Blue Marble

2014 Was the Biggest Year For Solar Power Ever

Solar power is blowing up in the United States.

| Tue Mar. 10, 2015 12:32 PM EDT

We've noted here before the many ways in which solar power is blowing up in the United States: Adding tons of jobs, driving progressive policies, and attracting millions of dollars in investment from major corporations. It's not slowing down anytime soon: New data from market analysis firm GTM Research finds that 2014 was solar's biggest year ever, with 30 percent more photovoltaic installations installed than in 2013. Check it out:

GTM

Those numbers are even more impressive when you compare them to other types of energy sources. Even though solar still accounts for a small share of US electricity generation (less than 1 percent), last year it added nearly as many new megawatts to the grid as natural gas, which is quickly catching up on coal as the country's primary energy source. (Coal, you can see, added almost nothing new in 2014.)

GTM

The report points to three chief reasons for the boom. First, costs are falling, not just for the panels themselves but for ancillary expenses like installation and financing, such that overall prices fell by 10 percent compared to 2013. Second, falling costs have allowed both large utility companies and small third-party solar installers to pursue new ways to bring solar to customers, including leasing panels and improved on-site energy storage. Third, federal incentives and regulations have been relatively stable in the last few years, while state incentives are generally improving, particularly in states like California and Nevada that have been leading the charge.

One more chart worth pointing out: Rooftop solar tends to get the most press because that's where homeowners and solar companies get into tussles with big incumbent power companies and the state regulators that often side with them. And it's true that a new home gets solar more often than a giant solar farm gets constructed. But on a sheer megawatt basis, utility-scale solar is still far and away the leading source, with a few notable projects coming online in 2014, like the Topaz Solar project in the California desert, the largest solar installation in the world.

GTM

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Town Overrun by 31-Acre Sinkhole Now Overrun by Homeless Kittens

One woman drives two hours round-trip to feed them.

| Mon Mar. 9, 2015 6:45 PM EDT

In August of 2012, a salt cavern maintained by the mining company Texas Brine collapsed, creating a sinkhole outside the town of Bayou Corne, Louisiana, and prompting a mandatory evacuation order that has yet to be lifted. Two and a half years later, the sinkhole has grown to 31 acres, Texas Brine has reached a $48.6 million settlement with displaced homeowners, and the company is considering bulldozing much of the town and converting it into "green space."

But it's not just Bayou Corne evacuees who are looking for a new place to live—the neighborhood near the sinkhole is still home to 38 feral cats, who risk losing their suburban habitat if the properties return to nature because of the sinkhole.

The New Orleans Times Picayune has the full story on the kittens of Bayou Corne, and the efforts of one of the few remaining residents, Teleca Donachricha, to find them a home:

Some of the residents had been feeding different groups of them, but those residents are all gone now. One woman had been trying to drive the hour from Baton Rouge every other day to feed one group of the cats, but Donachricha knew that wasn't going to last long. She said if the woman could provide food, she would feed the cats for her, and she has.

...

Texas Brine spokesman Sonny Cranch said he couldn't say when demolition will occur. The company donated $1,000 to a nonprofit Donachricha was working with to get some of the cats spayed and neutered. All but three of the 38 cats are now spayed or neutered -- one of the remaining ones is a newer arrival that was recently dumped there, and the other two she hasn't been able to catch.

"We support her efforts," Cranch said. "Hopefully she'll be successful in finding homes for these animals."

Any takers?

 

Yet Another Oil Train Disaster

This time in northern Ontario.

| Mon Mar. 9, 2015 4:17 PM EDT
Railroad oil tankers

Another day, another oil train derailment. Early Saturday morning, a Canadian National Railway train carrying Alberta crude derailed outside the tiny town of Gogama in northern Ontario. Thirty-eight cars came off the tracks, and five of them splashed into the Mattagami River system. The accident caused a massive fire and leaked oil into waterways used by locals—including a nearby indigenous community—for drinking and fishing. No one was injured, but according to CN Railway's Twitter feed, fire fighters were still suppressing fires earlier today. People in the area, including members of the Mattagami First Nation, have been complaining of respiratory issues from the smoke.

This oil train derailment was the second in three days in Canada and the fifth in three weeks in North America. An oil train derailed last week near Galena, Illinois. The oil boom in Canada and the United States has resulted in a dramatic increase in the use of these trains, and derailments now appear to be the new normal.

After the 2013 derailment and explosion of an oil train killed 47 people in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, many pointed to old, unsafe DOT-111 tanker models as a main reason for the disaster and others like it. But at least four of the five recent incidents have involved newer, and theoretically safer, CPC-1232 models.

Environmental and safety advocates say oil-by-rail needs even more stringent safety measures, but they have been slow coming. The US government reportedly balked at creating national standards to limit the amount of potentially explosive gas in tankers carrying oil from North Dakota. And the White House Office of Management and Budget has said it will need until May to finalize rules proposed by the Department of Transportation last summer that would slow down crude-by-rail deliveries and require tankers to have insulated steel shells. The CPC-1232 tankers that derailed in Galena did not have these shells. I asked the Canadian National Railway Company if the tankers involved in Saturday's derailment had these shells. The company didn't directly answer that question. In an email, it stated: "The tank cars involved were CPC 1232 tank cars. The exact specifications will be information gathered as part of the ongoing investigation."

Below are Twitter pictures of Saturday's derailment in northern Ontario.

Report: Florida Banned State Workers From Saying "Climate Change"

And "global warming." And "sea level rise."

| Mon Mar. 9, 2015 11:17 AM EDT
The aftermath of Hurricane Wilma in 2005

This story was originally published by the Guardian and is republished here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

Officials with the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), the agency in charge of setting conservation policy and enforcing environmental laws in the state, issued directives in 2011 barring thousands of employees from using the phrases "climate change" and "global warming," according to a bombshell report by the Florida Center for Investigative Reporting (FCIR).

The report ties the alleged policy, which is described as "unwritten," to the election of Republican governor Rick Scott and his appointment of a new department director that year. Scott, who was re-elected last November, has declined to say whether he believes in climate change caused by human activity.

"I'm not a scientist," he said in one appearance last May.

Scott's office did not comment on Sunday, when contacted by the Guardian. A spokesperson for the governor told the FCIR team: "There's no policy on this."

The FCIR report was based on statements by multiple named former employees who worked in different DEP offices around Florida. The instruction not to refer to "climate change" came from agency supervisors as well as lawyers, according to the report.

"We were told not to use the terms 'climate change', 'global warming' or 'sustainability,'" the report quotes Christopher Byrd, who was an attorney with the DEP's Office of General Counsel in Tallahassee from 2008 to 2013, as saying. "That message was communicated to me and my colleagues by our superiors in the Office of General Counsel."

"We were instructed by our regional administrator that we were no longer allowed to use the terms 'global warming' or 'climate change' or even 'sea-level rise,'" said a second former DEP employee, Kristina Trotta. "Sea-level rise was to be referred to as 'nuisance flooding.'"

According to the employees' accounts, the ban left damaging holes in everything from educational material published by the agency to training programs to annual reports on the environment that could be used to set energy and business policy.

The 2014 national climate assessment for the US found an "imminent threat of increased inland flooding" in Florida due to climate change and called the state "uniquely vulnerable to sea level rise."

White Men Are Overdosing on Heroin at a Record Rate

According to one CDC epidemiologist, prescription painkillers could be partly to blame.

| Mon Mar. 9, 2015 6:20 AM EDT

A decades-long surge in heroin use has left behind a trail of overdose victims. A Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report released this week found that the number of heroin overdoses quadrupled from 1,842 in 2000 to 8,257 in 2013—with a significant boost among people between the ages of 18 and 44, particularly white men.

Dr. Len Paulozzi, a medical epidemiologist who studies drug overdoses at the CDC's Injury Center, says that both the growing availability of heroin nationwide and the shift among prescription drug users to heroin use may have contributed to the dramatic rise in deaths. "Thirty years ago, people snorting heroin never used OxyContin or Vicodin before" using heroin, says Paulozzi, who did not contribute to the CDC report. But now the drug's abusers start with prescription drugs, he says, turning these meds into gateway drugs. A National Survey on Drug Use and Health study found that heroin abuse was 19 times higher among people who had previously abused pain relievers. 

The increase in overdoses follows a federal crackdown on prescription painkillers, beginning toward the end of the Clinton era and lasting through the Bush administration, that resulted in a rash of arrests for illegal use during the mid-2000s. While the rate of deaths involving prescription painkillers like OxyContin appears to have leveled off, heroin overdoses have risen 348 percent. Most of the deaths occurred after 2010. That year, a new tamper-resistant form of Oxy hit the market, making it less potent and harder to abuse. 

The rate of heroin deaths accelerated among people between the ages of 18 and 24, from 0.8 deaths per 100,000 people in 2000 to 3.9 deaths per 100,000 in 2013. For people between 25 and 44 years old, the rate jumped from 1.3 deaths per 100,000 people in 2000 to 5.4 per 100,000 in 2013. Among young and middle-aged white people, that death rate reached 7.0 per 100,000 by 2013.

The CDC report also highlighted the stark gender and regional disparities among those who overdose. Deaths among men from heroin overdoses were four times higher than those among women between 2000 and 2013. While heroin overdoses increased throughout the country, the greatest number occurred in the Northeast and Midwest. In those regions, particularly near cities, the Justice Department observed the illicit drug as a rising threat—especially given the reported spike in the use of fentanyl, a synthetic opioid some 30 times more potent than heroin.

According to the Washington Post, the Justice Department predicted the emerging trend in 2002: "As initiatives taken to curb the abuse of OxyContin are successfully implemented, abusers of OxyContin…also may begin to use heroin, especially if it is readily available, pure, and relatively inexpensive." A flood of heroin from Mexico, the world's third-largest opium producer, also factored into the drug's availability in the United States. In 2013, the Drug Enforcement Administration seized 2,196 kilograms of powder and black tar at the US-Mexico border, a nearly 160 percent bump from 2009.

This GOP Congressman's Solution to Homelessness Involves Getting Eaten By Wolves

This is hands-down the most outrageous thing said in Congress this week.

| Fri Mar. 6, 2015 3:28 PM EST

Homelessness is a very serious problem. Nearly 600,000 Americans don't have a home, including one in every 30 children. Recently, we've reported on some innovative solutions, including tiny houses and free, no-strings-attached apartments.

Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska) has a different idea. It involves wolves. Specifically, releasing grey wolves into the districts of 79 of his peers in Congress who had recently called for greater protections for the endangered species.

From the Washington Post:

"How many of you have got wolves in your district?" he asked. "None. None. Not one."

"They haven’t got a damn wolf in their whole district," Young continued. "I’d like to introduce them in your district. If I introduced them in your district, you wouldn’t have a homeless problem anymore."

Wow.

If you're unfamiliar with Don Young, he is renowned for his outlandish antics, mostly about animals, like that time he brandished an 18-inch walrus penis bone on the House floor or the time he called climate change the "biggest scam since Teapot Dome" (a major bribery scandal in the 1920s involving the Harding administration).

A Young spokesperson told the Post that the comment was "purposely hyperbolic."

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Here's What Will Happen If Antarctica Melts

VICE takes a trip to the South Pole.

| Fri Mar. 6, 2015 1:47 PM EST

When we talk about global warming at the poles, the Arctic tends to get more press than the Antarctic, because it's happening faster there than anywhere else on Earth. But Antarctica is still a juggernaut. As ice sheets there collapse—a process some scientists now see as irreversible—global sea level could rise 10 feet. The complete meltdown could take hundreds of years, but if you live anywhere near the coast, it's not hard to imagine why my colleague Chris Mooney called that discovery a "holy shit moment for global warming."

Tonight, our friends at VICE will kick off their third season of documentaries on HBO, and they're headed to Antarctica to get a close-up look at the potentially catastrophic changes underway there. We'll also hear from Vice President Joe Biden, who says denying climate change is "like denying gravity." Check out the trailer above; the show airs tonight at 11pm ET.

Yet Another Oil Train Has Derailed and Caught Fire

This time in Illinois.

| Thu Mar. 5, 2015 10:44 PM EST
The scene of crude oil train that derailed in Ontario, Canada on February 14.

Earlier today, yet another massive train carrying crude oil derailed and caught on fire, this time in northern Illinois near the Mississippi River. One-hundred-and-three of the the train's 105 cars were carrying crude oil—from where was not immediately clear (Update: BNSF has since confirmed the train was traveling from North Dakota; see below for their response)—eight of which derailed. Two of the derailed cars have caught on fire, according to BNSF Railway which owns the train, sending plumes of smoke and fire into the sky above Galena, Illinois, a town of just over 3,300.

The image of smoldering oil train cars is now a familiar sight: Incidences of exploding oil trains have been rapidly rising in North America thanks to the fracking boom in North Dakota's Bakken oil fields (Bakken oil is potentially more flammable than normal crude) and the slow transition away from old, unsafe rail cars. Oil-by-rail carloads are up 4000 percent from 2008 in the United States and this is the the third derailment in North America in the last three weeks, including a massive explosion in West Virginia on February 16 that injured one person and spilled oil into the nearby Kanawha River. In fact, a Department of Transportation report predicted trains carrying crude and ethanol would derail an average of 10 times per year in the next two decades. This is bad news for people who live near railways and the ecosystems in which they reside.

People living within a mile radius of today's derailment have begun evacuating, and authorities are monitoring the Mississippi River for leakage. BNSF Railway has not responded to inquiries from Mother Jones about the age of the trains' cars and whether the train was carrying Bakken crude. (Update: See below for a response from BNSF). The Birkshire Hathaway subsidiary did tell Reuters, however, that no injuries had been sustained.

Below are pictures of the spill from Twitter:

 

Update 3/6/15 11:30 AM PST: BNSF spokesman Mike Trevino has confirmed to Mother Jones that the train was traveling from North Dakota, and the AP is reporting its tankers were carrying Bakken crude. Trevino said the cars were the CPC-1232 model (newer than the notorious DOT-111 that has raised concern amongst lawmakers), but were nonetheless "unjacketed." Kristen Boyles, an attorney with environmental advocacy group  Earthjustice, told Mother Jones that "unjacketed" tankers do not have the insulated steel shells that US regulators have proposed mandating for new cars to prevent puncturing after derailment. "This derailment is yet another indication that these trains are not good enough and we've got to get federal standards greatly strengthened," Boyles said. The White House's Office of Management and Budget says it will finalize the DOT's proposed rules in May.

McDonald's Just Banned Antibiotic-Laced Chicken. Here's Why That Matters.

Antibiotic resistance is real—and meat production is helping to spread it.

| Thu Mar. 5, 2015 7:49 PM EST

This week, McDonald's pledged to phase out serving chicken raised on antibiotics that can also be used to treat humans. To understand the giant implications this has for the meat industry, consider my colleague Tom Philpott's previous reporting on the topic. For starters, the livestock industry uses an astounding four-fifths of all antibiotics consumed in the United States. Mostly, these drugs are used not to treat infections but to promote growth in animals.

There is evidence that livestock antibiotic use contributes to antibiotic resistance, lessening the effectiveness of drugs that are medically important to  humans. And scientists have observed so-called "superbugs" migrating from farms to outside communities. It's a major problem—indeed, scientists predict that antibiotic failure will kill 20 million people by 2050. And yet, despite all this, the government still allows livestock producers to dose their animals with antibiotics.

McDonald's chicken move is a tacit acknowledgement that antibiotics are a precious resource. And considering that the chain serves 68 million people a day in practically every nation on Earth, it sends a powerful message indeed.

Ringling Bros. Announces It's Finally Ending Elephant Acts

"The Greatest Show on Earth" says it will phase out elephants by 2018.

| Thu Mar. 5, 2015 3:29 PM EST

On Thursday, Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey said it will end the use of elephant acts by 2018—a move that follows decades of mounting criticism and public concern over the show's abusive treatment of the animals. Ringling's parent company, Feld Entertainment, cited a "mood shift" experienced by circus-goers who have grown "uncomfortable with us touring with elephants" for the decision.

President Kenneth Feld also said local legislation barring certain circus practices, such as the use of bullhooks, made it increasingly difficult for the company to continue including elephants in its performances. "This decision was not easy, but it is in the best interest of our company, our elephants and our customers," he said in a statement.

In 2011, Mother Jones published an explosive, yearlong investigation looking into Ringling's treatment of elephants, including the regular employment of electric shocks and whippings to control them:

Several of the beatings targeted Nicole, a twentysomething elephant named after Kenneth Feld's eldest daughter. Sweet-natured but clumsy, Nicole would frequently miss her cues to climb atop a tub and place her feet on the elephant next to her, Stechcon said in his videotaped statement. "I always rooted for her, 'Come on, Nicole, get up,'" he said. "But we left the show, brought the animals back to their area, and…we took the headpieces off, and as I was hanging them up, I heard the most horrible noise, just whack, whack, whack. I mean, really hard. It's hard to describe the noise. Like a baseball bat or something striking something not—not soft, and not hard…I turned around to look, and this guy was hitting her so fast and so hard [with the ankus], and sometimes he would take both hands and just really knock her, and he was just doing that. And I was, like, I couldn't believe it."

The investigation also exposed that Feld Entertainment had spent millions of dollars on PR campaigns to hide such abuse from the public and fend off lawsuits:

It was part of a multimillion-dollar spy operation run out of Feld headquarters to thwart and besmirch animal rights groups and others on the company's enemies list, according to a stunning Salon piece by Jeff Stein. Feld had even hired Clair George—the CIA's head of covert operations under President Reagan until his conviction for perjury in the Iran-Contra scandal. (George, who died in August, received a pardon from President George H.W. Bush.)

Thursday's announcement to phase out the elephants, which have been a staple for the Ringling brand for more than a century, has been met with praise from animal rights activists. Feld Entertainment said the elephants will be transitioned to the company's elephant conservation center in Florida.

For more, read our in-depth investigation here.