Briefly

Stuff that matters


smoked out

California wildfires could cost ‘wine country’ its immigrant population.

While many homeowners in Sonoma and Napa Counties are returning to pick up the pieces after the deadliest blazes in state history, an estimated 32,000 undocumented immigrants — a majority of workers employed by the wine industry — might not come back.

Fear of deportation has kept immigrant workers and families from seeking shelter in evacuation centers, with some choosing to camp outside or sleep in their cars with their children. Fire officials are still working to stem rumors that immigrants could be detained by Immigrations and Customs Enforcement for seeking refuge.

Undocumented immigrants aren’t eligible for FEMA assistance, unemployment benefits, or welfare. Add to that, housing is already pricey in the region. A two-bedroom apartment rents for $1600 a month. An agricultural worker might earn just $2,400 a month, meaning these laborers might simply move on.

A shortage of immigrant workers in construction is also expected to slow rebuilding, Robbie Hunter of the Building and Construction Trades Council of California told the Sacramento Bee. “There is a shortage of people willing to work for less than minimum wage,” he said. “And that’s the workforce that has largely been building residential projects.”

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come what mayor

Hundreds of mayors stand up to Scott Pruitt over climate change.

EPA chief Scott Pruitt received an unusual letter Tuesday morning. Two hundred and thirty-six mayors from 47 U.S. states and territories had sent him a clear message: Stop dismantling the Clean Power Plan.

Last October, Pruitt announced his intentions to repeal and replace the Obama-era plan, the nation’s first attempt at regulating harmful greenhouse gas emissions from power plants. So far, Pruitt has done a bang-up job of repealing the policy, but the “replace” part has yet to materialize.

Now, mayors of cities already hit hard by climate change, like Houston and New Orleans, are banding together with mayors from across the country to take a stand. “We strongly oppose the proposed repeal of the Clean Power Plan,” they wrote. “Reducing greenhouse gas emissions is essential to protect our citizens against the worst impacts of climate change.”

After 2017’s brutal hurricane and wildfire season, it’s easy to see why mayors are worried. In their letter, they point out that coastal storm damage is projected to cost the U.S. $35 billion per year by 2030.

Cities are taking independent action to reduce emissions, but they want the federal government’s help. “[W]e cannot act alone,” the mayors wrote.


clean coal

An old coal-fired plant in North Dakota is trying to go green.

The Minnkota Power Cooperative’s Milton R. Young station got a $6 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy to design a carbon capture model that would reduce the plant’s carbon emissions by 90 percent.

The project is one of seven funded by the Energy Department’s new $44 million Design and Testing of Carbon Capture Technologies program.

The 40-year-old Minnkota station has two coal-powered units that together produce roughly 700,000 kilowatts of energy. Its larger unit is slated to get retrofitted with carbon capture technology — when CO2 is sucked from the air and stored underground so it doesn’t enter the atmosphere.

But the project will take more than a year to design, and at the end of that period, Minnkota Power might decide that the project isn’t economically feasible.

It’s a very real possibility. The woe-begotten Kemper Power plant, the nation’s first “clean coal” carbon capture facility, stopped work on clean coal last summer and reported billions of dollars in losses.

Then again, the Trump administration passed a budget this month that contains enormous incentives for clean coal tech, and researchers say carbon capture could be key to keeping global temperatures under the 2 degrees C limit.

Wait, hold up: Are scientists and the Trump administration in agreement for once?


from Russia with love

Rex Tillerson is caught in a love triangle with Russia and the U.S.

“The relationship that I had with Putin spans 18 years now,” the secretary of state said during a 60 Minutes interview with CBS’ Margaret Frank. “It was always about what I could do to be successful on behalf of my shareholders, and how Russia could succeed.” A true deal-maker.

But as U.S. secretary of state, the ex-CEO of ExxonMobil is supposed to put the United States’ interests first. That should ostensibly put some pressure on the relationship between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Tillerson, which was commemorated with a Russian friendship medal in 2013 after ExxonMobil signed deals with Rosneft, the state-owned Russian oil company.

Russia is one of the world’s top exporters of both oil and gas. As Alex Steffen and Rebecca Leber have written, the country stands to benefit from procrastinating on climate change action that would limit fossil fuel extraction.

In the 60 Minutes interview, Tillerson recounted his first meeting with the Russian president after becoming U.S secretary of state. “Same man, different hat,” is how he recalls reintroducing himself.

“What he is representing is different than what I now represent,” Tillerson elaborated. “And I said to him, ‘I now represent the American people.’”

Convincing! And now, on to the SNL skit that apparently made Tillerson laugh out loud:


pedestrian crossing

It’s more dangerous to cross a street if you’re black. Here’s why.

Sure, walking means fewer emissions and a healthier you. But have you ever spent an annoying amount of time trying to cross a busy street? For black people, the wait is usually even longer.

Recent studies show that drivers’ racial bias lengthens wait times for black pedestrians. Along with poor infrastructure, bias could explain why black Americans and other people of color have significantly higher rates of pedestrian deaths. Watch the video to learn more.


hy-genie in a bottle

Ditch the deodorant, save the planet?

A new study brings to light a little-known source of dangerous emissions: personal care products.

The study, published Thursday in the journal Science, used computer models to study how a wide range of stuff people use in their homes, from lotion to house paint, contributes to air pollution. Printer ink, glue, and cleaning products contain petroleum-based chemicals. Even your deodorant may release smog-promoting particles into the air (not to mention your armpit).

Researchers showed that these volatile chemical products (VCPs) produce half of the volatile organic compounds found in Los Angeles. That means that household products may contribute as much to air pollution as motor vehicles do. VCPs help create ozone, the compound that provokes asthma, and PM2.5, super-small pollutants that can cause cancer and lung disease.

It’s hard to believe that a dab of lotion could be as harmful as a gallon of gasoline, but gas only produces carbon dioxide (which causes a whole different set of problems). A full 40 percent of the chemicals in lotions and other personal products float into the atmosphere.

So the next time you’re indulging in some well-deserved self-care, maybe go easy on the products.


flight club

We’re calling BS on Scott Pruitt’s excuse for flying first-class.

The Environmental Protection Agency administrator has seemingly made it his mission to burn as much jet fuel as he can, as expensively as possible. How does one even find a $1,641 ticket from D.C. to New York City?

The EPA’s latest explanation for the taxpayer-funded spending spree is that first-class upgrades help Pruitt avoid confrontations with fellow airport-goers — like when someone yelled at him “Scott Pruitt, you’re f—ing up the environment.” These types of encounters make Pruitt feel “unsafe” while flying, as Henry Barnett of the agency’s Office of Criminal Enforcement told Politico.

But that’s a strange way to justify all those first-class tickets, considering the events described happened in an airport, not a plane. Plus, airline safety experts say first-class isn’t really safer than the rank-and-file alternative.

Federal regulations say government travelers should act as any “prudent person” would. Pruitt could easily buy a window seat in coach with two aides by his side, as Norm Eisen, a former U.S. ambassador, pointed out on Twitter. Along with his 24/7 bodyguards, it seems like that should be enough.

Then again, maybe there’s a security advantage to heated towels and complimentary snacks we haven’t considered yet. Or maybe this is just another step of Pruitt’s plan to dismantle the agency he runs: spend its entire budget on extra legroom.


¯\_(ツ)_/¯

Republican Lisa Murkowski says it’s time for her party to take climate change seriously.

“Why is it politically charged to say climate change?” the Alaska senator asked during a speech on Wednesday. “I see in my state the impact we have from warming temperatures.”

She makes a good point. Alaska is experiencing coastal erosion, bigger storms, and melting permafrost.

So … why did she just open up new areas for oil drilling?

Murkowski only backed the Senate’s tax overhaul last December after a provision was added to open up 1.5 million acres of Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to drilling. The provision potentially allows between 4 and 12 billion barrels of oil to be extracted and burned.

Her voting record on environmental policy has earned her a lifetime score of 19 percent from the League of Conservation Voters. Compare that to the Senate’s average score of 50 percent.

But Murkowski thinks we can have our fossil fuel cake and eat it, too. “We can absolutely continue to use hydrocarbons and critical minerals and protect the environment at the same time,” she said on Wednesday. However, leading scientists declared in 2015 that three-fourths of fossil fuels reserves needed to stay in the ground to avoid catastrophic warming — and we’ve burned a lot of oil, gas, and coal since then.

The senator did not respond to request for comment on Thursday. But at least she’s talking about climate change, I guess.


catch the drift

Arkansas banned a weedkiller. Now, Monsanto is suing.

When Monsanto introduced a new kind of seed that wouldn’t die when exposed to the herbicide dicamba, it triggered a crisis in the southeastern United States. Farmers planted the seed and started spraying dicamba, and it worked great! Except that it drifted onto other farmers’ fields and killed their crops.

And the dramatic plot twists keep coming. One farmer gunned down another in a confrontation over his withered crops. Then, states began to restrict the use of dicamba, with Arkansas completely banning it last summer.

Monsanto wasn’t happy about that. In the latest development, the agribusiness company sued the Arkansas State Plant Board, which regulates pesticides. It also sued each of the individual board members — who, for the record, are just local, agriculture-minded folks who volunteer their time.

One board member, Terry Fuller, told NPR’s Dan Charles: “I didn’t feel like I was leading the charge. I felt like I was just trying to do my duty.”

But farmers on the other side of the debate, who think the ban is way too strict, are demanding at least limited access to dicamba. What a mess.


you're toxic

Roses are red, violets are blue, America to coal: I might dump you.

A new survey from the National Surveys on Energy and Environment shows rising public support for ditching coal.

In 2008, America got roughly half of its electricity from coal. A decade later, the public has grown more hostile toward the dirty energy source, even while its support for natural gas hasn’t wavered much.

But the country’s toxic relationship with coal isn’t over: The survey, which sampled random U.S. adults over the phone, shows a majority of the public is “not yet ready for a complete phase-out.” Break-ups are hard, we get it.

More from the survey:

  • In 2017, 48 percent of those surveyed supported a coal phase-out.
  • Opinions differed along party lines: 30 percent of Republicans support a phase-out, while 54 percent of independents and 56 percent of Democrats do.
  • Only 34 percent opposed phasing out the dirty fuel — a big jump from a year earlier, when 50 percent opposed doing so.
  • People who live in coal mine states are more likely to strongly oppose a coal phase-out.

Whether you’re on Team Coal or Team … Not Coal, the important thing to keep in mind is that coal has a prettier, smarter, and healthier alternative: renewable energy.