Friday, February 01, 2013

Are your state's rural areas losing political influence like Minnesota's?

Population is concentrated around the Twin Cities.
(Minnesota Legislative Coordinating Commission)
Here's a story that could probably be replicated in many states: "Rural Minnesota has lost influence on the state’s public and private policy decisions, according to a report by a nonprofit research organization," Tim Marema of the Center for Rural Strategies writes for the center's online publication, the Daily Yonder.

The Center for Rural Policy and Development in St. Peter, Minn., didn't do a lot of fancy, detailed research to reach its conclusion. It simply interviewed about 50 interviews legislators, journalists and business, civic and policy leaders. "It also included an online questionnaire and a review of media coverage," Marema notes.

Here's what should make rural folks in other states worry: The rural share of Minnesota's population hasn't declined as fast as that of the nation as a whole, and was still 27 percent at the 2010 census, way more than the U.S. figure of 16 percent. "Rural advocates from other parts of the United States may be surprised to hear Minnesota leaders talking about rural’s declining influence there," Marema writes, "because the state has a tradition of rural advocacy and organizing." (Read more)

So, who will write up the next state?

Family farms need to be more businesslike, even with personnel, agricultural economist says

Family farms need to think and act more like businesses, hiring and keeping the best employees through modern methods, to survive in an increasingly competitive world, Bernie Erven, professor emeritus in the department of agricultural economics at The Ohio State Universitytold farmers at the Growing Michigan Agriculture Conference.

"The message may be a tough sell," reports Jessica Stoller-Conrad of NPR. "Family farms are an iconic American institution, and they make up nearly 96 percent of farms in America, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. And it's hard for some folks to hear that the best hire might not be your sister's kid who needs a summer job baling hay."

Erven told the farmers, "If you hire a family member who isn't qualified, who doesn't fit the position, and maybe doesn't even want the position, then it's . . . unlikely the person would succeed. Thus [it's] not helping the business and not helping the family." (Read more)

Atlas of Rural and Small-Town America has data and graphics for more than 60 indicators for your county

If you need fast, accurate, up-to-date information on your rural community's demographics and economics, one of the best places to get it is the Atlas of Rural and Small-Town America, published online by the Economic Research Service of the Department of Agriculture.

The atlas draws the latest data from the Census Bureau's American Community Survey, including age, race and ethnicity, migration and immigration, education, household size and family composition. ERS has added data about veterans, education, unemployment, income and other demographic characteristics.

It also draws fresh economic data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics and other sources, including information on employment trends, industrial composition, and household income, and from USDA's latest Census of Agriculture, including number and size of farms, operator characteristics, off-farm income, and government payments.

Users can see county-level maps for more than 60 socioeconomic indicators, and pop-up windows with all the indicators for a county; and download maps and other images for online and print publication. Here you can download a spreadsheet containing all the data for a selected county. Go for it!

Get ready for Sunshine Week, March 10-16

Sunshine Week, the annual observance to promote dialogue about the importance of open government and freedom of information, is set for March 10-16. It's always the week of March 16, the birthday of James Madison, father of the First Amendment.

Sunshine Week is driven by journalists, but it seeks to enlighten and empower all Americans to play an active role in their government at all levels, and to give them access to information that makes their lives better and their communities stronger. Participants include news media, government officials, schools and universities, libraries and archives, non-profit and civic organizations, historians and individuals with an interest in open government.

The American Society of News Editors and the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, chief sponsors of the event, have laid nationwide plans for events, special stories and release of freedom-of-information studies. With a continuing endowment from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and a 2013 donation from Bloomberg LP, the groups produce useful materials for participants and keep the Sunshine Week website and social media sites engaged.

"Our ongoing mission is to ensure that government at all levels remains transparent for the public and for reporters in all platforms,"  said Reporters Committee Chair Tony Mauro, Supreme Court correspondent for the National Law Journal. "This is a great opportunity to engage many different partners in open government education and discussions."

The National Newspaper Association is one of several co-sponsors. “The importance of open government cannot be understated,” said Deb McCaslin, chair of NNA’s Government Relations Committee. “Community newspapers are on the front lines in their towns, covering their chambers of commerce and school board meetings and keeping their readers informed about what is going on at the local level. These publications make a very real difference in the lives of the people in their communities. Without these newspapers keeping their local governments accountable, democracy would falter.”

Other particpants include the American Library Association, The Associated Press, The Cato Institute; the Center for Effective Government (formerly OMB Watch); the Center for Responsive Politics; the Inland Press Association; the New England First Amendment Coalition; the Radio Television Digital News Association and the Society of Professional Journalists. (Read more)

Thursday, January 31, 2013

Postal service is 'what binds us together,' reporter writes after traveling with a letter across the U.S.

The U.S. Postal Service is drowning in debt. Year after year it loses billions mostly because Congress requires it to pre-pay employee pensions, but also because mail is increasingly electronic. The USPS has bounced to and fro with plans to save money, including ending Saturday mail delivery and closing hundreds of rural post offices. Why should we save this seemingly failing enterprise? "It is a miracle of high technology and human touch," Jesse Lichtenstein writes for Esquire. "It's what binds us together as a country." (Esquire photos by Jake Stangel: Carrier Carrie Grabenhorst, top, and postal worker Paula Joneikis)

Lichtenstein writes a colorful story about how a letter mailed from Gold Hill, Ore., makes it to New York City, giving descriptions of each step along the way, from mail carriers to the postmaster general to the troubles the agency currently faces. He begins with rural mail carrier Carrie Grabenhorst, who has developed personal relationships with the people on her route over 18 years of service in the USPS. She knows who's out of town, who's sick and can't make it to the mailbox, and who's going to be waiting on her when she pulls up in her right-side-driving Jeep. Her route is just one of the 227,000 across America, Lichtenstein writes. And all those carriers are delivering mail for less than 50 cents a letter. "It's how the postal service works: The many short-distance deliveries down the block or across the city pay for the longer ones across the country," Lichtenstein writes.

The postal service's mission was always to bind the country together, from the very first moment that the Contionental Congress named Benjamin Franklin our first postmaster general in 1775, Lichtenstein writes. "It was a way of unifying 13 disparate colonies so that the abolitionist in Philadelphia had access to the same information and newspapers as the slaveholder in Augusta, Georgia." Today, the agency has a network of 461 distribution centers, 32,000 post offices and 213,000 vehicles, making it the largest civilian fleet in the world. "The postal service handles almost half of the entire planet's mail," Lichtenstein writes. "It can physically connect any American to any other American in 3.7 million square miles of territory in a few days, often overnight: a vast lattice of veins and arteries and capillaries designed to circulate the American lifeblood of commerce and information and human contact."

But this fleet of "mail touchers" and carriers is facing a real dilemma. Postmaster General Patrick Donahoe "all but begged Congress to take action" to save the postal service last November, Lichtenstein reports. The USPS lost $15.9 billion last year and reached its legal debt limit. Mail was down 5 percent from previous years, and wages, benefits and other worker-related costs were at an unsustainable 80 percent of the USPS's $81 billion budget. More than 70 percent of the agency's losses were for "extraordinary budget obligations mandated by Congress," Lichtenstein reports.

"That we're sending less mail is not debatable. Nor is it debatable that the post office as we've known it for the past 40 years, one built for speed and brute force in sorting and distributing an ever-surging flood of paper documents, is outdated in our digital world," Lichtenstein writes. "This isn't a story about whether we could live without the post office. It's about whether we'd want to." (Read more)

Study says America needs a vibrant rural America

The U.S. economy needs vibrant rural communities to help get it back on its feet, says an Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development study. The report "also suggests that rural regions may not be struggling as mightily, and may have more potential, than previously thought," Agri-Pulse reports. The Washington, D.C., newsletter says the report may "give credence to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack's most recent banner cry" that the country needs rural America's economy to be strong and politically relevant.

The study wasn't restricted to the U.S. It found that rural regions generally had faster growth than urban places from 1995 to 2007. That finding should make rural places a critical part of larger economic development, U.S. Department of Agriculture rural development undersecretary Doug O'Brien said while presenting the report to the National Association of Counties. The results "run counter to the conventional wisdom that urbanization is good for all countries," said Jose Enrique Garcilazo, O'Brien's co-presenter and OECD regional development policy director.

In fact, Garcilazo said that "there's something happening in cities to make them more inefficient" because "putting all the eggs in one basket is not good." Exurbs, places in metropolitan areas that are mostly rural in character, saw the most growth of all regions studied, Agri-Pulse notes. The report suggests specific approaches to policy that are fruitful for rural regions, including upgrading the low- skills human capital in local labor pools. The study also says that subsidies without incentives are ineffective in stimulating growth. Above all, the report noted that "successful rural regions come from cooperation and conversation between various rural stakeholders," Agri-Pulse reports.

Agri-Pulse is available by subscription only, but a free trial can be found here.

Warming is driving Southern butterflies further north; called 'canaries the coal mine of climate'

Butterflies from the Southern U.S. that were rare in the Northeast are now appearing there more frequently as a result of climate change, according to a Massachusetts Butterfly Club study published in the journal, Nature Climate Change. Subtropical and warm-climate butterflies showed the sharpest population shift. These species were rare or absent in the Northeast as recently as the 1980s, Julia Whitty of Mother Jones reports. (Wikipedia Commons photo by Thomas Bresson: Giant swallowtail butterfly)

While Southern butterflies are moving north, more than 75 percent of species north of Boston, are rapidly declining, the study found. Species that overwinter as eggs or larvae are disappearing fastest, which suggests warmer winters may be the cause, Whitty reports. "For most butterfly species, climate change seems to be a stronger change agent than habitat loss," lead study author Greg Breed said. Habitat protection is a major step in protecting butterflies, but Breed said that for many species, "Habitat protection will not mitigate the impacts of warming."

The Butterfly Club is a citizen scientist group that for the last 19 years has logged butterfly species and numbers during 20,000 expeditions through Massachusetts. "Their records fill a crucial gap in the scientific record," Whitty reports. "Butterflies are turning out to be the canaries in the coal mine of climate warming." (Read more)

Fairness ordinance in tiny town shouldn't be all that surprising, if you know the region, a native writes

The news that a tiny town in southeastern Kentucky passed a gay-rights ordinance shouldn't be as surprising as many news outlets made it out to be, if you know Appalachia and small towns, writes Ivy Brashear as she leaves her post at the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, publisher of The Rural Blog.

"Rural communities are often categorized as places where everyone knows everyone else, and in Vicco, that axiom is actually true," Brashear writes. "Knowing your neighbors on a first-name-basis, and having long-standing family and community connections, makes it much harder to cast a vote that directly discriminates against any one of them."

"They were looking out for and taking care of their neighbors because that’s the way life works in the mountains. You just take care of each other," writes Brashear, a native of Viper, eight miles from Vicco. We're proud to have had Ivy on our staff and to publish her piece, which you can read here.

Poverty becoming more concentrated in certain areas, especially rural, a fact little recognized

Not only did poverty increase in the last decade, it became more concentrated. Rural poverty clusters are an increasing problem, but have gone largely unrecognized by society because the public has generally thought of such clusters as being an inner-city problem, geographer Tracey Farrigan and sociologist Timothy Parker of the USDA's Economic Research Service write for the Daily Yonder.

They point to research showing that those living in poverty clusters face more challenges than if they weren't clustered: "Concentrated poverty contributes to poor housing and health conditions, higher crime and school dropout rates, as well as employment dislocations. As a result, economic conditions in very poor areas can create limited opportunities for poor residents that become self-perpetuating."

(USDA map: Red counties were high poverty in 2000 and 2010, orange were only high poverty in 2010, green were only high in 2000, and gray were not high poverty during either period. White regions on the map are metropolitan areas.)
Poor people are clustered in specific neighborhoods, counties and regions, most notably in the Black Belt, Central Appalachia, the Rio Grande region and Indian reservations. The poverty rate in rural counties was 16.5 percent in 2010, up from 14.8 percent in 2000. Twenty-six percent of rural counties were listed as being high poverty -- those with a poverty rate at 20 percent or higher -- in 2010, and 36.1 percent of rural poor lived in those counties during the same period. (Read more)

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Era of cheap farm labor from Mexico ending, experts say, so immigration bill may not help farmers much

Looser immigration laws to allow more farm workers to legally stay longer in the U.S. may not help farmers find more workers in the near future, Brad Plumer of The Washington Post reports. U.S. farms could experience a shortage of low-cost labor because Mexico is getting richer and won't be able to supply as many rural farm workers in coming year, according to a study by University of California and El Colegio de Mexico. Plumer writes. (Getty Images photo by John Moore)

Farmers have relied on low-wage immigrant workers for decades, mainly those from Mexico. Seventy-seven percent of all farm workers in the country in 2006 were foreign-born. Cheap labor has helped keep food costs down, but the Mexican labor pool is "drying up," Plumer reports. The study, "The End of Farm Labor Abundance," says Mexico is getting richer, and when a country gets richer its level of agricultural labor shrinks. "Not only are Mexican workers shifting into other sectors like construction, but Mexico's own farms are increasing wages," Plumer writes. "That means U.S. farms will have to pay higher and higher wages to attract a dwindling pool of available Mexican farm workers."

The era of cheap labor from Mexico is coming to and end, study co-author Edward Taylor told Plumer. This will leave the U.S. facing a sharp adjustment, Plumer writes, especially since Americans seem unwilling to do farm work. Either American farmers stop growing crops that require a lot of workers to harvest, which Plumer writes seems unlikely, or they could make more investment in labor-saving technology. (Read more)

Direct payments on chopping block, but House chairman says farmers should sign up for them

Congress is likely to remove direct payments from the Farm Bill later this year to cut spending, despite comments by House Agriculture Committee Chair Frank Lucas, R-Okla., that producers can definitely county on receiving the payments in October, Agri-Pulse reports. Direct payments have become a political target because they are paid to producers regardless of external factors, and we omitted from the Farm Bill that passed the Senate but died in the House last year.

Pat Westhoff of the University of Missouri told Agri-Pulse it would be a mistake to assume the bill is written in stone right now, adding that some legislators might want to change it. Roger McEowen of Iowa State University said there was no guarantee that direct payments would continue, but producers who signed up for them would have an argument that the government would have to honor those payments even if the program ends later this year.

Those who make that argument point to a 1996 Supreme Court case, United States v. Winstar Corp., about rules the government created and later repealed for failing thrift institutions during the savings-and-loan crisis in the 1980s. Three of the thrifts won damages for breach of contract.

Sign-ups for the direct and counter-cyclical payment program begin Feb. 19 through at local Farm Service Agency offices, to they a good place to work on a story about farm subsidies. (Agri-Pulse is subscription-only, but a free trial can be accessed here.)

Low-income pregnant women in rural areas have high stress, little help for it, small study says

Low-income pregnant women in rural areas experience high levels of stress, but lack the appropriate means to manage their emotional well-being, according to a small-scale study at the University of Missouri. The authors suggest that rural doctors should link these women with resources to help manage stress, Medical Xpress reports.

"Many people think of rural life as being idyllic and peaceful, but in truth, there are a lot of health disparities for residents of rural communities," Mizzou nursing professor Tina Bloom told Medical Xpress. "Chronic, long-term stress is hard on pregnant women's health and on their babies' health. Stress is associated with increased risks for adverse health outcomes, such as low birth weights or pre-terms deliveries, and those outcomes can kill babies."

Researchers studied about 25 rural pregnant women. Through interviews, researchers discovered that financial problems were one of the biggest stressers for them. Financial stress was exacerbated by the women's lack of employment, reliable transportation and affordable housing. The women also said that small-town gossip, isolation and interdependence of their lives with extended family members also increased stress. Almost two out of three women showed symptoms of depression, and one in four displayed symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. (Read more)

Study says cats kill more birds than wind turbines

Those who oppose wind turbines often cite bird deaths as a reason, noting incidences in which birds have flown into turbines and been killed en masse. But a Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute study has found that wind turbines kill far fewer birds annually than an average house cat, Tim McDonnell of Mother Jones reports. (NPR photo)

The study, published today in the journal Nature Communications, found that cats kill about 12.3 billion mammals every year and about 2.4 billion birds. By comparison, wind turbines kill just 440,000 birds. Study authors write that "free-ranging cats . . . are likely the single greatest source of anthropogenic [human-caused] mortality for U.S. birds and mammals." (Read more)

Smithsonian animal ecologist Pete Marra told NPR's Veronique Lacapra that Americans own about 84 million cats, of which 40 to 70 percent are allowed outside. About 50 to 80 percent of those are actually hunters, so around 47 million cats, most of them feral, are killing prey every year. Researchers analyzed all available data to estimate about how many bird and small animals cats kill each year.

Rural anti-drug force fights Ky. industrial hemp bill, but McConnell joins Paul, Yarmuth in supporting it

UPDATE, Jan. 31: U.S. Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell, also leader of the party in Kentucky, announced that he supports the bill, along with Democratic Rep. John Yarmuth of Louisville and Republican Sen. Rand Paul, Business Lexington reports. The dean of the state's congressional delegation, Republican Rep. Hal Rogers of southeaster Kentucky and the godfather of Operation UNITE, then announced that he opposes the legislation.

UPDATE, Feb. 1: Bloomberg News looks at the legalities and economics of hemp.

Some rural anti-drug law enforcers in Kentucky have announced their opposition to industrial hemp production in the state, reports The Winchester Sun. Operation UNITE (Unlawful Narcotics Investigations, Treatment and Education) is a southeastern Kentucky program that funnels federal money into small communities to help fight drug abuse. Its announcement of opposition to industrial hemp came on the same day the Kentucky Industrial Hemp Commission voted to support Senate Bill 50, which would legalize its production. A similar bill is pending in the state House of Representatives.

The Kentucky State Police had already come out against the bill, saying it would make it harder for to enforce marijuana laws. "You have some prominent people supporting Senate Bill 50 and House Bill 33, but they are looking through rose-colored glasses if they believe hemp production would be a good alternative crop or provide an economic boom," UNITE Vice President Dan Smoot told the Sun. "Hemp is not in demand, would cause more problems than benefits and is currently not permitted under federal law."

Agriculture Commissioner James Comer says the state needs to be in line to produce industrial hemp as soon as federal authorities allow it. He says crops of hemp, raised for the stalks, would deter marijuana cultivation, which focuses on producing drug-rich flower buds by pulling male plants from pot fields to keep them from fertilizing female plants. (Read more)

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Montana senators fear 'unintended consequences' of defining more of the country as 'frontier'

Nearly 120 years after Frederick Jackson Turner boldly proclaimed in his 1893 essay that the American frontier was dead, the federal government may expand the frontier with a new definition that would classify more areas as "frontier," Ben Terris of the National Journal reports. The possible expansion, which we first reported in December, has some legislators in mostly frontier states worried.

Frontier is now defined as a county with six or fewer people per square mile. The new definition would redefine frontier in terms of an area's proximity to metropolitan areas, not by population density. HHS says this would allow counties with fewer than 6 people per square mile, but that contain a major city, to be deemed "frontier." For example, Coconino County, Arizona, contains Flagstaff, but most of the county's outlying areas of the county have fewer than 6 people per square mile. Those areas would be able to access certain programs and funding previously unavailable to them because the county's overall population density was too high. HHS says this will allow researchers and political scientists to more accurately categorize the country, Terris reports.

However, U.S. Sens. Jon Tester and Max Baucus of Montana say they are worried the new designation would create unintended consequences. In a letter to the Office of Rural Health Policy, the Democrats wrote that the expanding the frontier could have "major impact on programs that rely on the way that rural and frontier lands have been designated" in the past, Terris reports. There are many grants and federal dollars available to rural and frontier areas that aren't available for urban areas, including education and health care. There is fear that re-designation could make it harder for counties to compete for funding for services and programs. (Read more)

Immigration plan would change guest-worker farm program; dairy interests say plan wouldn't help them

Four Republican and four Democratic U.S. senators known as the "Gang of Eight" proposed their version of immigration reform this week, calling for tighter border security, more efficient paths to citizenship and more guest-worker permits. Agricultural interests have been lobbying for reforms to the guest-worker program since last year, when tighter rule set by Congress dramatically decreased the number of farm workers. (Associated Press photo by Sam Adams: California farm worker)

More than 1.4 million people are employed as farm workers in the U.S. each year, and the Labor Department estimates that more than half are in the country illegally, with some farm groups saying that number exceeds 75 percent, report Janet Hook, Kristina Peterson and Laura Meckler of The Wall Street Journal. The Gang of Eight's proposal doesn't provide specifics about how the guest-worker program would change; it just recognizes agriculture's workforce needs and that changes must be made to help farmers.

California farmers praised the proposal, saying it would help them more easily hire workers on which they rely heavily, Ricardo Lopez of the Los Angeles Times reports. "Farmers struggle to hire enough domestic employees, so they rely on foreign employees willing to harvest America's food," California Farm Bureau president Paul Wenger told Lopez. He said reform of the guest-worker program would allow immigrants to contribute to communities by working in farming.

Dairy farmers, however, are not so happy. National Milk Producers Federation spokesman Chris Galen told Bob Meyer of Brownfield Agriculture News that the proposal is a good start, but it doesn't yet include provisions for dairy-farm workers to stay in the country for longer periods. Galen said a lot of changes will probably be offered and made before a final plan is passed, so he's waiting to see what President Obama announces today. (Milwaukee Journal Sentinel photo by Rick Wood: Wisconsin dairy farmer)

The milk producers;' group is part of the Agricultural Workforce Coalition, which has been pushing for reforms to the guest-worker program. A University of Wisconsin study discovered that more than 40 percent of farm workers on Wisconsin's dairy farms are immigrants, with almost 90 percent of them coming from Mexico, Rick Barrett of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reports. Jobs on dairy farms are year-round, but foreign workers can only get H-2A worker permits for seasonal jobs. Barrett reports that dairy-farm groups in Wisconsin have suggested that year-round permits be established so immigrants can work on dairy farms for longer periods of time. (Read more)

President Obama said today that the senators' proposals "are very much in line with the principles I’ve proposed and campaigned on for the last few years."

U.S., U.K., China, Arabs among buyers of farmland in other countries, mostly in Africa, Asia

In response to increasing world population and food prices, and shrinking supplies of fresh water, a number of countries and investors are buying up foreign farmland "in an apparent attempt to acquire as much precious soil and water as possible," Brad Plumer of The Washington Post reports. It's been called "land grabbing," and it's been accelerating since grain prices increased in 2007. Between 0.7 and 1.75 percent of the world's agricultural land is being transferred to foreign investors from local landholders, according to a major new study published this week in Proceedings of the National Academies of Sciences. (Map from the study shows locations of buyers and sellers; click on it for a larger version)
The total area of agricultural land being transferred is larger than France and Germany combined, Plumer writes. Big buyers include the U.S., the U.K., China, the United Arab Emirates, South Korea, South Africa, Israel, India and Egypt. They mostly buy land in Africa and Asia, particularly in less-developed nations. The study, "Global Land and Water Grabbing," shows that investors typically buy land with plenty of fresh water. After it's bought, the land is turned over to large commercial farming. About 37 percent of the land is used to grow food, 21 percent is used to for other cash crops, and 21 percent is used to grow biofuels, according to a 2010 World Bank study. (Read more)

Story of seasonal, migrant foragers for mushrooms in Northwest told by photographer who lived with them

Photographer Eirik Johnson has been featured on NPR and in magazines such as Audubon and Orion for his pictures documenting life in the Pacific Northwest. His series on the region's logging industry, "Sawdust Mountain," was recently published as a book. Johnson's latest project, "The Mushroom Camps," documents life of migrant mushroom foragers in Oregon. (Johnson photo: Mushroom pickers near Sisters, Ore., in 2011)

Johnson told Andrew Cullen of High Country News that he had little knowledge about the commercial mushroom trade until he went to the camps for the first time. The story is less about the mushrooms and more about the people who pick them, he said: "If you're going to build a small shack out of tree branches and tarps in the forest and live there for three months, chances are there's a story to tell."

The photographs in the series were taken during seperate mushroom seasons, the majority during the matsutake season in the fall. Matsutake mushrooms are picked, sorted and sold to Japanese markets, where they are prized and sold for a high price. Foragers are required by law to buy permits to gather mushrooms, an activity regulated through seasonal hunts. The foragers come from a variety of backgrounds, Johnson said. In the early days of the mushroom trade, pickers were mostly locals, but now most of hunters are from Southeast Asia. The annual hunts can "provide a shot of revenue for the small area communities," Johnson said. (Read more)

Oil and gas companies giving millions to universities for research, raising questions about credibility

It's not unusual for academic researchers at land-grant universities to partner with industries to get funding. But as oil and gas companies pour money into land-grant universities during the U.S. natural-gas and oil boom, questions about academic integrity research credibility are forcing schools to "navigate new ground," Joshua Zaffos of High Country News reports.

Industry research money comes to land-grant schools at a time when government funding continues to decline. In 2010, the Center for American Progress, a liberal organization, identified more than 50 partnerships between universities and energy companies, with funding ranging from $1 million to $500 million. The partnerships "helped foster critical advancements in technology," the report said, but it warned the energy companies could have a "distorting influence" on research.

Industry is pouring so much money into land-grant schools so quickly that many schools are working with outdated policies on financial conflicts of interest, disclosure of past work and intellectual property, American Association of University Professors President Cary Nelson told Zaffos. Some schools simply refuse energy-industry money to avoid trouble taking it might cause. Nelson referred to cigarette-company sponsored studies that refuted the link between smoking and cancer: "The fracking industry has acquired some of the reputation of the tobacco industry." (Read more)

A recent high-profile story about possible linkage between a professor and natural gas companies made news last year when the researchers ties to the industry were made clear. University of Texas professor Chip Groat accepted more than $400,000 in compensation from a natural gas company of which he was a director and owned more than $1 million in stock. The school withdrew the study from its Energy Institute website in December. 

Western coal mines lay off workers amid battles over plans to export from West Coast ports

The decline in domestic coal production is catching up to mines in the Powder River Basin, which have for years dwarfed production elsewhere in the U.S. At least 300 jobs have been cut at mines in Montana and Wyoming since early 2012, according to Mine Safety and Health Administration data. Out-of-work Western miners are now scrambling to find jobs even as "global coal markets enjoy a heyday," The Associated Press reports. Experts say coal will surpass oil as the world's top energy source within the next four years, with the U.S. being the sole exception in that trend.

Resistance to shipping coal through West Coast ports is stalling the industry's ability to export coal to Asian markets, forcing companies to make the layoffs, which economically imperil small Western coal towns. Ambre Energy of Australia owns the Decker mine in Wyoming, site of many of the layoffs. The company promised last year to increase production, but pushed back plans to build port infrastructure to sustain coal exports on the West Coast when the political battle over them started. Other companies, including Arch Coal and Peabody Energy, face similar problems, AP reports. (Read more)

Severance taxes in E. Ky. drop with coal output

Coal's popularity as an energy source decreased sharply last year as natural gas became more plentiful and cheaper, and because of increased federal regulations requiring costly upgrades to coal-fired power plants. The decline in production has forced mine closures and layoffs in the Central Appalachian coalfields, and some Eastern Kentucky counties are dealing with million-dollar budget shortfalls as the amount of coal severance tax they receive is dropping.(Lexington Herald-Leader photo: Arch Coal processing facility in Knott County)

 Kentucky shares its severance taxes with local governments in producing areas. Statewide coal tax receipts fell 19 percent in the final quarter of last year, and an additional 19.1 percent over the next three months, according to the Governor's Office for Economic Analysis. Some counties could be forced to make layoffs and tax increases as a result, Bill Estep and John Cheves of the Lexington Herald-Leader report. The Knott County Fiscal Court formed a committee last week to suggest about how to deal with the county's projected $1.2 million loss in budgeted coal-severance money. Adjoining Letcher County has cut overtime for county employees and has placed a hold on spending to manage a $1 million shortfall. Estep and Cheves report that in the 10 Eastern Kentucky counties that produced the most coal in 2011, production was down in 2012 by 29 percent, with the drop being steeper in some counties, including Martin, Knott and Letcher. (Read more)

Monday, January 28, 2013

Both sides of gun-control debate twist the facts

It seems both sides in the gun-control debate are loose with their facts, report Robert Farley and Eugene Kiely of FactCheck.org, a project of the University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg Public Policy Center. Republicans' response to President Obama's plan to reduce gun violence has been rife with misleading claims, but so has a video from an anti-National Rifle Association group, which edited out key phrases in a campaign ad to support its position.

When Obama announced his "ambitious plan" to curb gun violence on Jan. 16, several Republicans "immediately pushed back," FactCheck reports. U.S. Rep. Steve Stockman of Texas said more gun laws would lead to more violence, but FactCheck writes that the majority of academic research about gun laws has found no such link. Stockman also said that parents would face prison time for giving their child a hunting rifle under new laws, but Obama's plan says there should be a "common-sense" approach to guns given as gifts to family members, FactCheck says.

Louisiana Rep. John Fleming claimed new laws would push doctors to ask patients if they own guns, but Obama's plan merely clarifies that federal laws don't prohibit such conversations. Texas Gov. Rick Perry said the executive branch of government can't abridge the Second Amendment, but all of Obama's major proposals to restrict gun and ammunition sales would require congressional approval. (Read more)

Kiely also finds a number of inaccuracies in a video attacking Democratic Rep. John Barrow of Georgia for accepting "NRA blood money." The video, produced by the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, selectively edits an old campaign ad in which Barrow touts his support for the Second Amendment and the NRA's endorsement of him. The group edited out all parts of the ad which explain why Barrow supports gun rights, including a statement about his father owning a rifle to keep his family safe. Barrow's father was a judge who supported the civil-rights movement. The Athens Banner-Herald reported upon his death in 2000 that he kept a rifle beside the front door as protection during legal battles over desegregation.


Barrrow's original ad was released Oct. 16, 2012, and the group released its edited version Jan. 17, the day after Obama announced his gun-rule proposal. FactCheck reports that the group's video uses almost all of the original ad, but leaves out key phrases. For example, the video says, "I'm John Barrow. And long before I was born, my grandfather used this little Smith & Wesson here," but edits out "to help stop lynching." (Read more)

Obama: Rural Americans' opinions on guns are important, should be heard in gun-control debate

In an interview with The New Republic magazine, President Obama "urged gun-control advocates to listen to views of rural Americans who use guns for hunting and said bridging a cultural divide in attitudes to gun ownership will be critical to his administration's push to curb gun violence," Roberta Rampton of Reuters reports. The articles was published on the magazine's website Sunday, but Obama spoke with the magazine Jan. 16, the same day he announced he would push Congress to approve an assault-weapons ban, background checks for all gun buyers and several other measures. (Reuters photo by Kevin Lamarque)

"Part of being able to move forward is understanding the realities of guns in urban areas are very different from the realities of guns in rural area," Obama said. Trying to bridge those gaps "is going to be part of the biggest task over the next several months, and that means that advocates of gun control have to do a little more listening than they do sometimes." Vice President Joe Biden is leading a White House effort to open discussion about gun control and galvanize public support to pressure Congress to act on it. Past efforts to restrict gun ownership have been blocked by gun owners, the National Rifle Association and their Congressional supporters, Rampton reports.

Rural America overwhelmingly voted Republican during the presidential election, and Obama was criticized during the 2008 election for supposedly private comments about how rural Americans "cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren't like them," Rampton reports. He later apologized for those remarks. (Read more)

North Dakota oil boom boosts economy, busts hospitals as migrant, uninsured workers don't pay

"The furious pace of oil exploration that had made North Dakota one of the healthiest economies in the country has had the opposite effect on the region's health care providers," John Eligon of The New York Times reports. The large number of uninsured workers coming to the state are causing local hospitals to "sink under skyrocketing debt, a flood of gruesome injuries and bloated business costs from the inflated economy." (NYT photo by Matthew Staver: North Dakota oil-region doctor sees patient)

Ambulance calls in the state's oil-and-gas region increased about 59 percent from 2006 to 2011, North Dakota Health Department emergency medical director Thomas Nehring told Eligon. The number of traumatic injuries increased by 200 percent from 2007 through the first half of 2012, and the total amount of unpaid bills at the 12 hospitals in western North Dakota has risen by 46 percent during fiscal years 2011 and 2012, state Rural Health Association President Darrold Bertsch said. Expenses at those hospitals rose by 15 percent, nine had operating losses, and Bertsch told Eligon that this trend is simply unsustainable.

Many new patients are migrant workers from across the country without health insurance or a permanent local address. One of the biggest factors that increases bad debts is patients giving incorrect contact information, so when the time comes to collect, they can't be found, Eligon reports. McKenzie County Hospital CEO Daniel Kelly said his hospital's patient debts rose more than 2,000 percent over the past four years. He has lobbied the state legislature to allocate a portion of the money for the oil-and-gas region to be spent specifically on health-care facilities in the area. Gov. Jack Dalrymple has made proposals to increase the state's number of health professionals, and he's increased Medicaid funding for rural hospitals. (Read more)

FDA likely to make hydrocodone harder to prescribe

Prescription painkillers containing hydrocodone should be placed in a more restrictive federal category, a Food and Drug Administration advisory panel of experts voted on Friday. The changes would be an effort to stem the tide of prescription painkiller abuse and addiction in the U.S., much of it in rural areas. Painkillers containing hydrocodone are the most widely prescribed drugs in the country.

Sabrina Tavernise of The New York Times reports the FDA is likely to adopt the panel's recommendations, which include limiting access to hydrocodone drugs such as Vicodin by making them harder to prescribe. Refills wouldn't be allowed without a new prescription, and faxed or called-in prescriptions wouldn't be accepted. Only a hanwritten prescription from a doctor would be allowed, and pharmacists would be required to keep the drugs in special vaults.

Many said these changes would be a key step in reducing painkiller addiction. However, dissenters in the vote were concerned that this move wouldn't make a difference. Oxycodone, the main ingredient in the highly-abused painkiller OxyContin, has been classified in a restrictive category since it was first introduced on the market but it is still widely abused, dissenters said. They also said the change could create unfair obstacles for legitimate patients. (Read more)

Fracking produces less wastewater per gas well, but gas boom creates more wastewater overall

Hydraulically fractured natural gas wells are producing less wastewater than conventional gas wells, but the scale of fracking in the Marcellus Shale region is so large that the wastewater it produces could outpace the region's wastewater disposal capacity, according to a study by scientists at Duke University and Kent State University.

The researchers concluded that fracked wells produce about 35 percent less wastewater than conventional wells, but the total amount of wastewater produced annually since 2004 has increased by about 570 percent since 2004 because of increased production.

Researchers analyzed gas production and wastewater generation for more than 2,000 gas wells in Pennsylvania using public data, Science Daily reports. The study was published in the journal Water Resources Research. Hydraulic fracturing uses large volumes of water, sand and chemicals to create cracks in shale formations to release gas. Increased production naturally increases the total amount of water used. The study also revealed that well operators classified most wastewater as brine, not as flowback from fracking. (Read more)

Study: Heat from cities could be changing weather

Heat rising from large cities might be warming winters in far-away rural areas, according to a Scripps Institution of Oceanography and National Center for Atmospheric Research study. Meteorologists have long known that cities are warmer than rural areas because buildings, cars, asphalt and roofs absorb heat. It was previously thought that the heat stayed close to cities.

The study, which is based on a computer model and studies the Northern Hemisphere, now suggests that city heat travels about half a mile up into the air, changing the high-altitude currents in the atmosphere that dictate prevailing weather, Seth Borenstein of The Associated Press reports. Changes seems to vary with seasons and by region because of the way air currents flow at different times of the year, researchers note in the study, published in the journal Nature Climate Change. They also suggest that this doesn't change overall climate significantly. It just redistributes some of the heat generated in cities. (Read more)