: Fresh, whole-brain news.


Ice, ice, maybe: Snow and ice melting at record speed

Take a picture -- it'll last longer than the snow cover.
Take a picture -- it'll last longer than the snow cover.

You may have noticed it’s been a hot summer so far. June temperatures were above average across the world, and both NASA and NOAA ranked the month among the top five warmest since record keeping began in the late 1800s.

Not surprisingly, snow extent in the Northern Hemisphere was at its third-lowest on record by June. But what makes the current paltry snow cover more significant is the fact that, just a few months ago, the Northern Hemisphere was unusually snowy -- April 2013 had the ninth-highest snow extent since 1967. A month later, half that snow had melted away. The Washington Post reports:

“This is likely one of the most rapid shifts in near opposite extremes on record, if not the largest from April to May,” said climatologist David Robinson, who runs Rutgers University Global Snow Lab.

The snow extent shrunk from 12.4 million square miles to 6.2 million square miles in a month’s time. By June, just 2.3 million square miles of snow remained in the Northern Hemisphere (a decline of 63 percent from May), third lowest on record.

“In recent years it hasn’t seemed that unusual to have average or even above average winter snow extent rapidly diminish to below average values come spring,” Robinson said.

It’s the same story for ice.

Read more: Climate & Energy


Dozens of new oil rigs planned for Gulf of Mexico

An oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico
kris krüg
Somebody ordered a couple dozen more of these?

It's open season for drilling in the Gulf of Mexico.

A five-month moratorium on deep-sea drilling was imposed after the 2010 BP Deepwater Horizon disaster, but those days are long gone. Now a record-breaking number of rigs are coming to the Gulf to tap gas and oil beneath the sea floor.

More than 60 rigs are expected to be operating in waters deeper than 1,000 feet by the end of 2015, up from 36 today, Bloomberg reports:

Demand is driven in part by exploration successes in the lower tertiary, a geologic layer about 20,000 feet below the sea floor containing giant crude deposits that producers are only now figuring out how to tap. Companies such as Chevron Corp. and Anadarko Petroleum Corp. must do more drilling to turn large discoveries into producing wells -- as many as 20 wells for each find.


Harry Reid blames climate change for fires ravaging his state

Harry Reid
Center for American Progress
Give 'em hell, Harry!

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has no doubt about what's causing this summer's disastrous Western fire season: climate change.

During a meeting with reporters this week, Reid linked global warming to a 28,000-acre blaze in Nevada that caused hundreds to be evacuated from their homes. After being mocked by conservative media, he doubled down and made his points again in front of a group of reporters.

Bison Fire, Nevada
Steve Dunleavy
This month's Bison Fire burning in Carson Valley, Nev.

"The West is being devastated by wildfires. Millions of acres are burning. Millions of acres have burned," Reid said on Thursday. "Why? Because the climate has changed. The winters are shorter; the summers are hotter; the moisture patterns have changed."


Crude on the tracks: Oil spills from trains skyrocket

As more oil is being shipped by train across North America, more oil is being spilled from trains. EnergyWire reports:

The number of spills and other accidents from railroad cars carrying crude oil has skyrocketed in recent years, up from one or two a year early in the previous decade to 88 last year.


Most of the spills are relatively small -- nothing like the deadly disaster in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, earlier this month -- but with oil shipments on the rise, there's cause to be concerned.


Monsanto virtually gives up on growing GMO crops in Europe

Farmer in a corn field
Europeans who don't want Monsanto's GMO crops on their land can rejoice.

Monsanto has pretty much given up any hope (at least for now) of selling its genetically engineered seeds for corn, sugar beets, and other crops in Europe, where opposition to GMO food is overwhelming.

From the L.A. Times:

Monsanto Co. said Thursday it will largely drop its bid to grow some of its genetically modified crops in Europe.


Deepwater Horizon blamed for still more oil spills

Gulf of Mexico oil testing
David Valentine, UC Santa Barbara
Analysis of oil-sheen samples revealed that the Deepwater Horizon rig was the source.

More than three years after the Deepwater Horizon exploded, triggering the worst oil spill in American history, the sunken wreckage of the rig may still be leaking oil into the Gulf of Mexico.

Beginning in the fall of last year and continuing through the winter, mysterious oil sheens were spotted in the vicinity of the rig wreckage.

A team of researchers set about trying to figure out exactly where the oil was coming from by studying its chemical composition. They matched the slicks to samples taken from Deepwater Horizon debris. They also tracked the trajectories of the oil sheens as they spread across the Gulf, tracing them back to the wreckage.

Now they have concluded that pockets of oil trapped in the wreckage bubbled to the surface, triggering the oil sheens that were spotted in recent months.

Read more: Climate & Energy


The EPA gets a new boss — finally

Gina McCarthy
Reuters/Jason Roberts
Gina McCarthy got a thumbs-up from the Senate. It just took four and a half months.

It's been 136 days since President Obama nominated Gina McCarthy to head the U.S. EPA. It's been even longer, a record-breaking 154 days, since the agency had a permanent administrator.

Now, finally, she and the agency are out of limbo: The Senate confirmed McCarthy by a vote of 59-40 on Thursday.

Senate Republicans had thrown a tantrum over her nomination and blocked it in various ways -- not because she's unqualified (she's highly qualified, and she's even worked for Republicans like Mitt Romney) but because they just really don't like the EPA.


Ohio lawmakers who oppose fracking tax have gotten lots of money from frackers

Fracking protestor in Ohio
bill baker
This Ohioan opposes fracking, but she is not a lawmaker.

Oil and gas companies have been on a fracking spree in Ohio for a couple of years now, but they're not bringing many jobs to the state, so Republican Gov. John Kasich has been trying to get them to give back in another way: via a fracking tax.

Under Kasich's proposal, revenue from the fracking tax would be used to reduce income taxes, an idea that proved overwhelmingly popular with voters, including many Republicans. And the tax would be in line with those imposed by most other oil- and gas-producing states, Kasich said.

But GOP members of the state legislature have repeatedly blocked the tax from being enacted. Why are they standing in the way? The Cincinnati Enquirer has a theory:


These conservatives like renewable energy

farmer and engineer with wind turbines
Plenty of conservatives like clean energy too -- especially clean-energy jobs.

We told you recently that right-wing efforts to overturn state-level renewable-energy mandates have been failing across the nation. Here's one big reason why: Many conservatives actually like the mandates.

The Wall Street Journal reports:

Conservatives fighting against alternative-energy mandates—which they see as unwarranted and costly market interference—are losing ground even in some Republican-controlled states, where legislatures are standing behind policies that force electric utilities to buy renewable energy.

Some of the most vocal support for the policies is coming from an unlikely corner: farmers who see profit in rural renewable-energy projects.


Wind power is a steal: Big deals in Midwest show wind’s affordability

wind turbine
Doing it on the cheap.

Xcel Energy announced deals this week that will boost its use of wind power in the Upper Midwest by 33 percent, demonstrating that wind is increasingly cost-competitive with fossil fuels, even natural gas.

The Minneapolis-based utility is buying into three 200-megawatt wind farm projects, enough to power 180,000 homes, saying they will save its customers $180 million over 20 years. Xcel already has 1,800 megawatts of wind capacity up and running in the region, but it’s hungry for more. From an Xcel press release:

“Wind prices are extremely competitive right now, offering lower costs than other possible resources, like natural gas plants,” said [Xcel official Dave] Sparby. “These projects offer a great hedge against rising and often volatile fuel prices.”