Saturday, October 24, 2009

NPR should've drawn on local affiliates' journalism in examining natural-gas drilling, ombudsman says

Some local National Public Radio affiliates in New York and Pennsylvania are doing a good job covering the environmental and public-health issues of natural-gas drilling, and could have provided needed balance to the network's report last month on how technology had expanded and changed the industry, says NPR Ombudsman Alicia Shepard.

Federal bill on gas 'fracking' gets opponents busy

The prospect of federal regulation of "fracking," the drilling process that uses water and chemicals to fracture deep shale formations to release natural gas, has prompted creation of a Natural Gas Caucus in the U.S. House and lobbying by energy entrepreneur T. Boone Pickens.

Town worries about health impact of gas facilities

Amid much talk about more natural-gas production to provide America's energy needs, some folks in a Texas town are worried that gas pipelines and processing facilities are making them sick.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Jack Nelson, 'arguably one of the most important journalists of the 20th Century,' dies at 80

I didn't know Jack Nelson long, or well, but am proud to say that I did know him, and am sad that he is gone. This son of rural Talladega, Ala., left a legacy to America and its journalism when he died this week, at 80, of pancreatic cancer.

"If he thought there was an injustice or fraud being perpetrated, he pursued it with fairness and integrity," his wife, journalist Barbara Matusow, told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, where he won a Pulitzer Prize early in his career for uncovering abuses at mental hospitals. "Investigative journalism is everywhere today, but that wasn't the case when he was doing it." (AJC photo by Kimberly Smith)

Before his 21 years as Washington Bureau chief for the Los Angeles Times, his "hard-nosed coverage of the civil rights movement in the 1960s and the Watergate scandal in the 1970s helped establish the paper's national reputation," wrote the Times' Elaine Woo. Gene Roberts, former managing editor of The New York Times, told Elaine that Jack was "one of the most important journalists of the 20th century" because of his work in Georgia, his civil-rights and Watergate coverage and molding of "arguably one of the finest bureaus ever in Washington."

Jack co-founded the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, was a regular panelist on "Washington Week In Review," wrote or co-authored five books, and was a Nieman Fellow at Harvard University. His survivors include two children from a previous marriage, six grandchildren and five great-grandchildren. A memorial service may be held later. UPDATE, Oct. 25: Doyle McManus, who succeeded Nelson as bureau chief, pays tribute.

Study: Figure land-use changes in biofuel footprint

Those who want to count land-use changes in calculating the environmental impact of biofuels got fresh ammunition yesterday from a study by nine scientists, published in the journal Science.

"In recent months, researchers have begun to worry that bioenergy crops could replace the world's forests and savannahs on a huge scale unless climate policies start to take full account of how these crops' production affects greenhouse-gas concentrations," Juliet Eilperin writes for The Washington Post. "None of the major climate regimes -- including the Kyoto Protocol, the European Union's carbon market and the House-passed climate bill -- account for the carbon released by changing land use for biofuels."

In the U.S., Congress has been silent on whether land-use change in other countries should figure in calculation of whether a biofuel such as ethanol meets the federal Renewable Fuels Standard, but the Environmental Protection Agency has said it should, citing previous research confirmed by the latest study. "House leaders realized they needed to make a change before passage of the climate bill," Eilperin writes, "but they ran out of time." Or perhaps out of political room; the bill barely passed, 219-213, and such studies mean that "Carbon advantage of biofuels may be overstated," as the Post headline notes.

Poll: Less belief in global warming, human cause; has journalism failed to properly convey science?

In his climate-change speech this afternoon, President Obama said the "naysayers . . . are being marginalized" by "overwhelming scientific evidence." Perhaps among policymakers in Washington, but not among the American public, according to the latest poll from the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press.

No rhyme, reason to variances in rural health cost

A recent study from Dartmouth College shows health care costs vary widely across the rural United States. Researchers at the Dartmouth Medical School took a sample of Medicare costs from every hospital, Bill Bishop and Julie Ardery of the Daily Yonder report, and adjusted the fugures for differences in race, sex and age from place to place, but not income. “This map illustrates that variation in health-care spending is not just about big city versus rural areas,” Dartmouth economist Jonathan Skinner told the Yonder. Researchers wrote in the recent issue of the New England Journal of Medicine, “Regional differences in poverty and income explain almost none of the variation.” Skinner says 70 percent of the variation is accounted for by discretionary decisions by physicians. "Doctors in some areas order more tests, hospitalize more patients and consult more specialists than do doctors in other places," Bishop and Ardery write.

"Rural areas generally spend less than the national average on Medicare than do urban areas," the couple report. "Only 27 percent of rural hospital service areas had per capita Medicare costs above the national average from 2004-2006." Skinner told the Yonder one reason for the cost differences among rural areas may be poorer health in more expensive areas, but Bishop and Ardery found that some hospitals in southeastern Kentucky and West Virginia, in traditionally poor health areas, cost less than many other rural hospitals.

What the map ultimately shows, they write. is that the government is spending "vastly more on health care in some areas than in others without any indication that the increased spending results in better health." (Read more)

Wes Jackson and Land Institute working on perennial grain crops to preserve farmland

Farmers have always faced the day when their land can no longer support crops, but if one Kansas farmer and entrepreneur has his way, that problem will be gone forever. Wes Jackson, left, founder of the Land Institute, has been working toward alternative agriculture methods since the 1960s, but his focus was honed by an epiphany regarding the way perennials actually improve the soil instead of degrading it, Richard Harris of National Public Radio reports.

"I thought, why can't we solve this 10,000-year-old problem?" Jackson tells Harris. "The solution is to build an agriculture based on the way nature's ecosystems work." Jackson hired a team of scientists to research cross-breeding traditional crops and perennials to create new crops that would need to be planted only once and harvested year after year. Eight years of research into wheat crops have produced rows of hundreds of wheat-grass hybrid plants that grow year-round in the Institute greenhouse. The Institute plans to plant these hybrids in the fields soon, hoping that something that produces a lot of grain and tastes like wheat will sprout up.

"It's like scratching off lottery tickets," Lee DeHaan, one of the Jackson's first wheat researchers, tells Harris. "Maybe there's something amazing in there. We'll see. That's why we love to be plant breeders. Maybe this is the year when you make the big breakthrough. That's kind of the fun of it." The Land Institute is also currently working on hybrid sunflower and sorghum populations. Jackson says to solve global climate change and growing population challenges you have to start small: "You start with a resilient food system," he says. "And we don't have one." (Read more)

W.Va. may join N.C. in charging overweight public employees higher health-insurance premiums

Last week North Carolina's health insurance program for public employees announced it would begin charging higher premiums for overweight workers next year. The idea is catching on in West Virginia, a state where obesity is even more prevalent, after Democratic Gov. Joe Manchin asked the state Public Employees Insurance Agency director, "Why aren't we doing something like that?" On Thursday the West Virginia PEIA board voted to put a similar option out for public comment over the next month, Phil Kabler of The Charleston Gazette reports.

PEIA director Ted Cheatham says the proposal raises a fundamental issue about people at higher risks of health complications due to lifestyle choices paying more for health insurance. National figures show an obese woman will have lifetime health care costs that are an average of $26,000 higher than a woman of normal weight, Kabler reports. PEIA currently offers a number of voluntary wellness programs, including weight loss ones, but Cheatham says higher premiums offer more incentive. PEIA currently charges smokers $25 more a month than non-smokers. (Read more)

Senate confirms UMW man for mine-safety chief

The U.S. Senate confirmed Joseph Main, the United Mine Workers' former occupational health and safety administrator, as director of the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration Thursday. Tony Oppegard, a Lexington, Ky., attorney who is a former state and federal mine safety official, told James R. Carroll of The Courier-Journal:. "I think Joe has done more for mine safety in this country in the last 25 years than anyone else."

Main's confirmation was seen by some as a movement away from MSHA's reputation of being too close to the coal industry during the Bush administration, which chose two top former coal company officials, one of whom was rejected by the Senate twice, to head the office, Carroll reports. The National Mining Association offered no criticism of Main, left, calling him "an experienced coal miner and obviously well informed about related safety challenges." (Read more)

Farmer's crop is victim of urbanization: road lights

A soybean farmer in southwestern Kentucky is losing part of his crop due to urbanization, but not how you might think. No shopping mall or industrial park is being built on farmland; rather, high-powered lights recently installed on a new segment of the Edward T. Breathitt Pennyrile Parkway next to Kelly Keith's fields are tricking his beans into still growing as the harvest season approaches, Julia Hunter of the Kentucky New Era reports, in a story that is based on a fine point of farming but broaches the larger subject of urbanization.

"They don't know whether it's daylight or dark out here," Keith told Hunter. One irregular area of the field, shaped by shadows of trees blocking the lights, has already turned brown, signaling harvest time, while the rest remains green. To be harvested, beans must turn brown and have no more than than 15 to 16 percent moisture, Hunter reports. "Basically it's the same for with any crop -- even trees, how their leaves get brown in the fall," Scott Lain, crop consultant for Argi-Chem, a local agricultural supplier, told Hunter. "The days start getting shorter and the crop responds to the shortness in the days."

Keith expects to lose half his profit on about 40 acres, and plans to contact state highway officials about the lights. He tells Hunter than cutting the lights off at 10 o'clock would stop the beans from growing, but he doesn't expect any sympathy from the state. For now, he'll wait the beans out, hoping for the unlikely self-correction or the season's first freeze to kill them off. He tells Hunter: "I'm just going to have to consider something different here. I won't be able to raise soybeans." (Read more, subscription required)

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Pork industry, in crisis, pleads for federal help

The pork industry asked for help from Congress today, saying "It is suffering its worst economic crisis ever," Tom Johnston reports for MeatingPlace. "The National Pork Producers Council and other industry representatives presented a bleak picture to the U.S. House Committee on Agriculture's Subcommittee on Livestock, Dairy and Poultry."

The council said its members have lost $23 a head in the last two years, and noted "Chicago Mercantile Exchange data pointing to losses of more than $30 per head for the remainder of the year, and $40 per head in November," Johnston reports. NPPC President Don Butler said the crisis has been caused mainly by higher feed prices, which the group blames mainly on corn-based ethanol. Johnston adds, "Exacerbating the problem has been bans on U.S. pork by countries citing H1N1," widely reported as "swine flu," though humans cannot contract the disease by eating pork.

The industry wants the federal government to buy more pork for food-assistance programs, push to keep open or re-open export markets, pass free-trade agreements with Colombia, Panama and South Korea, allow ethanol subsidies to expire, and avoid new regulations that would increase producers' costs. (Read more)

The CEO of Seaboard Foods told the subcommittee that the Department of Agriculture needs to buy more pork immediately, but Deputy Agriculture Undersecretary Michael Scuse told the subcommittee that USDA would decide in the next two months whether to increase pork purchases, Charles Abbott reports for Reuters and Alan Bjerga reports for Bloomberg News. "USDA may have less to spend on pork this year because of fiscal restraints, Vilsack said in an interview last week," Bjerga notes. "He said the department is reviewing its plans for this year with an eye toward maximizing available funds for pork producers." (Read more)

Saturday is '350 Day,' focusing attention on what many think maximum level of CO2 in air should be

UPDATE 10/26: 350 day went off as planned Saturday, but some scientists and environmentalists are questioning the campaign's message. "Three-fifty is so impossible to achieve that to make it the goal risks the reaction that if we are already over the cliff, then let’s just enjoy the ride until it’s over," John M. Reilly, an economist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, tells Andrew C. Revkin of The New York Times. Despite questions about his group's validity, McKibben held steady to his its goal: "We need to be thinking about reducing, not going up more slowly. Tree-fifty is the number that says wartime footing, let’s see how fast we can possibly move, and let’s hope against hope that it’s fast enough." (Read more)

Bill McKibben, founder of the new environmental campaign, hoped his project would help raise awareness of the goal to lower atmospheric carbon-dioxide concentrations to 350 parts per million, the amount of CO2 scientists believe the atmosphere can safely hold before climate systems start to "go haywire," Douglas Fischer of The Daily Climate reports. But McKibben said he never imagined his "350 Day" event this Saturday would have the success it seems to be having.

"As of Thursday morning some 4,227 actions and rallies are planned in 170 countries, with 300 events in China, 1500 across the United States, 500-plus in Central and South America," Fischer reports. Organizers credit the interconnectedness of the Web, cellular telephones and social networks for the viral appeal of the single-day event that hopes to raise awareness for's cause. "We couldn't have done this two or three years ago," McKibben tells Fischer. "We needed not just the Web, but the Web built out over cell phones."

"For the millennia before the industrial revolution, when humans started pumping industrial emissions into the atmosphere, carbon dioxide levels had held fairly steady at about 280 parts per million," Fischer notes. "Carbon dioxide concentrations rose gradually but steadily to the mid-20th century, when they started to skyrocket. Today the level is 387 ppm, with many analysts expecting the globe to hit 450 ppm or even 550 ppm before world economies 'decarbonize' sufficiently to radically reduce emissions. The problem is that data from the past 100 million years suggests the planet was largely ice-free until carbon dioxide levels fell below 450 ppm, plus or minus 100 ppm. Somewhere between 350 ppm and 550 ppm, climatologists suspect, is a critical threshold that triggers irreversible climate change, loss of major ice sheets, abrupt sea-level rise and massive shifts in forests and agriculture.

"Until recently the notion of bringing atmospheric carbon dioxide levels back to 350 ppm – voiced most vocally by McKibben and NASA's Jim Hansen – was dismissed as wild-eyed optimism. The Earth last saw 350 ppm in 1987," and CO2 takes 200 years or more to break down in the atmosphere. "We know better than anybody exactly how difficult this is and how politically unrealistic it is at the moment," McKibben tells Fischer. "Our job is to change the political reality, because the physical and chemical reality is not going to change." (Read more)

Air Force drops support for coal-to-liquid fuels

In another policy shift resulting from this year's change in the presidency, "The Air Force has quietly dropped plans to facilitate construction of coal-to-liquids fuel plants under an effort to use domestically produced alternative jet fuels," Ben Geman reports for Energy and Environment News.

The Air Force had been trying to develop a coal-to-liquid industry as a secure, domestic source, and promoters of the industry see military supply contracts "as a way to ensure a market for expensive commercial-scale CTL plants, which have not been built in the United States, although several companies have planned facilities," German reports. The Air Force uses 10 percent of the country's jet fuel and is still looking for alternative fuels, a spokesman said.

CTL plants have long been feasible, and are common in South Africa, but emit high levels of greenhouse gases, and carbon capture and sequestration technologies "have yet to be commercially deployed," German notes. (Read more; subscription required)

New movie tries to debunk 'An Inconvenient Truth'

A new film that claims to debunk many of the claims of former Vice President Al Gore's Oscar-winning documentary "An Inconvenient Truth" played to a near-capacity crowd in Prescott, Ariz., Sunday. The film, "Not Evil, Just Wrong - The True Cost of Global Warming Hysteria," created by Phelim McAleer and Ann McElhinney, quotes experts who claim the ice caps are melting due to natural causes, and carbon emissions regulations are an unnecessary financial burden to Americans, Ken Hedler of The Daily Courier in Prescott reports.

The Prescott Tea Party and Terry Lovell, a business professor at Yavapai College, hosted what Lovell called the "world premiere" of the film. Well, one of them, The film's Web site claims the movie set the U.S. record for the largest simultaneous film premiere with more than 400,000 viewers at 7,000 screens in 50 states. The film includes academics, a Greenpeace founder who recently had a falling out with the group, and working-class women from Vevay, Ind., who say closing the Kentucky Utilities coal-fired power plant in nearby Ghent, Ky., would devastate the Vevay economy, Hedler reports. The film paints Gore as a hypocrite and blames Rachel Carson, author of the 1962 book Silent Spring, for the increased malaria deaths in Africa from the DDT ban promped by the book.

The film was met with a largely enthusiastic response in Prescott, Hedler reports, but there was dissent. "Virtually none of the arguments in that movie are new in the global-science debate and virtually all of them are debunked," Ed Grumbine, chair of the graduate environmental studies program at Yavapai, told Hedler. Prescott College sophomore Sam Coodley, an aspiring filmmaker, told Hedler: "I feel that film is a very easy way to manipulate information, and stirring music with African babies with bloated bellies doesn't strike me as objective." (Read more)

Critics say cow ads offer misleading view of dairies

The popular commercials featuring California's "happy cows" have come under fire from consumers and industry advocates who say the ads portray a misleading picture of conditions in the dairy industry. Speakers at last week's Cal-Poly dairy symposium said the spots make consumers feel betrayed when they discover the truth about the daily lives of dairy cows, Bob Meyer of Brownfield Ag News reports.

Charlie Arnot of the Center for Food Integrity says the industry should not be ashamed of the truth that cows live on concrete instead of the grass fields shown in the commercials. He told the crowd: "We should celebrate it!" He said selling consumers on the idea of a dairy industry long gone is like trying to sell them on a 1957 Chevy even though a 2010 one is a much better vehicle.

These attacks on the commercials aren't the first time the "happy cow" ads have come under fire. Dairy Herd Management Editor Tom Quaite told Brownfield the “Happy Cows” campaign was questioned a year and a half ago at the American Dairy Science Association annual meeting when a University of Florida animal welfare specialist alleged similar claims about misleading consumers.

The "Happy Cows Come from California" ad campaign is the product of the California Milk Advisory Board, which recently announced a new program, launched by the National Milk Producers Federation , that aims to show "consumers how California dairy farmers take care of their Happy Cows." The video below, created by the advisory board, is part of a documentary aimed to show consumers the dairy industry's efforts in sustainability and animal welfare.(Read more)

Appalachian South has new, online literary journal

Three Appalachian writers have launched a new online literary journal that will feature work created by or devoted to the Appalachian South. Silas House (right), Jason Howard and Marianne Worthington established Still: Literature of the Mountain South, which will be published in October, February and June, so readers could freely access excellent and contemporary writing of the region. House, a Kentuckian and author of Clay's Quilt and The Coal Tattoo, will serve as fiction editor from his base at Lincoln Memorial University in Harrogate, Tenn. Howard, co-author with House of Something's Rising: Appalachians Fighting Mountaintop Removal, will edit non-fiction submissions. Worthington, a communication and journalism professor at the University of the Cumberlands in Williamsburg, Ky., will edit poetry submissions. (Photo by Curt Richter)

The journal's title is a multi-faceted reference to Appalachian culture, according to its Web site. "To be a writer is to learn how to be still," the site says, and the title also refers to the Appalachian-stereotyped moonshine still and the late James Still of Hindman, Ky., the poet and author who has been called the grandfather of Appalachian literature. The authors write: "As a culture, Appalachia has been told for decades that it is disappearing. We are still here, proud and strong as ever." (Read more)

West Virginia wind farm pits environmentalists against each other

Environmental groups in West Virginia have a new foe in their quest for renewable energy: other environmentalists. In a rare green-versus-green battle, environmental groups are challenging a proposed wind power plant under the Endangered Species Act for the first time, saying that the Beech Ridge wind farm in Greenbrier County poses a threat to endangered Indiana bats. A 2005 estimate placed the bats' population at 457,000, down 50 percent from when it the species was added to the endangered list in 1967, Maria Gold of The Washington Post reports. A colony lives within miles of the Beech Ridge site, but scientists are divided on the bats' use of the ridge. (Post graphic by Gene Thorp)

"Any kind of energy development is going to have environmental impacts that are going to concern somebody," John D. Echeverria, a Vermont Law School professor who specializes in environmental law, told Gold. "This has been an issue for the environmental community. They are enthusiastic; at the same time, they realize there are these adverse impacts." Chicago-based Invenergy, which owns the Beech Ridge farm, says there is no evidence the Indiana bat even visits the ridge, but does admit that the turbines will kill more than 130,000 other bats in the next 20 years. An attorney for the plaintiffs says Invenegry is content to roll the dice and see what effect the turbines have on the Indiana bat, which is not the intent of the Endangered Species Act.

Many of the plaintiffs support wind energy as a way to mitigate climate change, Gold reports, but maintain this setting is the wrong one. In an area with surface coal mining nearby, Invenergy officials say their wind project is a friend to the environment. Clifford J. Zatz, a lawyer representing the wind farm, said in court: "A $300 million, environmentally friendly, clean, renewable energy project waiting to serve 50,000 households is in limbo over a rare bat nobody has ever seen on the project site." The project has twice previously survived challenges in the West Virginia Supreme Court, including one that said it would mar the picturesque view. (Read more)

As the West Virginia wind battle plays out in court, the American Wind Energy Association said Tuesday that the industry will fall short of growth projections for the year. The recession has caused many companies to put projects on hold, Julie Schmidt of USA Today reports. While the $950 million in cash grants from the stimulus act has helped bring some of the projects back to life, it hasn't revitalized them all. The U.S. currently has enough wind power to fuel nearly 9 million homes, up 23 percent from 2008. (Read more)

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Farm Bureau rallies members against climate bill; environmental group hopes to refute FB claims

The American Farm Bureau Federation has recently launched a campaign called "Don't Cap Our Future" to mobilize members against cap-and-trade legislation. AFB President Bob Stallman writes in the lobbying group's Ag Agenda: "Legislation would impose higher energy and food costs on consumers, raise fuel, fertilizer and energy costs for farmers and ranchers, and shrink the American agricultural sector, resulting in reduced U.S. food production."

Stallman says that cap-and-trade legislation would cost Americans roughly $2,300 per household per year. Government incentives for farmers who grow trees to reduce greenhouse gas emissions will put as much as 17 percent of U.S. agricultural land in trees, Stallman writes, causing food prices to rise by as much as $33 billion annually. Farm Bureau is encouraging members to personally deliver farm caps with their signatures on the bill to members of Congress to show their opposition to the legislation. (Read more)

In response, the Environmental Working Group, a non-profit skeptical of corporate agriculture, has issued a new report hoping to disprove many of the accusations. The authors say farmers should not be as concerned about the cost of legislation to limit climate change as the cost of climate change to U.S. agriculture. "Unless action is taken now to slow global warming, farmers can expect to see an acceleration of the extreme weather patterns, heavy rains, flooding, droughts and higher temperatures that have already taken a heavy toll on US agriculture over the past two decades," EWG says in a news release.

EWG says economists at the U.S. Department of Agriculture have concluded the costs of a climate bill are so small they can't be considered threats to farm income and will be lost in the year-to-year swings in farm income due to other factors. Between 2012 and 2018 they project costs will increase by 45 cents per acre for soybeans, 66 cents per acre for wheat, and $1.19 per acre for corn, under half of one percent of current per acre production costs for these crops. EWG writes that farmers can expect only a 0.3 percent raise for cotton and a 0.6 percent raise for rice. (Read more)

Study reveals some of the hidden costs of coal

A new study from the National Academy of Sciences shows burning coal to produce electricity creates more than $62 billion per year in hidden costs, contrary to coal's reputation as a cheap fuel. The study, requested by Congress and conducted by the academy's National Resources Council, focused on deaths caused by air pollution from coal-fired power plants, Ken Ward Jr. reported in the Sunday Gazette-Mail of Charleston, W.Va. Authors say that their narrow focus probably underestimates other hidden costs of the nation's reliance on coal.

The report, "Hidden Costs of Electricity," says coal accounts for about half the nation's electricity, but nearly all of electricity's hidden costs. The authors say burning natural gas generates far less damage than coal, and life-cycle damages of wind power are minimal compared to coal. The $62 billion worth of external costs from burning coal in 2005 at 406 power plants amounted to 3 cents per kilowatt-hour of energy produced. The average price of U.S. electricity is 12 cents per kilowatt-hour.

The report found vast disparities in external costs created by individual power plants. "Half of the plants with the lowest damages together produced one-quarter of electricity, but accounted for just 12 percent of the damages," Ward writes. "On the other hand, the 10 percent of plants with the highest damages also produced one-quarter of the power, but accounted for 43 percent of the damages." The report estimates by 2030, hidden costs of coal will be reduced by 1.7 cents per kilowatt-hour due to expected pollution reductions.

The report did not consider other costs associated with coal production, such as the environmental impacts of mining and coal ash. "We didn't really quantify or monetize those anywhere," said Maureen L. Cropper, one of the study's panel members and professor of economics at the University of Maryland. "So, for example, if you take the waste from a scrubber and dump it in the Monongahela River, we didn't include that." (Read more)

Recession doesn't slow energy-efficiency efforts

A new report from the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy shows states are still working toward energy efficiency despite the recession. ACEEE, a nonprofit that is "dedicated to advancing energy efficiency as a means of promoting economic prosperity, energy security, and environmental protection," ranks the top 10 energy-efficient states, plus the District of Columbia, and the 10 that need the most improvement. California ranks No. 1 and Arkansas, Missouri and Louisiana are tied for last. Vermont and Minnesota are the only states not bordering an ocean to make the top 10 (but Minnesota has a coast on Lake Superior).

"By embracing a wide range of cost-effective energy efficiency strategies, the leading states are demonstrating that efficiency is their 'first fuel' to meet energy demands while growing their economies," Maggie Eldridge, ACEEE research associate and the report's lead author, said in a news release. The third annual rankings are based on six policy areas: utility-sector and public benefits programs and policies, transportation polices, building energy codes, combined heat and power, state government initiatives and appliance efficiency standards.

Also included in the report is the list of states that showed strong improvement between 2008 and 2009, including Maine, Colorado, Delaware, South Dakota and Tennessee. Speaking about why the recession hasn't slowed states' efforts, ACEEE Executive Director Steven Nadel said: "Energy efficiency is the only resource that can actually reduce energy consumption while growing the economy – making efficiency the ‘first fuel’ states can use to balance their energy portfolios." (Read more)

Where does your state rank? You can see the full report here. (free registration required)

Interior resumes oil-shale research, probes last-minute Bush-era decision to freeze low royalties

Interior Department Secretary Ken Salazar said Tuesday the department is investigating a decision by the last administration, just five days before former President Bush left office, that locked in royalty prices for oil-shale development in the West. Salazar expressed "serious concerns" about the changes made without public comment to existing oil-shale lease agreements, Jad Mouwad of The New York Times reports.

The decision locked in royalty rates, which are paid to the government for the right to drill on federal land, for 30,000 acres of existing oil-shale leases at 5 percent. The government is paid 16.7 percent royalty for oil in the Gulf of Mexico, Mouwad notes. News of the investigation came as Salazar also announced he would resume research programs for shale development in Colorado, Utah and Wyoming. He froze the research weeks after his appointment in February.

"Taxpayers deserve answers to serious questions about why these lease addenda were granted at the eleventh hour, under what circumstances, and at what potential expense to the federal treasury," Salazar told reporters. "We must reform our nation’s oil shale program." Oil shale deposits in the Green River formation are believed to hold 800 million barrels of potential resources, more than three times the known reserves in Saudi Arabia, Mouwad reports, with more than 70 percent of the resource on federal land. (Read more)

Preferences for the new research leases will be given to companies with "proposals that help to answer the questions of how much energy and water shale development will need and its impact on the environment," Mark Jaffe writes for The Denver Post. The American Petroleum Institute said in a statement: "Secretary Salazar's decision to resume the second round of research and development leases is a positive step." (Read more)

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Oregon's rural jobless rate drops, but maybe because people seeking work are moving to cities

At first glance the news that rural unemployment rates decreased in Oregon may appear to be good, but state officials say the encouraging numbers are only a result of rural unemployed giving up on the local search for jobs in favor of looking for work in larger cities. "They're getting tired of looking and not getting anywhere," Susan Scheufele, program manager at the Josephine County Food Bank in Grants Pass, tells Richard Read of The Oregonian. "As far as I know, there has not been a substantial increase in jobs in Josephine County."

County figures released Monday showed unemployment rates in Portland metro increased, many rural rates dropped. While seasonally adjusted unemployment fell in 28 of Oregon's 36 counties, separate data showed many of those counties lost jobs during the month. Analysts were surprised to see Portland metro's rate jump above the state average, an increase some have attributed to rural unemployed moving the the city to find jobs. "The move to Portland is happening, and the move to Bend is happening," Carolyn Eagan, a state employment economist in Bend, told Read. "In Central Oregon, we just continue to lose jobs." (Read more)

How are rural unemployment rates changing in your state? Can fluctuations be attributed to a rural migration to cities?

H1N1 vaccine fears range from overblown to untrue; journalists need to deliver the facts

Probably no story has been more widely circulated in the news media in recent months than the outbreak of the novel H1N1 flu, unfortunately most widely known as swine flu. Now that the H1N1 vaccine is being distributed, new rashes of fears and untruths have begun to circulate. In providing an excellent resource for journalists, has released its list of H1N1 vaccine misinformation.

The vaccine has some risks, the same ones associated with the seasonal flu vaccine released each year, FactCheck reports. The vaccine is functionally the same as the seasonal vaccine except for the virus it contains. Some have alleged that thimerosal, a substance used in the multidose formulation of the vaccine, causes developmental disorders in children, but no scientific evidence exists to prove this claim. The vaccine also has no connection to Gulf War syndrome or Guillan-Barre syndrome despite claims to the contrary. A naval vessel was prevented from deploying because of a flu outbreak, but it had nothing to do with the vaccine and there were no deaths aboard the ship, as some chain emails claim.

The full article from contains much more detailed analysis of each falsity, and we encourage you to examine it and contact local health officials for further comment. Delivering the facts to an overly skeptical public can help prevent individual flu cases or even outbreaks and death. (Read more)

Also, take note that National Newspaper Association President Cheryl Kaechele, publisher of the Allegan County News in Michigan, last week urged community newspapers to use precise language in coverage of H1N1 and avoid the term "swine flu." NNA "was asked on behalf of pork-producing states to clarify for readers that exposure to hogs, pork products or other swine is not the precipitator of the virus," an NNA release said.

Rural lawmakers push for critical access hospitals

Several senators from rural districts are pushing to make it easier for hospitals to get the funding boost that comes with a "critical access" designation, and are the same senators pushing hardest to hold the line on the cost of health-care reform, Eric Pianin and Mary Agnes Carey of Kaiser Health News report.

Critical-access hospitals, designed to ensure access to care in the country's most isolated areas, are allowed to collect 101 percent of their costs from Medicaid for a maximum 25 beds rather than the usual 95 percent. Half of all rural hospitals and a fifth of hospitals nationwide have the critical-access designation. The number ballooned until 2006, when states could no longer waive the rule that a critical-access hospital had to be 35 miles from another hospital. Congress, faced with rising Medicaid costs, ended the waivers, slowing the increase to only a few dozen new critical access hospitals in the last three years.

Maggie Elehwany of the National Rural Health Association told the reporters that allowing critical-access hospitals to expand beyond the 25-bed limit would help them fight crises like the H1N1 outbreak. These hospitals would be able to expand or contract the number of beds as long as the annual average was 20, in a plan proposed by Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore.

Some experts say the original definition of a critical-access hospital is no longer accurate. Robert Berenson, a former Medicare official, told the reporters, "Over time, it's become clear that the concept has changed, so it looks like almost any rural hospital is being considered as a critical access hospital, with no longer the expectation the patient will be transferred." (Read more)

Rural health care providers hope reform includes tougher safeguards against drug abuse, fraud

As Congress continues to debate health care reform, rural doctors, nurses and pharmacists hope legislation will expand insurance coverage for drug treatment and rehabilitation, and stronger safeguards against abuse and fraud in government health programs. Many rural health care providers eagerly await health care reform, Halimah Abdullah of McClatchy's Washington Bureau reports, but they fear Congress won't include proper incentives for rural hospitals to cover their costs and recruit talented doctors.

If Congress doesn't go far enough in efforts to eliminate Medicaid waste and prescription drug fraud, many rural health care providers say their jobs will become tougher. A recent report showed the rate of prescriptions for controlled substances skyrocketed between 2005 and 2007 in Kentucky, with some of the largest increases coming the the state's least populated counties. Officials have no specific data regarding how many of the prescriptions were paid for with Medicaid, Abdullah reports, but drug enforcement officers and health care providers say the program is partly to blame for the increase.

Kentucky uses a system called Kentucky All Schedule Prescription Electronic Reporting System to monitor if patients are visiting different doctors to get multiple prescriptions, but only 26 percent of the state's 14,000 medical professionals licensed to prescribe controlled substances have KASPER accounts, Abdullah reports. Many representatives of rural areas in Congress are pushing for rural equity in health care reform, but the prospects for it are uncertain. "The lack of rural parity is a big problem, and it's crucial to whether I vote for it or not," U.S. Rep. Ben Chandler, D-Ky., told Abdullah. "If you could stop some of the fraud and stop the drug abuse itself you could save a lot of money in societal costs." (Read more)

Interstate 66 has no funding in sight, even in Ky.

Interstate 66, conceived as a coast-to-coast corridor that would travel through Southern and Eastern Kentucky, has hit its largest roadblock yet. Funding in Kentucky, the only state still pursing construction, has dried up.

We noted The Courier-Journal's extensive package on I-66 in 2007 and a follow-up 2008 story, which revealed Kentucky and Republican U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers were the only driving forces left behind the interstate's construction, it having been abandoned by other states as unnecessary or too expensive. Now the project is indefinitely stalled, as there is little prospect for construction funds in the foreseeable future, R. G. Dunlop reports for the Louisville newspaper.

"Since the end of 2008, the project’s been dead in the water," John Sacksteder of HMB Professional Engineers Inc. and the project manager for the London-Somerset portion of the road, told Dunlop. "We were told [by the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet] to wrap up what we were working on and to set it on the shelf until further notified."

Nevertheless, Rogers still voices confidence in the project's eventual completion. "Many worthy transportation projects across the country are in a holding pattern until sufficient financing is realized," Rogers said in a recent statement. "This is nothing new, and doesn’t just affect I-66 or the Commonwealth of Kentucky."

If the project were to restart, the Transportation Cabinet would still need to seek an amendment to the state's wild-river law to build a bridge over the Rockcastle River, and obtain a biological opinion from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Environmental groups have raised concerns because the road would take almost 200 acres of the Daniel Boone National Forest and would traverse unstable cave and sinkhole areas in Pulaski County.

Sacksteder told Dunlop that something along the lines of interest from a "major car company" in moving to the interstate corridor would have to occur to revitalize the project. But supporters of the road say no such investment will come without federal and state funding to actively pursue the project first. If the project is revitalized, opponents won't have gone away during it's slumber. "Citizens’ groups aren’t going to go away," environmentalist Leslie Barras told Dunlop. "If the project comes back up, we will be there." (Read more)

Monday, October 19, 2009

Study shows Upper Midwest farmers struggling under health costs even when they have insurance

A new study from the Center for Rural Affairs shows more rural people are sinking under the weight of medical costs even when they have health insurance. The Nebraska-based center joined with the Boston-based Access Project to study health insurance among more than 2,000 non-corporate farms and ranches in Nebraska, Iowa, Minnesota, Missouri, Montana and North and South Dakota, Art Hover of the Lincoln Journal Star reports.

Jon Bailey, the center's director of rural research, told Hover the study should be cause for alarm as Congress considers health care reform because of its "additional evidence that the current health insurance system does not work for large parts of rural America." The study showed that while 90 percent of respondents said everyone in their household had health insurance, 20 percent were carrying medical debt, and 31 percent of those in medical debt say they had delayed medical care. In a state-by-state breakdown of out-of-pocket health care spending, Nebraska was highest at a median amount of $8,3000, and Missouri was lowest at $5,378.

"Accrual of medical debt is a good indicator that health care is not affordable," Carol Pryor, policy director for the Access Project, told Hover. "These kinds of things not only undermine family finances, but also one of the things people say is they can't make investments in the farm or they have to invest in employment, which takes away from the time they can invest in the farm." Nebraska Office of Rural Health director Dennis Berens says the state may lead in spending on premiums and out-of-pocket costs because rural customers are "buying catastrophic insurance and hoping they're not going to get sick." (Read more)

Energy companies split over climate legislation

The debate over climate-change legislation has bene primarily between environmentalists and energy companies, but the latter have been divided on details, and remain so. "Producers of natural gas are battling their erstwhile allies, the oil companies. Electrical utilities are fighting among themselves over the use of coal versus wind power or other renewable energy," John Broder and Jad Mouwad of The New York Times write. "Coal companies are battling natural gas firms over which should be used to produce electricity. And the renewable power industry is elbowing for advantage against all of them."

Supporters of climate-change legislation say the division among energy companies may help pass a bill. "It’s much harder to pass clean-energy legislation when big oil and other energy interests are united in their opposition,” Daniel J. Weiss, climate policy director at the liberal Center for American Progress, told the Times. "The companies that recognize the economic benefits in the bill can help bring along their political supporters."

Energy companies are doing everything from releasing studies about $5-a-gallon gasoline and high energy prices resulting from cap-and-trade legislation to funding protests and advertising campaigns against the bill. Others like Excelon have left the U.S. Chamber of Commerce because of the group's opposition to climate change. The Center for Responsive Politics says energy producers spent more than $200 million in Washington lobbying efforts in the first half of the year, up from $174 million last year.

“The fact that the lobbying is so fast and so furious is a positive sign that this thing is moving along,” Mark Brownstein, a managing director at the Environmental Defense Fund, tells the reporters. “The fact that everyone is rushing to Washington tells you people believe it is real.” But still not everyone believes climate change is real. Broder and Mouwad quote Massey Energy President Don Blankenship, who refers to global warming as a hoax and Ponzi scheme: "A lot of coal-using utilities seem to be on the wrong side of this issue. How can they be so confident that man is changing the world climate?" (Read more)

New England farms going greener to survive

New England farms are turning green to survive the recession, and that doesn't mean growing more vegetables, Kathy McCabe of The Boston Globe reports. Essex County, Mass., farms are adding solar panels and wind turbines to reduce energy costs, using compost instead of chemical fertilizers to spur growing conditions, and installing steel fences and drain pipes to protect water supplies. “We are naturally a ‘green’ industry," Massachusetts Agriculture Commissioner Scott Soares tells McCabe. “The changes farmers are making now are going to guide them into the future.’’

The green movement is seen by many farmers as a return to their roots. “Basically, green farming is going back to nature,’’ farmer Bill Clark, who sits on the board of the Essex Agricultural Society, tells McCabe. “My father and grandfather farmed this way years ago.’’ The state agriculture department says it has provided $184,424 to Essex County farms for conservation projects since 1999.

Arrowhead Farm in Newburyport has begun using livestock to clear crops and naturally fertilize land, lowering costs of feed, fuel and labor. A steel fence divides each pasture, McCabe reports, and after the crop in a pasture is picked cattle, hogs or chickens are released to graze the field. “We’re not having to bring feed to the animals,’’ owner Dick Chase, tells McCabe. “We don’t have to use machinery. It eliminates the use of fuel. The cattle spread the fertilizer and consume the crop where it was grown.’’

Not all aspects of green farming have succeeded in Massachusetts; early indications suggest that wind turbines don't yield the energy promised. "It’s either because original wind maps we used weren’t accurate or the equipment doesn’t perform as represented," farmer Ed Cook told McCabe. A consultant is looking into the problem. Commissioner Soares explains, "It comes down to the uncertainty of the wind. We have found that with the earlier generators, the power curves weren’t exactly as they were supposed to be." (Read more)

Horse owners squeezed by recession and lack of slaughter plants, which provided market bottom

The last horse slaughterhouse in the U.S. closed two years ago, just before the start of the recession. Now those two factors have contributed to a glut in the U.S. horse market, Bess Davis of the Dickinson Press in North Dakota reports. "Older horses, aged between 10 and 15 years, that were going for $400 to $500 two years ago are now selling for about 12 to 18 cents per pound, or about $150 to $200," Davis writes. Some owners say that last years drought has made caring for horses more expensive than they can manage. (Press photo by Davis)

"Before horse-slaughter plants were made illegal in the U.S., horses that didn’t fit into a market or were too old to be bought could be sent for rendering," Davis writes. "But now many owners who can’t afford to take care of their horses and can’t sell have no choice but to send them to Canada or Mexico for slaughter." Dean Myers, a North Dakota horse farmer tells Davis, “I think the people who were against horse slaughter were very well-intentioned. I don’t think there’s any doubt about that.” But he says the inhumanity of watching a horse starve to death is worse.

Some North Dakota horse farmers reported that the market for well-bred horses hasn't been affected as much, and they still are receiving a fair price. Recent legislation in Montana has opened the possibility of building a horse-slaughter plant, but Davis reports no concrete plans are in place. Without the plants horse owners like Shirley Meyers fear prices could drop even lower: “Before, regardless of anything, you could get $500 for a horse no matter what. When you take away that basis, it gets hard.” (Read more)

Strip-mine permits in Kentucky call for development on only 3 percent of mined land

The need for flat land to develop the economies of Appalachia has long been one of the talking points for mountaintop-removal mining of coal. However, less than 3 percent of the nearly half-million acres permitted for surface coal mining in Kentucky since 1999 have been planned for development, report Bill Estep and Linda J. Johnson of the Lexington Herald-Leader. The permits call for commercial, residential, industrial or recreational development on only 13,888 of the 496,014 acres of permitted land. Most give the post-mining land use as fish and wildlife habitat, or hay and pasture.

"Precious little of it is actually put to a beneficial use," Tom FitzGerald, head of the Kentucky Resources Council, told the Herald-Leader. Industry officials say land designated for pasture and wildlife benefit the region, but state House Speaker Greg Stumbo says coal companies should consider community development needs when applying for surface-mine permits. "I'd like to see us have some strategic planning so that what's left is in fact a benefit to the area, or a potential benefit," Stumbo, a Democrat from Eastern Kentucky's Floyd County, told the paper.

Unstable ground has led to some problems building on reclaimed mine sites, and many sites in Eastern Kentucky aren't developed because of their remote locations away from urban infrastructure, Estep and Johnson report. A 2002 study from West Virginia found that it was unlikely that more than 3 percent of strip-mined land would be developed because static or declining local populations didn't need more land for development, among other things.

Population is declining in the part of Eastern Kentucky where mountaintops (actually, peaks created by erosion of the Cumberland Plateau) are being mined, but many local residents say the flat land is needed to improve the region. "Future development in this part of the world, that's where it's going to be," Voncel Thacker, a Knott County businessman who is building a subdivision (Herald-Leader photo by Charles Bertram) on reclaimed land, tells the reporters. "You can't build on the side of a cliff." Bill Caylor, outgoing president of the Kentucky Coal Association, says non-developed mine sites may still be developed later: "In another hundred years, God knows what this will look like. But it will be used because it's level land." (Read more)

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Ky. governor starts effort on state's dental health

"Eight months after newswoman Diane Sawyer introduced to 11 million ABC viewers the term 'Mountain Dew Mouth' to describe the epidemic-like oral health problems of kids in Eastern Kentucky, Gov. Steve Beshear is doing something about it," Al Smith and Keturah Gray write in an op-ed for the Lexington Herald-Leader. Gray was a co-producer on the documentary, "A Forgotten America: Children of Appalachia," which aired in February.

Beshear said he would work to pull Kentucky off the bottom in dental health, a distinction it shares with West Virginia, and begin with $2 million to train rural dentists how to better serve children. A recent Kentucky Youth Advocates study found "They just didn't know how to deal with squalling frightened kids," Smith and Gray write. Other steps will "create community coalitions throughout Appalachia to better tailor health care solutions and programs to impacted counties" and provide portable dental equipment "to increase access and use of dental services for both children and adults," Beshear's press release said.

"It is almost tragically late, but Beshear is admitting that Kentucky — with two dental schools, three medical schools, colleges of social work and public health — has seriously failed to care for the oral health of its young," the writers opine. "With a state budget slashed by hundreds of millions, the governor is to be commended for spending new money, although pitifully small, to give a high priority on this need which has been hidden too long . . . " (Read more)