Friday, January 15, 2010

Rosenwald Schools that educated rural blacks are mostly gone, but efforts under way to save them

A drive is under way to save and restore some of the schools that were built for rural Southern blacks in the early 20th century with help from Chicago philanthropist Julius Rosenwald. He funded more than 5,000 Rosenwald Schools for rural blacks in 15 states from 1912 to 1937. In the late 1920s, one-third of black children in the rural South attended Rosenwald schools, including this one at Hickory in far southwestern Kentucky. It has since been moved to Graves County High School.

Spot surveys indicate that no more than 800 of the 5,000-plus Rosenwald Schools remain, "their historical importance often unknown to residents and even to many of the dwindling alumni, according to the National Trust for Historic Preservation, which calls the schools an endangered treasure," reports Erik Eckholm of The New York Times. "The need for them reflected the segregation of the age and the paltry financing of black schools. But historians say their blossoming also demonstrated the strong community ties forged by rural blacks and a fierce determination to educate their children despite official indifference." The National Trust mounted the effort largely with a $2 million donation from Lowe’s. (Read more)

Farm Bureau president calls for unity against climate legislation and animal-rights campaigns

This week's American Farm Bureau Federation convention in Seattle started off with a bang with promises to aggressively fight back against any attempts to change the landscape of American agriculture from the group's president. Among the threats President Bob Stallman listed were climate legislation and animal-rights campaigns, Allison Winter of Climatewire reports for The New York Times.

"A line must be drawn between our polite and respectful engagement with consumers and how we must aggressively respond to extremists who want to drag agriculture back to the day of 40 acres and a mule," Stallman said in his speech. "The time has come to face our opponents with a new attitude. The days of their elitist power grabs are over." He added that farmers and ranchers must unite against "misguided, activist-driven regulation."

Nearly four dozen scientists, organized by the advocacy group Union of Concerned Scientists, asked Stallman in a letter last week to reverse the group's position on climate change, Winter reports. The letter says Farm Bureau's position doesn't reflect scientific evidence and agriculture has much to lose from climate change. Farm Bureau spokeswoman Tracy Taylor Grondine told Winter the letter "appears to be more of a media stunt than a sincere request for dialogue." (Read more)

Census, health reform, 'shop local' campaigns top 2010 rural small business trends to watch

Small Business Trends, an award-winning online publication for small-business owners, has released its top 10 rural small business trends to watch for 2010, and the census took the No. 1 spot. "Smart small towns and counties will be actively finding ways to get everyone counted," Becky McCray writes. "Watch for town meetings to answer questions, and a whole bunch of canvassing. Your small town business will be indirectly affected by the results for ten long years."

Health care reform, "shop local" campaigns, infrastructure and state budget crunches round out the top five trends to watch. Rural broadband ranks sixth on the list, which may seem low considering the heavy stimulus plan investment in high-speed Internet expansion. "Yes, it’s a trend this year," McCray writes, "but the solution will be a series of long-term projects." The migration of baby boomers to rural areas, regional partnerships across small towns, tightening of business lending and an added emphasis on close-to-home tourism close out the list. (Read more)

Abused rural children more likely than urban kids to be in families with high stress or money trouble

The types of child mistreatment in rural families tend to mirror those in urban families, but a new study from the Carsey Institute at the University of New Hampshire suggests that high family stress and financial difficulties are more likely causes of child abuse and neglect in rural areas than they are in cities.

More than 60 percent of caregivers in rural America with a report of child maltreatment experience high family stress, compared with 50 percent in urban areas, Carsey reports. Almost one in three rural families reported to Child Protective Services are experiencing financial difficulties, compared to one in five families in urban areas. Drug use in homes of rural children reported to CPS is at eight percent compared to 13 percent in urban kids' homes.

Half of child-maltreatment reports in rural America are for neglect while about a quarter are for physical abuse, Carsey reports. Thirty-nine percent of rural children who are reportedly abused or neglected are in single-parent homes; among urban kids, the figure is 31 percent. For the study, "rural" was defined as all locations outside metropolitan areas. (Read more)

USDA tightens eligibility for farm subsidies; critics say rules fall short of Obama campaign promises

Last week the U.S. Department of Agriculture unveiled tighter eligibility rules for farm subsidies. The new rules prevent subsidies from going to the wealthiest Americans, as required by the 2008 Farm Bill, Reuters reports. "After nearly a year of review, USDA settled on a modestly stricter definition of who is a farmer," Reuters writes. "Producers must be able to document a regular, separate and identifiable contribution of labor, management or both to qualify for subsidies if they do not provide capital, land or equipment." (Read more, subscription required)

President Obama said during the 2008 campaign that payments should only go to active farmers and landlords who rent to them, and the White House Web site says the administration favors a cap on crop subsidies. Those promises were not fulfilled by the USDA announcement, leaving some frustrated with the news. "Advocates for small-scale farmers are accusing President Barack Obama of reneging on a pledge to tighten restrictions on who gets federal farm subsidies," Phillip Brasher of The Des Moines Register reports.

"Like other administrations before, when push comes to shove, something is always more important to the White House politically than the fate of family farming, and they trade away subsidy reform in a heart beat," Ferd Hoefner, policy director for the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, told Brasher. "Once again, principle and sound public policy have been sacrificed on the altar of political expediency." USDA press secretary Caleb Weaver said in a statement that USDA is "continuing to explore additional opportunities through legislation and/or regulation" to better target program payments. (Read more)

Justice Department is investigating Monsanto

On the heels of our item yesterday, the Justice Department has officially launched a formal antitrust investigation of Monsanto. Yesterday the department presented the St. Louis-based chemical and seed firm with a formal demand for information on its "business practices surrounding its Roundup Ready soybean, the nation's most popular genetically modified crop," Scott Kilman and Thomas Catan of The Wall Street Journal report.

The department's inquiry appears to mirror calls from Monsanto rival DuPont Co. for a nationwide series of hearings hosted by the Justice and Agriculture departments to listen to farmers' competitive concerns, the reporters write. Monsanto said in a statement, "We respect the thorough regulatory process. We believe our business practices are fair, pro-competitive and in compliance with the law." (Read more)

Obama's rural campaign promises unfulfilled

As his administration nears the end of its first year, President Obama has not fulfilled any of the rural promises he made in his campaign, according to PolitiFact, the St. Petersburg Times service that checks out politicians' claims.

The Pulitzer Prize-winning service lists only five rural promises, and finds that four are still "in the works": create a rural revitalization program, attract more doctors to rural areas, expand rural veterans' centers and support airline service to small towns. (For details, click each link.)

It finds that a fifth promise, to "establish a small business initiative for rural America," has been partly fulfilled by the economic stimulus package and lists it in the "compromise" category. Overall, "Of 502 campaign promises, a PolitiFact analysis finds Obama has fulfilled 91 and achieved at least partial success with another 33. More than half of his promises have had enough progress to be rated In the Works," write Bill Adair and Angie Drobnic Holan. (Read more)

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Arrival of Obama and big issues have changed farm politics in Washington, Dan Morgan writes

"The politics of agriculture in Washington have been substantially reshuffled," writes Dan Morgan, Transatlantic Fellow for the German Marshall Fund of the United States and former agriculture reporter for The Washington Post, in a GMF paper to which Keith Good of made major contributions.

"Proposed climate change legislation has confronted the farm bloc with issues that received scant attention in the farm bill itself," the paper's summary says. "At the same time, the congressional energy committees and the Environmental Protection Agency -- not the traditional guardians of agriculture -- have taken the lead in shaping climate and biofuels policies that could have long-term impacts on farmers. At the White House, President Obama has proposed cutting some key subsidies, and he has signaled interest in aligning himself -- at least symbolically -- with a grass roots movement that supports "sustainable agriculture" and "healthy foods." These developments have moved long-standing tensions over agriculture policy to center stage."

The paper contrasts the "Old Ag" farm lobbies and their allied "Agricrats" of the rural wing of the Democratic Party, who "appear even stronger and more confident than they
did a year ago," with "New Ag" forces that include Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack. It speculates about a "new politics of agriculture" that could be created by passage of climate-change legislation, international trends and growing awareness of consumers about the sources of their food. The 58-page paper is strong on details and policy, but is also a good read. To download a PDF, click here.

Coal ash recyclers predict doom if EPA labels ash as hazardous; proponents claim scare tactics used

We reported in December that the Environmental Protection Agency had delayed a decision on new rules for the disposal of coal ash waste. One holdup in that decision appears to be the effect a hazardous waste designation would have on ash recycling efforts. "Slapping a hazardous label on coal ash and other coal byproducts would trigger the writing of a federal disposal standard to replace a patchwork of state regulations," Patrick Reis of Greenwire reports for The New York Times.

Industry officials say a hazardous designation would cripple the ash-recycling enterprise that the Electric Power Research Institute says generates $5 to $10 billion a year in revenue for coal-burning utilities, Reis reports. The American Coal Ash Association says about 60 million tons, 45 percent of the total ash generated in 2008, was used to fill abandoned mines, make concrete and shore up eroding highway embankments. The American Society for Testing and Materials International, a coalition that sets material and building standards, said last month it would not support the use of coal ash in concrete if the ash is declared a hazardous waste.

Supporters of the hazardous designation say fears about the death of the recycling industry are unfounded and just a scare tactic from industry officials. "I have never seen the first study or piece of data to substantiate the claim that there would be this stigma that would stop recycling of coal ash," Jeff Stant, director of the Environmental Integrity Project's campaign for federal regulation of coal-combustion waste, told Reis. "It's important to note that the people who have been making that claim are the ones who have a financial interest in not having the designation." EPA could issue a hybrid ruling that declared ash as waste hazardous ash put toward beneficial use as OK. (Read more)

Arkansas, Pennsylvania, Wyoming news projects among Knight Community Information winners

Five community newspapers in Arkansas will each get an extra reporter for the next two years, thanks to a $252,000 grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and matching money of about $140,000 to be raised by the Arkansas Community Foundation. The grant was among those announced yesterday by the Knight Community Information Challenge, which Knight calls "a five-year, $24 million contest that helps community and place-based foundations find creative ways to use new media and technology to keep residents informed and engaged."

Write for Arkansas is designed "to provide more in-depth coverage of local issues," including economic development, Knight said. "The reporters will write articles for print and blog about their communities and experiences on a new Write for Arkansas Web site. The additional reporting staff will help Arkansas residents and leaders have a greater understanding of the state’s challenges and needs. Meanwhile, the project’s online component will chronicle local issues from across the state and open a new channel of communication allowing residents to participate in the news."

The reporters will be paid $35,000 a year, Tom Larimer, executive director of the Arkansas Press Association, reports in the latest Arkansas Publishers Weekly. "A committee will develop the complete criteria for the program, but it is likely that the five newspapers selected will represent each of the corner quadrants of the state and one in Central Arkansas. APA is working with the ACF to develop the criteria." (Read more)

Among other grants, $225,000 will go to the Centre County Community Foundation in Pennsylvania to "help launch a 2-1-1 phone information service in 15 Pennsylvania counties. Residents will have access to round-the-clock answers to questions about local services for basic needs and emergencies, as well as general community information. While there will also be an online component, much of this area is without broadband Internet access, and phone service is likely to be the primary link," Knight says.

Another rural-orirnted grant, of $122,000, is going to the Lander Community Foundation of Wyoming to support, which examines Wyoming public policy and politics. "Wyoming’s economy and culture have been rooted in natural-resource industries, including agriculture, timber, mining and oil and gas development," Knight says. "Like many energy colonies with small populations and vast landscapes, industrial proponents have heavily influenced Wyoming policies. will increase its staff and reporting budget to further engage Wyoming’s residents, lawmakers, educators and business people through an independent, alternative source of content and analysis." (Read more)

New Zealand dairy farmers revitalize Missouri milk industry, are looking to expand in Southern U.S.

After being met with initial skepticism, an influx of New Zealand dairy farmers to Missouri has helped reinvent the state's struggling dairy industry. In the last few years a handful of kiwis have invested $100 million Missouri milkmaking, which annually generates more than $900 million in economic impact, Phillip O'Connor of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reports for the Los Angeles Times. The New Zealanders operate four dairies and own almost 10 percent of Missouri dairy cattle.

"New Zealanders are considered among the most efficient dairy producers in the world," O'Connor writes. "But much of that country's suitable land has been converted to pasture, driving up prices and forcing dairy farmers to look overseas for new opportunities." With milk prices plummeting, their less expensive methods, which focuses on pasture-grazed cattle, are starting to catch on with other farmers.

"Their impact has been so significant in our state that it's hard to get your arms around it," David Drennan, executive director of the Missouri Dairy Association, told O'Connor. Another measure of the kiwis' success is their continued expansion in Missouri and around the country, O'Connor writes. Some have already established operations in Georgia, and more are looking at other Southern states. (Read more)

Tenn. tourism interests don't like guns-in-bars law

We most recently reported in November about a law allowing guns in Tennessee bars. Now the leaders of the tourist bureaus in Nashville and Memphis are saying the law has hurt local tourism efforts. "It's probably the single biggest issue people write and talk about when they're considering coming here," Butch Spyridon, CEO of the Nashville Convention & Visitors Bureau, told Nate Rau of The Tennessean.

"We had international press, and we have gotten letters from visitors who literally have canceled plans to visit," Spyridon added. Bar owners are permitted to post signs banning guns at their individual businesses, but Preston Lam of Memphis-based River City Management says that option isn't attractive to tourism either. "You're kind of damned if you do, damned if you don't," he told Rau. "You put the sign on the door, but somebody coming in says, 'Gosh, is it dangerous around here?'" (Read more)

Monsanto update: Farmers fear Roundup Ready seed will be gone before the patent is

In the last two months we've reported about allegations of monopolostic practices by seed giant Monsanto (here, here and here). Now National Public Radio has posted an in-depth examination of farmers' concerns.

Monsanto is beginning to promote its new Roundup Ready 2 Yield seeds, in advance of the 2014 patent expiration on the original Roundup Ready seeds, Frank Morris reports. Roundup Ready 2 uses the same gene as the original, but places it in a different spot on the genome, a move that Monsanto says will increase yields. Monsanto is putting the new trait in all its best soybeans, and some competitors like Paul Schickler, president of Pioneer, the seed subsidiary of the DuPont chemical company, say Monsanto moving to eliminate the original Roundup Ready trait from the market by forcing its licensees to do the same. After Monsanto's original patent expires in 2014, other companies could create generic forms of the seed trait, which would eliminate a half-billion dollar annual Monsanto revenue stream from royalties, Morris reports.

Farmers are prohibited from saving Roundup Ready seeds and replanting them the following year. After Monsanto's patent expires this restriction would be lifted. "I don't care how good Roundup Ready 2 is; if you tell me I can save back my own seed, I'm going to plant my own seed," Luke Ulrich, a Kansas corn and soybean farmer, told Morris. The problem for Ulrich and other farmers like him, Morris writes, may be that the Roundup Ready 2 gene could have pushed the original out of stores by then. (Read more)

Pickens shifts focus from wind to natural gas

Texas oil tycoon T. Boone Pickens, right, spent most of the last two years and $62 million on a massive advertising and public relations campaign to convince Americans to invest in wide expansion of wind power. The so-called "Pickens plan" called for the natural gas reserves freed up by the new wind investment to fuel vehicles and reduce the country's dependence on foreign oil, Clifford Krauss reports for The New York Times. Now Pickens is about to launch a new campaign focusing on national security risks associated with foreign oil, downplaying wind and calling for further natural gas investment. (NYT photo by Matt Nager)

Pickens suspended his campaign in October when he felt health care was drowning out the energy debate, but he feels energy will soon return to the top of the Washington agenda, Krauss writes. Pickens made most of his fortune in oil before shifting to gas and wind in recent years. His new plan downplays wind because he says cheap gas has made it almost impossible to finance a wind project. Some of his financial stakes in various companies would stand to benefit from a boost in gas consumption, Krauss reports.

Pickens will call for the president to convert the entire federal automobile fleet to natural gas, he wants Congress to give large tax credits to companies that use natural gas vehicles and filling stations that install the necessary equipment. He told Krauss that fueling just a small percentage of the country's automobiles with natural gas could displace as much as 8 percent of oil imports within seven years. (Read more)

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

EPA issues 2009 enforcement data, new map tool, offering online access to local enforcement data

There's a new way to check on envieornmental violations and enforcement in your area. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has released its enforcement data for 2009 and developed a new Web-based tool and interactive map that allows the public to get detailed information by location about the enforcement actions taken at approximately 4,600 facilities. In 2009 EPA enforcement actions required polluters to invest more than $5 billion on pollution controls, cleanup, and environmental projects, says an EPA news release.

The maps show facilities where civil enforcement actions were taken for air, water, and land pollution, and a separate map shows criminal enforcement actions. Clicking on specific facilities reveals historical information about specific enforcement actions. The maps also show which facilities are near bodies of water that are deemed impaired because they do not meet federal water quality standards.

The maps include 90 percent of the facilities that were subject to enforcement action in 2009 but omits the locations of drinking water treatment plants due to possible security concerns. You can read the entire report or the EPA release.

Rural Nebraskans want more wind power while some Minnesotans complain about turbine farms

The last estimates from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory placed Nebraska as the No. 3 state for wind energy potential, but it currently ranks only 22nd in developed wind- power capacity with 153 megawatts. While a 340-turbine wind farm is clearly visible from the Nebraska panhandle, all the towers are actually in Colorado, a discrepancy that is starting to raise eyebrows among Nebraska lawmakers and rural residents, Paul Hammel of the Omaha World-Herald reports.

"Everyone is asking the question, 'Why can't we develop it here?'" state Sen. Ken Haar of Malcolm told Hammel. "If there's economic opportunity," Ogala state Sen. Ken Schilz added, "the State of Nebraska needs to step up and be able to allow the same kinds of opportunities here." Some state lawmakers hope to open Nebraska to private wind farms, which can export the power to other states. Public power utilities are not eligible for major federal incentives to build wind farms in Nebraska because of the state's policy favoring public power. (Read more)

Not all rural residents are excited about increased wind generation. In Minnesota, the nation's fourth largest wind power producer at 1,805 megawatts, an increasingly vocal backlash against noisy, shadow-casting turbines is launching a serious blowback to the industry, Tom Meersmen of the Minneapolis Star Tribune reports. Most people who live more than a half mile from the turbines aren't bothered by them, and residents who own the land the turbines sit on receive substantial compensation, but those in between are starting to complain.

"The rural area isn't what it used to be anymore," Kevin Hammel, a dairy farmer about nine miles east of Rochester, where wind developers are active, told Meersmen. "I'm not against wind. They're going to put them up whether I like it or not," Katie Troe, leader of Safe Wind for Freeborn County, told Meersmen. "What we're asking is that every turbine be looked at and placed correctly." (Read more)

RFD-TV turns profit for first time, hopes to expand and might become a forum for rural policy issues

When Patrick Gottsch started RFD-TV, his 24-hour cable television network aimed specifically at rural Americans, in 2000 it was little more than reruns of the now defunct Nashville Network. But after a decade his strategy of bridging the rural divide between rural ranchers and farmers is finally starting to pay off. Gottsch blended agriculture, horses, rural living and country music to form the backbone of RFD-TV, which generated a Nielsen-rated audience of 13 million weekly viewers from small towns and farm communities across the U.S., Dirk Smillie of Forbes magazine reports.

Gottsch first pitched the channel to satellite providers, but now most major cable companies carry it too. He says RFD's $25 million in revenue finally nudged it into the black last year. "There are 27 million television homes outside urban areas in the U.S., most with no access to media coverage of agriculture issues or rural lifestyles," Gottsch told Smillie. RFD doesn't follow the urban news trend of viewing rural American through natural disasters; instead Gottsch focuses mostly on everyday agricultural issues.

RFD-TV could become a public forum on rural policy. Newt Gingrich's civic-involvement group, American Solutions, bought a series of 30-minute segments on RFD during the last presidential race, and Gottsch hopes his channel will become a go-to platform for red-state political campaigning in 2012. For now, Gottsch plans to launch a national prime-time rural news broadcast with news gathered from bureaus in Chicago and Washington, as well as overseas bureaus he plans to open in Sydney and London, Smillie reports.

Chinese mining officials visit Harlan County, Kentucky, to learn about coal-mine safety

A group of Chinese mining officials and government leaders recently completed a tour of Harlan County, Ky., to learn more about coal-mine safety and become better acquainted with the U.S. mining culture and industry. Among the stops on the tour were the Kentucky Coal Academy in Cumberland and the Portal 31 exhibition mine in Lynch, Jennifer McDaniels of the Harlan Daily Enterprise reports. In October we reported on the opening of Portal 31, a former mine entry that is is a recently opened mining museum.

"I am most surprised and most impressed," Chunian Zhong, mining company i-sunnet’s general manager, told McDaniels through an interpreter. "We have learned much today. The United States, more specifically here in Kentucky, is far more advanced than our country in terms of mine safety. It’s a major concern in China because of our high fatality rates in the industry. We hope this is a start of a partnership that can benefit both countries."

The visit was planned after i-sunnet officials heard of Richmond-based Mine Shield LLC's development of the United States' first modular safe-haven chamber for underground mines. The chamber, developed in response to the Mine Safety and Health Administration's new law requiring mines to provide an alternative refuge chamber, is designed to remain underground for up to 10 years. Each chamber contains a compressed-air circulating system, food, water, toilet and medical supplies, McDaniels reports, and also enacts an alert system that transmits signals to the surface, McDaniels reports.

N.D. wind farm is largest in U.S. owned by a co-op

A North Dakota rural electric cooperative completed the largest cooperative-owned wind farm in the country just before the new year. Basin Electric Power Cooperative's 77-turbine wind farm is located near Minot and Max and is the first step toward achieving the company's goal of meeting 20 percent of its current member load with renewable energy by 2010, The Bismarck Tribune reports.

Basin Electric's membership passed a resolution in 2005 for 10 percent of the company's electricity to come from renewables, but the company has chosen to double that requirement. The Minot-Max wind farm combined with the company's other renewable projects should generate 600 megawatts of electricity, enough to power 175,000 homes, by the end of the year. Verendrye Electric Cooperative of Velva, N.D., is also a working partner in the Minot-Max project. (Read more)

N.M. newspaper publisher, mayor exchange blows

The mayor of Gallup, N. M., and the publisher of the Gallup Independent, the city's daily newspaper, exchanged blows in the parking lot of a local bank last week. Both men claim the other started the fistfight, but a series of stories linking Mayor Harry Mendoza to the gang rape of a 16-year-old woman in 1948 appear to be at the hear of the dispute, reports Jim Winchester of KRQE, a Gallup TV station. "He's [Mendoza] just a thug," Independent Publisher Bob Zollinger told Winchester. "That's all he is and unfortunately he's our mayor."

Gallup City Attorney Dave Pederson told KRQE that the mayor informed him of the altercation and insisted Zollinger has started the fight. Zollinger told the station Mendoza had refused repeated requests for comment about the rape allegations, but he denied instigating the fight by poking the mayor as alleged. The Gallup Independent is owned by Gallup Independent Co. (Read more)

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Car dealers losing franchises can go to arbitration

Small-town car dealerships that lost their franchises as a result of the recession, manufacturer downsizing and federal bailouts can take their cases to arbitration, under a provision Congress included in a catch-all appropriations bill last month. A reminder of that comes from the National Newspaper Association, the lobbying group for community newspapers, which have a major economic interest in the survival of rural dealerships.

The NNA release says "The arbitrator shall balance the economic interest of the covered dealership, the economic interest of the covered manufacturer, and the economic interest of the public at large and shall decide, based on that balancing, whether or not the covered dealership should be added to the dealer network of the covered manufacturer. The factors considered by the arbitrator shall include (1) the covered dealership's profitability in 2006, 2007, 2008, and 2009, (2) the covered manufacturer's overall business plan, (3) the covered dealership's current economic viability, (4) the covered dealership's satisfaction of the performance objectives established pursuant to the applicable franchise agreement, (5) the demographic and geographic characteristics of the covered dealership's market territory, (6) the covered dealership's performance in relation to the criteria used by the covered manufacturer to terminate, not renew, not assume or not assign the covered dealership's franchise agreement, and (7) the length of experience of the covered dealership."

The release also notes the economic and convenience benefits of having a dealer in your town. "One of our members recently noted that now citizens in his small Minnesota town must drive 30 miles or more to buy a car," said NNA President Cheryl Kaechele, publisher of the Allegan County News in Michigan. "They also must go that far for service from the dealers. That is one massive towing fee imposed upon rural America when the family car breaks down. We are hearing reports like this from across the nation." (Read more)

Monday, January 11, 2010

Tobacco may have new life as a possible biofuel

As smoking bans become more and more prevalent across the country, tobacco may be finding a new life as a possible biofuel. Researchers at the Biotechnology Foundation Laboratories at Thomas Jefferson University have developed a way to modify tobacco's genes to increase their oil production, which would help spur their use as a biofuel, Wendy Koch of USA Today reports. The preliminary research has been published online in Plant Biotechnology Journal.

"Tobacco is very attractive as a biofuel because the idea is to use plants that aren't used in food production," study co-author Vyacheslav Andrianov, an assistant professor of cancer biology at Jefferson, told Koch. "Based on these data, tobacco represents an attractive and promising 'energy plant' platform, and could also serve as a model for the utilization of other high-biomass plants for biofuel production."

The researchers say they have modified plants to create 20-fold more oil in some instances. (Read more)

White House and EPA at odds over coal ash rules

The debate over the Environmental Protection Agency's new regulations for the disposal of coal ash is at the heart of an unusual dispute between the White House and EPA. The Obama administration has already backed several new environmental regulations that have angered the coal industry, Neil King Jr. and Rebecca Smith of The Wall Street Journal report, but some environmental groups say the White House's position on coal ash is evidence of the industry establishing a foothold in the administration.

White House records show administration regulatory czar Cass Sunstein has held nearly 20 meetings with industry groups since October to discuss the potential impact of proposed EPA rules to treat coal ash and other coal byproducts as hazardous waste, the reporters write. Watchdog groups told the reporters the involvement of the White House Office of Management and Budget, which Sunstein heads, at this early stage in the process is unusual. EPA has yet to publish its proposed regulations.

"Industry is trying to influence the process in a back-door fashion," Lisa Evans, a senior attorney for environmental organization Earthjustice, told the reporters. OMB spokesman Thomas Gavin disagreed, telling the reporters, "This has been a very regular, very normal deliberative process on a very complex rule." (Read more)