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Carbon Confusion

| Fri Apr. 13, 2007 8:34 PM EDT

Two steps taken this week to combat global warming are not all that: One, the EPA relaxed pollution standards for corn milling plants that make ethanol fuel. Two, Australian states vowed to set up a carbon trading market. Why do I doubt them? Keep reading on The Blue Marble.

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Carbon Confusion

| Fri Apr. 13, 2007 8:27 PM EDT

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Two steps taken this week to combat global warming, IMO, are not all that.

For one, the EPA relaxed emissions standards yesterday for corn milling plants that make ethanol fuel. Ethanol might just be "the biggest greenwash ever," as Tom Philpott blogged at Grist. Without huge long-term subsidies and government intervention, "no market for corn ethanol would exist." "If ethanol delivers any net energy gain at all over petroleum gasoline, it's razor thin." Bill McKibben writes, "By the time you've driven your tractor to tend the fields, and your truck to carry the crop to the refinery, and powered your refinery, the best-case 'energy output-to-input ratio' is something like 1.34-to-1. You've spent 100 Btu of fossil energy to get 134 Btu." Hardly impressive, "compared to the ratio for oil, which ranges from 30-to-1 to 200-to-1, depending on where you drill it." The best that can be said for ethanol as fuel is that it "gives the farmers something to do." Unfortunately, it's not the little farmers but the industrial farmers, some as big as Cargill, that get most of the subsidies.

Two, Australia vowed today to set up a national system of carbon trading by 2010. A cap-and-trading system is a lousy second-best to taxing emissions, which would also stimulate technological innovation. The best that can be said for cap-and-trading is that it's experimental. The EU is running that experiment, and so far hasn't worked. Actually, the system collapsed. So many carbon credits were doled out that they when people discovered that supply outstripped the demand, the market crashed. "The ETS [emissions-trading-scheme] has had a rough ride. Nations have issued more permits to pollute than required in the first phase, which runs until the end of 2007. This has resulted in carbon prices falling as low as eight euros (£5) per tonne. This means that it has been cheaper for firms to buy spare permits than pay the 40-euro fine, or take steps to reduce their emissions," reported the BBC in December. There are simpler effective means for tackling climate change, for one, shifting subsidies away from fossil fuels. Gore has faith that a cap-and-trading system would create economic incentives for technological innovation. It's worth experimenting with while keeping the pitfalls and alternatives in mind.

The Last, Last Hope?

| Fri Apr. 13, 2007 4:25 PM EDT

Yesterday, Slate analyzed the administration's most recent (and secret) search for an Iraq war savior. The new savior is a czar who would "oversee the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan with authority to issue directions to the Pentagon, the State Department and other agencies." Um, I'd say it's highly unlikely that the administration is truly willing to relinquish absolute control over these two wars and, apparently, so do the three retired four-star generals who declined the offer to be czar. Slate writes:

Generals do not become generals by being demure. If some retired generals out there had a great idea about how to solve the mess in Iraq, and if the president offered them the authority to do what they wanted to do, few of them would hesitate to step up and take charge.

The point: a.) nobody has a clue how to solve this mess (it's way too late for a Hail Mary) and b.) no one will be given the authority to do so even if they could. I'm having deja-vu. It seems like just yesterday, David Petraeus, the most revered general in the United States Army, was being touted as Iraq's savior, the last hope. So, is the new czar going to be the last, last hope? Will there be a last, last, last hope?

Slate points out another problem -- Dick Cheney. Cheney still has too much influence and the generals don't want to be "outflanked" by him. And considering, earlier this month, the VP asserted the Al Qaeda/Saddam link, I think we want to keep his influence to a minimum. He stretches the truth sometimes.

RE: Those Missing White House Emails

| Fri Apr. 13, 2007 3:23 PM EDT

Subpoenas have been authorized, the press is swarming, the Bush administration's flacks are taking a pounding — I think it's safe to say that the White House email controversy has officially blossomed into a full-blown scandal. This week the White House acknowledged that it may have "lost" an unspecified number of emails that were sent by staffers who used non-governmental, RNC-issued email addresses in what seemed at times a conscious effort to prevent their correspondence from becoming public record. "We screwed up, and we're trying to fix it," White House spokesperson Dana Perino told the press yesterday. She noted that only "a small slice" of the president's staff — among them Karl Rove and his deputies — used email addresses, along with BlackBerrys and laptops, supplied by the RNC. However, no mention has been made — and it's possible that in the end there may be no way of knowing — of just how many administration officials were circumventing the White House servers by using conventional Web mail services, such as Yahoo! or Gmail. This also appears to have been a fairly common practice among staffers who, as one administration official told U.S. News & World Report in 2004, "don't want my email made public."

As the White House comes under increasing scrutiny, the picture just keeps getting bleaker. We learned yesterday, for instance, that until August 2004 the RNC had a policy of deleting emails on its servers that were more than 30 days old. After "legal inquires," presumably those of CIA leak prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald, the committee began saving the correspondence of White House officials. So, since Karl Rove is said to use his RNC address 95 percent of the time, and is a well known email fanatic, the RNC should have quite a hefty record of his communications, right? Strangely, the RNC doesn't have records of a single Rove email until 2005, which, as the committee's counsel Rob Kelner told members of Henry Waxman's Government Reform Committee, may have been because Rove was deleting them himself. This, it seems, is what led the RNC to remove Rove's ability to delete his messages and place an automatic archiving function solely on his account. Today, Rove's lawyer Robert Luskin explained that his client didn't intentionally purge his emails — rather, in the course of routine housekeeping, he would delete emails to keep his inbox in order. "His understanding starting very, very early in the administration was that those e-mails were being archived," Luskin said.

Beyond Rove's missing emails, and others the White House believes may have been lost due to the RNC's email purging policy, it seems there is another trove of emails that are unaccounted for — millions of them, actually. The watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington reported yesterday that, according to two sources, "in addition to the so-called political emails sent through private accounts, there are over five million emails sent on White House servers over a two-year period that are also missing." In 2005, according to CREW, the White House Office of Administration discovered a problem with its archiving system and, after looking further into the issue, realized "there were hundreds of days in which emails were missing for one or more of the EOP [Executive Office of the President] components subject to the PRA [Presidential Records Act]." Though a plan was drawn up to recover the missing emails, CREW says, no action was ever taken to retrieve the lost messages.

In its report, CREW also raises two issues that I brought up in my original story on the controversy. The first is the Hatch Act "excuse," as CREW puts it. The White House has maintained (and the press hasn't challenged) that administration officials with political duties were using a separate, RNC-administered email system in order to avoid breaching Hatch, which prohibits federal employees from engaging in political activity on the job. This certainly seems like a reasonable explanation, unless you actually read the law. It states clearly that Senate-confirmed presidential appointees and staffers whose salaries are paid from an appropriation for the Executive Office of the President (read: White House officials) are allowed to engage in political activity that is otherwise prohibited to other federal employees — for instance, they are allowed to talk strategy with the RNC anytime, anywhere — as long as the associated costs are not picked up by taxpayers. While in the Clinton White House separate computer terminals were apparently set aside for staffers with political duties, the use of partisan email addresses is a new and highly unusual wrinkle. As Steven Aftergood, the director of the Federation of American Scientists' Project on Government Secrecy told me a couple weeks back, "It shows how closely intertwined the White House is with its partisan allies. The fact that the White House and the RNC are working hand in hand and White House officials are using RNC emails is itself remarkable."

The other question I raised has to do with an intriguing line in a January 2006 letter from Patrick Fitzgerald to Scooter Libby's defense team that's buried deep in the USA v. Libby docket. In it, Fitzgerald informs Libby's lawyers that the prosecution had "learned that not all email of the Office of Vice President and the Executive Office of the President for certain time periods in 2003 was preserved through the normal archiving process on the White House computer system." Karl Rove's lawyer told the AP today that Fitzgerald had access to emails from Rove's various accounts. He also noted that, in addition to the White House, the prosecutor subpoenaed records from the RNC and the president's reelection campaign. "There's never been any suggestion that Fitzgerald had anything less than a complete record," Luskin said.

Considering that we now know that millions of White House emails are potentially MIA, all of them drafted during a time period that would have been relevant to Fitzgerald's investigation, if that hasn't been suggested before it certainly will be now.

Pimping Up Where Molly Ivins Left Off

| Fri Apr. 13, 2007 3:13 PM EDT

OK, so anyone who has been paying serious attention will know that I'm late: the Texas Observer's Molly Ivins Tribute issue was published in February. But I just got mine in the San Francisco mail yesterday -- via Pony Express from Austin, I guess -- and, just in case you missed it too, I am telling everyone I know: Do yourself a favor and get a copy while they last. Even if you don't need a pick-me-up today or tomorrow, the day will surely come that you do, and this issue has some inspiring and potent juju.

Of all the stray and stringy indy journalism dogs that Molly adopted (and Mother Jones was one), The Texas Observer was the one closest to her heart. She was co-editor there from 1970 to 1976, and more to the point of this story, she was in these last few years driven to get this feisty, important and perpetually strapped publication on its financial feet. Last fall, she even subjected herself to a Molly Ivins "barbeque" (AKA, roast) to raise some important money. The Observer had been challenged to match a $500,000 grant to ramp up their reporting and, indeed, with Molly inspiring large gifts and small, they made the match: The money will support a serious expansion of the magazine's investigative reporting for the next two years. (Anyone who reads the business pages should have already noted that the total amount raised there -- huge by the standards of indy media -- equates to 1/300th of Larry Ellison's yacht and is 1/54th what Goldman Sachs' CEO took home last year. I suppose the justice is that getting paid even measly wages for doing butt-kicking journalism is just more damn fun.) But I digress.

The Molly Tribute issue has contributions from lots of people you've heard of (Bill Moyers, Maya Angelou, Jim Hightower, Garrison Keillor, and Dan Rather among them) and lots that I hadn't, and it's all really, really good, that sweet combination of tears and laughter and Texas that truly honors Molly's life and spirit. Typical of us bleeding-heart liberal publications, the Observer has gone and underpriced it: It's available online for a mere $5. But you know what you need to do: when you go to the Observer's site to get your copy (and do it now -- I'm told they're down to fewer than 1,000 copies), also click on the button to make a contribution to the Molly Ivins Investigative Fund.

Help those heroes and heroines at the Observer keep fightin' for freedom! (I'm telling you, you'll love that Tribute issue.)

— Jay Harris

FCC Levies Largest Collective Fine in History of U.S. Broadcasting

| Fri Apr. 13, 2007 3:01 PM EDT

"Payola" is the term for a practice in which radio broadcasters accept gifts and money from recording companies in exchange for playing music those companies select. Payola is fairly common, and actually legal if, when they play a track, radio broadcasters disclose who paid them to play it. (The FCC's rules on payola are easy to find, and quite clear.) Of course, you never hear a radio DJ saying, "We've been paid $3,000 to play this next J. Lo. track, so enjoy!"

The FCC is sending a message to change all that. Clear Channel Communications, CBS Radio, Entercom Communications, and Citadel Broadcasting have been fined a collective $12.5 million and will now be required to track every gift they receive worth more than $25. The fine is the largest in the history of American broadcasting.

My favorite part of the ruling, though, is this:

On top of the fines, the radio companies voluntarily agreed to launch a new program for independent artists... This local artist showcase commits the industry to 4,200 hours of airplay across the four companies between 6 a.m. and midnight.

In a previous payola investigation, Sony BMG Music Entertainment -- which includes Arista Records, Columbia Records, and Sony Music -- had to pay $10 million after then-New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer went after it.

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Mia Farrow Calls Beijing 2008 the "Genocide Olympics"

| Fri Apr. 13, 2007 2:52 PM EDT

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Mia Farrow's targeted pressure to curb the Darfur genocide "could accomplish what years of diplomacy could not," writes Helene Cooper in the New York Times.

For two years, China has used its permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council to protect the Sudanese government from UN sanctions. More than half of Sudan's oil exports go to China, and Beijing is the Sudan's leading arms supplier. But Mia Farrow last month started a campaign to spur Beijing into humanitarian cooperation. She called on Steven Spielberg to use his position as an artistic adviser to the Games to pressure China. In a Wall Street Journal op-ed, she warned, Spielberg could "go down in history as the Leni Riefenstahl of the Beijing Games." Four days later, Spielberg sent a letter to Chinese President Hu Jintao. Days later, China dispatched a high-ranking official to Sudan.

The turnaround is "as a classic study of how a pressure campaign, aimed to strike Beijing in a vulnerable spot at a vulnerable time, could accomplish what years of diplomacy could not," writes Helene Cooper. China has still not agreed to sanctions. But it's been less than two weeks since Farrow's op-ed. And according to J. Stephen Morrison, a Sudan expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, China values its image more than this oil from Sudan. "Their equity is to be seen as an ethical, rising global power," Morrison says, "not to get in bed with every sleazy government that comes up with a little oil." And the Olympics have been a major source of national pride. The night Beijing won the bid to host the Games, I joined about 200,000 revellers celebrating in Tiananmen Square, dancing and singing; it was the biggest gathering there since 1989.

SC House Hell-Bent on Violating Women's Rights to Promote Fetus'

| Fri Apr. 13, 2007 2:22 PM EDT

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Update in the controversy surrounding a new South Carolina abortion bill: The state senate has removed the provision that would force a woman to view her ultrasound before going through with an abortion.

The state's only female senator, Linda Short (D-Chester), says the revised bill will likely pass the Senate. Some members of the House are gearing up for a fight despite being warned by the Attorney General that making a woman look at something she doesn't want to is against the law. Read more about the drama here.

—Nicole McClelland

Sundance Channel's Green Living Show Debuts Tonight

| Fri Apr. 13, 2007 1:38 PM EDT

If you're going to use electricity tonight, you may as well do it watching Sundance Channel's new green living show, "Big Ideas for a Small Planet" (9 p.m. E/P).

In true Sundance tradition, "Big Ideas" is a series of short documentaries. But they're not the drab, depressing kind. Instead, they feature cutting-edge technologies and brilliant inventors bent on saving the earth.

Each episode has a theme, and tonight's is alternative fuels. You'll meet a couple who'll retrofit your gas-guzzling vintage ride into a clean machine, see an Indy 500 driver get better torque and pull using ethanol, and feel the rush with a monster trucker who fries chicken and then uses the grease as gas. These are people who don't just "talk the talk" about being green; they "drive the drive," as one quips. (That this first episode is about alternative fuels and a later one is about green vehicles is probably no coincidence: the show is "sponsored by Lexus," who has a new hybrid SUV on the market.)

The series doesn't end when you click off the TV. "Big Ideas" is just part of a larger line of programming, web features, and blogs called "The Green." Viewers can check out easy tips for green living, watch video clips, or learn more about environmental issues on "The Green" section of Sundance Channel's site, for which TreeHugger provided much of the content.

But lest you think Sundance the only cable channel targeting green viewers, the Discovery Channel is launching an entire network devoted to everyday green living next year.

—Jen Phillips

FDA Sued For Politicizing Women's Health

| Fri Apr. 13, 2007 1:08 PM EDT

The famed Family Research Council ("defending family, faith and freedom") is accusing the FDA of "politicizing women's health." Because before Plan B came around a woman's body was her own business? Right. The scoop, over at TBM.