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Gristmill: Fresh, whole-brain news.


Giant, oil-belching sinkhole dooms more than 100 homes in Louisiana

It's looking like a neighborhood in Assumption Parish, La., has been permanently wiped out by a sloppy salt-mining company.

A sinkhole in the area has grown to 15 acres since an old salt mine that was emptied to supply the local petrochemical industry with brine began collapsing in August. Hundreds of neighbors were long ago evacuated, and many of them are now accepting that they will never return to their homes.

The sinkhole isn’t just endangering homes, it is also burping out oil, natural gas, and debris, shaking the area so powerfully that seismic equipment is being used to monitor the site. And brine from the sinkhole is in danger of contaminating local waterways. This thing is so big it even has its own Facebook page.

This is not a lake. It's part of the 15-acre sinkhole in Assumption Parish.
On Wings of Care
This is not a lake. It's part of the 15-acre sinkhole in Assumption Parish.


Study says tar-sands oil not more likely to leak; activists fault study


Supporters of the Keystone XL pipeline cheered Tuesday’s release of a study that deemed diluted bitumen -- the heavy crude mined in Alberta’s tar sands that Keystone would carry to Texas -- just as safe to transport via pipeline as other forms of crude oil. They see the results as further clearing the way for approval of the pipeline.

But environmental groups criticized the methodology and limited scope of the study, which was conducted by the National Academy of Sciences. From Inside Climate News:

[T]he conclusions were based not on new research but primarily on self-reported industry data, scientific research that was funded or conducted by the oil industry, and government databases that even federal regulators admit are incomplete and sometimes inaccurate.

Critics also faulted the study for comparing diluted bitumen (or dilbit) to other heavy Canadian crudes, instead of to the conventional light oils for which most U.S. pipelines were built. Environmentalists have argued that tar-sands and other heavy oils, which must be diluted with chemicals in order to be moved through pipelines, could be more corrosive to those pipelines. And the study only addressed the likelihood of a spill, not the negative impacts -- to the economy, the environment, and human health -- were a spill to occur.


After mass bumblebee die-off, activists call for new pesticide rules

pesticide caution sign
If only bees could read.

Even as Oregonians are mourning and memorializing the tens of thousands of bees killed in a recent pesticide spraying, they're also trying to prevent other bees from meeting a similarly tragic end. That means keeping the pollinators away from the poisoned trees that caused the deaths. And for some activists, it also means pushing for new rules and policies to curb use of neonicotinoid insecticides.

The tragedy started a week and a half ago when a landscaping company sprayed Safari neonic insecticide over 55 blooming trees around a Target parking lot in Wilsonville, Ore. Soon thereafter bees started dropping dead. The number of bees killed in the incident has risen to more than 50,000, making it the biggest known bumblebee die-off in American history. The insecticide was reportedly sprayed in an attempt to kill aphids.

bumblebee net
Mace Vaughan / Xerces Society
Insect-proof netting being draped over insecticide-drenched trees in Wilsonville, Ore.

To stop the slaughter, nets have been draped over the insecticide-drenched linden trees to prevent pollinators from reaching their flowers. The time and equipment needed for the draping were donated by five cities, three landscaping companies, and volunteers, according to the Xerces Society, a nonprofit that works to conserve insects and has been helping to coordinate the effort.

Read more: Cities, Food, Living


Supreme Court will hear big clean-air case

Duke Energy's Cliffside Coal Plant in North Carolina.
Rainforest Action Network
Beware, neighbors.

It's been a week of refreshing news for fans of unpolluted air. As Barack Obama on Tuesday was calling for greenhouse gas limits on power plants, clean air advocates were also celebrating a decision by the Supreme Court to hear an important case on power-plant pollution.

The EPA's Cross-State Air Pollution Rule was designed to cut down on life-threatening power-plant pollution that blows across state borders. It called for reductions of sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide emissions at power plants in 28 states in the eastern U.S. The rule would mostly affect coal power plants, the dirtiest of America's electricity plants. The EPA and supporters of the rule have said it would save tens of thousands of lives every year.

But owners of dirty power plants and some of the states in which they operate argued in court that the rule goes farther than the EPA is allowed to go under the Clean Air Act's "good neighbor" provision.

Last August, the notoriously conservative U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit ruled 2-1 in favor of the power plant companies, striking down the EPA's rule.

But now the Supreme Court will hear the case and could reverse the circuit court's ruling. From Reuters:


Ed Markey, climate hawk, headed for the Senate

Ed Markey
Markey campaign
He'll soon be the newest member of the U.S. Senate.

Rep. Ed Markey, who pushed climate action and clean energy during 37 years in the U.S. House, is now on his way to the U.S. Senate. As expected, he handily beat Republican businessman Gabriel Gomez in the Massachusetts special election to replace now-Secretary of State John Kerry. With more than 90 percent of the vote counted on Tuesday night, Markey was up 54 to 46 percent.

Backers of Gomez had been hoping for a repeat of Scott Brown’s 2010 special-election upset, but conditions were different then -- the Tea Party was on the rise, Obamacare hung in the balance, and the left-wing establishment took it for granted that Ted Kennedy’s Senate seat would stay blue.

This time, even with Markey consistently polling as much as 10 points ahead of Gomez over the course of the two-month campaign, Democrats didn’t assume an easy win. President Obama, Vice President Biden, Michelle Obama, and Bill Clinton all campaigned with Markey in recent weeks, and Markey’s campaign released a flood of ads close to the election, spending $2.6 million total on advertising compared to Gomez’s $1.4 million.


Calgary floods trigger an oil spill and a mass evacuation

Epic floods forced more than 100,000 people to flee their homes last week in Calgary, Alberta, the tar-sands mining capital of Canada. More than seven inches of rain fell on the city over the course of 60 hours.

Now the floodwaters are subsiding throughout the province, leaving in their wake an oil spill, power outages, and questions about how climate change might affect flooding.

Calgary floods
Keltek Trust
Soggy Calgary

Alberta Premier Alison Redford said the crisis was “like nothing that we’ve ever seen before,” the Calgary Herald reported Monday. “We will live with this forever.”

The heavy rains also appear to have shifted the earth beneath a pipeline near the city of Fort McMurray, triggering a leak of synthetic crude oil. On Monday, energy company Enbridge said a cleanup operation was underway in a wetlands area; initial estimates placed the size of the spill at 500 to 750 barrels. From Reuters:

Read more: Cities, Climate & Energy


Could Massachusetts become the first state to impose a carbon tax?

filling a gas tank
How 'bout paying a little bit more for that gas?

If a group of climate activists gets its way, Bay Staters will vote next year on whether to establish a statewide carbon tax.

From The Boston Globe:

A group of environmentalists plans to ask voters to make Massachusetts the first state in the nation to adopt a so-called carbon tax by imposing new levies on gasoline, heating oil, and other fossil fuels based on the amount of carbon dioxide they produce.

The group, which has registered with the state as a political committee, is launching a campaign to place the issue on the ballot for the 2014 state elections. If approved, such a tax would add several cents to the price per gallon of gas and could generate as much as $2.5 billion in revenue a year, according to an economic analysis that was done for the group, the Committee for a Green Economy. ...


Study links fracking to drinking water pollution

faucet and glassWhile the EPA has been dumping and delaying studies of fracking's effects on drinking water, new academic research reveals that people who live near natural gas wells in Pennsylvania are drinking the same gases that the frackers are pumping out from the shale beneath their feet.

Researchers from Duke University, the University of Rochester, and California State Polytechnic University found dissolved methane, which is the main ingredient in natural gas, in water pumped from 82 percent of drinking water wells sampled in northeastern Pennsylvania.

Methane can occur naturally in the area (that's what draws frackers there). But the researchers' study, published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, concludes that levels of the gas were far higher in drinking water wells located close to fracking operations than in other areas.

Here's a bullet-pointed summary of major findings, for any higher-ups at the EPA who might still care about what fracking is doing to the nation's water supplies:

  • Methane concentrations in drinking water were six times higher in wells less than 1,100 yards from a natural gas well than were average concentrations in wells located farther away.
  • Ethane concentrations were 23 times higher in water pumped less than 1,100 yards from a natural gas well than from other water wells.
  • Propane was found in 10 water wells located less than 1,100 yards from a natural gas well, but not in any of the wells located farther away.


Obama: I will only OK Keystone if it won’t significantly increase CO2 emissions

U.S. President Barack Obama speaks about his vision to reduce carbon pollution while preparing the country for the impacts of climate change while at Georgetown University in Washington, June 25, 2013.
Reuters/Larry Downing

Big news from President Obama's climate speech: He says he won't approve construction of the Keystone XL pipeline if it will "significantly exacerbate the problem of carbon pollution."

It's hard to know exactly what he means by that, but it's a surprise that he mentioned Keystone at all. Pundits expected he would keep silent on the issue.

Here's what he said:


Blame Canada: Greedy for oil money, the country is turning into a rogue petrostate

Forest Ethics

When I recently interviewed Canadian artist Franke James, whose outspoken appeals to her government for climate action landed her on Ottawa’s shit list, I was taken aback to hear her casually refer to her country as a “petrostate.” I knew Canada’s been spending gobs of federal money to promote its tar-sands agenda, but I didn’t realize our mild-mannered northern neighbor was approaching the ranks of Saudi Arabia and Nigeria in its single-minded embrace of oil as the nation’s lifeblood.

An unforgiving article in the latest Foreign Policy magazine lays out how conservative Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper has been aggressively pursuing development of the Alberta oil sands and remaking the country in the political image of the George W. Bush-era United States:

Over the last decade, as oil prices increased fivefold, oil companies invested approximately $160 billion to develop bitumen in Alberta, and it has finally turned profitable. Canada is now cranking out 1.7 million barrels a day of the stuff, and scheduled production stands to fill provincial and federal government coffers with about $120 billion in rent and royalties by 2020. More than 40 percent of that haul goes directly to the federal government largely in the form of corporate taxes. And the government wants even more; it's pushing for production to hit 5 million barrels a day by 2030. …

Unsurprisingly, Ottawa has become a master at the cynical art of greenwashing. When Harper's ministers aren't attacking former NASA scientist and climate change canary James Hansen in the pages of the New York Times or lobbying against Europe's Fuel Quality Directive (which regards bitumen as much dirtier than conventional oil), his government has spent $100 million since 2009 on ads to convince Canadians that exporting this oil is "responsible resource development." Meanwhile, Canada has bent over backward to entice Beijing. Three state-owned Chinese oil companies (all with dismal records of corporate transparency and environmental sensitivity) have already spent more than $20 billion purchasing rights to oil sands in Alberta.