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Obama's Crackdown on Methane Emissions Is a Really Big Deal

| Wed Jan. 14, 2015 2:08 PM EST

This morning the White House announced a new plan to crack down on the oil and gas industry's emissions of methane, a potent greenhouse gas. The move is the last major piece of President Obama's domestic climate agenda, following in the footsteps of tougher standards for vehicle emissions and a sweeping plan to curb carbon dioxide emissions from power plants.

Like the power plant plan, the methane standards will rely on the Environmental Protection Agency's authority to regulate pollution under the Clean Air Act. The new rules will regulate the amount of methane that oil and gas producers are allow vent or leak from their wells, pipelines, and other equipment. Ultimately, according to the White House, the rules will slash methane emissions 40 to 45 percent by 2025. The proposal announced today is intended to be finalized before Obama leaves office, but it's certain to take a battering along the way from congressional Republicans and fossil fuel interest groups.

Methane makes up a much smaller slice of America's greenhouse gas footprint than carbon dioxide—the volume of methane released in a year is roughly 10 times smaller than the volume of CO2—so the proposal might seem like small potatoes. But it's actually a pretty huge deal, for a few reasons.

Obama's methane crackdown is "a moment of truth" for the fracking industry.

Locking in climate protection: An underlying assumption of Obama's carbon emissions plan is that many power plants will switch from burning coal to burning natural gas. That's great, if your only concern is carbon dioxide. But methane, the principal emission of natural gas consumption, is 20 times more powerful than CO2 over a 100-year timespan. The problem is less with natural gas-burning power plants themselves, but with the infrastructure (pipes, compressors, etc.) needed to get gas from where it's drilled to where it's burned—and also with venting, the burning of excess gas from wells. So far, those bits and pieces have proven to be exceptionally leaky—some studies have found up to 7.9 percent of the methane from natural gas production simply escapes into the air.

So if we replace our coal with natural gas but let methane go unchecked, we won't be much closer to meaningfully mitigating climate change, said Mark Brownstein of the Environmental Defense Fund. "Leak rates as low as 1 to 3 percent undo much of the benefit of going from coal to gas," he added. (Some climate scientists disagree with this assessment, arguing that CO2 from coal is significantly more damaging over the long run than methane leaks from natural gas operations.) The plan proposed today will focus on plugging leaks and will help ensure that the quest to curb carbon emissions doesn't simply shift our climate impact to another gas.

Saving money and energy: Methane leaks aren't just bad for the climate, they're also bad for business. Every year, according to a recent New York University analysis, between 1 and 3 percent of all US natural gas production is lost to leaks and venting, enough to heat more 6 million homes. A separate study from the World Resources Institute put the price tag for all that lost gas at $1.5 billion per year. Plugging leaks and limiting venting from drilling sites would keep more gas on the market.

The industry doesn't deny that leaks are a problem for its bottom line; the dispute is over whether intervention from the federal government is required and whether the cost to fix the leaks is worth it. Today the president of the American Petroleum Institute called the methane proposal "another layer of burdensome requirements [that] could actually slow down industry progress to reduce methane emissions." While it's true that overall methane emissions have been on a modest decline over the past several years, Brownstein said much more is needed to meet the nation's climate goals. And the oil and gas sector is the single biggest source of methane.

Cleaning up fracking: Behind any conversation about natural gas is always the specter of fracking. Of course, there are many concerns about fracking that have nothing to do with methane emissions: Public health issues related to water contamination, for example, or earthquakes. But stringent methane rules could alleviate some of the climate-related concerns about the fracking boom and could help refocus the debate around local pollution and land rights issues. These rules are also an opportunity, Brownstein said, for the gas industry to show good faith. "If the industry resists basic regulation for a relatively simple issue to solve, what is the public to think about the industry's willingness to solve more complex issues," he said. "This is a moment of truth."

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Yep, Gasoline Lead Explains the Crime Decline in Canada Too

| Wed Jan. 14, 2015 12:13 PM EST

Erik Eckholm of the New York Times writes that violent crime has plunged dramatically over the past two decades. But the reasons remain elusive:

There are some areas of consensus. The closing of open-air drug markets....revolution in urban policing....increases in drug and gun sentences....Various experts have also linked the fall in violence to the aging of the population, low inflation rates and even the decline in early-childhood lead exposure. But in the end, none of these factors fully explain a drop that occurred, in tandem, in much of the world.

“Canada, with practically none of the policy changes we point to here, had a comparable decline in crime over the same period,” said Franklin E. Zimring, a law professor and an expert in criminal justice at the University of California, Berkeley. He described the quest for an explanation as “criminological astrology.”

I'm happy to see lead at least get a shout out. Unless I've missed something, this might actually be the first time the New York Times has ever mentioned childhood lead exposure as a possible explanation for the decline in violent crime. Progress!

But while Eckholm is right to say that none of the other factors he mentions can explain a decline in violent crime that happened all over the world, he's wrong to include lead in that list. It's the one explanation that does have the potential to explain a worldwide drop in crime levels. In particular, the chart on the right shows the use of gasoline lead in Canada, which peaked in the mid-70s and then began dropping as catalytic converters became more common. Leaded gasoline was banned for good in 1990, and is now virtually gone with a few minor exceptions for specialized vehicles.

So what happened? As Zimring says, Canada saw a substantial decrease in violent crime that started about 20 years after lead emissions began to drop, which is exactly what you'd expect. I calculated the numbers for Canada's biggest cities back when I was researching my lead-crime piece, and crime was down from its peak values everywhere: 31 percent in Montreal, 36 percent in Edmonton, 40 percent in Toronto and Vancouver, and 53 percent in Ottawa. CompStat and broken windows and American drug laws can't explain that.

"Criminological astrology" is a good phrase to describe the relentless effort of US criminologists to explain a worldwide phenomenon using only parochial US data. But there is one explanation that really does work pretty well everywhere: the reduction in gasoline lead, which happened all over the world, but happened at different times in different places. And everywhere it happened, crime started to decline about 20 years later. No explanation is ever perfect, but this one comes closer than most.

What Does "Cage-Free" Even Mean?

| Wed Jan. 14, 2015 6:00 AM EST

What kind of farm do you imagine when you think of organic or cage-free eggs? Images of hens frolicking in lush meadows?

That kind of farming exists, but such conditions aren't mandated by organic code—not explicitly anyway. According to the USDA regulations, animals raised organically must have "year-round access ... to the outdoors, shade, shelter, exercise areas, fresh air, clean water for drinking, and direct sunlight, suitable to the species, its stage of life, the climate, and the environment." Those rules are open to a wide variety of interpretations.,

Ten times over the course of a year and a half, under cover of night, a group of radical animal-rights activists snuck into the facilities of a large operation called Petaluma Farms, a major west-coast supplier to Whole Foods and Organic Valley, according to The New York Times. The Petaluma egg complex produces both certified-organic and non-organic "cage free" eggs, the main difference between the two standards being that organic eggs must come from hens fed only organic feed.

The video shows birds with blisters, missing feathers, one clearly caked with shit.

The group, Direct Action Everywhere, seems to find all animal farming abhorrent—a point driven home in the video's first third, wherein several group members denounce the killing of animals. Later, footage taken from within the Petaluma facilities shows lots of birds wallowing tightly together, often amidst what looks like significant buildup of their own waste. The narrators use words like "stench, " "filth," and "misery" to describe the scene; and show several birds in obvious bad health—birds with blisters, missing feathers, one clearly caked with shit—along with birds that appear to be in decent shape. The crew dramatically rescues one pathetically injured bird, handing her over the fence, one activist to another, and whisking her to a vet in Berkeley, who declares her in dismal shape.

In a media statement, Petaluma owners Judy and Steve Mahrt wrote that "The video in no way reflects our practices or the overall health of our flocks." As for outside access, the statement adds the company maintains "sun porches for outdoor access while protecting from predators and disease." All the filming in the video takes place at night, when most domesticated chickens go inside, anyway. So the video doesn't tell us anything about the birds' outdoor access.

Pressed for details, the company referred me to the below video. At about the 2:38 mark, there's a depiction of one such sun porch—it's a raised, triangular space jutting off the side of the building, made of chicken wire. By the company's own admission, then, the birds never touch the ground outside—their "outdoor access" seems to conform to the letter of organic code, if not the spirit of organic farming conjured in the heads of consumers.

This is not Petaluma's first PR problem. Michael Pollan famously used it as an example of industrial-organic farming in Omnivore's Dilemma, observing that its meat-poultry buildings "don't resemble a farm so much as a barracks," and that the birds were conditioned to never make use of their access to outdoors. As for the company's egg operation, Judy's Family Farm, Pollan never got a look: "The company was too concerned about biosecurity to let a visitor get past the office."

Last year, Petaluma settled a lawsuit brought by the Animal Legal Defense Fund over the depiction of the lives of its hens on its packaging. As part of the agreement, in which Petaluma did not admit to wrongdoing, the company agreed to modify its egg cartons "by removing the illustration of hens on a green field and removing the language that Plaintiff alleged could lead consumers to mistakenly believe the eggs come from hens with significant outdoor access." Previously, the inside of the cartons claimed that "these hens are raised in wide-open spaces in Sonoma Valley, where they are free to roam, scratch, and play."

A "sun porch" at a Petaluma Farms facility—the "access to outdoors" required by organic code. Screenshot from the video, above, provided by Petaluma Farms

So what's to be taken away from the Direct Action Everywhere video? I see it as an important but problematic look behind the veil of what Pollan has deemed "supermarket pastoral"—the gauze of marketing that cloaks the often-harsh realities of large-scale organic farming.

Yet compared to the vast Iowa facilities that triggered a half-billion-egg salmonella recall in 2010 (the Food and Drug Administration's stomach-turning post-outbreak inspection report can be found here), the Petaluma houses captured on tape by Direct Action Everywhere actually look pretty good. When you confine thousands of birds into a building and manage several buildings, problems like the ones caught on tape by DAE are going to arise. I'd feel better about Petaluma if it represented standard practice for industrial egg production, and not the rarefied status implied by organic certification.

3 Medical Conditions That Bacon Can Cure

| Wed Jan. 14, 2015 6:00 AM EST

As we all know, the internet is obsessed with bacon. Physicians, however, are usually less bullish about the delicious yet notoriously artery-clogging treat. Until now: Over at the medical blog KevinMD, Dr. Jennifer Gunter combs the scientific literature and turns up three actual medical conditions that bacon can help treat: 

  1. Nosebleeds. Last October, Stanford otolaryngologist Ian Humphreys developed a nasal tampon made out of bacon that cured a young girl's bloody nose, an accomplishment for which he was awarded a 2014 IgNobel Prize in medicine. "Apparently the high salt content of bacon is believed to induce swelling which causes the blood vessels to constrict slowing the flow of blood and helping clotting," writes Gunter. When Humphreys won the IgNobel, Robert Jackler, chair of Stanford's otolaryngology department, told Stanford's Scope medical blog, "We are squealing with pride."
     
  2. An incredibly disgusting-sounding infection called furuncular myiasis in which the larvae of an insect called Dermatobia hominis nest in the human soft tissue or skin, resulting in boils and sometimes tissue destruction. Shudder. "The treatment largely consists of manually picking out the larvae with tweezers," writes Gunter. "Apparently bacon fat can be used as bait to lure the larvae to the skin surface for faster and more effective removal."
     
  3. Scabies. Apparently, bacon fat was once used in topical sulfur and salicylic acid creams used to treat this itchy and highly contagious skin infection. A 1991 study compared the bacon fat formulation to the more modern cold cream version and finds, Gunter writes, that "while the cold cream combination was 100% effective versus 88 percent for the bacon fat base the authors noted that the bacon fat concoction was 238 times less expensive than the cheapest scabicidal medication in the U.S."

So there you have it: bacon as medicine. Something to keep in mind if you have any left over after you make that gross bacon lattice thing for your Super Bowl party.

Charlie Hebdo Unveils First Cover Since Paris Massacre Featuring Image of Muhammad

| Tue Jan. 13, 2015 3:15 PM EST

Warning: An image of the controversial cover appears below.

Charlie Hebdo unveiled the cover illustration for its first issue following last week's deadly attack on the magazine. The cover, for what is being dubbed the "survivors' issue," features an image of the Prophet Muhammad holding a "Je Suis Charlie" sign. The words "Tous Est Pardonné"—"All Is Forgiven"—hang above. A tear is falling from his eye.

"We don't feel any hate to them," cartoonist Zineb El Rhazoui, who survived the attack and worked on the new edition, told the BBC, referring to the terrorists. "We know that the struggle is not with them as people, but the struggle is with an ideology." Asked if the cover might alienate Muslims who have spoken out against the violence and in support of the satirical magazine—after all, Islam prohibits the portrayal of Muhammad—she said that Islam ought to be treated like any other religion and that anyone who is offended need not buy the issue.

Charlie Hebdo's decision to print an image of the prophet appears to be in direct defiance of the two terrorists who executed 12 of the magazine's staff members last week. Past covers in which the prophet was illustrated, many times in crude or offensive light, have drawn the ire of Muslims throughout the world, prompting repeated threats of violence against the controversial publication. Since the attack in Paris, various news outlets, including the New York Times and the Associated Press, said they would not be publishing Charlie Hebdo images depicting the prophet because of its "deliberately provocative" intent. Other publications, including the Washington Post and the Guardian, have gone ahead and published the latest cover, citing freedom of speech, the covers' newsworthy element, and the special role that scorching satire has in French political and cultural life. For the Post, it is the first time a depiction of the prophet has appeared. Executive Editor Martin Baron said that although the paper prohibits material that is "deliberately" offensive, Charlie Hebdo's newest cover did not meet that measure; the Guardian explained it would be publishing this cover because of its "news value."

While Charlie Hebdo has historically skewered all religions and various government figures, in the past few years, its editors have specifically targeted Islam. Given France's fraught relations with its Muslim population, many have questioned whether Charlie Hebdo went too far, or as one French politician once put it, chose to "pour oil on the fire." Following last week's attack, Adam Shatz wrote in the London Book of Review:

Charlie Hebdo had an equal opportunity policy when it came to giving offense, but in recent years it had come to lean heavily on jokes about Muslims, who are among the most vulnerable citizens in France. Assia [a pseudonym Shatz refers to in his piece] does not believe in censorship, but wonders: "Is this really the time for cartoons lampooning the Prophet, given the situation of North Africans in France?"…If France continues to treat French men of North African origin as if they were a threat to "our" civilisation, more of them are likely to declare themselves a threat, and follow the example of the Kouachi brothers. This would be a gift both to Marine Le Pen and the jihadists, who operate from the same premise: that there is an apocalyptic war between Europe and Islam. We are far from that war, but the events of 7 January have brought us a little closer.

The issue is set for release January 14, with an estimated 3 million copies being printed. The normal circulation for the magazine has been 60,000.

 

Update, January 14, 2015, 8:50 a.m. EST: After copies sell out in France, Charlie Hebdo raised its print run to 5 million. 

Watch David Corn on Mitt Romney's Likely 2016 Run

Tue Jan. 13, 2015 12:08 PM EST

Mother Jones Washington bureau chief David Corn stopped by MSNBC's Hardball Monday night to discuss Mitt Romney's possible presidential bid.
 

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Jon Stewart Explains What's Wrong With World Leaders Who Censor the Press Claiming #JeSuisCharlie

| Tue Jan. 13, 2015 11:58 AM EST

Citing the importance of political optics, many have vocalized anger over President Obama's notable absence during Sunday's march in Paris showing solidarity with Charlie Hebdo victims. The massive demonstration drew over 1.3 million people, with world leaders including German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President Francois Hollande, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, also in attendance.

Jon Stewart is among those unhappy with the president's decision. But unlike most of Obama's critics this week, The Daily Show host got to the real reason Obama should have joined his fellow heads of state in "the most powerful game of Red Rover ever." 

"How could the U.S. not be there when representatives of such beacons of freedom and lack of censorship as journalist-punishing Russia was there?" Stewart asked. "Journalist-jailing Turkey was there! Egypt, nuff' said! Palestinian-jailing cartoonist Israel was there!"

 

Housekeeping Note

| Tue Jan. 13, 2015 10:44 AM EST

I'm fighting off a nasty cold, and later today I have an extended doctor's appointment up in Los Angeles. So no blogging today. With any luck, I'll be back tomorrow.

Former Pepsi Lobbyist Will Help Overhaul School Lunch Program

| Tue Jan. 13, 2015 6:00 AM EST

Some political functionaries creep sheepishly through the revolving door that separates government from the industries it regulates—you know, maybe wait a few years between switches.

Not Joel Leftwich. Since 2010, he's held the following posts, in order: legislative assistant to longtime Senate agriculture committee stalwart and agribusiness-cash magnet Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kansas); program manager in the federal lobbying department for agrichemical giant DuPont; deputy staff director for the Senate Agriculture Committee; and director of lobbying for PepsiCo. Now, after the Republican takeover of the Senate and Robert's ascension to the chair of the Agriculture Committee, Leftwich is switching sides again: He's going to be the ag committee's chief of staff.

Leftwich's most recent former employer, PepsiCo, touts Cheetos as a wholesome snackfood for kids.

And all just in time for the Congress to perform its once-every-five-years overhaul of federal nutrition programs, including school lunches and the Women, Infants and Children (WIC) food-aid initiative. Back in 2010, President Obama signed a school lunch bill, generated by a Democratic-controlled Congress, that banished junk-food snacks from schools and stipulated more fruits and vegetables in lunches. Leftwich's once-and-current boss, Sen. Roberts, has been a persistent and virulent critic of those reforms.

As for Leftwich's most recent ex-employer, Pepsi—whose junk-food empire spans from its namesake soda to Lays and Doritos snacks—its take on the issue of school food is embodied in this flyer, uncovered by my colleague Alex Park. It touts Cheetos as a wholesome snack for school kids. PepsiCo showers Washington in lobbying cash—note how its expenditures jumped in 2009 and 2010, when the last school lunch reauthorization was being negotiated in Congress.

In other revolving-door news: Mike Johanns of Nebraska recently retired from the Senate, where, from his perch on the ag committee, he joined Sen. Roberts in pushing the agribusiness agenda and sopping up industry campaign donations. Before that, he served as USDA chief for President George W. Bush. Now? Days after his retirement comes news he will serve on the board of directors of agribusiness giant John Deere—a position that pays at least $240,000 per year in compensation and stock, Omaha.Com reports. But don't worry: "Johanns stressed that he won’t be doing any direct lobbying of his former Capitol Hill colleagues or their aides on behalf of the company."

Mitt vs. Jeb: Battle of the GOP Establishment Candidates

Mon Jan. 12, 2015 8:41 PM EST

David Corn and Robert Costa joined host Chris Matthews on MSNBC's Hardball to discuss the recent news that Mitt Romney is probably running for president, again. LOL. You'll recall what happened when David Corn reported on the most recent failed Romney campaign. Anyways, we've got a deep archive of great reporting on Mitt and we'll have lots more to come. Stay tuned.

David Corn is Mother Jones' Washington bureau chief. For more of his stories, click here. He's also on Twitter.