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Gristmill: Fresh, whole-brain news.


Boulder and other Colorado cities try to fight fracking

Boulder, Colo.
Boulder tells frackers to piss off -- for the next year, at least.

Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper (D) loves fracking -- he once even drank fracking fluid to prove it -- but other elected officials in the state are not so gung ho. A handful of Colorado cities are trying to limit or ban the practice -- and are finding that it's not so easy to do.

Boulder is the latest Colorado municipality to take on the frackers. Last week, its city council unanimously passed a one-year moratorium on fracking within city limits and on city-owned open space, and council members are considering options for a more long-term policy. From the Boulder Daily Camera:

Read more: Climate & Energy


Nicaragua may let Chinese company build a canal to rival Panama’s

Lago de NIcaragua would become a shipping channel, part of a proposed inter-ocean canal
Lago de Nicaragua would become a shipping channel, part of a proposed inter-ocean canal.

It would take an estimated 11 years and $40 billion to excavate a proposed canal through 130 miles of Nicaragua to link the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, providing shippers with an alternative route to the Panama Canal. And the project would have a huge environmental impact on the country, slicing through rainforest and messing with waterways.

But enough already with boring facts and details. President Daniel Ortega is trying to ram the project through his country's congress faster than Dick Cheney rammed America's Patriot Act through after 9/11.


U.S. and China team up to fight climate-changing HFCs

Xi Jinping and Barack Obama
White House / Pete Souza
Xi Jinping and Barack Obama, having a tie-less chat about cyberespionage and climate change.

Hydrofluorocarbons, the climate-changing twins of ozone-ruining chlorofluorocarbons, had best watch out. The world's two most powerful countries have agreed to join forces to prevent the harmful chemicals from entering the atmosphere.

Barack Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping spent Friday and Saturday talking in California. They couldn't find much middle ground on cyberespionage, or on a handful of other security issues. But they agreed that their two countries will work together to tackle one of the world's greatest climate threats.

"[N]either country by itself can deal with the challenge of climate change," Obama said at a press conference with Xi.


How fracking companies exploit Amish farmers

Arthur Chapman

It's no secret that fracking companies engage in some shady behavior. But a report in The New Republic reveals just how low they'll sink in the rush to exploit natural gas: Energy companies in eastern Ohio -- home to the world's largest Amish population and billions of dollars worth of oil and gas reserves -- have been convincing Amish farmers to sign away drilling rights to their land for far less than they're worth, knowing that because their religious tradition frowns on lawsuits, the landowners will have little recourse for justice once they realize they've been duped.

Lloyd Miller, for example, an Amish farmer near Millersburg, Ohio, said an agent from Kenoil offered him $10 an acre to drill for shale gas on his 158 acres, promising it was the best deal around. Strapped for cash at the time, Miller and his wife said yes, figuring, “Hey, that’s $1,500 we didn’t have,” Miller explained. But they soon found out many non-Amish farmers in the area were leasing drilling rights for as much as $1,000 an acre. Miller consulted with a lawyer, who told him the agent had committed fraud by promising that $10 an acre was the best he could get. The Millers had grounds to sue -- but that's something that, in accordance with their Amish beliefs, they'd never do. Of the Kenoil agent, Miller said: “He’s got to live with his conscience.”

The New Republic explains:

Their prohibition on the courts derives from the portion of the Sermon on the Mount where Jesus instructs his followers to turn the other cheek, and if they are sued for their coats, to give up their cloaks, too. The Amish interpret this to mean that the court is no place to right wrongs. In 2011, for example, after the Securities and Exchange Commission charged a local man, Monroe L. Beachy, with running a Ponzi scheme that wiped out nearly $17 million in Amish retirement savings, a committee representing his some 2,500 Amish creditors asked a judge to dismiss his bankruptcy case so that they could resolve his debts amongst themselves.

Lest you're tempted to give fracking companies the benefit of the doubt, a lawyer for Columbia Gas Transmission Corp. told The New Republic that the Amish restriction on litigation is “a known fact to us.”

One local father-and-son law firm said it had consulted with dozens of Amish landowners in the area who had been misled by energy companies in a manner similar to the Millers.


Canadian power plant is buying up Detroit’s pile of tar-sands waste, burning it

Detroit's ugly petcoke pile
Detroit Coalition Against Tar Sands
Detroit's ugly petcoke pile

Residents of Detroit who've railed against the recent mushrooming of a three-story-high pile of petrochemical waste on their riverfront may be pleased to know that the petcoke is gradually being shipped back to Canada.

But while the news might be good for Detroiters, it's not so good for Canadians -- or anyone who cares about a livable climate. A Nova Scotia power plant is now burning the cheap, filthy fuel to produce electricity.

The petcoke is a byproduct of refining tar-sands oil, which began recently at a Detroit refinery. The pile's growth over the past six months has disgusted residents and their elected leaders. Rep. Gary Peters (D-Mich.) introduced legislation in Congress that would direct the federal government to investigate the health and environmental impacts of the uncovered waste. A state lawmaker introduced a bill that would require such waste to be stored inside enclosed structures. And the Detroit City Council is mulling options [PDF] for dealing with the blight.

It's difficult to legally burn petcoke for energy in the U.S. because of the pollution it creates, but power plants in other countries -- like Canada, apparently -- are happy to buy it up and burn it.


Keystone XL isn’t even built yet and already it’s faulty

A section of faulty pipeline.
David Whitley via Public Citizen Texas
A section of faulty pipeline.

Property owners who watched with disgust and fear as TransCanada contractors ripped up their land to lay the southern leg of the Keystone XL pipeline are being treated to a repeat performance.

The pipeline isn't even in service yet, but already TransCanada is digging up stretches of faulty piping and replacing them, raising fresh safety fears. The pipeline is intended to link up with the Keystone XL northern leg -- which is still waiting for approval from the Obama administration -- and then carry tar-sands oil down to refineries in Texas.

From a Public Citizen press release:

Dozens of anomalies, including dents and welds, reportedly have been identified along a 60-mile stretch of the southern segment of the Keystone XL pipeline, north of the Sabine River in Texas.

In the past two weeks, landowners have observed TransCanada and its vendor, Michels, digging up the buried southern segment of the Keystone XL pipeline on their properties and those of neighbors in the vicinity of Winnsboro, Texas. Some of the new pipeline has been in the ground on some owners’ land for almost six months. It is believed that problems identified on this section of the Keystone XL route must have triggered the current digging, raising questions from landowners about the safety of the pipeline and the risk to personal property and water supplies.


California’s San Onofre nuclear plant gets final death blow

San Onofre nuclear plant
San Onofre nuclear plant -- now just a blight on the seashore.

Southern California Edison is officially giving up on the San Onofre nuclear power plant -- and it's about time. When workers have to resort to masking tape and broomsticks to patch up a leaky pipe, you know things are bad. And that's just one of many reasons why the name of the plant is usually preceded by the word "troubled."

Speaking of which, from CBS News:

The troubled San Onofre nuclear power plant on the California coast is closing after an epic 16-month battle over whether the twin reactors could be safely restarted with millions of people living nearby, officials announced Friday.


France looks at America, says non to fracking

France's vineyards are safe from frackers.
France's vineyards are safe from frackers.

France's energy minister looked at the destruction being wrought on America's environment by hydraulic fracturing and said "non, merci" to the latest push by her country's business lobby to make fracking legal.

Fracking was banned in France in 2011, and it looks like it's going to stay banned. From Bloomberg:

France’s ban on hydraulic fracturing should not be eased because the oil and gas drilling technique is causing “considerable” environmental damage in the U.S., according to a government minister.


Gavin Newsom, Kamala Harris partied at Sean Parker’s eco-wrecking wedding

Perfect for elves.
California Coastal Commission
Just your average Game of Thrones-style wedding backdrop.

We told you about billionaire Sean Parker's obnoxious wedding romp in a Big Sur redwood grove. The Napster cofounder and former Facebook president will pay $2.5 million to the California Coastal Commission to help heal damages caused when a temporary wonderland backdrop was illegally built in the forest for his nuptial vows.

Well, it turns out that two of California's most senior elected officials attended the wedding, living the kind of high life that only comes with an assault on threatened fish species and the trashing of a forest. Those officials were Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom and state Attorney General Kamala Harris.

Newsom's attendance at the anti-eco bash was interesting, given that the former San Francisco mayor has spent his political career yapping about how much he loves the environment.

Harris' was interesting because she is the state's top law enforcer, and Parker's penalties stemmed from violations of state law.


Whole Foods opens in Detroit, threatening stereotypes everywhere

Laura Taylor

Because any positive economic activity that happens in Detroit is apparently national news, the opening of a Whole Foods Wednesday in the city’s Midtown neighborhood has caused more fanfare than possibly any grocery-store debut in history. Hundreds reportedly waited in line to enter the store, and Whole Foods Co-CEO Walter Robb was present for the occasion, accompanied by “a marching band, speeches by civic leaders, specialty food vendors handing out samples of pickles, granola and other products, and a festive air of celebration,” according to the Detroit Free Press.

Why all the hoopla? After all, as Aaron Foley at Jalopnik Detroit points out in a level-headed post, the city, despite being labeled a “food desert,” already has its share of real grocery stores, including independent chains like Ye Olde Butcher Shoppe, not to mention its famous Eastern Market, the largest permanent farmers market in the U.S. So it’s not like Whole Foods is suddenly swooping in to deliver fresh vegetables where only Twinkies and Top Ramen existed before.

Much has been made of Whole Foods’ potential to attract further economic development, “a magnet for retail, in particular, and for development more generally,” as Free Press editor Stephen Henderson puts it. “A grocery store as a creator of density.” But would a concentration of high-end retail and condos in one neighborhood do anything to address this troubled city’s structural problems? Local investors and government officials seem to be betting so; the store was financed with the help of $5.8 million in state and local grants and tax credits.

But really, what seems to be causing the freakout over Whole Foods’ unlikely new location is just that: its unlikeliness, and the racist and classist assumptions underlying that assessment. Just listen to Kai Ryssdal of public radio's Marketplace question CEO Robb at the opening. Ryssdal calls Whole Foods “a place that does not have the reputation of perhaps being a place where people would shop in Detroit,” and even asks, “Did you have to teach people how to shop here?” -- as if navigating a Whole Foods requires some special sixth sense not innate to black and low-income people.