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Gristmill: Fresh, whole-brain news.


Gulf oil wells have been leaking since 2004 hurricane

Taylor Energy's unchecked oil slick.
On Wings of Care
Taylor Energy's unchecked oil slick.

Oil has been gushing from a group of wells south of New Orleans since a platform at the site was wiped out by Hurricane Ivan in 2004, and it appears that nothing is being done to staunch or control the leaking.

Efforts to cap the ruptures seem to have been abandoned in 2011. Instead of working to clean up or stop the spill, driller Taylor Energy Company is now providing the government with daily updates about the resultant slick.

Even those updates appear to be half-baked. A long ribbon of oil can clearly be seen spilling out from the site, but Taylor Energy claims it's much smaller than does NOAA.

On June 1, NOAA reported to the Coast Guard that the slick was 20.2 miles long and a mile wide.

That same day, a routine report filed by someone whom activists assume to be a Taylor Energy consultant stated that the slick was 6.5 miles long.

Even if the lower estimate were correct, it should be bad enough to set off alarm bells somewhere in the federal government. But this is the environmentally battered Gulf of Mexico, where petrochemical accidents are an everyday occurrence.


Monsanto says opponents may be to blame for GMO wheat escape

bread and wheat

A week after word got out that unapproved GMO wheat was found growing on an Oregon farm, Monsanto has announced the results of an internal investigation into the mysterious outbreak. The results can be summarized thusly: “Nothing is wrong at our end and everybody's crops are safe. Maybe our opponents planted our freak wheat to try to hurt us.”

From the Associated Press:

A genetically modified test strain of wheat that emerged to the surprise of an Oregon farmer last month was likely the result of an accident or deliberate mixing of seeds, the company that developed it said Wednesday.

Representatives for Monsanto Co. said during a conference call Wednesday that the emergence of the genetically modified strain was an isolated occurrence. It has tested the original wheat stock and found it clean, the company said.

Sabotage is a possibility, said Robb Fraley, Monsanto chief technology officer.

“We’re considering all options and that’s certainly one of the options,” Fraley said.


Arctic summers could be nearly ice-free in seven years

Say goodbye to this stuff.
Say goodbye to this stuff.

Everybody get ready to grab your swimsuit and head north. The latest melting projections by government scientists suggest that the Arctic could be nearly ice-free during summer in seven years -- or maybe even sooner.

But before you get all excited about the novelty of taking a dive into waters that once harbored year-round ice, we should warn you that the seven-year thing is a worst-case scenario. But even the best-case scenario published in a recent scientific paper projects that the summer ice will virtually disappear during the first half of this century.

(Also, we should warn you that the water will still be pretty damned cold, if not quite as cold as before. Also, you might get run over by a container ship. Or coated by an oil spill.)

Read more: Climate & Energy


Which U.S. city has the best park system?

Even the Minneapolis winter can't keep kids out of its parks.
Michael Hartford
Even the Minneapolis winter can't keep kids out of its parks.

If you’re a lover of outdoor urban activity, might we suggest a move to Minneapolis? Not only does the burg have a bike culture to rival Portland’s, it boasts the best park system of any major U.S. city, according to rankings released Wednesday by the Trust for Public Land in its second-annual ParkScore Index.

Minneapolis didn’t appear on last year’s inaugural ParkScore list, which ranked only the 40 largest U.S. cities (Minneapolis comes in at No. 48). But this year, TPL looked at 50 cities, and Minneapolis took top honors, bumping San Francisco, last year’s winner, to third place. New York City moved up from third to second.

Here's the top 10:

  1. Minneapolis
  1. New York City
  1. Sacramento & San Francisco & Boston (a three-way tie)
  1. Washington, D.C.
  1. Portland, Ore.
  1. Virginia Beach
  1. San Diego
  1. Seattle
Read more: Cities, Living


BP to pump $1 billion into its Alaska drilling efforts

These North Slope caribou gain nothing from BP's drilling blitz.
ARM Climate Research Facility
These North Slope caribou stand to gain nothing from BP's drilling blitz.

Not content with wrecking the Gulf of Mexico's ecosystem, BP has announced that it is expanding its operations at the far northern end of the country, on Alaska's North Slope.

BP plans to increase its spending in the region by $1 billion over five years, increasing its fleet of oil rigs at the North Slope from seven to nine by 2016.

The announcement came after state leaders reduced taxes on oil companies. In May, Gov. Sean Parnell (R) signed legislation that cuts oil taxes to a flat 35 percent -- down from a progressive tax that went above 50 percent during times of high prices.


Airlines propose weak, vague climate plan

Powerful, but not climate friendly.
Shutterstock / Maxene Huiyu
Powerful, but not climate friendly.

Major airlines have come up with yet another way of imposing delays upon the world.

Under international pressure to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, most members of the International Air Transport Association have agreed on a proposal for reducing their greenhouse gas emissions -- but the plan lacks details, aims low, and would sit on the tarmac until 2020 or later.

Aviation is an awfully energy-intensive way of getting around; the industry accounts for an estimated 2 percent of global carbon emissions.


Carbon pricing is catching on around the globe — just not in Washington, D.C.

Should it cost money to do this?
Should it cost money to do this?

More than 40 national governments and 20 states or other "sub-national" governments are now charging polluters for emitting greenhouse gases, or plan to start in the coming years, according to a new report from the World Bank.

The U.S., of course, is not one of the countries with a national cap-and-trade plan or carbon tax, but California and parts of New England are pushing ahead despite Congress' refusal to act.

All in all, about 7 percent of the world's greenhouse gases are now priced -- the equivalent of 3.3 gigatons of carbon dioxide out of the total 50 gigatons emitted annually worldwide. Not a lot. But, says the report, "If China, Brazil, Chile, and the other emerging economies eyeing these mechanisms are included, carbon pricing mechanisms could reach countries emitting 24 [gigatons of CO2 equivalent] per year, or almost half of the total global emissions."


Obama admin to lease New England waters for offshore wind

offshore wind energy

Wind turbines, long a feature of the American landscape, are slowing advancing toward the American seascape.

The Interior Department announced Tuesday that it will auction off wind energy rights to 164,750 acres of federal waters off the coasts of Rhode Island and Massachusetts at the end of July -- the first such offshore lease sale. If the leased waters are all fully developed with wind energy farms, they could produce as much as 3,400 megawatts of electricity, enough to power more than a million homes.

Wind turbines can kill birds, and construction of turbines in the water can harm marine life, but a federal environmental review found that wind farms in the area up for lease would have no significant environmental impacts.


Huge proposed Alaska mine could be next big environmental controversy for Obama

Bristol Bay.
Robert Glenn Ketchum
Bristol Bay.

While environmental groups have been pouring energy into opposing the Keystone XL pipeline, a less talked-about fight in Alaska is bubbling over into what The Washington Post says “may be one of the most important environmental decisions of President Obama’s second term”: whether to allow construction of a massive mine near Bristol Bay, one of the most productive salmon fisheries in the world (supplying half the world’s sockeye salmon) and home to potentially vast reserves of gold and copper.

Politico explains:

The focus of this fervor is buried near the headwaters of the Kvichak and Nushagak rivers, where massive deposits of gold, copper and molybdenum lie in a watershed that feeds into Bristol Bay. The Pebble Partnership, which owns the land, wants to dig an open-pit mine that could stretch for miles and would need roads, a power plant and a port.

In a 2006 feature, Mother Jones elaborated on what that would look like:

The proposed Pebble Mine complex would cover some 14 square miles. It would require the construction of a deepwater shipping port in Cook Inlet ... and an industrial road—skirting Lake Clark National Park and Preserve and traversing countless salmon-spawning streams—to reach the new harbor. At the site's heart would be an open pit measuring two miles long, a mile and a half wide, and 1,700 feet deep. Over its 30- to 40-year lifetime, the Pebble pit is projected to produce more than 42.1 million ounces of gold, 24.7 billion pounds of copper, 1.3 billion pounds of molybdenum—and 3 billion tons of waste.

Not only would the Pebble mine be North America’s biggest, it would be 20 times larger than all other mines in Alaska combined. And the companies behind it aren't even American. The Pebble Partnership is a joint venture between Anglo American, a British mining firm currently facing a class-action lawsuit from South African gold miners, and Northern Dynasty, a Canadian company whose interest in the Pebble Partnership is its principal asset.

The Pebble Mine threatens the area's important fishing industry.
Nick Hall
The Pebble Mine threatens the area's important fishing industry.

Opposition to the project has united the fishing industry and local tribes, two groups often at odds. Mother Jones said the Kvichak is “known to anglers as the most abundant salmon stream on the planet and as home to some of Alaska's most gargantuan rainbow trout.” For native communities, the hunting and fishing supported by this watershed provide a crucial source of food and a link to traditions.


National weather forecasters won’t be furloughed after all

Without meteorologists, who would make maps like this?
Without meteorologists, who would make maps like this?

A swarm of tornadoes that killed three professional storm chasersone amateur storm chaser, and nine other people in Oklahoma on Friday night convinced NOAA to make sure its meteorologists and other staff members stay on the job. That, and some pressure from Congress.

NOAA Acting Administrator Kathryn Sullivan sent an email to all of her staff as midnight approached on Friday, telling them that the agency was canceling its furlough plans for employees, including those at the National Weather Service.

The furloughs had been intended to help the agency deal with the mind-numbing sequester cuts that are being imposed on all federal agencies. But the furlough plans had been sharply criticized by members of Congress, including Republicans, who feared that forcing the agency's weather forecasters to stay at home on certain days could cost American lives.