Saturday, November 15, 2008

As Amish population booms in Kentucky, one sect fights law requiring safety emblems on buggies

We reported in August that the Amish population in the U.S. had nearly doubled last 16 years. This week, Peter Smith of The Courier-Journal in Louisville reported that the population in Kentucky has nearly tripled, and gave us an idea why: high birth rates and moderate land prices.

"It's pretty good farmland here, pretty nice land. Cheaper than where we came from," Jacob Gingerich, who moved from Tennessee to Graves County in far Western Kentucky. The county is the site of a legal dispute, with members of one sect, the Swartzenrubers, fighting a state law that requires them to use slow-moving-vehicle safety emblems on their buggies. (Photo by Matt Schorr of The Mayfield Messenger) Friday night, seven were convicted and ordered to pay fines. Their lawyer, from the American Civil Liberties Union of Kentucky, said they would appeal. Gingerich and some other Swartzenrubers paid fines for violating the law last year.

Smith's report is based on estimates of researchers at Elizabethtown College in Pennsylvania, who were the basis for our report from Reuters in August. They figured that there are 8,505 Amish in Kentucky, up from 2,835 a decade and a half ago. (Read more)

Friday, November 14, 2008

Broad coalition urges Obama to open government to more scrutiny, expand data available on Web

A broad coalition is urging the new administration "to use the Internet to publish reams of new information about federal spending, policies and performance as well as other records that have been increasingly shrouded from public view," reports Lyndsey Layton of The Washington Post. The groups also want Congress to "invest in technology to bring federal record-keeping and communication into the 21st century."

"First and foremost, the group wants Obama to reverse the policies of the Bush administration regarding the handling of public records," which began with the secrecy of Vice President Cheney's energy policy task force and President Bush's order limiting access to records of former presidents and "went into overdrive" after Sept. 11, 2001, with such steps as then-Attorney General John Ashcroft's advice to agencies "to reject requests for access to public documents allowed under the Freedom of Information Act if they could find a legal argument against the release," Layton writes. "It was a reversal from the Clinton administration's stance, which assumed that records were public unless government proved otherwise." Later, the White House told agencies to limit access to "sensitive" information, some of which was later classified.

"On the national security side, it's almost become a reflexive response. The theme was: Secrecy makes us safer. And none of us agree with that," said Gary D. Bass, executive director of OMB Watch, a nonpartisan group that monitors the Office of Management and Budget and organized the coalition of conservative, liberal, libertarian and non-ideological groups. In contrast, Obama co-sponsored a law requiring OMB to put government contract information online, at, and in his campaign said he would open the governemnt to greater scrutiny.

According to the Coalition of Journalists for Open Government, the federal government granted only 36 percent of FOIA requests last year. From 1998 to the time of Ashcroft's memo, the figure was 51 percent. "Meanwhile, agencies are taking longer to respond to FOIA requests," with one-third of them backlogged, Layton reports. (Read more)

Nationally, race may have been a plus for Obama

Way up north, in the Arrowhead of Minnesota, where winters start early and iron-ore mining has made the politics mainly Democratic, Marshall Helmberger of Timberjay Newspapers wondered if the overwhelmingly white electorate would turn a cold shoulder to Barack Obama on Election Day.

"Like many, I had been hearing stories of the unsavory comments overheard in area bars, or when Obama volunteers were out door-knocking," Helberger writes. "Some of the comments expressed political differences of opinion, which is a normal and healthy part of a political campaign, but others sounded racially-tinged. In a few cases, they were shockingly bigoted or uninformed. More than a few repeated the false claim that Obama was Muslim. I reassured myself that these anecdotes didn’t reflect the view of most people, but my concerns were constantly reinforced by a mass media that fixated for months on the notion that a black man, especially one with a foreign-sounding name and an urban background, couldn’t win the support of rural voters."

But when the returns came in, they indicated that Obama's race didn't hurt him, and may in fact have helped. He "did substantially better than past Democratic presidential candidates in almost every precinct in northern St. Louis County, especially in many of the rural townships in our region that had been trending most heavily Republican in recent years," Helmberger notes, giving specific examples. (St. Louis County extends from Duluth on the south all the way to Canada; as a whole, it voted about as Democratic this time as in 2004.)

And even if race wasn't a plus for Obama in the North Country, the returns showed "The economy trumped all in this election. Guns, gays, and God has been the traditional trinity for Republicans in recent elections, but the GOP never got traction on those divisive social issues this year," Helmberger writes. "That the content of Obama’s character overshadowed the color of his skin to a clear majority of Americans is a remarkable achievement that says much about how far we have come since Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. told us of the dream he held for America." (Read more)

In an appearance at the University of Kentucky this week, Melinda Henneberger of Commonweal magazine, who covered Al Gore's 2000 campaign for The New York Times, said race wound up working in Obama's favor. "I was stunned that race actually turned out to be a positive for him," she said, adding that she was too slow to realize "We really had made that much progress." Her only available data to support that view was exit polling showing that Obama had done better than 2004 Democratic nominee John Kerry with all or almost all demographic groups. To that, we would add the boosts Obama got from black and young voters.

Henneberger might be correct, said pollster Peter Hart, who does national surveys for NBC News and The Wall Street Journal. He told us yesterday that the exit poll, done by another firm, showed that most of the white voters who said race was a factor in their vote cast a ballot for Obama. Reasons for that could include voters' guilt about how they thought or behaved during the civil-rights struggle, a hope that a black president with a Muslim middle name could repair the nation's international standing, or a desire to move the country to a new era in race relations, as Richard Fausset of the Los Angeles Times reported on Election Day. The poll had three levels for the question: a factor, an important factor and the most important factor. The publicly available poll results for the question are not broken down by race; we're trying to get them. Watch this space.

Some rural advice for the president-elect

Curtis Seltzer, rural land consultant and columnist, imagines that President-Elect Barack Obama comes to visit him in Blue Grass, Va.: "He stopped and then leaned on the tailgate with his foot on the bumper. He bummed a Lucky out of my pack. I couldn't tell whether he inhaled. 'Michelle's on my case,' he said as he waved it around, unlit. 'Girl knows everything.'" Here's part of the conversation:

"I take it you're here because you want to touch base with the grass roots?"

"Wisdom comes up from the bottom of the barrel. So what do I do now?"

"Your win was largely self-made and independent. Keep tacking toward what’s best for the general interest, not the narrowest interests of your political allies. Governing has become largely about who gets how much money and who gets to keep how much. Change that, and you’ve really done something."

"What does rural America want?"

"More money. Jobs. Lower taxes. Subsidies. Loopholes. Pork. Less hardship. More security. Health care. Retirement. Easier lives. Peace. Pride. We’re just like everyone else."

"So you’re saying don’t do anything special for farmers and rural communities?"

"No. I’m saying do things out here only when they make sense for everybody. If, for instance, you look at corn-based ethanol objectively and decide that, as a whole, benefits from this industry, use federal resources to nudge it along. But if your research shows that it’s not a good deal, then back off. Same with clean-coal energy, nuclear power, crop subsidies, farm taxes and everything else."

There's more, and it's pretty good. Read it here.

New California confinement law needs oversight to ensure animal welfare, veterinarians say

Now that California has passed Proposition 2, limiting the confinement of animals, the American Veterinary Medical Association says veterinarians need to be involved in ensuring the new guidelines are implemented humanely.

While the measure was passed as an animal-rights bill, banning chicken cages and sow stalls in favor of free-range environments, the AVMA says that without careful oversight, the changes may be even more harmful to animals. "For example, moving laying hens to free-range production systems may allow them to engage in more species-typical behaviors, but it also increases the hens' risks of illness and injury because it increases their exposure to disease vectors and predators," says Dr. Gail Golab, head of AVMA's Animal Welfare Division.

Dr. Ron DeHaven, CEO of the AVMA, says that while "it was encouraging to see voters in California take such an interest in animal welfare ... veterinarians and animal-welfare scientists must be involved in its implementation to make sure that resulting changes in animal housing actually improve conditions for the animals they are intended to help." (Read more; to read The Rural Blog's previous coverage of Prop 2, click here)

Rural W.Va. veterans a lot more likely than urban to have depression, post-traumatic stress disorder

Rural veterans in West Virginia returning from Iraq or Afghanistan are showing high rates of post-traumatic stress disorder or depression, according to a recent study. About 56 percent of vets in rural counties are facing mental-health problems, in contrast to only 32 percent in urban counties.

"We just do not have enough mental-health providers in rural areas," said Hilda Heady, associate vice president for rural health at West Virginia University, told Eric Eyre of The Charleston Gazette. "The military does an excellent job training these guys, getting them ready to go, but when these folks come back, we just don't have enough tools to help them."

Distance from Veterans Administration hospitals is only part of the problem. "The Department of Defense's managed-care TRICARE health insurance program won't reimburse doctors in some rural areas," Eyre writes. Heady told him support for recent vets in rural areas is crucial: "We need to be doing all we can to help the next generation of these vets and their family members know how to cope, how to get services and how to help each other." (Read more)

Common method of drilling for gas may pose unregulated threats to underground water

More evidence is being discovered that suggests drilling for natural gas has signiifcant consequences for the environment. While the Environmental Protection Agency and the Bureau for Land Management have downplayed problems, an investigation by ProPublica reaches a different conclusion. The non-profit investigative journalism project "found that water contamination in drilling areas around the country is far more prevalent than the EPA asserts," Abrahm Lustgarten writes. (ProPublica photo)

The problems are closely associated with a process called hydraulic fracturing, the most pervasive method used in natural gas drilling. This process, invented by Halliburton, involves shooting "vast amounts of water, sand and chemicals several miles underground to break apart rock and release the gas," adds Lustgarten. A study done in 2004 by the EPA deemed the practice safe and Congress excluded hydraulic fracturing from federal water law.

In Sublette County, Wyoming, underlain by one of the largest gas fields in the U.S., water contamination appears to be linked to hydraulic fracturing. "In July, a hydrologist dropped a plastic sampling pipe 300 feet down a water well . . . and pulled up a load of brown, oily water with a foul smell," writes Lustgarten. "Tests showed it contained benzene, a chemical believed to cause aplastic anemia and leukemia, in a concentration 1,500 times the level safe for people."

So far the investigation by ProPublica has found more than 1,000 cases of pollution documented by courts and state or local governments. Not all involve underground contamination; some deal with surface issues such as "accidental spills and leaky tanks, trucks and waste pits allowed benzene and other chemicals to leach into streams, springs and water wells," Lustgarten reports. Over the last few years, however, a series of contamination incidents have raised new questions about the EPA study and chemicals used in hydraulic fracturing, which remain mysterious.

"It is difficult to pinpoint the exact cause of each contamination, or measure its spread across the environment accurately," Lustgarten writes, "because the precise nature and concentrations of the chemicals used by industry are considered trade secrets." Not even EPA knows the composition of the drilling fluids being used, he reports. (Read more)

Weekly newspapers covered Agriprocessors Inc. and its big immigration raid differently than dailies

The weekly Postville Herald-Leader in Iowa faced an unexpected challenge last May when the town suddenly became the center of a then-record immigration raid and a symbol for the nation's immigration debate. An article in Grassroots Editor, published by the International Society of Weekly Newspaper Editors, highlights the work of the Herald-Leader and other weeklies in covering the raid at Agriprocessors Inc. and its aftermath.

Agriprocessors was a story years before the raid. The company began in 1987, and, by 1996, had become the "world's largest kosher slaughterhouse." With the resulting "influx of Hasidic Jews and an international workforce, the town came to be seen as an experiment in multicultural living," writes Patricia Berg. "In a region almost entirely populated by Christians descended from German and Norwegian immigrants, Postville had suddenly become a mosaic of Anglo Christians, Jews, Latinos and Eastern Europeans." University of Iowa journalism professor Stephen Bloom wrote a book about it, Postville.

With this year's raid, however, Postville was national news, with major dailies focusing on Immigrations and Customs Enforcement and immigration policy. Local weeklies not only had to report that story, but also lived the story, as friends and neighbors were arrested and deported. "Even a few miles down the road their perspective is different from mine, because they don't live right here," said Sharon Drahn, editor of the Herald-Leader. The dedication required to report on many of the stories still emerging from the raid is also much harder on local staff. Janell Bradley, owner and editor of three area weeklies, says that she has begun studying Spanish three nights a week, so that she is no longer dependent on interpreters.

Gerald Blue, editor of the Fayette County Union, 15 miles from Postville, says that weeklies' proximity to the story has enabled them to report areas of progress. "The dailies chose to ignore anything that was positive" about Agriprocessors, he said. He says that while daily papers did not report on company changes for the better, such as a new staffing agency, the weekly papers did. (Read more)

As meth use drops, prescription-drug abuse rises

Efforts to curb the rural-based methamphetamine epidemic have proven effective, but many abusers or potential abusers of that drug are turning to prescription drugs, reports Tom Barton of The Des Moines Register. He writes, "Authorities have tightened the chokehold on Iowa's methamphetamine epidemic, but the abuse of prescription drugs, particularly among young people, continues to rise, new statistics show."

The fight against meth has proven effective. "The number of meth labs, addicts entering treatment programs and related prison sentences are down from a year ago," adds Barton. "The success, officials said, is largely due to controls on ingredients used to make the highly addictive stimulant." But instead of abstaining from drugs, many users are turning to prescription medicines. "State drug agents report a 79 percent increase in 'pharmaceutical diversion' cases," writes Barton. "Meanwhile, the amount of seized prescription and over-the-counter medications has more than tripled."

Iowa authorities are looking at prescription-drug databases as a potential way to combat abuse of the drugs. Barton adds, "Thirty-eight states have the database programs, which are designed to catch users who forge prescriptions and buy and sell non-prescribed drugs." (Read more)

Thursday, November 13, 2008

IBM to help rural electric cooperatives expand broadband via signals over power lines

Most American homes without broadband Internet access are in rural areas, mainly because providers don't consider service in those areas to be profitable. To brudge that gap, IBM "has been hired to work with rural electric cooperatives to provide high-speed Internet service over power lines," reports William M. Bulkeley of The Wall Street Journal.

"The project is a sign that using the electricity grid for communication -- a technology utilities have long been interested in -- has finally matured," Bulkeley writes. IBM will manage broadband instillation for 13 rural electric cooperatives in seven states, with hopes of expanding to the other 900 co-ops. Its contract is with a privately held firm, International Broadband Electric Communications Inc. of Huntsville, Ala.

"The system works by using standard power lines to carry a radio-frequency signal in the magnetic field that surrounds the wires," Bulkeley explains. "The signal is continuously amplified by low-priced repeater boxes clamped to the lines. When an electricity customer signs up for broadband services, the supplier mails out a special modem that is plugged into the wall outlet where the computer is plugged in." (Read more)

There have been a number of different approaches to solving the rural broadband problem. Using "white spaces"," the radio-frequency spectrum that will be available when television switches from analog to digital, is one approach being considered. WiMax is another system being considered. (Click on links for blog items)

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Alaska's North Slope next frontier of domestic gas

The U.S. Geological Survey has conducted a new study the results of could give a big boost to domestic energy production. Juliet Eilperin of The Washington Post writes, "Federal scientists have concluded that Alaska's North Slope holds one of the nation's largest deposits of recoverable natural gas in the form of gas hydrates, a finding that could open a major new front in domestic energy exploration."

Many have speculated for years that gas hydrates, a combination of gas and water that form under high pressure and low temperatures, could provide the next frontier of domestic energy. What also has people excited is that the technology to extract gas hydrates already exists, as opposed to other sources of clean energy that require large investments to develop the required technology.

The USGS estimates that as much as "85.4 trillion cubic feet of natural gas can be extracted from Alaska's gas hydrates, an amount that could heat more than 100 million average homes for more than a decade," adds Eilperin. It may be some time before any of the North Slope natural gas is available to the lower 48 states. "Even if industry manages to extract natural gas from these reserves -- long-term tests on hydrates will take place between 2009 and 2011," writes Eilperin. The transportation of that natural gas will most likely take place via the pipeline championed by Gov. Sarah Palin, which is not projected to be completed for a decade.(Read more)

Fast food menus are highly dependent on corn

A study by University of Hawaii scientists shows how much Americans' fast-food menu depends on corn. They "tested fast-food items across the country and found evidence of both the corn used for the animals' feed and the nitrogen used as fertilizer to grow the corn and emitted in the animals' manure," in the form of isotopes of carbon and nitrogen, writes Philip Brasher of the Des Moines Register.

The idea behind the study was that "consumers deserve to know about the source of their food, given the environmental concerns of growing corn, which requires large amounts of fertilizer that can run off fields and pollute rivers and streams," Brasher writes. Marion Nestle, a longtime critic of the food industry and a New York University professor, told him that corn is a "perfectly reasonable food" and livestock feed. "The country's bigger nutrition problem is not what we eat, but how much, she said."

"The scientists didn't test soft drinks, but they would have found corn there, too," Brasher notes. :Soft drinks are routinely sweetened with high-fructose corn syrup." (Read more)

Capturing methane from coal faces hurdles in West

Efforts to reduce the greenhouse-gas impact of coal mining operations are running into obstacles in the West, writes Jodi Peterson of High Country News. Mining releases large amounts of methane gas into the atmosphere, but it can be captured and burned as an energy source, neutralizing its damaging effect on the environment. But while capturing methane for fuel is a popular step in coal mining east of the Mississippi River, producing enough energy each year to heat 600,000 homes, the western half of the U.S. has yet to catch on.

The primary difficulty faced in methane-capture programs is that most coal mines are located on federal land. This means coal companies are unable to sell or use the methane without owning natural-gas rights. At the same time, gas pipelines are much farther from coal mines in the West, requiring more capital to develop the infrastructure for methane programs, while lower prices for natural gas in the West make methane projects less profitable.

Cultural differences also affect program development. In the Eastern U.S., “some coal companies now think of themselves as energy companies, and they make a lot of money from gas,” says Pamela Franklin, director of the Environmental Protection Agency’s Coalbed Methane Outreach Program. “Coal companies in the West think of themselves as coal companies. Branching out into different resources is not something they think of culturally.” (Read more)

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Imported road salt proves to be headache for city

With many towns and cities facing road salt shortages, preparation for winter has led to increased imports of road salt. But Cedar Rapids, Iowa, is finding that the larger salt crystals they received from Brazil might have an unexpected consequence: a lot of broken windshields.

Car damage could result from flying salt crystals, which can be up to the size of a golf ball, reports Josh Hinkle of KCRG-TV. While the city is working to sift out larger pieces and then crush them into smaller sized crystals, officials are still warning drivers to stay at least 50 feet back from salt trucks on the road. "It could probably break your windshield or chip the pain on your vehicles also," said Shane Shoemaker, of Auto Glass Center. "That's definitely pretty big." (Read more)

Where is your state, county or municipality getting its salt?

UPDATE: Amanda DeBard of reports on the salt shortage and high prices.

Radio ad declines leading to more cuts in news

Radio news, in decline for 20 years, is in for major blows as most ownership groups report declined in advertising revenue in the third quarter compared to last year. Two of the three news employees at WVLK Radio in Lexington, Ky., were let go by Cumulus Broadcasting, which cut seven of the local Cumulus staff's 42 employees, reports Jim Jordan of the Lexington Herald-Leader. Kendra Steele, one of those dismissed, "said Cumulus had reduced staffing at its stations in other cities."

WVLK is the company's flagship AM station in Lexington and bills itself as "News Talk 590." Steele told Jordan, "WVLK has always been news-oriented, and we have always kind of prided ourselves in having people live in the studio and live on the street." Now its newscasts are more likely to have sound bites provided by local TV anchors and reporters, in a cooperative deal that also gets weather forecasts on the local Cumulus stations. Hal Hofman, the company's local manager, told Jordan it has two student interns and other staffers with news experience who can help out in case of a major news event.

While most attention to media business problems has focused on newspapers, magazines and radio are also in trouble. Radio advertising growth has run behind the Gross Domestic Product since 2002. Cumulus had forecast a drop of 3 to 4 percent in third-quarter revenue, but it was down 5 percent, following a 4.2 decline in the second quarter. Most other radio companies have reported similar declines. "It's grim ... absolutely the worst I've seen," Farid Suleman, chief executive of Citadel Broadcasting Corp., which posted an 11 percent drop, told Sarah McBride of The Wall Street Journal. And the companies that grew big after deregulation in the 1990s are now paying the piper: "The credit squeeze is limiting broadcasters' flexibility just as many of them seem likely to bump up against covenants that limit how much debt they can carry," McBride writes.

Things are better at small-town stations whose markets are too small to have been invaded by publicly traded corporations, and at public radio stations, many of which serve large rural audiences. "The area's non-profit National Public Radio affiliates appear to have the largest radio news staffs," Jordan reports. A group of Kentucky stations share a reporter in the state capital of Frankfort, and WEKU-FM at Eastern Kentucky University in Richmond "has a news director, two reporters, seven student interns and several announcers who can cover breaking news." Station Manager Roger Duvall told Jordan, "News is not going to be able to pay for itself. It's the kind of thing you do as a public service." He may not have meant that as an admonition for commercial stations, but it is. (Read more)

Vote against animal confinement in California worries farmers across the nation

The passing of Proposition 2 in California, which creates new livestock-welfare guidelines, has farmers in other states worried that their states will soon be targeted for similar measures. Livestock industry groups nationwide contributed millions of dollars in an unsuccessful bid to defeat the measure, which bans the use of sow stalls and hen cages now in general use.

Opponents say the measure appeals to voters' sympathy, but doesn't reflect the realities of farm life. Exprts say "confining pregnant sows in stalls prevents fighting, ensures the hogs get adequate feed and saves labor," writes Philip Brasher for the Des Moines Register. "Similarly, caging hens is said to protect birds from each other while also protecting eggs from contamination." Also, caging results in higher egg production, because fewer eggs are broken, resulting in lower prices.

Wayne Pacelle, president of the Humane Society of the United States, wrote on his blog that the measure reflected a national need for stricter regulations. "No state in the U.S. and no agribusiness titan anywhere in the nation can overlook this mandate: People do not want their farm animals treated with wanton cruelty," he wrote. But Robert Stallman, president of the American Farm Bureau Federation, says that the measure "highlights the need for us in agriculture to frankly talk about what we do, put the face of the farmer on it." (Read more)

Small station's 50th birthday is community event

WANY Radio in Albany, Ky., celebrated 50 years on the air Saturday, Oct. 25. The station, 1000 watts on AM and 2,700 on FM, "celebrated with listeners, past and present disc jockeys and others with a five-hour open house that saw well over 150 visitors stop by and tour the station and past memorabilia," reports the Clinton County News. "In all, four generations of owners, managers and employees representing different families that were the backbone of founding WANY in the late 1950s, were represented."

Yes, we know anniversaries like this happen frequently in American radio, but this is a point of personal privilege; we used to work there, signing our first log at 13 and signing on and off by 14. And, yes, we still believe in "the editorial 'we'." (Encarta map)

EPA planning to calculate land-use changes in gauging greenhouse-gas impact of biofuels

Already under fire for making food more expensive, biofuels, "long touted as green, are being criticized as bad for the planet," reports Stephen Power in The Wall Street Journal.

Following publication of a study in the February issue of the journal Science, the Environmental Protection Agency has indicated it plans to measure each biofuel's emissions based partly on the ripple effect that its production in the U.S. can have overseas. "Environmental groups say disclosing the emissions levels associated with land-use change caused by biofuels is critical to determining which fuels will best help the U.S. reduce its dependence on oil," Power notes.

The study found that U.S. production of ethanol from corn releases 93 percent more greenhouse gases than would be released by producing gasoline, "when expected world-wide land-use changes are taken into account," Power notes. "Applying the same methodology to biofuels made from switchgrass grown on soil diverted from raising corn, the study found that greenhouse-gas emissions would rise by 50 percent."

Previous studies found that substituting biofuels for gasoline reduces greenhouse gases, but they "generally didn't account for the carbon emissions that occur as farmers world-wide respond to higher food prices and convert forest and grassland to cropland," Power reports. "But some scientists and many biofuel proponents have challenged the Science study, saying it relied on unrealistic assumptions." (Read more)

Monday, November 10, 2008

Most-viewed stories on The Rural Blog last week

Obama didn't resolve 'Appalachian problem,' but made progress; more so in other rural areas
Palin's late Iowa stop raises questions about 2012
Daily paper in town with one-third black population ignores election of Obama
Rifle company owner ousted over Obama support

Idea of road through refuge pits residents against environmentalists, who suspect hand of Big Oil

A plan to build a 20-mile road, half of it in the wilderness of the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge on the Alaska Peninsula, has pitted area residents who want better access to an airport here against environmentalists, "who suspect, without concrete evidence, that the oil industry is secretly behind the effort," write Matthew Mosk and Mark Kaufman of The Washington Post. (Post map)

Local residents began calling for the road more than a decade ago as a way to travel over land to the Cold Bay airport, the only one in the region capable of airlifting sick residents to hospitals during frequent periods of inclement weather. "The villagers hired high-powered advocates to help them, dipping into a $2.4 million budget over the past two years to spend $145,000 on lobbying in Washington and $136,000 more to fly officials there to push the issue, city records show," write Mosk and Kaufman. "The borough spent an additional $72,000 during that period for lobbying in the state capital." To critics of the project, these sums seem substantial for a village of 3,000 residents, so they suspect some of the money comes from oil companies interested in drilling in the area.

The villagers have also hired lobbyist with ties to oil companies "Their emissary in Alaska was Mark Hickey, a former state transportation commissioner who lobbies for municipal governments and also represents Harbor Enterprise, an oil and gas marketing and distribution company," add Mosk and Kaufman. The villagers had a DVD made featuring a 70-year-old King Cove man recounting how he nearly died because he had to travel to a hospital by boat to be treated for pneumonia.

Shell Oil Co. has been involved at a local level in King Cove. "Among other civic involvements, the company designed a second- and third-grade curriculum to teach students about oil and gas development," the Post reports. Shell cited the creation of a trained work force as the reason behind the program, adding that they hoped to be working in the area in 10 to 15 years. The proposed road would initially be closed to commercial traffic, but many opposed to the project fear that that ban would be temporary, allowing the road to be used to transport machinery and workers from King Cove to Cold Bay for oil and gas drilling. It would be the first public road in a highly protected federal wildlife refuge.

Kristine Sowl, a staff biologist with the Fish and Wildlife Service in Cold Bay, told Mosk and Kaufman,"Over the years, the agency has consistently declared any such road and its construction through the refuge to be incompatible and extremely damaging and there has been no change in those findings to this day." (Read more)

Adding wind, solar to electric grid could strain it; co-ops may clash with preservationists over lines

"The North American Electric Reliability Corporation says that unless appropriate measures are taken to improve transmission of electricity, rules reducing carbon dioxide emissions by utilities could impair the reliability of the power grid," writes Matthew L. Wald of The New York Times. This could have significant ramifications for renewable energy initiatives throughout the U.S. because NERC has "legal authority to enforce reliability standards with all U.S. users, owners, and operators of the bulk power system, and make compliance with those standards mandatory and enforceable," according to its Web site.

Regulations limiting carbon dioxide emissions, now in place in 27 states and four Canadian provinces, are likely to be made national. That could lead to shutdown of coal-fired plants closer to consumers, and sources of wind and solar energy tend to be far from most electric consumers. The NERC report also points out that "the carbon emission rules could increase reliance on natural gas, making power generation vulnerable to supply interruptions," writes Weiss. "These actions would impose new demands on a transmission system that was never designed for large power transfers over extremely long distances."

"It appears that greenhouse gas issues and electric utility reliability are on a collision course," Kenneth Farmer, executive director of Beauregard Electric Cooperative in southwest Louisiana, says in the report. Rural electric cooperatives are much more dependent on coal than other utilities, getting 80 percent of their energy by burning coal to drive steam turbines. Among all U.S. utilities, coal is the source for about 50 percent of electricity.

Building new power lines designed to carry electricity over long distances could be complicated by "the growing strength of preservationists trying to protect rural areas," Weiss writes, and "Under some conditions — a spike in demand because of severe weather, or the lengthy shutdown of a nuclear plant — the only way to obtain more power could be to burn more coal," putting utilities at odds with agreements they have signed to cut carbon emissions. "It is not clear how such conflicts would be resolved." (Read more)

Small-town banks that shunned Fannie, Freddie do well; writer asks why Fed wants them gobbled up

"While many of the nation’s large and midsize banks are staggering under the weight of bad mortgages piled up during the housing boom ... most of the country’s smallest banks are doing well," Katie Zezima of The New York Times reports from Orwell, Vt., using the First National Bank of Orwell, above, as her object example. (Times photo by Paul O. Boisvert)

Deposits at the bank have risen 7 percent in the last year, and its lending has risen by 22.6 percent -- but with stricter rules than many larger lenders, such as a 20 percent down payment on home loans. Vice President Bryan Young told Zezima, “We’re very particular on what and who we take, and there’s no need to take anything less than solid credit.”

Jack Schultz, in his BoomtownUSA blog, takes note of the story: "The Federal Reserve wants small banks like this to go away, hoping that their [Troubled Assets Relief] Program will help to eliminate over 1,000 small banks. Bad decision! ... Returns are highest and charge-offs lowest for small banks! Why would you want to eliminate them? What are the Feds thinking? (Read more)

Zezima notes, "Of course, not all small banks have sailed through the financial crisis. Some invested heavily in Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the mortgage finance companies that were effectively nationalized in September, and must now write off that debt. Others, especially in places like Florida and Nevada, are having problems after making loans to contractors who cannot sell or finish homes." There is concern in some circles that the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation’s decision to raise bank insurance to $250,000 from $100,000 could prop up problem banks that might otherwise fail or merge with other institutions." (Read more)

As catch declines on West Coast, quota system like Alaska's is proposed for fishing industry

As concerns mount about depleted fishing stocks along the West Coast, many see a need for drastic changes in the fishing industry. Kenneth R. Weiss of the Los Angles Times writes, "After years of lax rules and wasteful practices that led to an economic disaster, fishery managers have decided to adopt a new approach to some of the West Coast's largest fisheries: give fishermen exclusive rights to a portion of the overall catch." Under this system commercial fishermen will have individual quotas, giving them "the right to bring in their portion of the catch when the seas are safe and they can command higher prices."

The hope is that the quota system will not only keep commercial fishing economically viable but make the industry more environmentally friendly by encouraging cooperation, not competition, among fishermen. "The shift to individual fish quotas comes after recent scientific studies showing that the system has a way of encouraging fishermen to be better stewards of the resource," writes Weiss. "It tends to end the dangerous race to catch fish before another boat does and has helped stocks rebound."

The program, used to great affect in the Alaskan fishing industry, would not go into effect until 2011 and needs approval from the National Marine Fisheries Service. There has been some opposition. "In most catch-share programs, the industry tends to consolidate into fewer vessels, as some fishermen sell their quotas to competitors and cash out of the business," adds Weiss. "That anticipated contraction has led to objections by one fishing group that contended that it would turn fishermen into the equivalent of 'sharecroppers' working for a plantation." (Read more)

Election may show waning rural influence in Nev.

Many attribute Barack Obama's victory in Nevada to his ability to narrow the gap in the rural vote by 14 percent. But election analysis shows that Nevada's urban vote went so heavily in favor of Obama that he would have won the state without his rural support. This occurrence has many wondering if the rural vote's influence in Nevada is waning.

"Democratic gains in Nevada’s urban areas overwhelmed the rural vote," writes Alexandra Berzon of the Las Vegas Sun. "Nearly 9,000 more ballots were cast in rural counties than in the previous presidential election, but the rural vote dropped nearly one point as a percentage of the state’s electorate."

Republicans are alarmed. Reece Keener, Republican chairman in Elko, told Berzon, "We used to really be able to leverage things in rural Nevada — just the sheer numbers there. ... We’ll still see Republicans campaigning here because we’ll continue to be an important source of votes. But we just don’t have the pull that we once did."

But many see this election as unique. They point out that the urban vote in future elections is unlikely to go entirely for one candidate, which would increase the importance of rural votes in the state. University of Nevada-Reno political-science professor Erik Herzik put it this way: "In 2010 will the George Bush-factor be around? Will the Obama charisma factor be around? Will all these new voters be around? If you’re answering no to any of those questions, you’re going to need every vote you can get."(Read more)

Comparing health risks for rural and urban children

The risk of poor health, both physical and emotional, is often greater for rural children than those in metropolitan areas, reports the Department of Agriculture's Economic Research Service. Children in poor rural households and those in poor urban households have different health risks, with rural children often more likely to suffer from allergies and injuries, the report says. However, "Children in poor metro households are 1.7 times more likely to miss school due to injury or illness than children in near-poor metro households," writes Tracey Farrigan for Amber Waves, the ERS newsletter.

Low-income parents in rural areas were more likely than those in metro areas "to report their children’s general health as being excellent or very good (72 percent versus 65 percent)," Farrigan reports. "They were also more likely to score their children worse on individual indicators of health." Urban students from poor families are twice as likely to face safety concerns at school (4 percent versus 2 percent), and their parents are more likely to say neighbors would not help if their child was hurt (10.5 percent versus 6.6 percent). Poor rural children also spend more time caring for themselves and have greater exposure to tobacco usage -- 47 percent, compared to 35 percent in uran areas. (Read more)

Citing surpluses, House panel chairman calls for raising percentage of ethanol in gasoline by half

The chairman of the House Agriculture Committee thinks Congress should raise the percentage of ethanol in gasoline to 15 percent from 10 percent to avoid ethanol surpluses. Rep. Coillin Peterson, a Democrat bfrom Minnesota, made the suggestion Wednesday in an interview with Charles Abbott of Reuters.

However, the Republican leader of the committee, Rep. Bob Goodlatte of Virginia, says federal mandates for ethanol hurt the overall economy: "It's going to keep pressure long-term on food prices." Current law gives a tax break to ethanol that is blended with 90 percent gasoline. The ethanol industry is hurting due to a combination of low oil prices and high ethanol output. (Read more)

Farm Bill may slow agriculture colleges' response to farm emergencies, extension folks say

A provision in the new Farm Bill, which moves away from annual block-grant funding to competitive funding, will take money from land-grant universities and their extension services, warn many university leaders. The shift could have a significant impact on smaller colleges, because larger universities are in a better position to compete for funds. Many of the smaller schools are historically black.

Critics of the provision say it will make schools will be less able to respond quickly to farm emergencies, and hurt integrated pest management. “Things like soybean rust or insect problems that may hit agriculture” will see a delay in response, said Jack Payne, extension director at Iowa State University, in an interview with David Bennett of Delta Farm Press. “The competitive grant funds are usually restricted and don’t allow the system to react quickly. There must be some sort of base funding to react to immediate needs and that’s how the IPM funding has run for decades.”

Payne said Congress made the change on the advice of the Department of Agriculture, believing that capacity funding was already competitive. While efforts are already being made to amend the provision, Payne says it is unlikely anything will happen until the spring of next year. (Read more)

Sunday, November 09, 2008

Rural votes added up for Obama in crucial Ohio, but so did R turnout; his vote was same as Kerry's

"Rural tide carried Obama to victory in Ohio," reads the front-page headline in today's Dayton Daily News, over a story by Ken McCall and Jessica Wehrman. But the tide was by far strongest in the state's northwest corner. Compared to 2004, "Eight Ohio counties moved toward Democrats by more than 15 percentage points and all were in the northwest," they note.

Another key territory, they say in a longer story inside the paper, was "the rural, conservative counties surrounding Cincinnati." Those counties got little attention from John Kerry in 2004 but plenty from Obama, who passed up federal funding for his campaign and the spending limit that went with it. His campaign had a statewide effort, and it added up, said Eric Rademacher, co-director of the Institute for Policy Research at the University of Cincinnati: "The number of votes on a county-by-county basis may have not seemed like a lot, but when you add them up as a whole across the state, it really makes a big difference." (Read more)

Obama fared less well than Kerry in Ohio's coal counties. In the five in the state's southeastern corner -- Scioto, Jackson, Lawrence, Gallia and Meigs -- Obama lost by larger margins than Kerry did. Obama won Jefferson, Belmont and Monroe counties, bordering West Virginia's Northern Panhandle, but by smaller margins than Kerry. The map with the Dayton paper's story, left (click for larger version with charts), shows Democratic gains in blue and Republican gains in red (or pink, since the GOP had no big gains). The map mirrors the interactive version produced by The New York Times, a great source of information on voting in every U.S. county in the last five presidential elections.

Speaking of the Times, our friend John Harwood writes in the paper's political blog, The Caucus, that Obama got about the same number of votes in Ohio as Kerry: 2.74 million. "Mr. Obama won because John McCain received 300,000 fewer votes than Mr. Bush did," Harwood writes. "That points to a cautionary reminder for Mr. Obama and his team: the election turned partly on what they did right, but also on what Republicans did wrong. And there is no assurance that Democrats will confront a similarly star-crossed opposition in elections to come." (Read more)

Obama expected to tighten regulations on coal

"Coal operators and coal-fired utilities should brace for tougher regulation of mine safety, strip mining and especially greenhouse gas emissions" when Barack Obama becomes president, Ken Ward Jr. tells West Virginia readers in this morning's Charleston Gazette. Interests that often oppose the coal industry "are looking for Obama to reverse Bush administration rule changes, beef up enforcement, and put the nation's first ever limits on carbon dioxide from power plants."

From the industry's point of view, Ward writes, "among the more important decisions will be who takes over two government agencies that are little known outside the coalfields: the Labor Department's Mine Safety and Health Administration and the Interior Department's Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement. Decisions about such sub-Cabinet posts are months away."

The United Mine Workers and other mine-safety advocates want MSHA to reverse Bush administration actions and revive "more than a dozen tougher rule proposals that were dropped from the agency agenda after Bush took office in 2001," Ward reports. "And they want MSHA to focus less on 'compliance assistance' for operators and more on simply enforcing the federal Mine Safety Act ... speed up implementation of the 2006 MINER Act, and re-examine what MSHA is doing to combat a resurgence of black lung disease in Appalachia."

"Environmental groups are looking for similar efforts by Obama to toughen enforcement of water pollution and reclamation rules that govern strip mining," Ward writes. The groups disgaree on whether mountaintop-removal mining should be limited by administrative action or by law, a route that would probably be more lasting but much more subject to politics and industry lobbying. (Read more)