Briefly

Stuff that matters


lost in the corn maze

Is the end near for the green biofuel dream?

The goal of turning corn stalks into auto fuel just lost a major champion as DowDuPont announced that it’s selling its flagship cellulosic ethanol plant, effectively abandoning efforts to master the fledgling technology.

Cellulosic ethanol is better than regular old ethanol because it uses less land. Regular ethanol is made from corn grain, while cellulosic comes from the inedible parts of the plant, allowing farmers to produce food and fuel in the same field.

But turning these corn cobs and husks into affordable fuel has proved difficult and expensive. And, after the merger between Dow and DuPont, the new company is looking to shed $3 billion in costs.

A year ago I reported on efforts to make cellulosic ethanol competitive, writing: “If anyone’s going to tough out the effort to make cellulosic ethanol, it’s DuPont, which has a long history of sinking years into research and development before bringing a profitable and transformative product to market.”

Oops.

Maybe regulators should take this as an object lesson when deciding whether to allow other agribusiness giants to merge, like the one pending between Monsanto and Bayer. The companies argue that Ginormous Merged Organizations (GMOs) can spur more innovation, but consolidation often means the opposite.


XL decision

Nebraska gives the green light to Keystone XL — with a twist.

In a long-awaited decision, the Nebraska Public Service Commission announced its vote Monday to approve a tweaked route for the controversial tar sands oil pipeline.

The 3-2 decision is a critical victory for pipeline builder TransCanada after a nearly decade-long fight pitting Nebraska landowners, Native communities, and environmentalists activists against a pipeline that would carry tar sands oil from Alberta to refineries on the Gulf Coast.

After years of intense pressure, President Obama deemed the project “not in the national interest” in 2015; President Trump quickly reversed that decision earlier this year. But TransCanada couldn’t go forward without an approved route through Nebraska, which was held up by legal and political proceedings.

In the meantime, it’s become unclear whether TransCanada will even try to complete the $8 billion project. The financial viability of tar sands oil — which is expensive to extract and refine — has shifted in the intervening years, and while KXL languished, Canadian oil companies developed other routes to market.

The commission’s decision also opens the door to new litigation and land negotiations. TransCanada will have to secure land rights along the new route; one dissenting commissioner noted that many landowners might not even know the pipeline would potentially cross their property.

Meanwhile, last Thursday, TransCanada’s original Keystone pipeline, which KXL was meant to supplement, spilled 210,000 gallons of oil in South Dakota. Due to a 2011 Nebraska law, the commissioners were unable to consider pipeline safety or the possibility of spills in their decision.


Raising Medicane

You can blame a ‘medicane’ for this week’s deadly flooding in Greece.

Nope, a “medicane” is not a new type of health insurance. It’s a Mediterranean hurricane — such as the one currently developing in the Mediterranean Sea, where warming waters have produced a weather system with the characteristics of a subtropical cyclone.

Flash floods linked to moisture from the storm hit parts of Greece on Wednesday, killing 16 people and injuring dozens more. The storm is projected to skirt Sicily and head toward Greece this weekend, potentially inflicting more damage.

Medicanes are so uncommon that scientists have yet to establish a clear set of criteria for them. Weather systems like these are more typically found in the Caribbean, where warmer water temperatures feed tropical storms.

A Mediterranean cyclone generally counts as a medicane if it forms the characteristic hurricane-like “eye,” according to Emmanouil Flaounas, a meteorologist at the National Observatory of Athens who conducts research on medicanes through a European Commission-funded project.

His research suggests that Mediterranean cyclones will occur less frequently, but with more intensity, in the coming years. “Several future climate scenarios show a clear increase of the sea temperature, and this will be certainly related to an intensification of future cyclones,” he wrote in an email to Grist.


nothing to see here

Nebraska’s Keystone XL decision won’t hinge on Thursday’s 210,000-gallon spill.

Oil gushed out of the Keystone pipeline in rural South Dakota on Thursday, 30 miles west of the Lake Traverse Indian Reservation. Cleanup crews raced to the site, and TransCanada temporarily shut down the conduit.

So far, there are no reports of the oil entering water sources. But as local correspondent Kayleigh Schmidt said in a KSFY news segment on Thursday, you’ll get a nice “oil spill smell” nearby.

The leak occurred just days before Nebraska will decide whether or not to approve a route for the proposed northern leg of the long-disputed Keystone XL project, which would transport oil from the Canadian tar sands to the U.S.

Environmental groups said that Nebraska officials should consider the spill a “stark warning.” Just one problem: They can’t. A 2011 Nebraska law prevents state regulators from taking pipeline safety or possible leaks into account in their decisions — a rule that Nebraska’s Public Service Commission plans to abide by.

The spill is not Keystone’s first, but it is its largest — the 18th biggest spill in the U.S. overall since 2010, according to government data. And it’s possible the 210,000-gallon figure could still rise, given that oil companies often revise their initial estimates to be significantly higher.


Standing Rock

Security firm TigerSwan was paid to build a conspiracy lawsuit against DAPL protesters.

Energy Transfer Partners, the company behind the Dakota Access Pipeline, brought on the paramilitary outfit to surveil pipeline opponents with the intent of mounting a racketeering case against Greenpeace and other activist organizations, say three former TigerSwan contractors who spoke to The Intercept.

The lawsuit alleges that environmental groups engineered the #noDAPL movement in order to garner donations by paying protestors and inciting them to commit criminal activity and domestic terrorism.

Greenpeace general counsel Tom Wetterer told The Intercept that the lawsuit “grossly distorts the law and facts at Standing Rock.” While he’s certain Energy Transfer Partners won’t win, he notes that “what they’re really trying to do is silence future protests.”

Earlier this year, Grist and the Intercept independently reported on leaked TigerSwan documents that revealed its targeting of activists as jihadists in an intrusive military-style surveillance campaign. Within a month, a North Dakota state agency filed a complaint against the firm for operating there without a license. And Louisiana later denied TigerSwan permission to work there.

A lawyer representing DAPL opponents suing law enforcement, alleging police brutality and civil rights violations, told the Associated Press that online reports about TigerSwan’s operations are only strengthening her clients’ case.


Mind the gap

The U.N. climate talks have a gender gap. Women plan to fix it.

Since women are disproportionately affected by climate change, it’s about time they get a bigger seat at the negotiating table.

The Women and Gender Constituency, a group that works to ensure women’s rights are embedded in U.N. negotiations, is pushing for a new gender action plan set to be approved on Friday at the climate talks in Bonn, Germany.

Little progress has been made since negotiators proposed a “gender balance” goal to boost female participation five years ago. (The U.N. process initially failed to include gender in its agenda.) A recent paper from the U.N. climate change secretariat shows that women made up 32 percent of conference delegates in 2015 and 2016, up only one percentage point from 2012.

In addition to meeting the goal of gender balance among climate change decision-makers, the new plan aims to allocate more funding to women (particularly in developing nations), create a rights-based platform for indigenous peoples and local communities, and ensure climate solutions are “gender-just.”

That would be progress. Assessments based on 2015 U.N. global population projections suggest that increased access to education and family planning for women and girls is the No. 1 method of reducing global emissions.


scientific method

Another side effect of Puerto Rico’s power problems: Scientists struggle to do their work.

Nearly two months after Hurricane Maria, public health researchers in Puerto Rico are limited by the same lack of power, clean water, and infrastructure they are there to study.

Puerto Rico–born José Cordero is one such scientist. In the journal Nature, he describes leading a team through the devastated landscape to collect data on how drinking water contamination affects pregnant women. The scientists have to hurry to finish their work everyday, before night falls across the largely powerless island. Limited telephone access makes it difficult to get in touch with subjects.

Cordero’s project started six years ago to focus on water pollution and pre-term births, but this year’s hurricane has changed both the focus and the level of difficulty of the work. Other researchers have been hampered by hospitals that can’t administer routine tests and hurricane-damaged equipment, making it difficult to collect data on how air and water pollution are affecting health.

Still, Cordero’s team has managed to contact several hundred woman and collect samples of groundwater and tap water from homes near flooded Superfund sites. As he told Nature: “The kind of work we’re doing … has to be done now, because a few years from now, it’s too late.”