Friday, December 04, 2009

Most of rural America has fared better than metros in recession, but rural recovery has its pitfalls

The large concentration of commodity agriculture has helped the rural economy west of the Mississippi River withstand the recession, says a new report from the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City. "In regions west of the Mississippi River and in the New England/Middle Atlantic region, rural communities have sustained fewer job losses than neighboring metro communities," writes Jason Henderson, the bank's vice president and Omaha branch executive. "In the West South Central Region (Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, and Louisiana), rural communities posted much stronger job gains than in the region’s metro areas since the start of the recession."

In his report, "Prospects for a Rural Recovery," Henderson says the housing crisis was less severe in most rural areas, so housing prices in most rural areas dropped less than in metro areas. Consumer spending has dropped less in rural areas than metros, and processed food products appear to be a relative bright spot for rural economies. However, "Weakness in rural financial markets has intensified," Henderson writes. "Commercial banks have responded by tightening credit standards on a wide variety of household and business loans."

Henderson lists outmigration, industrial consolidation and limited access to capital as risks to a rural recovery. He says it hinges on an increased demand for rural products and services, and to increase demand he says rural businesses need to focus on producing goods and services targeted to rural markets. (Read more)

E. coli vaccine may help quash beef contamination

An upcoming, large-scale test of an E. coli vaccine for cattle may help solve one of the nation's most persistent food-safety issues. The vaccine has been in the work for years, but bureaucratic delays in Washington have kept it from widespread use, William Neuman of The New York Times reports. The U.S. Department of Agriculture first received an application for the vaccine in 2001, but questions over which federal agency had jurisdiction to issue permits slowed the development till 2005.

Scientists are fairly certain the vaccines won't wipe out the dangerous strain of E. coli known as O157:H7 on their own, Neuman reports, but they could significantly reduce the amount of harmful bacteria that reache slaughter houses. At that point safeguards already in place would have a greater chance of eliminating the remaining germs from beef supply. Preliminary studies show vaccines could reduce the amount of animals carrying the disease by 65 to 75 percent.

Two vaccines are being developed commercially, one by Minnesota-based Epitox and another by Canadian Bioniche Life Sciences. The Canadian vaccine was approved for use in that country last year. USDA FIRST required any vaccines to show at least a 90 percent reduction in the number of cattle carrying the bacteria, but after an increased number of contamination cases, USDA relaxed its standard in 2008. "It’s [the vaccine] definitely a piece of the solution," James L. Marsden, a professor of food safety at Kansas State University, told Neuman. "When you combine it with other pieces you may be looking at a real solution, a total solution." (Read more)

Medicare Advantage cuts, disproportionately rural, could be key to health care reform passage

One of the major roadblocks in the way of Senate health care reform is the amount of cuts to Medicare to fund the new program. Most of the cuts in the House-passed bill would come from Medicare Advantage, the program designed in the hope that private companies could provide Medicare benefits more cheaply, Brian Faler of Bloomberg reports.

Since more money in Medicare Advantage goes to rural areas than in the rest of Medicare, and rural lawmakers have more power in the Senate, Democrats there are looking to cities for cuts, Faler reports. The gap in the approach “is as wide as on any other issue in the bill,” Brian Biles, former staff director of the House Ways and Means subcommittee on health, told Faler. (Read more)

Democratic Sen. Jon Tester of Montana proposed an amendment Wednesday to the Senate bill to increase support of rural health programs. Tester had been uncommitted on the bill, but told Mike Dennison of the Billings Gazette he believes it will extend health coverage to most who lack it, lower health care premiums for many and slow the growth of health costs. Tester's amendment would require at least 20 percent of $15 billion worth of public health grants in the bill to be set aside for programs in rural areas. (Read more)

Recession makes some urban dwellers go rural

As urban and suburban real-estate prices continues to suffer during the recession, the rural market is holding up better in many areas. So-called "ruralpolitans," urban immigrants to rural areas, "are looking at land as their new safe investment, one they hope could prove more stable than their jobs and 401(k)s — and provide a better lifestyle," Gewndolyn Bounds of The Wall Street Journal reports.

Ruralpolitans typical break down into three groups, Bounds writes: "Young people buying land as an asset or investment, with vague hopes to live on it someday; exurban commuters who have jobs in big towns or cities but want to escape the sprawl; and back-to-the-land types who want to dabble in hobby farming." The largest number of ruralpolitans are among the 76 million baby boomers, Bounds reports, but a large number of 20-to-early-40-somethings are joining the boomers. Widespread Internet access, enhanced renewable energy options and the associated tax credits are helping to attract the younger crowd.

Historically, economic downturns or disasters have fueled a short-lived appetite for escape to more remote areas. People approaching retirement also often move to more rural areas, Bounds writes. The U.S. Department of Agriculture's Economic Research Service says if baby boomers follow that trend the rural population between 55-85 will grow by 30 percent between 2010 and 2020. Still, the most prevalent motivation for ruralpolitans is a hedge against an unpredictable future. "I can't tell you how many people at work say, 'Man, I'd like to do that,' " one 36-year-old ruralpolitan told Bounds. "Everybody is looking for the next opportunity for hope." [Read more]

Thursday, December 03, 2009

Byrd of W.Va.: 'Coal must embrace the future'

West Virginia and its coal industry must adapt to change or be overrun by it, says U.S. Sen. Robert Byrd, the state's senior political leader, breaking from the embrace most of his juniors have with the industry.

"West Virginia’s elected officials are rightly concerned about jobs and the economic impact on local communities. I share those concerns. But the time has come to have an open and honest dialogue about coal’s future in West Virginia," writes Byrd, a Democrat who has served longer in the Senate than anyone ever has. "Let’s speak the truth. The most important factor in maintaining coal-related jobs is demand for coal. Scapegoating and stoking fear among workers over the permitting process is counter-productive."

To the industry, Byrd makes a business argument: "Coal companies want a large stockpile of permits in their back pockets because that implies stability to potential investors. But when coal industry representatives stir up public anger toward federal regulatory agencies, it can damage the state’s ability to work with those agencies to West Virginia’s benefit. This, in turn, may create the perception of ineffectiveness within the industry, which can drive potential investors away."

Byrd is referring to the Environmental Protection Agency's moves to tighten regulation of mountaintop removal and similar strip mining. He warns, "The practice of mountaintop removal mining has a diminishing constituency in Washington," and has "strong bipartisan opposition." He argues, "Most members of Congress, like most Americans, oppose the practice, and we may not yet fully understand the effects of mountaintop removal mining on the health of our citizens." Byrd also rejects the notion of some West Virginia Democrats that the state's federal representatives should refuse to vote for health-care reform unless the EPA backs off, calling the idea "morally indefensible."

On the biggest issue confronting the industry, Byrd writes, "To deny the mounting science of climate change is to stick our heads in the sand and say 'deal me out.' West Virginia would be much smarter to stay at the table. . . . The 20 coal-producing states together hold some powerful political cards. We can have a part in shaping energy policy, but we must be honest brokers if we have any prayer of influencing coal policy. . . . The greatest threats to the future of coal do not come from possible constraints on mountaintop removal mining or other environmental regulations, but rather from rigid mindsets, depleting coal reserves, and the declining demand for coal as more power plants begin shifting to biomass and natural gas as a way to reduce emissions." (Read more) To listen to Byrd reading his statement, click here.

Mine waste contributed to big fish kill in Pa., W.Va.

In September we reported the largest West Virginia fish kill in more than two decades at Dunkard Creek, which flows into Pennsylvania. Now the Environmental Protection Agency says part of the blame for the kill lies with two Consol Energy mines. The report lists toxins from a golden algae bloom as the cause of a fish kill, but says high levels of pollution from mine discharges created conditions for the algae to grow, Ben Adducchio of West Virginia Public Radio reports.

EPA Aquatic Biologist Lou Reynolds found the golden algae that caused the fish kill in Greene County, north of Dunkard. "High TDS [total dissolved solids] is associated with better growth of this algae; those mine discharges are the major contributors." Consol Director of Public Relations Joe Cerenzia told Adducchio, "Our position is that we still think further study is needed, we think there are a lot of factors that contributed to the algae bloom, aside from discharge from our mining operations. We have been willing to work and have been working with regulatory agencies on coming up with a cause. It is our belief that there still a lot of things happening with Dunkard Creek that need to be determined before you can come out with a final, definitive conclusion." (Read more) For the first story on the findings, from Don Hopey of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, click here.

New USDA rules help protect poultry growers

Contract poultry growers appeared to win a major battle in their ongoing fight with large poultry companies Tuesday, as the federal Grain Inspection, Packers and Stockyards Administration announced new rules protecting growers. The administration described the new rules as an effort to "provide poultry growers with new information and improve transparency in poultry growing arrangements."

One of the new rules would require any grower to "be provided a true written copy of a poultry growing arrangement in a timely manner," the Daily Yonder reports. The rules loosen confidentiality clauses in contracts, allowing farmers to discuss contracts with federal agencies and immediate family members, and say farmers must be notified 90 days before a contract is terminated or not renewed. The Rural Advancement Foundation International, a coalition of contract growers which has been fighting with poultry contractors for years, issued a news release praising the new rules. (Read more)

USDA says cap-and-trade would benefit farmers

Climate-change legislation would significantly increase farm incomes, U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said Wednesday. Vilsack said carbon offsets and other provisions in the bill would more than counterbalance higher energy costs and could offer a windfall for farmers and ranchers, Jim Snyder of The Hill reports.

Vilsack's comments came in a conference call with reporters as part of the administration's efforts to "build support in rural America for climate change legislation in the face of a lobbying campaign by one prominent farm group against a cap-and-trade bill," Snyder writes. "Vilsack explained the opposition by noting the long history of farmers casting a wary eye toward change," saying "They resisted efforts to use fertilizers, plant hybrid seeds or use mechanized farm equipment."

No-till farming and installation of digesters to trap methane at hog and dairy operations are a few of the farming practices that could qualify for carbon offsets under the plan. Vilsack cited the new review from USDA of cap-and-trade's effect on farmers, saying the plan would raise food prices only 2 percent by 2030. USDA economist Joseph Glauber testified at the House hearing Wednesday that costs for energy and fertilizer, which is tied to the price of natural gas, account for about 15 percent of production expenses for the agricultural sector. (Read more) (USDA map)

Rural children less likely to have health coverage

Rural children are less likely to have health insurance coverage than their urban and suburban counterparts in every region except the South, says a new study from the Carsey Insititute at the University of New Hampshire. In the South, rural children are more likely to be covered than children in central cities, but that's mainly because of Medicaid; Southern rural children do have lower rates of private health insurance coverage.

In Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Florida, Hawaii, Indiana, Louisiana, Minnesota, Montana, New York, Oregon, South Dakota and Wisconsin, rural children have lower rates of coverage than urban and suburban children. Rural children in Alabama, Arkansas, Iowa, Kansas, Missouri, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Texas have insurance coverage comparative to urban children, but significantly lower than suburban children.

Of all the children in the U.S. with health insurance, an estimated 28 percent rely on a public plan, Carsey reports. Across the U.S. a significantly smaller number or rural and urban children are covered by private health insurance than suburban children. You can see the Carsey study here, which includes a state-by-state breakdown of the data.

Nebraska institute suggests county consolidation

Municipal consolidation is catching on again in cities in light of the recession, but one free-market think tank says that movement should move to rural counties as well. Nebraska's Platte Institute for Economic Research released a policy study last month that said, "Having 93 counties in Nebraska does not make sense," Haya El Nasser of USA Today reports. Nebraska has one of the country's highest number of counties per 100,000 people. Eleven of its 93 counties have fewer than 1,000 people and 36 have fewer than 5,000.

Platte's analysis said the state should consolidate some county services into 20 "county centers" from the 85 currently outside the Omaha and Lincoln metropolitan areas. The group concluded if the centers were designated as actual county seats the number of county offices would be cut by 77 percent, Nasser reports. Most Nebraska residents would live within 60 miles of one of the 20 centers.

But as you might expect, the Platte Institute proposal draws some ire. "It's not only control, but it's identity," Platte Executive Director John McCollister told Nasser. "It's like taking somebody's post office away." Rutgers University professor Frank Popper told Nasser the plan wouldn't guarantee savings because some of the remote counties have few services to cut. Jerry Adamson, a county commissioner in Cherry, the state's largest county, told Nasser, "I don't see this county consolidating with anybody. One size doesn't fit all." (Read more)

Study shows that removing school junk food leads to better eating habits by students

A new study confirms a widespread assumption: Removing junk food from schools leads children to eat less junk food. Some school officials have argued that removing junk food from schools would only lead to students eating twice as much junk food at home, but researchers at Yale University say that wasn't the case in three Connecticut middle schools they studied.

"We found that when you take soda and high-fat snacks out of schools, students did not compensate at home. Instead, they ate better at school and no worse at home," study lead author Marlene Schwartz, deputy director of Yale's Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity, said in a Newswise release. Schwartz said financial pressure from the food industry, which wants to build brand loyalty, and the desire of schools to keep getting a cut of the profits from vending machines, stokes most of the opposition to removing junk food in schools.

Researchers replaced junk food with snacks that met state nutrition standards at three middle schools and compared student eating behavior at those schools to three schools were junk food supplies were not altered. While students offered the healthier foods did eat better, some say even those foods aren't enough. Joel Fuhrman, a family physician and study author said in the news release: “Even the foods that weren’t as bad, they weren’t health foods." (Read more)

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

N.C. utility to shut 11 coal plants, switch to gas

North Carolina-based Progress Energy says it will close 11 of its coal-fired power plants in the state by 2017. The utility plans to replace the plants' 1,500 megawatts of electricity with natural gas instead of retrofitting the plants with new technology to meet environmental rules that are likely to become more strict, John Murawski of The News & Observer in Raleigh reports.

The utility said the cost of replacing the plants, all built between 1949 and 1972, with natural gas facilities would be around $1.5 billion while retrofitting them would cost at least $2 billion. The decision, which still has to be approved by the state Utilities Commission, may signal the beginning of the end of coal-powered electricity in a state where more than half the electricity somes from burning coal, Murawski reports. Progress will keep 3,600 megawatts of coal-fired power in the state. (Read more)

Gov. Beverly Perdue called the decision "important for North Carolina's air quality" and "good for the environment and the economy." Progress said it sees gas as a short-term bridge until it can build two nuclear facilities in the next decade, Rebecca Smith of The Wall Street Journal reports. CEO Bill Johnson said the move to gas would help the company cut its carbon-dioxide emissions significantly, but not by the 17 percent President Obama wants by 2020. "It's still a single-digit number for us, but it's moving in the right direction," Johnson told Smith. "I think others will follow." (Read more)

Millions of farm subsidy dollars go to the dead

As many as 2,393 deceased Floridians received $88,871,593 in farm subsidies, Stephen Stock of WFOR-TV in Miami reports. In addition to the deceased recipients, thousands of others receive farm subsidies despite not actually working on a farm. "You don't have to farm to get farm subsidies," Richard Wiles, Environmental Working Group senior vice president for policy and communications, told Stock. "You don't have to have ever farmed to get farm subsidies. You don't even have to be alive to get farm subsidies."

Stock and WFOR's "I-Team" paired EWG's database of farm-subsidy recipients with people, birth dates, addresses and Social Security numbers in the Social Security Administration's database to determine the number of dead recipients. "I'm not surprised at all that you found that those numbers, hundreds of farmers who have been dead five, seven, or even eight years are still receiving checks from the government," Wiles told Stock. "It's just the way agriculture is today. There's just billions and billions of dollars being spent to farmers every year and almost no accountability for where the money goes." (Read more)

But how do the data look outside of the Sunshine State? Al Tompkins of The Poynter Institute passes along several useful resources in his "Morning Meeting" today to help local journalists investigate data in their communities. You can browse the EWG database of farm subsidy recipients here by name, county or state. You can also read the 2007 Government Accountability Office report calling for better farm subsidy regulations to eliminate payments to deceased individuals.

We echo this piece of advice from Tompkins: "Remember, just because people get a subsidy does not mean they are doing something wrong or illegal. For some farmers, subsidies have been lifelines in tough times. But billions of dollars go to people who have never farmed but hold a financial interest in a farm." (Read more)

EPA delays ethanol blend decision until mid-2010

The Environmental Protection Agency announced yesterday that it will delay its decision about raising the ethanol blend in gasoline until the middle of 2010. In a letter to ethanol lobbying group Growth Energy, EPA cited more testing being needed as the reason for the delay.

EPA said in the letter, dated Nov. 30, that preliminary studies appear to show newer automobiles could handle a 15 percent ethanol blend but more study is needed. "We continue to evaluate the question of component durability when E15 is used over many thousands of miles and there is an ongoing study being conducted by DOE [Department of Energy] that will provide critical data on this issue," EPA wrote. Wesley K. Clark, co-chairman of Growth Energy, told Kate Galbraith and Matthew L. Wald of The New York Times that the decision was “basically a positive answer,” but Bob Dinneen, chief executive of the Renewable Fuels Association said, “This delay threatens to paralyze the continued evolution of America’s ethanol industry.” (Read more)

Recession drives food-stamp use to record levels; here are county-by-county data, interactive map

The recession means that the once-scorned federal program to help Americans buy food is being used more than ever. Food stamps now help feed one in eight Americans and one in four children, Jason DeParle and Robert Gebeloff of The New York Times report. While the recession has helped fuel the increased food stamp use, a Bush administration decision to make it easier to apply for "nutritional aid" instead of welfare cleared the path for increased use.

More than 36 million Americans now use food stamps, or as the previous administration renamed it, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. In at least 239 counties, a quarter or more of the people get food stamps, many in rural areas but also in cities. In 62 counties, the number of recipients has more than doubled since 2007. While once-prosperous areas where the housing bust has hit are experiencing increased usage, the areas where poverty runs deepest still have the highest rates, the Times reports.

Even with food stamp usage at a record level, experts say there are millions more who could qualify for them. "I think the response of the program has been tremendous," Kevin Concannon, an undersecretary of agriculture, told the reporters, "but we’re mindful that there are another 15, 16 million who could benefit." In California food stamps reach only 50 percent of those eligible, while in Missouri 98 percent of the eligible have nutritional aid. (Read more)

Click on the map below to see the NYT full size interactive version; the accompanying chart can be re-sorted by clicking on the header of a category, such as the rate of increase in the last two years. The Daily Yonder has a breakdown of the NYT data, including a chart with state-by-state information. States where the percentage of rural residents on food stamps was at least half again as much as the state’s urban figure: Alaska, Arizona, Georgia, Hawaii, Kentucky, Maine, South Carolina, Virginia and Vermont.

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Flap over climate e-mails shows one thing for sure: Researchers need to have more transparency

The blogosphere and talk radio have been abuzz with debates from both sides of the argument over global warming since more than 1,000 emails and 2,000 other documents were stolen from the Climate Research Unit at East Anglia University in the United Kingdom two weeks ago. Many on the right have argued the e-mails represent clear evidence of a conspiracy among climate scientists to cover up the holes in global-warming agruments, and many on the left classify the e-mails as dealing with relatively insignificant elements of climate research.

Either way, significant damage appears to have been done to the public perception of global warming advocates, conservative columnist Kim Strassel writes for The Wall Street Journal, and she has evidence to back her up: George Monbiot, a U.K. writer who has been among the fiercest warming alarmists, recently wrote, "It's no use pretending that this isn't a major blow," adding that the documents "could scarcely be more damaging." Strassel notes that Oklahoma Republican Sen. Jim Inhofe, a global-warming denier, has described the e-mails as the final nail in the coffin of cap-and-trade, the proposd system for limiting greenhous-gas emissions.

On the other side, Andrew Freedman of The Washington Post has three interviews, here, here and here, with prominent scientific figures who mostly downplay the effect of the e-mails on the future of climate change research. The controversy has at least claimed one scientist: Phil Jones, one of the e-mailers in question, has stepped down from his director role of the Climate Research Unit while an independent investigation is completed, Juliet Eilperin of the Post reports.

The most critical e-mails seem to center on attempts to silence conflicting views within the pro-global warming side of the scientific community. Judith Curry, the chair of School of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences at the Georgia Institute of Technology and a strong believer in global warming, has called for increased transparency in the field in light of the stolen e-mails. "If climate science is to uphold core research values and be credible to public, we need to respond to any critique of data or methodology that emerges from analysis by other scientists," she wrote in an open letter published by Andrew C. Revkin of The New York Times. "Ignoring skeptics coming from outside the field is inappropriate." (Read more)

Curry argues that climate scientists should do more to engage their detractors in an effort to improve public perception of their research. Most of the research data from the climate scientists in the emails is already made public, but selective publishing by the hackers has not really added to transparency. Climategate, as the e-mail scandal is being called, has probably affected the public perception of climate science, but it seems to us that Curry's suggestion of more transparency in how research is conducted, and how scientific journals select articles, is one way to tackle the problem.

Ken Ward Jr. of The Charleston Gazette has a good roundup of commentary and analysis here.

Survey shows rural Midwest economy still shaky

A survey of business leaders and supply managers in nine Midwestern states shows rural areas in the region are being hit hard by what may be another dip into recession. November's Business Conditions Index for the Mid-America region stood at 47.5, down from 51.8 in October and 56.2 in September, The Associated Press reports. The index ranges from zero to 100, with a score above 50 suggesting economic growth in the next three to six months and a score below 50 suggesting an economic contraction over the same period.

"The significant decline in farm income for 2009 continues to weigh on firms with strong ties to agriculture," Ernie Goss, a Creighton University economist who oversees the monthly survey, told the AP. "For example, agriculture-equipment manufacturers have been hard hit by farmers' reluctance to purchase new equipment. This downturn has been particularly significant for rural areas of the region." The Mid-American region includes Arkansas, Iowa, Kansas, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, Oklahoma and South Dakota.

Goss tells the AP that 41 percent of Midwest supply managers anticipate making layoffs at their companies in the coming months and only 48 percent expect to receive pay increases in 2010. Despite the other bleak information, survey respondents remained optimistic. The confidence index was down only slightly from 68.9 in October to 68 in November. (Read more)

Resources to localize Afghanistan troop coverage

President Obama is expected to announce a new plan to send around 30,000 additional troops to Afghanistan during a national television address tonight. While large-scale troop counts and war strategies can be difficult to localize, Al Tompkins of the Poynter Institute has provided some excellent resources for local journalists in his Morning Meeting. More than 850 Americans have died in or around Afghanistan since the start of the war. also has an interactive map that breaks down the number of wounded and killed by state. Here is tyhe iCasualties site, which is updated daily to include the number of deaths, wounded and missing or captured. The Washington Post's ongoing "Faces of the Fallen" page honors fallen soldiers with a picture, biographical information and details of their death. PBS also has a brief history of Afghanistan and timeline of American involvement in the country. (Read more)

Monday, November 30, 2009

University of Kentucky athletics puts $500,000 into annual scholarships for Appalachian students

The University of Kentucky announced today that its self-supporting athletics department will put another $500,000 a year into scholarships, this time for students in Appalachian Kentucky, on top of the $1.2 million it annually gives for non-athletic scholarships. The primary beneficiaries of the new money will be the Robinson Scholars, students from 29 Appalachian coalfield counties whose families have never sent anyone to college. "Some of our most loyal fans are those who reside in Eastern Kentucky," Senior Associate Athletic Director Rob Mullens said at a news conference this afternoon.

The program, which now funds one student from each county, will be expanded to roughly three per county. Any leftover funds will be used for need-based scholarships to help students in Appalachian Kentucky, which includes almost twice as many counties as the coal counties. The money was allocated for scholarships several months ago, but was not designated for Appalachian students. It will come from a 15-year deal among CBS Sports, ESPN and the Southeastern Conference, of which UK is a member.

UK President Lee Todd and the majority leaders of both houses of the state legislature said the scholarships are an investment in the future of the region. Sen. Robert Stivers, R-Manchester, said he and Rep. Rocky Adkins, D-Sandy Hook, are known for appropriating money for infrastructure projects in Appalachia, "but pro0bably our most valuable infrastructure" is the "intellectual infrastructure" of its young people. "That is what will really make the difference in our region of the state, and the state as a whole," he said. Todd said at least half the Robinson scholars return to the coalfield after graduation.

Competitors say Monsanto's seed power too great

Ninety-three percent of U.S. soybeans and 80 percent of U.S. corn are now grown from genetically altered seeds. Monsanto "Roundup Ready" technology has allowed the seeds to stand up to herbicides like Roundup even after planting, Peter Whoriskey of The Washington Post reports. Now the Justice Department is now investigating Monsanto's stranglehold on the seed industry to see if it has too much control.

Prices for Roundup Ready seeds have increased to about $50 for a 50-pound bag. "Farmers have decried the price increases, and competitors say the company has ruthlessly stifled competition," Whoriskey writes. The Justice Department's investigation of Monsanto is the latest example of the added emphasis on antitrust regulation by the Obama administration compared to the Bush administration, which didn't file a single case under anti-monopoly laws, Whoriskey reports.

Monsanto says it's done nothing wrong and the popularity of its seeds is only a result of excellent performance. "Everybody wants it, and Monsanto is seeing what the market will bear," Maryland farmer Geno Lowe told Whoriskey. "People say that's capitalism. The question is, where does capitalism meet corruption?" Competitors say the Roundup Ready seeds are so dominant that any new biotech innovations must work with the Monsanto technology, and the company is freezing out competition by making it difficult to win patents to add traits to the seeds.

"Monsanto has abused its unlawfully acquired monopoly power to block competition, thwart innovation and extract from farmers unjustified price increases of over 100 percent in recent years," competitor DuPont argues in court papers. Monsanto says it already licenses the technology to hundreds of companies, but maintains some restrictions to ensure those companies' perform as advertised. (Read more)

Cool summer made coal stockpiles grow, dictating needs for more cuts in production, operators say

Despite large cuts in production, U.S. coal stockpiles have continued to grow in 2009. As supply of coal outpaces demand, industry officials are predicting more widespread production cuts in the next year, Kris Maher of The Wall Street Journal reports. A recent uptick in U.S. industrial activity hasn't been enough to raise depressed coal prices in the major U.S. producing areas.

The benchmark price for Central Appalachian coal, 20 percent of U.S. production, is down to $54 a ton from $111 last year, Maher reports. The benchmark price for Power River Basin coal in the West, 40 percent of production, is down to $8.25 a ton from $14.50. Coal stockpiles at utilities hit 199.7 million tons in September, up 37 percent from last year. Industry officials say they are more comfortable with utility reserves hovering around 140 million tons. (WSJ chart)

The summer of 2009 was relatively cool, creating less demand for air conditioning, and utilities' coal stockpiles increased for the first time in 25 summers, Maher reports. Though the industry cut 100 million tons of production this year, Kevin Crutchfield, chief executive of Alpha Natural Resources Inc., tells Maher he expects it to be cut by an additional 20 to 40 million tons in the first half of 2010. The Labor Department reported coal mining employment at 79,600 in September, down 7.5 percent from a year earlier. Small companies in Central Appalachia are expected to be the hardest hit by the downturn.

Some companies have turned to foreign markets to sell coal, and sale of metallurgical coal to steelmakers is up, but much of the coal needed to fuel the increasing Asian demand may come from outside the U.S., Maher reports. "For us it's really a tale of two markets, between a U.S. market where stockpiles need to be worked down, and where the growth will come in Australia feeding into Asian markets," Vic Svec, a Peabody Energy Corp. senior vice president, told Maher. (Read more)

U.S. wind industry says it employs more than coal

The wind-energy industry says it employs more Americans than coal mining. A new report from the American Wind Energy Association says wind industry jobs jumped to 85,000 in 2008, up 70 percent from the previous year. The U.S. Department of Energy reported coal mining employed close to 81,000 people in 2007, and Todd Woody of Fortune magazine reports reports coal jobs have remained steady in recent years but are down 50 percent since 1986.

The jump in wind jobs resulted from the 50 percent increase in installed wind capacity, with 8,358 megawatts coming online in 2008. Wind also accounted for 42 percent of the new electricity generation installed in the U.S. in 2008, Woody reports. But the outlook for wind jobs in 2009 isn't as rosy, because the global credit crisis has delayed financing for new projects. Layoffs have also hit companies that make wind turbines. The U.S. wind market is still dominated by European companies, but they have shifted production of components closer to American consumers. Domestic production was 30 percent of the total in 2005, and 50 percent in 2008. (Read more)

Highway in Utah is both an example of the dangers of rural roads and the difficulties in fixing them

In October we reported that the National Highway Safety and Traffic Administration had released data revealing almost 60 percent of U.S. traffic fatalities in 2008 occurred on rural roads. Now Howard Berkes of National Public Radio has provided an excellent example of applying that nationwide data in a local context. Berkes focuses on the 120-mile stretch of U.S. Highway 6 between Spanish Fork and Green River in Utah, one of the deadliest roads in America.

"Since 1996, more than 150 people have died in more than 500 serious accidents on that central Utah portion of the road," Berkes reports. The road serves as the link between much of the state and the medical specialists, government offices, shopping, colleges and families along Utah's populous Wasatch Front, which includes Salt Lake City. The road also attracts heavy truck traffic because it is part of the shortest route between Salt Lake City and Denver, and tourists use the road to travel to the national parks and scenic rivers of southeast Utah. (NPR map by Berkes and Nelson Hsu)

Despite vocal community organizing to improve safety on U.S. 6, Utah funds were diverted to northern roads in advance of the 2002 Winter Olympics and the road often ranked as priority No. 2 on many lawmakers' lists, Berkes reports. Utah recently began a series of ambitious and costly projects to improve the road's safety, but the projects' difficulties offer examples of the challenge in improving rural roads. Many rural roads bring environmental concerns about preservation of natural landscapes, Berkes reports, and many dangerous segments parallel natural and man-made features that limit engineering options. (Read more)

Massey Energy boss is cool with being the villain

Massey Energy Co. Chief Executive Officer Don Blankenship has long been one of the most outspoken critics of climate-change legislation and loudest voices on the pro-coal side of energy debates, but his strong positions haven't led him to spend much money on lobbying efforts. "I don’t believe you can change the behavior of politicians by asking them to vote differently very often, particularly when you are viewed as having a personal interest in the issue," Blankenship told Jim Snyder of The Hill, which covers Congress. "I think you have to take it to the public."

Massey Energy, the largest coal producer in Central Appalachia, spends "next to nothing on lobbying of its own," Snyder reports, but is a member of groups like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which have large lobbying budgets. "I’ve never walked into a senator’s office, told him what my view was, and had him change his view, so I don’t tend to spend a lot of my time doing that," Blankenship told Snyder. Blankenship said when legislators vote against the public will they lose their next election anyway.

Blankenship reasserted his belief that global warming is not a man-made threat, but instead a natural cyclical process. When asked if he thought the "train had left the station" on the politically reality of global warming, Blankenship responded by repeating a lesson he recently told a group of students in West Virginia. "People talk about character being what you do when no one else is looking," he told Snyder. "But the truth of the matter is character is doing that which is unpopular if it’s right, even if it causes you to be vilified." (Read more)