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Gristmill: Fresh, whole-brain news.


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.”


Disinfecting wipes are clogging the nation’s sewer systems

Wet Ones Fresh 'n Flush
Don't believe everything you read.

Disinfecting toilet wipes may feel soft on the skin, but they're really rough on sewage infrastructure.

Manufacturers like Cottonelle and Charmin claim the bathroom wipes are flushable, but wastewater treatment agencies around the U.S. disagree, saying the wipes are clogging up systems. From USA Today:

"It's getting to be more and more of a problem," says Marty Sunderman, superintendent for the city of Sauk Centre, Minn. This spring, the city had to hire a contractor to vacuum out a lift station to remove a truckload of cloth material.

"Ideally, what we'd like to see flushed down the system is just toilet paper," Sunderman says. "When you put these type of rags down there, they don't come apart. They just stay with it all the way to the pumps."


World Bank joins war on coal

Coal on money

There's a new ally in the fight against the dirtiest of fossil fuels.

The World Bank's board of directors approved a strategy shift this week that will move the lending body formally away from its longstanding support of coal-fired power plants in favor of cleaner and smarter alternatives.

Following the adoption Tuesday of its Energy Sector Directions Paper [PDF], the World Bank will "provide financial support for greenfield coal power generation projects only in rare circumstances," such as where there are "no feasible alternatives to coal."


Have fun, stay single — it’s sustainable

"Being alone -- there's a certain dignity to it."
Sem Cimsek
"Being alone -- there's a certain dignity to it."

Good news, single people: Living alone not only gives you the freedom to vacuum in your underwear and leave crusty dishes in the sink; it also has a societal benefit. As a so-called “singleton” or “solo” (barf), you’re helping make your city more sustainable.

That’s what Devajyoti Deka of Rutgers’ Alan M. Vorhees Transportation Center argues. In a study called “The Living, Moving and Travel Behaviour of the Growing American Solo,” Deka found that people who live alone -- about 28 percent of U.S. households, a threefold increase since 1950 -- also live more sustainably, dwelling in apartments instead of single-family homes, commuting shorter distances to work, and owning and using cars at lower rates than couples and families. And solo dwellers tend to prefer living in cities.

Which all makes practical sense, of course. One person needs less space, and the cost of owning and maintaining a car is much more of a burden when not shared. Urban areas present more job opportunities, and solos can pursue them without being held back by a partner’s career or family obligations. (Deka found that solos make at least $5,000 more per year when they live in the city.) Plus, discounting the few misanthropes out there, most people don’t live alone because they want to be alone, and living in a dense city neighborhood offers plenty of social outlets to ward off loneliness.

Catering to a growing solo population means cities also must cater to their more sustainable lifestyles.

Read more: Cities, Living


E.U. bans another bee-killing insecticide

A bee on a sunflower
This sort of bee behavior is safer in Europe than it is in America.

Bees of America, please don't take this the wrong way, but it might be time to buzz off to Europe.

The European Union will limit the use of yet another bee-endangering insecticide, part of its efforts to protect pollinators from agricultural poisons.

The use of fipronil, a nerve agent produced by German company BASF and widely applied by farmers to kill insect pests, will be outlawed on corn and sunflower seeds and fields across Europe. From Reuters:

The restrictions take effect from Dec. 31 but seeds which have already been treated can be sown until the end of February 2014.