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Gristmill: Fresh, whole-brain news.


Federal officials hampering Texas fertilizer explosion investigation

burning fertilizer plant
Reuters / Mike Stone
The aftermath of the April 17 explosion and fire in West, Texas.

It would sure be nice to know what exactly caused a fertilizer plant to explode in Texas last month, killing 14 people -- especially given that 800,000 Americans live near similar facilities. But federal investigators are complaining to Congress that their work has been stymied by other government agencies, meaning the mystery might never be solved.

From The Dallas Morning News:

The U.S. Chemical Safety Board, in a letter released Tuesday, accused the Texas state fire marshal and the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives of hampering its work by blocking access to key witnesses for three weeks after the massive blast — “an unprecedented and harmful delay.”

Board chairman Rafael Moure-Eraso wrote that the “incident site was massively and irreversibly altered under the direction of ATF personnel, who used cranes, bulldozers and other excavation apparatus in an ultimately unsuccessful quest to find a single ignition source for the original fire.” ...


House votes to take Keystone decision out of Obama’s hands

Bill sponsor, Rep. Lee Terry (R-Neb.)
The bill's sponsor, Rep. Lee Terry (R-Neb.)

Those rambunctious fossil-fuel flunkies in the U.S. House of Representatives were at it again Wednesday. They passed a bill that would allow Keystone XL to bypass environmental laws and be built without approval from President Obama.

But the vote tally showed that support for construction of the pipeline is waning among House Democrats, following years of campaigning by environmentalists.

The House voted 241-175 to do away with an ongoing environmental review for the northern leg of the tar-sands pipeline project and make it more difficult for opponents to file appeals. (The southern leg is already more than halfway built.) The vote was mostly along partisan lines: All but one Republican voted in favor, and all but 19 Democrats voted against. Reuters reports that the number of Democrats in favor of the bill was down from the 69 that voted to approve similar legislation in April 2012.

"Pure political theater" is how The Guardian described the passage of the bill:


Could a Chinese carbon cap pave the way for a global climate deal?

Chinese flag against sunLike sparring siblings, China and the United States -- the world’s two biggest carbon dioxide emitters -- keep passing the climate-action buck back and forth: “Why should I cut emissions if they don’t have to?” Well, China is either the more mature of the pair, or just majorly sucking up to Mama Earth. The country is reportedly gearing up to set firm limits on greenhouse-gas emissions, seriously weakening one of the U.S.’s go-to excuses for climate inaction.

China's powerful National Development and Reform Commission has proposed an absolute cap on emissions starting in 2016. The proposal still needs to be accepted by the Chinese cabinet, but experts say the commission’s influence makes it likely to pass. China today also announced the details of trial carbon-trading programs that will roll out in seven regions by 2014. In February, the country had said it would implement a carbon tax, but backed off a few weeks later, saying it will wait until early next year to get started on that.

The commission’s carbon-cap proposal calls for Chinese emissions to peak in 2025, five years earlier than previously planned. RenewEconomy explains:

China has already pledged to cut its emissions intensity – the amount of Co2 it emits per economic unit – by up to 45 per cent by 2020. The significance of an absolute cap is that it promises to rein in emissions even if the economy grows faster than expected.


Climate activists to protest at Obama group’s climate events

President Barack Obama
The White House

Barack Obama’s advocacy group, Organizing for Action, has been calling out Republican climate skeptics in Congress, but climate activists are not impressed. They're planning to crash OFA events and push the group to fight the Keystone XL pipeline. and CREDO Action, the political arm of the company CREDO Mobile, are leading the charge. OFA is bracing for it. From BuzzFeed:

OFA circulated a set of talking points to its members for use in dealing with unruly activists. The document, obtained by BuzzFeed, includes information on the science behind climate change and the president’s environmental positions, and ends with a section titled “Keystone Talking Points.” …


Gulf Coast refineries accidentally belch out a lot of chemical pollution

ExxonMobil's accident prone complex in Baton Rouge.
Mike Smail
ExxonMobil's accident-prone complex in Baton Rouge.


Gulf Coast oil refiners and chemical processors say that a lot, but regulators are doing precious little to rein in what the industry euphemistically calls "upset" emissions.

Upset emissions are inadvertent releases of chemicals by industrial operations when something goes awry. And things seem to go awry awfully frequently. An ExxonMobil refinery in Baton Rouge, La., was averaging two accidental releases every week during one grim stretch.

That's according to an analysis by The Center for Public Integrity, which found that upset emissions are more prevalent than industry admits or government knows. Some highlights from the center's investigative report:


L.A. on a green streak: New mayor pledges allegiance to smart growth, bikes

Eric Garcetti.
Eric Garcetti
Eric Garcetti.

Los Angeles got a new mayor this morning: City Councilmember Eric Garcetti beat City Controller Wendy Greuel, a fellow Democrat, more handily than expected in a historically low-turnout race (a pathetic 19 percent of L.A. voters cast ballots). He takes office July 1.

Garcetti, a Rhodes scholar and L.A.’s first Jewish mayor, has big shoes to fill: Will he carry on current Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa’s celebrated efforts to combat L.A.’s image as a smog-choked, car-worshipping, freeway-entangled sprawlsville?

So far, the signs point in that direction. Some have criticized Garcetti for being too friendly to business interests, but he sees working with developers as a necessary component of the smart-growth strategy he’s pursued to revitalize once-blighted areas of Hollywood, Echo Park, and Silver Lake, his home turf.

Villaraigosa did not endorse a candidate in the race. But Garcetti earned the support of the Sierra Club, which called his environmental record "unmatched":

He authored the nation's largest green building ordinance, the nation's largest local clean water initiative, and legislation making L.A. the nation's largest city with a solar feed-in-tariff. He nearly tripled the number of parks in his district by finding innovative ways to create 31 new neighborhood parks. He led the effort to pass the plastic bag ban and Low Impact Development Ordinance.

Read more: Cities, Politics


Mold responsible for Irish potato famine may be gone for good


Scientists used modern genetic sequencing and rotten old museum samples to peer back in time at the cause of the potato blight that led to more than 1 million deaths in Ireland in the 1840s.

The fungus-like water mold that ravaged the country's potato crop sent hungry Irish survivors fleeing for far-flung new countries -- which is why so many people now justify getting wasted every St. Patrick's Day, saying they're sure they have an Irish ancestor somewhere in their family tree.

What the scientists found was a strain of Phytophthora infestans that is different from similar water molds that are still ravaging the world's crops. From the BBC:

Researchers in the UK, Germany and the US analysed dried leaves kept in collections in museums at Kew Royal Botanical Gardens, UK, and Botanische Staatssammlung Munchen, Germany.

Read more: Food


Inhofe supports tornado aid, says it’s “totally different” from Hurricane Sandy aid

Sen. Inhofe cares about his constituents.
Shutterstock / val lawless
Sen. Inhofe rides in on a white horse, shows his constituents he cares.

Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.) opposed using federal money to help the victims of Superstorm Sandy rebuild their homes, roads, and tattered lives.

That's because he's a fiscal grinch who thinks disaster victims should fend for themselves, Lord of the Flies-style. Right? Well, perhaps not.

Residents of Inhofe's own state are about to receive a bounty of heartfelt help from the federal government in the wake of Monday's epic tornado, which killed at least 24 people and leveled buildings across five counties.

And Inhofe is good with that. He has adopted the very reasonable position that aid money should flow in from federal coffers to help rebuild Oklahoma's shattered neighborhoods.


Canada’s government is spending millions to get you to like the Keystone pipeline

Canada obviously has a huge stake in the fate of the Keystone XL pipeline. If President Obama fails to approve it -- a decision he recently put off yet again -- the Canadian oil industry will have a tough time getting its abundant tar-sands crude to seaside ports. Prime Minister Stephen Harper recently came to the U.S. to make the case for the pipeline in person, as did Canada's ministers of foreign affairs and natural resources and the premiers of Alberta and Saskatchewan.

ad: "Canada: America's best energy partner"
Let's be friends!

And now our neighbor to the north is focusing its powers of persuasion directly on the American people. The country just launched a taxpayer-funded, multimillion-dollar marketing campaign extolling the virtues of tar-sands oil to U.S. citizens. From The Vancouver Observer:

To support the government position and its travelling ministers, Ottawa has launched a $16 million marketing campaign that includes a new website and newspaper advertisements in the US to promote Keystone KL. The thrust of the campaign is the promotion of Canada as a reliable supplier of oil and a “world environmental leader” in the field of oil and gas development.


Bill aims to tackle climate-caused health problems

Mosquitoes are bringing malaria to polar regions as the climate changes.
Shutterstock / Henrik Larsson
Mosquitoes are bringing malaria to more and more places as the climate changes.

It's not just thinking about climate change that can make you feel sick -- climate change itself is bringing maladies upon us. Allergies, fungal infections, malaria, and other health problems are taking a growing toll as the climate shifts — and they are expected to grow worse.

Some members of Congress want the U.S. government to start preparing for these health hazards. On Friday, Rep. Lois Capps (D-Calif.), Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), and two other Democrats in the House introduced the Climate Change Health Protection and Promotion Act, which would authorize the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to research climate change's health impacts and would help public health officials better plan for the onslaught.