All About The Benjamins: Coal, Pollution & Mine Inspectors In Appalachia

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In June 2013, mine operator and Kentucky state representative Keith Hall went to the Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet with a complaint.

Kelly Shortridge, a mine inspector with the Division of Mine Enforcement and Reclamation in Pikeville, had been soliciting Hall for bribes to ignore violations on Hall’s Pike County surface mines.

Hall told two cabinet officials that he had already paid Shortridge “a small fortune,” and that the mine inspector “liked the Benjamins.” A report was drawn up, forwarded to the cabinet’s investigator general and Secretary Len Peters, and went nowhere.

The FBI began investigating the matter when the Lexington Herald-Leader published Hall’s complaint report through an open records request. In June, Hall was found guilty of bribing Shortridge to ignore Hall’s safety and environmental violations.

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During the trial, the bureau submitted evidence that strongly suggests Keith Hall was not the only operator paying Kelly Shortridge. Shortridge himself has admitted to taking bribes from other Pike County operators.

So how deep does the conspiracy go? That’s the question many are asking in the wake of Hall’s trial. The Herald-Leader published a recent editorial that pointed out the familiar territory here:

This is not the first time questions have arisen about the Pikeville office of the Division of Mine Reclamation and Enforcement where Shortridge, an inspector for 24 years, worked.

Other Pikeville-based inspectors allowed a surface mine (not owned by Hall) to operate without a permit for 18 months, until July 2010, when rain dislodged the unreclaimed mountain and flooded out about 80 families. One of the inspectors retired a month later.

Remember, too, that the division went years without penalizing coal companies for filing bogus water pollution reports by copying and pasting the same data, month after month.

This falsified water pollution data was only discovered after a coalition of environmental and citizen groups including Appalachian Voices discovered water monitoring reports that the department had neglected to review for over three years. The fact that the FBI had to find out about Hall’s allegations by reading the newspaper – and not through the cabinet itself – reveals a similar pattern of negligence.

How committed is the cabinet to enforcing Kentucky’s environmental and safety regulations around mining? The answer may lie in the phenomenally small salary that the state was paying Shortridge at the time of his 2014 resignation: $45,160 a year.

This may seem like an insignificant detail, but it speaks volumes about how our regulatory systems function, what they prioritize, and what motivates the individuals who operate within them. Shortridge was using his small salary, in addition to the bribes he was taking from Hall and others, to pay for his wife’s medical bills. It’s impossible to speculate about his personal character, but it does seem clear that he was responding to a specific set of material conditions in a way that most individuals on that kind of salary – and in that kind of position – very likely would.

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Without much incentive to enforce existing regulations, and knowing that it pays more to cozy up to the industry than to fight it, we really must ask: how many other Kelly Shortridges are out there? This doesn’t seem like an unreasonable question to ask of a regulatory system that, at best, lacks the political capital and material resources to enforce violations, and, at worst, is overseen by the very mine operators it’s supposed to be regulating. (Before being voted out of office in 2014, Keith Hall was the vice chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee.)

Finally, Keith Hall’s remark that Kelly Shortridge “liked the Benjamins” – an incredibly condescending statement from a man who once appropriated his own county’s coal severance tax to the benefit of one of his companies – is revelatory. It hints that there are boundaries to what is and what isn’t acceptable within relationships between the coal industry and the state: Shortridge was getting ambitious; his greed was somehow different than Hall’s. Keep in mind that this was confessed to two cabinet officials, mob-style, as if Shortridge was breaking a set of established rules. Hall needed Shortridge until he didn’t, and then sold him down the river when he became an annoyance.

Now that they’re both paying for breaking the rules, will Governor Steve Beshear’s administration adequately investigate further possible corruption? It unfortunately doesn’t look likely.

As the Herald-Leader editorial notes, “This should be a moment of truth, but history tells us not to expect an aggressive self-examination of the state agency’s love affair with the coal industry.”

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– See more at: http://appvoices.org/2015/07/30/a-moment-of-truth-for-kentuckys-coal-regulators/#sthash.oVZYbSbu.dpuf

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These Beautiful, Translucent Barriers Quiet Traffic—And Generate Power At The Same Time

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Where could this be? The Netherlands of course, where it seems like all such clever plans start (solar bike path, anyone?).

And this has to be one of the best Dutch ideas yet—roadside noise barriers that also generate solar power. Not only that, they work on cloudy days, and one kilometer (0.62 miles) provides enough electricity to power 50 homes.

The plan seems so obvious, you wonder why it hasn’t been done before. But the key is a new kind of solar panel. They’re cheap, they’re transparent, and they use a different light-gathering tech that works under the gray skies of Northern Europe. They’re called luminescent solar concentrators (LSC), and they’re translucent sheets which bounce light internally to the edges of the panels, where it is beamed onto regular solar panels “in concentrated form.”

The LSC panels can be made in different colors, so the result is something like an oversized stained-glass window. Because light can shine through them, they could be used in urban areas, shielding noise without making either pedestrians or motorists feel cut off.

The test, which launched on June 18, along the A2 highway near Den Bosch, includes regular solar panels as a control, and also to see how both kinds of barrier fare in the outside world, when subjected to real life and real vandalism.

The project is being run by researcher Michael Debije, at the Eindhoven University of Technology. Debije’s breakthrough is this new kind of LSC panel. Regular LSC panels reabsorb light as they channel it to the solar arrays at their edges. Debije’s panels fix this. Added bonus: they also look good.

50 most polluted roads in the UK

50 locations in the UK with the highest concentrations of nitrogen dioxide in 2012. The EU legal limit is 40 micrograms/cubic metre. Even number 50 on the list is two and a half times this level.

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  • 1. Grosvenor Place, Buckingham Palace – 152 micrograms/cubic metre
  • 2. Oxford Street (Orchard Street) – 150
  • 3.Oxford Street (Portman Street) – 141
  • 4. Cockspur Street (Trafalgar Square) – 138
  • 5. Park Lane – 135
  • 6. Knightsbridge – 134
  • 7. Oxford Street (Bond Street) – 127
  • 8. Marylebone Road (Madame Tussauds) – 127
  • 9. Marylebone Road (near Marylebone Station) – 122
  • 10. Kings Cross – 121
  • 11. Euston Road (British Library) – 121
  • 12. Eaton Square (Buckingham Palace) – 118
  • 13. Euston Station – 116
  • 14. A4 (near Hammersmith tube) – 114
  • 15. New Oxford Street -114
  • 16. Regent Street – 114
  • 17. Great Portland Street tube – 113
  • 18. Strand – 111
  • 19. A13, Barking – 111
  • 20. Waterloo Bridge – 111
  • 21. Waterloo Bridge – 110
  • 22. Blackwall Tunnel Approach – 110
  • 23. Waterloo Bridge – 110
  • 24. A406 North Circular Road, South Woodford – 109
  • 25. Westminster Bridge – 109
  • 26. Lower Thames Street – 108
  • 27. London Road, Elephant & Castle – 106
  • 28. Victoria Embankment, Blackfriars Bridge – 106
  • 29. Vauxhall Bridge – 105
  • 30. A13, Dagenham Dock – 105
  • 31. Blackwall Tunnel
  • 32. A5 Edgware Road
  • 33. Kingsway Underpass – 104
  • 34. A3 Elephant & Castle – 104
  • 35. A13 Chequers Lane – 104
  • 36. Piccadilly – 103
  • 37. Marylebone Road, near Baker Street – 103
  • 38. Strand, Surrey Street – 103
  • 39. London Road, near Lambeth Road – 102
  • 40. Kingsway – 102
  • 41. Aldwych – 102
  • 42. Kingsway – 102
  • 43. Westway, near Latimer Road – 102
  • 44. Westway, near Wood Lane – 102
  • 45. Westway, near Wood Lane – 102
  • 46. Marylebone flyover, near Lisson Street – 101
  • 47. Aspen Way, Poplar – 101
  • 48. New Cross Road – 101
  • 49. Bishopsgate, Liverpool Street station – 100
  • 50. East India Dock Road – 100

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U.S. to Limit Petroleum Drilling on Habitat of Greater Sage Grouse

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The Obama administration moved on Thursday to limit petroleum drilling and other activities on some of the wide-ranging habitat of the Sage Grouse in the American West.

The move — which includes a collection of 14 land-management plans across 10 states — stems from a determination in 2010 by the federal Fish and Wildlife Service that the bird, a potent symbol of the West known for its flamboyant courtship strut, was in need of protection. Millions of the birds once ranged across the wild prairies, but their numbers have plunged far and fast, down to 150,000 from 400,000, environmentalists estimate.

The Fish and Wildlife Service has until the end of September to determine what, if any, additional protections the grouse needs. But while many environmentalists say the bird is threatened if emergency action against industrialization is not taken soon, business interests say that adding it to the endangered species list could stifle the development of vast energy resources in Wyoming and nearby states, including natural gas fields, coal mines and wind farms.

The plans released Thursday represent an effort to balance those interests, preserving the grouse but still allowing the recreational, agricultural and industrial uses that underpin the economies of the western region.

“As land managers of two-thirds of greater sage grouse habitat, we have a responsibility to take action that ensures a bright future for wildlife and a thriving western economy,” Sally Jewell, secretary of the interior, said in announcing the plans in Cheyenne, Wyo.

The new plan would establish buffer zones around areas where male grouses gather for breeding, many of which abut or are inside oil and gas fields. It will affect about two million acres, mostly federal land, but would allow the exercise of existing rights for energy development, minerals, rights of way and other permitted projects.

The vast majority of federal lands within the most important sage grouse habitats, Interior Department officials said, have little to no potential for oil, gas, solar or wind energy development. In other priority areas, the plans would limit conventional oil and gas drilling but potentially allow for horizontal drilling that would not disturb the surface.

Several environmental groups applauded the action.

“The greater sage grouse conservation plan is a huge step in the right direction,” said Rhea Suh, president of the Natural Resources Defense Council, “that holds out the promise to save not only this beautiful bird but also hundreds of other species.”

Ken Rait, director of the United States public lands project at the Pew Charitable Trusts, said that the Bureau of Land Management’s plans were a significant improvement over drafts released in 2013.

“This is the B.L.M.’s best chance to protect the greater sage-grouse and its habitat,” he said, calling the grouse an indicator of the health of the West’s sagebrush ecosystem, which supports many other species.

Wind industry representatives said they were still reviewing the plans, but said wind energy was important to the fight against global warming. “Sage grouse face numerous human-induced threats including the effects of climate change, which poses the greatest threat to the species,” said David Ward, a spokesman for the American Wind Energy Association. “Responsibly sited wind energy, as one of the lowest-cost and most rapidly deployable carbon pollution reduction tools available today, stands poised to help save the species.”

Oil and gas executives, though, were critical of the action, saying that they would put harsh conditions on new drilling permits even on existing leases.

“The restrictions that will be put on oil and natural gas development are not based on good science and exaggerate the threat of energy development to the bird,” said Kathleen Sgamma, vice president for government and public affairs at the Western Energy Alliance, a Denver-based petroleum industry group. “We continue to believe the states are the best place to conserve the sage grouse.”

The battle between environmentalists and those who want to develop industry has echoed the conflict over logging in Oregon in the 1990s to save the spotted owl. It has even attracted the attention of Republican lawmakers in Congress who have been trying to block the Interior Department, which oversees the Fish and Wildlife Service, from making the designation. Their most recent effort was an amendment to the $612 billion defense policy bill that would keep the lesser prairie chicken and American burying beetle from the list as well.

The threat of the designation also set off an elaborate, multiyear frenzy of planning, negotiation and conservation efforts that included an unusual level of collaboration among government agencies, environmental organizations and business interests.

Many environmentalists have hoped that an endangered species designation would not only restrict housing, mining, ranching and hunting around breeding grounds, but also put the brakes on the fossil fuel industry in several critical states.

But many companies have joined in efforts with local officials to figure out ways to make room for industrial activities and for habitat the bird needs to reproduce. Those include companies like Chesapeake Energy limiting truck traffic in an oil field to avoid disturbing breeding and nesting habits and Shell Oil sowing seeds to grow plants that help nourish the birds and hide their chicks from predators.

Gleaned from the New York Times article dated 29 May 2015

 

The Scenario Planners

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A theater-loving Englishman, Bentham leads Shell’s legendary team of futurists, whose methods have been adopted by the Walt Disney Company and the Pentagon, among others.

The scenario planners, as they call themselves, are paid to think unconventional thoughts. They read fiction. They run models. They talk to hippies. They talk to scientists. They consult anyone who can imagine surprising, abrupt change. The competing versions of the future — the scenarios — that result from this process are packaged as stories and given evocative titles: “Belle Époque,” “Devolution,” “Prism.” Then the oil company readies itself, as best it can, for all of them.

Over the course of almost half a century, Bentham’s predecessors in the scenario-planning group helped Shell foresee and prepare for events like the fall of the Soviet Union, the rise of Islamic extremism and the birth of the anti-globalization movement. More recently — before California’s historic drought — the team focused on water scarcity. And long before most other oil companies, Shell’s scenario planners helped the company understand that climate change was a strategic and scientific reality.

In early 2008, weeks before Shell bid a record-breaking $2.1 billion on oil leases in the melting Arctic Ocean — the basis for the newly approved drilling plan — the company’s futurists released a new pair of scenarios describing the next 40 years on Earth. They were based on what Bentham called “three hard truths”: That energy demand, thanks in part to booming China and India, would only rise; that supply would struggle to keep up; and that climate change was dangerously real. Shell’s internal research showed that alternative energy systems — wind, solar, carbon capture — would take decades to make just a 1-percent dent in our massive global energy system, even if they grew at 25 percent a year. “It takes them 30 years to just begin to start becoming material,” Bentham explained to me.

One scenario, called “Blueprints,” painted a moderately hopeful vision of green energy and concerted action within the constraints of technological change, of a swiftly rising price on carbon emissions as the world comes together to remake its energy systems. In this vision of the future, there is active carbon trading. There is a strong global climate treaty. There is still far more warming than society can easily bear — approaching 7 degrees Fahrenheit — but the world still averts the very worst of climate change.

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The second scenario, called “Scramble,” envisioned a future in which countries fail to do much of anything to reduce emissions, and instead race to secure oil and coal deposits. Only when climatic chaos breaks out does society take it seriously, and by then great damage has already been done. Drilling in the Arctic, thought to hold up to a quarter of the world’s untapped oil and gas, has a role in both scenarios — but under “Scramble,” it is irresistible.

In 2008, Shell surprised observers by announcing that it had a preferred scenario. The company would prepare for both outcomes, but for the good of the world and the good of Shell itself, it hoped for the carbon-constrained future of “Blueprints.” The oil giant awaited government action: a market signal in the form of a carbon price. But when I interviewed him four years later, Bentham admitted to me that the future, so far, was looking a lot more like the chaos of “Scramble.” We had no working international climate agreement and no real price on carbon. Instead, we had a global race for gas, coal and the last drops of conventional oil.

When I talked to Bentham, it was early December 2012. Three weeks later, on New Year’s Eve, Shell’s Arctic drill rig, the Kulluk, crashed into an island off the Alaskan coastline in a violent winter storm — a disaster I wrote about in this magazine. After the accident, political and economic circumstances seemed to turn decisively against Shell’s Arctic aspirations. The Obama administration began talking tough: “Shell screwed up,” said Ken Salazar, the interior secretary at the time. ConocoPhillips and Statoil, Shell’s rivals in the Alaskan Arctic, delayed their own offshore-drilling plans. Global oil prices soon dropped precipitously, making expensive plays in the high north even riskier.

Yet the drilling plan that the Obama administration approved on May 11 is not much different from the one that ran aground along with the Kulluk two and a half years ago. One of company’s drill ships will be the same as before: the Noble Discoverer, a 49-year-old converted log carrier that was previously at the center of eight felony pollution charges. Last month, the vessel failed another Coast Guard inspection in Hawaii. In place of the Kulluk, Shell will use a squarish, 319-foot-tall behemoth called the Polar Pioneer. This replacement rig flies the same Marshall Islands flag of convenience as the Kulluk and will be towed along the same general route to and from the Chukchi Sea from Seattle — a 2,000-mile voyage by tugboat. The Discoverer and the Pioneer will cross the same churning waters in the Gulf of Alaska. They’ll begin drilling in the same assuredly oil-rich patch of seabed in the Chukchi, some 70 miles from shore and a thousand miles from the nearest permanent Coast Guard base from which help could be dispatched if something goes wrong.

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The fact that so fundamentally little has changed since the debacle of 2012 is shocking — unless you understand that our leaders have long shared the oil company’s worldview. Drilling the Chukchi is not a choice, say the adults in the room; it’s an inevitability. When the federal government auctioned off the Chukchi leases in 2008, Randall Luthi, a Bush appointee who was then the head of the agency then called the Minerals Management Service, gave a speech in Alaska in which he stumbled repeatedly over the word Inupiat — the name of the Alaska Native people whose villages dot the Chukchi coastline — but managed to present this argument perfectly.

“Our demand for energy is going to increase by approximately 1.1 percent a year over the next generation,” he declared. “U.S. production is not expected to keep pace. Now, it doesn’t take too much to realize that when you’re demanding more than you’re producing, there’s a shortfall.” One of Luthi’s successors under the Obama administration, Tommy Beaudreau, underscored the “tremendous” size of the prize. Estimates held that “the Chukchi Sea contains more than 15 billion barrels of undiscovered recoverable oil,” Beaudreau told the Senate, “which is second only to the central Gulf of Mexico.”

For me, living in Seattle as Shell’s Arctic fleet again gathers in Puget Sound and activists in kayaks try to stop it with a blockade, it’s hard not to think of the arc of the president who just signed off on another drilling mission. In his 2008 campaign, President Obama seemed to plan for an optimistic vision of the future, only to have the opposing scenario unfold. Four years later, his campaign’s energy slogan — reiterated in his 2014 State of the Union address — might as well have been written by Shell: All of the above.

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Excerpt from an article written by McKenzie Funk for ‘The New York Times Magazine’ May 18 2015

Top EU companies urge drastic cuts in greenhouse gas emissions

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By Alister Doyle and Geert De Clercq

PARIS, May 21 (Reuters) – Top European companies urged governments on Thursday to set a goal of slashing greenhouse gas emissions to net zero well before 2100, saying that going green can bring profits rather than costs.

Business leaders from global and European alliances of companies including Unilever, Total and Saint-Gobain also called for a global price on carbon emissions and a phase-out of fossil fuel subsidies.

“We want a global climate deal that achieves net zero emissions – make it happen,” they said in a statement directed at almost 200 governments which are due to agree a deal to slow global warming at a summit in Paris from Nov. 30 to Dec. 11.

Net zero emissions would mean drastic cuts and imply any remaining emissions would be offset, for instance, by planting trees to soak up carbon dioxide or with yet-to-be-developed technologies to extract carbon from the air.

They said global emissions should peak around 2020 and reach net zero “well before the end of the century”.

Organisers of the conference, part of efforts to build momentum for a global deal after past failures, said the statement was backed by 25 business networks representing more than 6.5 million firms in more than 130 countries.

Still, the Business and Climate Summit mainly attracted top European CEOs, whereas large U.S and Asian companies were notably absent. The statement said businesses believed that a goal of net emissions was “achievable and compatible with continued economic growth.”

Cuts in emissions can help avert more droughts, floods and rising seas and have big benefits such as lowering air pollution that causes millions of deaths, especially in big emerging nations such as China and India.

“Business as usual is no longer possible,” said Pierre-Andre de Chalendar, CEO of French building materials group Saint Gobain.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who has urged more business involvement to help limit emissions, called the conference “an important milestone” on the way to the Paris summit.

Still, governments are sharply divided about whether to set a goal of net zero emissions at Paris. A report by the U.N. panel of climate scientists last year said net zero emissions by about 2070 would give a good chance of avoiding ever-more damaging warming.

“Three years ago you couldn’t get 50 CEOs to a conference on climate change,” said Paul Polman, CEO of Unilever. He said Climate change was an economic threat – a drought in Brazil, for instance, can cut hydro-electric output, shutting down industry.

He said he favoured a goal of net zero emissions by 2050. Such cuts are a radical shift from rises in almost all recent years.

Even Saudi Arabian Oil Minister Ali Al-Naimi said OPEC’s top producer was investing in solar power as it anticipates lower global reliance on fossil fuels.

“In Saudi Arabia, we recognise that eventually … we are not going to need fossil fuels. I don’t know when, in 2040, 2050 maybe,” he said.

(Additional reporting by Michel Rose and Jessica Chen; Editing by David Holmes and Ahmed Aboulenein)