I’ve written recently about the importance of small news websites to cities, especially during and after natural disasters. These sites, which have proliferated like crazy in the past five years, are filling in some of the holes left by dwindling daily newspapers. The trick, of course, is keeping them afloat.
Well, here’s another approach to funding strong journalism — not publications, per se, but individual writers. It’s called Beacon, and it’s the Adopt-A-Manatee program of the increasingly colorful online news ecosystem.
I first learned about Beacon via an email from a writer and some-time Grist contributor, Josie Garthwaite, who has joined forces with three other journalists to create Climate Confidential, a “micro publication” that publishes weekly stories about the environment and tech. To get the project off the ground, the four were soliciting subscriptions and sponsorships via Beacon — a combination publishing and fundraising platform that’s billed as a sort of “Netflix for news.”
Since its launch in Febriary, Climate Confidential has raised $45,775, according to Beacon. And I’m getting emails almost weekly from other journalists (and groups of journalists) who are launching their own projects on Beacon and asking for help.
There was one from Emma Marris, who is working on a project about wolves in the 21st century, and another from Emily Gertz, who is part of a collective working under the banner of Flux, covering “resilience and weakness in a shifting world.” A quick poke around Beacon turns up Elizabeth Grossman’s investigation of what climate change means for my cheeseburger; Cally Carswell and Sarah Keller’s exploration of what genetics tells us about plants’ and animals’ ability to adapt; and Bob Berwyn’s father-son reporting trip through the Rockies, studying global warming’s impacts on the high country.
Worthy projects, all. And each comes with a convincing Kickstarter-style video appeal, asking me to chip in, and a list of premiums reminiscent of an NPR pledge drive. (Mugs! Photos! Dinner with the author!)
Here’s how Beacon works: I can pick my favorite writer, or micro-publication, or even a general topic such as “climate + environment.” I “subscribe” by paying $5 a month, and get access to not just my favorite writer/ micropub, but everything that’s published on Beacon. The writers set their own fundraising goals and get 70 percent of their monthly subscription money. Half of the remaining money goes into a bonus pools for the writers, and the final 15 percent goes to Beacon to cover overhead.
The key difference between Beacon and crowd-funding sites like Kickstarter and (presently mothballed) Spot.us is that on Beacon, you pay to support the writers, whereas other sites focus on individual projects. So with the latter, writers pitch how cool a story is up front, whereas the Beacon model lets them say, “I am a talented person with a solid track record, ‘subscribe’ to me and I will produce interesting stuff for you.”
I like this. I like it because I like journalists (oh right, I am a journalist), and because I want to find creative ways to keep them (us) in work. Magazine and newspaper jobs are hard to come by these days, and making a living as a freelance writer can be bruising. With Beacon, independent journalists might be able to make a decent living without the constant sales and marketing required when pitching stories to publications.
I also like the idea that writers can strike off on their own, using Twitter, Facebook, and now Beacon to take their readers with them. In an age when many publications measure success on “clickability,” this is a chance to put my money into deep-diving reporting and more thoughtful work.
The biggest drawback that I see is the same as the site’s biggest draw: It’s not a publication. Publications and media organizations, lumbering and fickle as they may be, do have some advantages. Editors, for example (yes, I’m one of those too). And libel insurance. I’m a little worried that writers could be hung out to dry if one of their sources or subjects decided to sue over something they wrote — or that they might shy away from more controversial topics for fear of same.
“From the beginning, we’ve said that this is a platform, not a publication,” Beacon’s managing editor, Dan Fletcher, told me. “We’ve been clear with our writers that they lose some of the protections that they would have working with a publication.”
Fletcher acknowledged that the company has some work to do. “Since we launched Beacon back in September, we’ve been focused on, how do we make enough money to make this a viable option? It’s only recently that we’ve cracked that,” he said. The company will address issues such as libel insurance in the next six months, he says.
Meanwhile, it’s clear that Beacon’s founders want the site to be more than just a funding platform. For now, writers are free to sell their Beacon-funded work elsewhere, Fletcher says. But ultimately, he says, “We want Beacon to be a destination.”
Do you have something in your life that’s causing you shame? Here’s an idea from the Swedes: Set it on fire.
Some helpful examples:
1. That American Apparel dress that you wore approximately 15 Saturdays in a row during your sophomore year of college. LIGHT THAT SHIT UP.
2. Your eighth-grade book report on The Scarlet Letter, for which you received an F because you only read the first and last chapters. BURN IT TO THE GROUND.
3. That guy you met at the bar last weekend who is saved in your phone as “Bucket Hat.” OK – seriously, Grist does not condone murder! Set the phone on fire, you sadist.
4. The 251 million tons of non-recyclable and -compostable trash that the U.S. produces annually. CREATE THE LARGEST BONFIRE THE WORLD HAS EVER SE — no, wait, that approach seems irresponsible. There has to be a better way.
There is a better way to burn your garbage, and of course the damn Swedes have already successfully adopted it. (Fact: Anything remotely helpful or interesting that you have ever come up with in your life, a Swedish person has done better and more efficiently for years.) In 2012, Sweden sparked up 2.27 million tons of household waste in its waste-to-energy (WTE) plants, producing 8.5 percent of the national electricity supply. As a result, only 1 percent of Swedish garbage ends up in landfills.
As Daniel Gross reports for Slate, burning garbage isn’t the cleanest form of energy production. But when offsetting the amount of CO2 it produces by the emissions that would be released from garbage decomposing in a landfill over time, its real carbon impact is about 986 pounds of carbon dioxide per megawatt hour. That’s slightly less than the amount of carbon dioxide released from burning natural gas, and less than half the amount ascribed to burning coal. And also, since we can be perversely comforted by the fact that we will always have garbage, it’s a dependable and renewable source of energy.
Waste-to-energy plants do exist in the United States, so boo-ya, Sweden! We currently burn approximately 35 million tons of waste each year, which is WAY MORE than 2.27 million! Then again, the United States population is about 30 times larger than Sweden’s. Oh.
In the high school cafeteria that is the world, the Swedes are the Tavi Gevinsons, and will always be prettier and smarter and cooler than the rest of us — we must just accept that and move on.
Monday morning, the Detroit Water and Sewerage District (DWSD) announced that it would stop shutting off people’s water, at least for now. What was it, in this infrastructural showdown I wrote about last week, that caused the change of heart? Was it the condemnation from the U.N.? The protestors blocking utility shut-off trucks? The giant march on Friday, featuring Mark Ruffalo and a megaphone? The children holding signs that read “We need water to brush our teeth”?
The DWSD isn’t saying. Here’s what it is saying: “We are pausing for 15 days to refocus our efforts on trying to identify people who we have missed in the process who may qualify for the Detroit Residential Water Assistance Program.” That’s according to DWSD spokesperson Bill Johnson in a phone interview this morning.
The Water Assistance Program is a long-defunct but recently revived program that allows Detroit residents who are below the federal poverty line to keep their water running as long as they agree to pay a fraction of the overall bill each month. The program was suspended in 2012 when all of the people who managed it at the Detroit Department of Human Services were laid off. The program continued to accumulate money, Johnson says, but there was no one around to help pass it out. This June, DWSD signed a contract with THAW — a nonprofit that helps Michigan residents with their heating bills — to restart the Water Assistance Program.
Detroit’s water crisis has been a long time in the making. Partly it’s due to forces that are affecting many American cities — our infrastructure is aging and we don’t have the resources to maintain it. But DWSD’s issues are larger than that. The utility, like many municipalities and utilities around the country, made some really bad investment decisions in the years leading up to the financial collapse in 2008. DWSD has paid out over $500 million to Wall Street banks as a result.
Residents have complained that homes and small businesses are being cutoff, while larger clients like golf courses are not. Johnson maintains that many people who are being cut off can afford to pay. “A lot of Detroiters, for a number of reasons, don’t pay their bill. We think mainly because it isn’t a priority. They pay their cable bill or their phone bill, but not their water.” Because DWSD has so many unpaid water bills, Johnson says, Detroit residents saw an 8.7 percent increase in their water rates, compared to the 4.2 percent increase that DWSD passed on to the suburbs.
During the 15-day pause, says Johnson, DWSD will step up its efforts to find people who are using water illegally: “There are people who follow our crews around, and when we turn off someone’s water, they’ll knock on someone’s door and offer to turn it back on for a fee. Maybe they used to work for DWSD. Maybe they just know how to make the tool. It’s a big problem.”
Meanwhile, the Water Brigade, a protest group that formed in response to the shut-offs, is pushing for an earlier version of the Water Assistance Program. This one was was developed in 2005 by the Michigan Welfare Rights Organization and a group of other nonprofits, and it would have capped water payments at 2.5 percent of monthly income, which is the rate that the EPA thinks is fair for a middle-class household. At the time, researchers working on the Affordability Plan found that some Detroit residents were paying more than 20 percent. Until that plan is implemented — or until the shut-offs cease for good — the Water Brigade says that it will continue organizing water deliveries to people who have had their water turned off.
In its ongoing effort to make life difficult for environment reporters, the Obama administration once again announced major environmental news on a Friday. This time, however, it was not a measure to protect the environment, but to destroy it. The Department of Interior decided to allow seismic testing off the southern Atlantic coast from Delaware to Florida. This is a precursor to possible oil and gas drilling, to determine what fossil fuel resources are there.
It is an illustration of one of Obama’s biggest failures on climate change. And it points to the direction that environmentalists need to go next: call for a moratorium on all federal leasing for fossil fuel development.
Green groups and green leaders in Congress attacked Interior’s move. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), a top climate hawk, issued a statement saying, “it just doesn’t seem worth putting our oceans and coasts at risk.” The NRDC called the decision “a major assault on our ocean.”
There are four big reasons to oppose this seismic testing:
1. Damage to marine life from testing. Seismic testing involves blasting underwater with air guns, creating dramatic sound waves that can travel thousands of miles. As Grist’s John Upton noted in February, when the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management released its preliminary report on this plan, 34 marine mammal species that use sound to navigate could be harmed, and many animals could be killed. The government’s own assessment said more than a million bottlenose dolphins could be hurt every year, along with a number of endangered whales.
2. Damage to marine life, oceans, and coastlines from drilling. If offshore oil and gas drilling does happen in the region, it will cause pollution of the oceans and degradation of fisheries and coastlines, possibly damaging local fishing and tourism industries. Small spills are just business as usual for the oil industry.
3. Possible disaster. Offshore drilling creates the risk of a big oil spill that could devastate an entire ecosystem. The Obama administration was actually taking steps toward allowing offshore drilling along the Atlantic coast in the spring of 2010, but then the Deepwater Horizon explosion happened in the Gulf of Mexico and plans were put on hold.
4. And, of course, climate change. Obama has publicly committed to fighting climate change caused by fossil fuels, and yet he approves the extraction of more fossil fuels. By allowing this extraction on public lands and in federally controlled oceans, he is essentially subsidizing fossil fuel consumption and contributing to more climate change.
“It’s completely inconsistent with this ambitious climate policy they’ve announced to then turn around and say, ‘Well, we might allow drilling,’” says Athan Manuel, director of the Sierra Club lands protection program.
The huge increase in oil and gas production during Obama’s tenure may make his record on allowing drilling seem worse than it is. Most of the fracking boom is actually occurring on private land. “This president has been pretty good when it comes to leasing public lands for oil and gas in particular,” says Manuel. “But to allow seismic testing is inconsistent with what he’s done in the past.”
The Interior Department’s latest move is especially bizarre because early in Obama’s first term, when there was still hope for Congress passing climate change legislation, granting offshore drilling leases was supposed to be part of what Obama offered Republicans and conservative Democrats from states like Virginia in exchange for their votes. Now Republicans control the House of Representatives, climate change legislation has no chance, and Obama will get nothing in return for this. The only stakeholders who are pleased by the announcement are industry groups like the American Petroleum Institute, which never have done, and never will do, any favors for Obama.
And that is why Obama should be rejecting any and all fossil fuel extraction from federal lands and waters. Trading drilling rights for an economy-wide price on carbon would be a deal worth making. But there is no deal to be made right now. And in any potential future deal, the Democrats’ hand would be strengthened by holding exploration and leasing rights as a bargaining chip.
There has been some debate in recent years over the environmental movement’s priorities. Some center-left pundits, such as New York magazine’s Jonathan Chait, argue that Obama has done just about everything he can do without congressional action to address climate change, and that the focus on the Keystone XL pipeline instead of stronger power plant regulations has been misplaced.
Well, here is something Obama should be doing differently, something fully within his power to control: stop issuing leases for fossil fuel extraction. It is no less important than Keystone. Indeed, it is absurd that we hand out permission to for-profit companies to despoil our shared lands and waters. The executive branch is charged with managing these areas in the public interest, and the public’s greatest interest — economically as well as environmentally — is in reducing climate change.
The environmental community should be calling on Obama not to issue a single new lease offshore or on federal land. Environmental activists say this is a great idea, just waiting for a catalyst. “Putting a moratorium in place would be a major step forward on climate. It’s a campaign waiting to happen,” says Jamie Henn, spokesperson for 350.org, which has led the fight on Keystone. Henn proposes a sort of middle ground: that Obama could take climate impact into account for all new leasing proposals. “President Obama could start by applying his Keystone XL climate test to any new developments: They can only proceed if they don’t significantly contribute to global warming.”
That would be a step in the right direction. But, given the local environmental and public health impacts of oil and gas drilling and coal mining, there is good reason prevent it even if the climate impact is relatively minor.
Could a movement to stop federal fossil fuel leasing become a reality? In 1983, the environmental community successfully lobbied Congress to place a moratorium on offshore Atlantic drilling, which was renewed until 2008. The Sierra Club has considered trying to revive it, but found the enthusiasm among donors to be lacking. While the group has consistently opposed all leasing in recent years, it hasn’t been running a unified campaign for a moratorium. “It’s been harder than you’d think to raise money and build a national coalition,” says Manuel.
It may be easier to mobilize for such a campaign when there is an anti-environment administration to serve as a villain. “We haven’t been able to raise the money and build a coalition to keep that campaign going. In the ‘80s we were able to, maybe because of James Watt,” says Manuel, referring to Ronald Reagan’s notorious interior secretary. “Maybe that’ll happen eventually.”
A few years ago, no one would have thought that a mass mobilization against Keystone was likely either. But groups organized, donors got excited, volunteers mobilized, and the rest is history. As on Keystone, Obama won’t do the right thing on leasing unless he is forced to.
If you were privy to everything that went on inside a factory farm, you might never want to eat again. Manure lagoons fester. Animals cram into tiny spaces. Unsanitary conditions abound. Which is exactly why Big Ag would rather you just didn’t know. At least seven states have now made it illegal to use undercover evidence to expose the unsavory practices that take place on factory farms. Award-winning journalist Will Potter thinks drones could be the workaround to these controversial “ag-gag” laws.
NPR reports that Potter raised $75,000 on Kickstarter to buy drones and other equipment in order to investigate animal agriculture in the U.S.
“I was primarily motivated by what’s happening outside of those closed doors, but is still invisible and hidden from the public spotlight,” Potter tells NPR. “In particular, I was motivated by seeing these aerial photographs and satellite imagery of farm pollution, of waste lagoons, of sprawling industrial operations.”
Potter’s taking advantage of the fact that while drones have been a hot news item of late, lawmakers are still figuring out the specifics on if and how to regulate them.
Could Potter be prosecuted for flying drones over farms? Clemens Kochinke, a Washington D.C.-based lawyer behind the Drone Law blog, says the law is unclear about monitoring ag businesses. And it takes years to test the laws in court.
“Aside from the many federal issues involving the [Federal Aviation Administration] and the [Department of] Homeland Security, you have the state, county and municipal rules,” Kochinke says. “An overriding limitation on the restriction of drones may derive from the First Amendment where reporting in the public interest is concerned.”
Legalities aside, Chuck Jolley, who works in the meat industry, points out another complication that could disrupt Potter’s plans: “Those things better not be coming over during duck season because there are hunters out there that might look up and mistake that drone for a duck.” It’s a bird! It’s a plane! It’s perhaps our best bet for circumventing ag-gag laws, so long as it doesn’t get shot down?
I saw the Disney film Planes: Fire and Rescue over the weekend with my 11-year-old son Justice. It’s not my favorite animated movie series, but I thought it would be a calmer, more ambient version of the kind of anthropomorphized stories Justice and I have sat earmuffed through at the movies lately, like Transformers and Planet of the Apes.
I’m not mad we went. It did a better job of explaining the inconsolable wrath of wildfires for us two East Coasters than I could have ever done for my son. And it managed to pack in a subplot about water scarcity.
Spoiler alert here — and sorry, because I know y’all have been dying to see this sequel.
Dusty Crophopper, a small-farm, single-propeller cropduster returns from his main character role in the original, where he left the farm to become a Top Gun prize racer. But in Fire & Rescue, we learn that his streak of world championship racing and fancy globetrotting have grinded his gears irreparably, meaning he can no longer race.
Enraged that he has to hang it up, Dusty accidentally causes a five-alarm blaze at his home hanger that’s not easily put to bed by the old resident fire truck. An ensuing investigation into the conflagration reveals that the hangar is out of compliance with a bunch of safety codes and regulations. It must be shut down unless the local fire unit makes significant upgrades (Big Government ruins the day once again! Thanks, Obama!).
It’s here that Dusty decides he wants to enlist with an elite squad of planes, trucks, and other motorized, vocalized equipment trained specifically for dealing with the worst of disasters, so he can help save his town. Dusty’s training days involve helping the squad find creative ways to fight a rash of wildfires occurring all over their terrain. We never learn the cause of the fires; they just happen. The story’s major function is to show the audience just how difficult it is to put these forest fires out.
But the real tension kicks in when a major conflict of agendas breaks out between a national park superintendent and the disaster squad over water usage. The demanding superintendent insists on using the water for the grand opening of a huge tourist lodge resort, built deep in the woods of the national park he oversees. He wants to impress the Secretary of the Interior department, who’s making a guest visit for the opening.
When yet another forest fire breaks out near the lodge, the disaster unit doesn’t have the water it needs because it’s all been diverted to the resort. This diversion puts the Interior Secretary, along with hundreds of visitors present for opening day at the lodge, in grave danger — saved only, of course, when our hero Dusty finds a way to secure water from the river to help rescue them.
I imagine Tea Party dads will use this story to drive a point through about the federal government being clueless. The National Park Service gets a good kick in the butt in this film as well. But I think the discussion that Planes surfaces around water resources — who decides how they are used, how and why — are important ones to have, and at an early age. It was the part that got my greatest attention.
If climate change is a thing in the movie, it serves more as a watermark. As with Snowpiercer, the science behind what’s causing the disasters is never explored; they are just facts of life in the story.
Some parents will use this as an opening into climate talks with their kids. Some of the Tea Partiers might probably just tell the kids that this is what happens when Smokey Bear goes into the woods to smoke weed with the hippies. But paired with other accessible shows like Showtime’s Years of Living Dangerously or Cosmos, kids can walk away with a good sense of how exactly climate change might impact their own backyards, and the difficult choices we need to make about how to deploy resources both before and when they happen.
It knows when you are sleeping. It knows when you’re awake. It knows if you’ve been driving, biking, or walking, and it records it, for data’s sake.
Human is an app that tracks activity with the goal of getting users to exercise at least 30 minutes a day. It uses the M7 motion co-processor, a handy little iPhone microchip with gyroscope, compass, and accelerometer sensors, to track and record your every move – even while your phone is asleep.
This month, Human’s parent company released a series of neat-o visualizations of walking, biking, running, and driving patterns for 30 cities around the world. Check out the video here:
According to some ‘plannerds‘ and city traffic engineers, the maps can give a far more nuanced look at travel patterns than traffic engineers have ever been able to cobble together with car and bike counters, census surveys, and other traditional methods.
It’s possible that one day, the data can help fill in some gaps about everything from public transportation use to bicycling in cities (since the census only counts biking to work, and doesn’t give a complete picture of how people are using bicycles to get around). But the app can’t provide a complete picture yet, because (for now) it doesn’t collect specific demographic information, and because people without iPhones actually walk and ride bikes too.
Here’s Michael Anderson writing in StreetsBlog:
Human’s maps are certainly pretty. But for traffic engineers like the City of Austin’s Nathan Wilkes, they’re the tip of the iceberg.
If the users of apps like Human can provide just a few demographic indicators, Wilkes says, planners would be able to compensate for underrepresented groups and calculate not only how a city’s transportation choices are shifting in real time, but which streets people are choosing.
“It doesn’t seem like a far stretch to be able to have monthly updates to the heat maps to the point where we could see, ‘Oh, we just installed the cycle track on this facility: This is month one, month two, month three, month four,’” said Wilkes, the city’s lead bikeway planner and designer.
Until then, the data makes for some fun eye candy — and a cool way to compare activity patterns between cities.
Here’s a look at bicycle utopia Amsterdam, which, according to Human’s data, leads the way for cycling, and also ranks as and the most active city:
East Coast cities like Washington, D.C., Boston, and New York topped the charts for walking. Here’s Boston:
And Los Angeles, man, you gotta get out (of your car) more:
Send your question to Umbra!
Q. My pillows are getting gross. I’ve thought about washing them, but I can only do two at a time in the washing machine, and I live in Southern California where we’re in the midst of a nasty drought. So, I’ve thought about throwing them away and getting new ones, but I hate the thought of them just sitting in a landfill. Which path to clean pillows is better for the planet? And if you have any recommendations for eco-friendlier pillows in general, I’ll take ‘em!
A. Dearest Amy,
While I admire your commitment to water conservation, there’s no need to force your pillows into early retirement. Just as you wouldn’t toss your clothes, dishes, or bedsheets after getting a bit grimy (I hope), nor should you contribute to overconsumerism with a new set of pillows, which require raw materials, water, and energy to produce – and that you don’t really need.
Pillows can be dry-cleaned, but I wouldn’t recommend it. Conventional dry-cleaning is just too toxic, “eco-friendly” cleaners may simply be greenwashing, and the better commercial alternative, “wet cleaning,” still uses water.
So go ahead and wash your pillows, Amy. As you’ve got capacity issues at home, I’d check out the larger machines found at your local laundromat. Gold stars to you if you patronize a business that offers low-water, energy-efficient washing machines (laundromats don’t always advertise this, but may have a few horizontal-axis, front-loading washers for use – ask around, and go for those).
Whether you’re coming clean down the street or at home, use a small amount of gentle detergent. To dry, use the low-heat setting on your clothes dryer and include a few tennis balls or clean tennis shoes to help break up the down clumps that tend to form. It won’t hurt to leave the finished pillows out in the sun for a few hours to enhance drying, either.
You don’t say whether you own an Energy Star washing machine (which uses about 15 gallons of water per load versus 23 gallons for a standard washer, plus less energy to boot), but that’s certainly something to look into for all your laundry going forward. In terms of pillows going forward, look into laying your head on organic cotton, organic wool, hemp, or even buckwheat hulls, all of which can be found stuffing today’s eco-friendly bedding options.
Oh, and if those pillows are at the end of their useful lives? Read on.
Q. We have several old down pillows and comforters, and I have not been able to find a place to recycle or donate them. Any suggestions?
A. Dearest Gretchen,
Do I have suggestions? Of course I do! But first, how old are we talking? If your bedding is still in usable condition, you may be able to find someone who’d gratefully take it off your hands. As you may have discovered, secondhand shops can be squeamish about accepting old pillows for reasons involving hygiene and bedbugs. But some local charities may be interested in clean, washed (see above) items; make a few calls to see where your donation can do the most good.
But if your pillows and comforter have deflated beyond all hope, reusing is your best bet. Do you by any chance have pets, Gretchen? Old pillows and blankets make great beds for our four-legged friends. If not, friends, neighbors, or Freecyle might want your castoffs for this purpose, as would your local vet or animal shelter. A few more ideas: Stash pillows in the car for naps. Use the down as stuffing for new throw pillows, old teddy bears, or draft snakes. Turn your comforter into a picnic or beach blanket. Repurpose the filling as packing material.
One more option: You may be able to unload some of your bedding directly to textile recyclers, which sell the fibers to be made into things like industrial rags, carpets, and insulation. There just so happens to be one in your area, and yep, it accepts down pillows and comforters. (If you’re not in Boise, check with the company before dropping anything off.)
I’m sure you’ll find a second life for those tired bedthings, Gretchen. Then sleep easy knowing you’ve kept usable threads out of the landfill.
Colorado voters will likely get a chance to weigh in on fracking in November — and that puts Democrats on the ballot in a tight spot.
The fracking boom has bolstered Colorado’s economy, and twisted its politics. Even many Democrats advocate for oil and gas interests, including Gov. John Hickenlooper and Sen. Mark Udall, both of whom are up for reelection this year. But many people living near the wells complain of contaminated air and water, noise, health problems, and other adverse effects.
As Colorado cities have begun trying to ban fracking, the state government has sued them, arguing that only the state has that authority. Rep. Jared Polis (D), whose congressional district includes many of those communities north of Denver, is spending his own money to promote a ballot initiative to outlaw fracking less than 2,000 feet from a residence, up from the currently allowed 500 feet. The gas industry says that would amount to a fracking ban in many areas. Polis is also supporting an initiative that would make more stringent local environmental regulations override conflicting weaker state rules, which could allow communities to outlaw fracking.
Hickenlooper and other state lawmakers were trying to broker a legislative compromise that would keep the initiatives off the ballot. The governor’s proposal would have placed some additional restrictions on fracking but made it clear that localities couldn’t ban it altogether. But last week, the negotiations fell apart and Hickenlooper announced that there would be no special summer legislative session to pass a fracking bill. Polis then declared that he will move forward with collecting the signatures needed to place his proposals on the ballot.
Environmental activists expressed relief that no deal was reached in the legislature, saying that the proposal under consideration would not have allowed for enough local control. “I have no idea why Polis thought the proposed legislation was an acceptable ‘compromise,’” says Lauren Swain, a Coloradan who works with the Rocky Mountain chapter of the Sierra Club. “It made all the community rights to self-protection that it granted subject to operational conflict with the state and to the interests of the industry. It gave and it tooketh away, subjecting every local regulation or moratorium to more lawsuits.”
Perhaps the reason Polis was open to such a bill is because he, like most other Colorado Democrats, supports fracking in principle. In his statement Wednesday, Polis said, “My one goal is to find a solution that will allow my constituents to live safely in their homes, free from the fear of declining property values or unnecessary health risks, but also that will allow our state to continue to benefit from the oil and gas boom that brings jobs and increased energy security.”
Hickenlooper opposes both initiatives, as does Udall, who issued the following statement: “I oppose these one-size-fits-all restrictions and will continue working with all parties — including property owners, energy producers, and lawmakers — to find common ground.”
The presence of the initiatives on the ballot is generally seen as disadvantageous for Democrats up for election like Hickenlooper and Udall — not because most Coloradans disagree with the Democrats’ positions on the issue, but because it would spur the oil and gas industries to reach into their deep pockets and run ads to mobilize Republican-leaning, pro–fossil fuel voters. Industry groups could dump $50 million into the state to kill the initiatives.
Colorado Republicans are also eager to capitalize on fracking as a potential wedge issue. Whereas Hickenlooper and Udall speak of the need for balance between the economic upsides of oil and gas drilling and the environmental and community-level downsides, their Republican opponents are unmitigated fans of fossil fuels. Rep. Cory Gardner, who is challenging Udall for his Senate seat, complains that Udall hasn’t come out for the Keystone XL pipeline. But Udall hasn’t come out against it either — he’s just supported the Obama administration’s process of conducting a thorough review before making a decision, and he voted against a Republican measure to override the president’s authority and force the pipeline’s approval. Since Keystone XL wouldn’t even go through Colorado, it’s an especially odd attack on Udall, but Gardner clearly believes that anything short of a full-throated “Drill, baby, drill!” is a potential liability for Udall.
If enthusiastic pro-fracking voters do swarm to the polls and help defeat Udall, that could have national repercussions. Democrats are in danger of losing the U.S. Senate, and Udall’s seat is one of 10 most vulnerable Democratic Senate seats up for reelection this year, along with others in red states like West Virginia and Alaska. The Democrats need to limit their losses to five seats to retain control.
But Colorado politicians and their campaign consultants could be wrong in thinking the initiatives would benefit Republicans. A week ago, The Denver Post published the results of a poll that found the Polis-backed ballot measures would pass easily. Roughly 30,000 Coloradans work in the oil and gas industry, and many more collect royalty checks, but the state’s electorate has long been distinguished by its concern for quality of life. The oil industry’s anti-initiative ads could bring more right-wingers to the polls, but the chance to curb fracking could bring out a lot of liberal-leaning Coloradans.
It’s not often that a fossil fuel industry with such local economic clout finds itself on the defensive. (Just look at King Coal, which controls the politics in West Virginia.) But this fall, Colorado might be one of the few states to put the fossil fuel industry in check.
Olives trees have a lot to offer the United States. One of those things is water — and this year, as California dries to a shriveled crisp, water is looking especially important.
Most olives grown around the world have no irrigation. The trees are built for drought: They have narrow, waxy, abstemious leaves. They’ve evolved biological tricks for going dormant when things get too dry; they hunker down and then spring back when the rains come. These skills are appealing to farmers, especially ones who have recently ripped out a drought-ravaged orchard, thereby walking away from a 20-year investment.
It’s nearly impossible to say whether California’s drought is linked to climate change. Current models suggest that the state could actually get a little wetter, but they also suggest hotter summers and greater extremes. When the droughts do come, they are going to be serious.
One projection is clear: There are going to be a lot more people sticking their straws into the communal cup. So, right about now, this tree that’s adapted for California’s Mediterranean climate, survives without irrigation, and produces food at the same time seems pretty cool.
In the midst of this drought wracking the country’s agricultural powerhouse (don’t forget that California is the biggest ag state), forecasts tend toward the dire. But there is real hope in olives. Done right, olive oil farming could be a boon for nutrition and the environment. And, as a bonus, if we developed a domestic olive oil industry, we’d have access — for the first time — to the good stuff. Right now, just about everything we call olive oil is rancid, or something else entirely.
“There’s 10 times more California-grown olive oil than we had 10 years ago,” said Dan Flynn, executive director of the UC Davis Olive Center. “And olive oil consumption in the United States has gone up maybe ten fold in the last thirty years.”
Human health and health of the landDom Sagolla
Olive oil hasn’t been a major part of American food traditions, but we’ve been incorporating it more and more. The market is growing 10 percent a year. Through all our spastic dietary fads, people have stood firm on one point: Olive oil is good stuff. The carb haters and the fat haters alike consider olive oil virtuous. And the FDA says we should maybe be replacing saturated fat with olive oil.
Americans currently consume an average of a liter of olive oil a year, but that’s nothing compared to the Spanish (10 liters) or the Italians (15 liters). “There’s a lot of room for growth in the U.S. if it took the space of other fats,” Flynn said.
It could also be good for the environment if olives took the place of animal fats, or of that other — much thirstier — Mediterranean tree, the almond. I love almonds: they seem to be healthier than meat, and exact less suffering. But almonds do require a lot of water. Even when farmers irrigate olives to insure a large crop, they use half the water that almond trees require.
The real trick, both for the environment and for human health, is to have olive oil take the place of something else. Americans seem to have a vague additive theory of nutrition: Instead of eating less of anything, we simply eat more of whatever is currently considered healthy — as if the vinaigrette on a salad will somehow cancel out the hamburger that comes next. It’s not entirely our fault: As Marion Nestle has been pointing out for years, government recommendations always tell us what to eat more of but shy away from telling us to eat less of anything.
The same additive logic goes for farming: So far, olive trees aren’t replacing almond groves or feedlots. A lot of the olives have gone in on marginal land that couldn’t support anything else, Flynn said. If olive oil production is going to be good for the environment, we’ll have to do better across the board.
TasteJill ClardyOlive grove in Filoli, Calif.
Perhaps the first thing people will notice from the growing domestic olive crop is the taste. Unlike most oils, it actually has a range of powerful flavors: It’s grassy, peppery, slightly astringent.
Currently, 97 percent of olive oil consumed in the U.S. is imported, and a lot of it is crappy. We get the oil rejected by other countries, and there are chances for fraud at every stop along the journey. When Flynn’s Olive Center tested oils, it found that a lot of the stuff labeled “extra virgin” was rancid.
The thing is, we Americans don’t know the difference. As Tom Mueller carefully documented in his book, Extra Virginity, the oil suppliers are simply catering to our ignorant taste buds. They know they are dealing with rampant fraud, Mueller writes, but essentially say, “‘Yeah, we know, but it’s cheap, and that’s what our customers want.’”
Mueller writes, “It’s rare to find authentic extra virgin olive oil in a restaurant in America, even in fine restaurants that ought to know better. It’s nearly impossible in some localities such as southern California, where large-scale counterfeiters pump out blends of low-grade olive oil and soybean oil dyed bright green…”
All this means that many American have never tasted good olive oil. “For a lot of people, it’s an entirely new flavor and quality experience,” Flynn said.
If we shortened the supply chain by making olive oil locally, there would be fewer opportunities for fraudsters to adulterate the mix. And a stronger olive industry might campaign for stricter regulation of imports. We have some of the loosest laws, and an even looser inspection regime for food oils. The U.S., Mueller says, “is an oil criminal’s dream.”
If American eaters stopped accepting the oil con, and started demanding real olive oil, they could support a more resilient crop for the uncertain future. Adapting to change may be hard, but it doesn’t have to leave a bad taste in our mouths.