Briefly

Stuff that matters


something is fishy

A tiny energy company got in a big feud with San Juan’s mayor.

That didn’t take long.

The government-owned Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority gave $300 million last week to Whitefish Energy to rebuild Puerto Rico’s power grid. The Montana company had just two full-time employees when Hurricane Maria made landfall but now has hundreds of subcontractors working on the island.

Many people, including members of both parties in Congress, have questions. The fishiest things:

  1. Whitefish is unproven. The two-year-old company’s biggest prior federal contract was $1.3 million to upgrade lines in Arizona.
  2. Crazy costs. Whitefish charges around $230 per hour for linemen and $330 per hour for site supervisors, with additional fees for subcontractors.
  3. Trump connections. Whitefish is based in the 7,000-person hometown of Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, who knows the CEO. Plus, it’s backed by HBC Investments, whose founder Joe Colonnetta gave tens of thousands of campaign dollars to presidential candidates Rick Perry (now energy secretary) and Donald Trump (now president — have you heard?)

Whitefish says Zinke and Colonnetta played no role in the contract. But San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz wasn’t convinced. On Wednesday, she requested that the contract be voided. Whitefish called her comments “misplaced” and threatened to pull its workers from San Juan on Twitter.

Whitefish has since apologized to Cruz and “everyone in Puerto Rico.”


two months later

Lin-Manuel Miranda and thousands more marched on Washington to call attention to Puerto Rico.

Organizers of Sunday’s rally outlined three calls to action for legislators: Eliminate the Jones Act, which slowed shipments of aid to the island by mandating they arrive only on U.S. vessels. Cancel the territory’s $73 billion debt. And rebuild the commonwealth with more sustainable infrastructure.

Hamilton director Lin-Manuel Miranda joined the march. “We can keep raising money, but it’s not going to do any good if the government doesn’t help us,” he told the crowd. “All we are asking is the same treatment as the same victims in Florida and the same victims in Texas.”

Two months after Hurricane Maria made landfall, more than 1.5 million people do not have electricity, and many residents still struggle to find clean water, food, and medicine. Officials estimate that hundreds of Puerto Ricans are fleeing daily. More than 140,000 people have left since mid-September.

The wave of migration is already transforming Florida, where new transplants face a shortage of affordable housing and rising hotel rates as the state’s peak tourism season approaches. A migration expert from Florida International University who spoke to the New York Times characterized the influx of Puerto Ricans to the mainland as “a stampede.”


semi-ready

Tesla’s going big — like, 18-wheeler big.

The Tesla Semi, unveiled last week, is a big, shiny sign of a changing industry.

Like the rest of the company’s fleet, it is battery-powered and aggressively designed to maximize cool factor. Space-age updates include a center-mounted driver’s seat and console screens. It will also feature autopilot capabilities like emergency braking and automatic lane keeping, though it won’t get all the way to self-driving status.

But it’s a long road from slick, streamlined prototype to an actual electric truck hauling freight cross-country. The company has been plagued by manufacturing delays on its long-awaited Model 3, making the Semi’s planned production date of 2019 feel tentative. Still, big-box chain Meijer inc has reportedly reserved four semis already, and Walmart put down for a whopping 15.

Some of Tesla’s claims may seem overly optimistic. Experts estimate an electric truck should be able to travel up to 300 miles on one charge, but Elon Musk claims his model will go 500 miles “at maximum weight, at highway speed” and recharge in just 30 minutes.

Then again, if we’ve learned anything about the Tesla founder, it’s that he’s not shy about aiming high:


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.