Friday, November 12, 2010

Frackers move from gas to oil, raising U.S. output

Advances in the old technology of hydraulic fracturing, which have opened up vast reserves of natural gas, have also turned around "the decades-long decline of domestic oil production, which increased slightly in 2009 for the first time in more than 20 years," Daniel Gilbert reports for The Wall Street Journal. (Yes, that's the same Daniel Gilbert who won the Bristol Herald Courier this year's Pulitzer Prize for Public Service with his revelation of the mismanagement of natural-gas resources in southwest Virginia. He now works out of the Wall Journal's bureau in Houston.)

When "fracking" created a glut of gas and reduced prices about 20 percent, "Energy companies began eyeing the more attractive price of oil, which, at $84.88 a barrel after Friday's price drop, is still up more than 11 percent in the past year. Now they are deploying the same drilling technology to shale formations containing oil," Gilbert writes. "The number of oil-seeking rigs has nearly tripled since June 2009, and now makes up 42 percent of all rigs in use, a prevalence not seen since 1997, according to data compiled by oilfield-services company Baker Hughes Inc."

The biggest increase in the rig count has come in Texas, not just a big state but a big oil state. It was followed by North Dakota, Oklahoma and Colorado. The trend is likely to spread, because IHS Cambridge Energy Research Associates has "identified 20 significant shale prospects across North America," Gilbert notes. "Industry executives and analysts say the growth is likely to continue, at least as long as oil prices remain over $70 a barrel."

How should rural news media cover oil and gas booms? Treat skeptically reports of huge production until you can get confirmation from buyers or regulators. Check the courthouse for leases and see what up-front and royalty payments companies are making. Check with citizens and regulators about possible environmental problems. Gilbert writes from Karnes City, Tex., "Here in south Texas, there has been little opposition, and the unexpected rise in economic activity has been welcomed." (Read more)

Safety awards to Massey and Transocean questioned after recent coal and oil disasters

Both Massey Energy and Transocean were faulted for safety shortcomings in their respective coal and oil disasters this spring, but both also boast government-backed awards for safety commendations. "Worker safety advocates say the awards -- given, in some instances, to companies involved in disasters -- show the dangers posed when federal agencies become too cozy with the industries they regulate," Kimberly Kindy of The Washington Post reports. On April 29, West Virginia coal miners died in an explosion at a Massey mine, and 11 workers on a Transocean oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico died two weeks later in an explosion that began a record oil-well blowout.

"Shareholders and employees are told: 'The government thinks we are safe,'" Celeste Monforton, a former senior official at the Mine Safety and Health Administration and assistant research professor in occupational health at George Washington University, told Kindy. "It can potentially be used as a shield against criticism when problems arise." Massey won three Sentinels of Safety awards from MSHA and the National Mining Association just six months before the Upper Big Branch disaster. The since-renamed Minerals Management Service gave a 2009 Safety Award for Excellence to Transocean less than a year before the Gulf blowout.

Last week, the Labor Department, MSHA's parent agency, said Massey's injury data, upon which the awards are based, is inaccurate. "The department cited a Sept. 30 letter in which Massey told shareholders it has under reported injury data by as much as 37 percent," Kindy writes. Sentinels of Safety awards are given to mines that have no injuries for at least a year. Massey says it has since fixed the reporting errors but defended its awards. "Every day, coal miners get up before dawn to provide energy for our nation, and we see nothing wrong with the government recognizing those miners who do their jobs safely," Massey Vice President Shane Harvey told Kindy. (Read more)

'Sarah Palin's Alaska' is more about state's beauty than Republican's political future

UPDATE, Dec. 9: After watching the first eight shows, David Firestone of The New York Times writes a column that is mainly about the show as a political tool, but he gets your attention by starting with something more elemental: "scenes of Ms. Palin clubbing to death a huge halibut and then triumphantly holding up a still-beating halibut heart, images that probably did send chills down the spines of animal lovers and moderate Republicans." (Read more)

Former Gov. Sarah Palin's media exposure is set to rise even more this weekend with the debut of her nature show "Sarah Palin's Alaska." The TLC program showcases plenty of Alaska's snowcapped mountains, pine forests and shimmering lakes as well as the Palin family, leading Alessandra Stanley of The New York Times to conclude, "In a way it’s like 'The Sound of Music' but without the romance, the Nazis or the music." (TLC photo by Gilles Mingasson)

The first episode doesn't spend much time highlighting Palin's political persona, focusing on the 2008 vice presidential nominee and former TV reporter as she fishes, hunts, dog-sleds and rock-climbs. "A reality show is a risky step for any politician, but then Ms. Palin is no ordinary politician. It’s still not clear whether she plans to run for president in 2012, or is just riding high on her popularity and fame," Stanley writes. "The TLC program highlights her physical bravery, but the series’s existence points to a different kind of courage: Ms. Palin is not afraid to be herself." (Read more)

Palin says the show is more documentary than reality. The show is "breathtaking, though not so much in form as function," Mary McNamara of the Los Angeles Times writes. "It's the fabulous shamelessness, the awful and yet admirable brilliance of the thing. Whether Palin will ever run for office or not, 'Sarah Palin's Alaska' sets a new standard for political ads." (Read more)

In Alaska, at least one reviewer took issue with the idea that all Alaskans have lifestyles like those showcased in the program. "Surfing through press materials for the eight episodes filmed over the summer, I saw that Sarah fishes in Bristol Bay, four-wheels, kayaks outside of Homer, shoots, scales rock ledges, mushes a dog team, glacier-treks, rafts and climbs part of Denali," Julia O'Malley of the Anchorage Daily News writes. "I can see a working mother of five doing one or two of those things in a summer up here, but all of them? Maybe if you are a millionaire. With lots of child care. And no regular job. Oh, that's right." (Read more)

Climatologists gird for scrutiny by GOP skeptics

Climate scientists say they are more prepared than ever to defend their work if a Republican-controlled House amps up skepticism of global warming. Last fall's release of stolen e-mails among climate scientists at the University of East Anglia's Climatic Research Unit and the news of errors in a major United Nations climate report didn't undermine the broad consensus that human activity is changing the climate, but the episodes "provided new fodder for climate skeptics and prompted a barrage of often unflattering press coverage," Lauren Morello of Environment & Energy News reports.

"With Republicans set to take control of the House in January, the conventional wisdom in Washington is that climate scientists could face an even harsher environment next year," Morello writes. Richard Somerville, a climate scientist at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California, said those predictions don't scare him or his colleagues. "Because we've gone through this very unpleasant year, we're much better prepared," he told Morello. "The community, taken as a whole, is more willing to speak out."

At least one climate scientist says he isn't convinced that Republicans will even attack global warming research. "I have an open mind about what Congress will do," Michael Oppenheimer, who directs the Program in Science, Technology and Environmental Policy at Princeton University, told Morello. "If there is an aggressive effort to undermine the science based on contrarianism rather than reasonable questioning -- which Congress has an obligation to do -- will the science community be in a better position to respond? I don't know. I hope so."

In the wake of the past year's controversies, climate scientists are doing more to reach out to the public. Oppenheimer is participating in a American Geophysical Union program that will marshal 700 scientist-volunteers to answer reporters' science questions. "John Abraham, a professor of thermal science at the University of St. Thomas, is organizing a similar, but separate, 'climate rapid response team' of about 40 scientists," Morello writes. (Read more, subscription required)

Many Miss. schools lack good speech therapists

Almost half of Mississippi's 152 school districts don't have a staff member fully qualified to help students with speech-related problems, and that shortage that may be reflected in other schools around the country. In Mississippi, "about 150 speech and language clinicians are working under emergency licenses in 72 school districts," Marquita Brown of the Jackson Clarion-Ledger reports. "Emergency licenses for speech therapy are issued to those with a bachelor's degree. Full certification requires a master's degree with the clinical experience that goes with it."

"Some speech therapists say someone with only a bachelor's degree likely has no clinical experience and, thus, no training to diagnose underlying abnormalities behind a speech problem," Brown writes. Undergraduate students studying communicative disorders have little direct contact with students. School superintendents say its difficult to recruit speech therapists with master's degrees because they can earn almost twice as much money in the private sector. "So where would you go? A $35,000 job or a $70,000 job? It's a no-brainer," Suzie Rosser, president of the Mississippi Speech-Language Hearing Association, told Brown.

Rosser suggested forgiving student loans to speech therapists who work in hard-to-staff areas. Four Mississippi state colleges -- Jackson State, Mississippi University for Women, the University of Southern Mississippi and the University of Mississippi -- have graduate speech-language programs, but admit a limited number of students each year. "It's a matter of supply and demand," Stephen Handley, superintendent of Hinds County Schools, told Brown. "We have the demand, but the supply is not there." (Read more)

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Small Western papers win for investigative, explanatory reporting in Inland Press contest

The Inland Press Association has announced the winners of its 2010 newsroom contest. The association  contests are co-sponsored and judged by association members from university journalism faculty. The winners in the division for newspapers of less than 10,000 circulation included four in the West.

Investigative Reporting, first place, Havre Daily News in Montana, for "Online Payday Loans." Indian tribes had begun making payday loans through the Internet and the Montana attorney general had to determine what jurisdiction governed the business. A complaint had been made for withdrawing more money from a bank account than had been agreed upon in a loan, and the newspaper quoted many consumers who had had similar problems with the company. The legislature tried to regulate the payday industry, but the bills died in committee. However, in this month's election, 73 percent of Montana voters approved caps on payday-loan interest rates, reports the Great Falls Tribune.

Second place in investigative reporting wenty to the Lahontan Valley News, of Fallon, Nev., for "Money Grabbers," a story about a law that requires counties to return revenue to the Department of the Interior from geothermal production rather than keeping the money in county government coffers.

The Lahontan Valley News won third place in the Explanatory Reporting category for "A stopping point for wild horses," a series about the Bureau of Land Mangement building a pen to contain wild horses the agency captured. The story continues with BLM explaining its authority to round up horses. The series continued with a story about the treatment of the horses. In May, the county sheriff began investigating the treatment of the horses and complaints about the holding pen; a visit by the sheriff and the district attorney was described in a follow-up story.

First place in Explanatory Reporting went to Steamboat Pilot & Today of Steamboat Springs, Colo., for "House of Cards," a five-part series investigating the real-estate market and its collapse in the area. From part one: "The rising tide of affluent baby boomers was supposed to lift Steamboat Springs' vacation home market for years to come. And it did just that for the better part of a decade. But the bubble has burst, and the future of the real estate development market in Steamboat and ski towns like it might never be the same." The second part reported on the failed mortgage market; part three investigated the employment fallout; part four reported on deed-restricted mortgages and the government's role in the market; and part five profiled area residents who were able to buy into the market.

Second place in the category also went to a Colorado paper, the Glenwood Springs Post Independent, for "Drug Court: Second Chances and Last Chances," a series profiling area residents who had been in the court. The first story explained a mother's experience. A family's struggle with methamphetamine was profiled, and the last story was about a meth addict and dealer.

Inland, which was called the Inland Daily Press Association until 20 years ago, has its first president from a weekly newspaper: Kathleen Ballanfant, publisher of Village News and Southwest News, in Bellaire, Texas, in metropolitan Houston. (Read more)

Commission proposed deep spending cuts for farm programs

On Wednesday, the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility announced a plan for $3.8 trillion in spending cuts by 2020, including $3 billion a year in farm programs. "Among the cuts to mandatory programs, commission proposes reducing direct payments $22 billion by 2020," Chris Clayton of DTN/The Progressive Farmer reports. The commission recommending cutting "farm subsidies by $3 billion per year by reducing direct payments and other subsidies, Conservation Security Program funding and funding for the Market Access Program."

"With Republicans coming into control of Congress, it will be worth watching to see how much of the commission's proposal will be taken up in the push to cut federal spending," Clayton writes. The commission recommended requiring food processors to pay for safety and inspection services, which it says would save $900 million a year.

"The commission also proposed $200 billion in federal-budget discretionary spending cuts, including eliminating a number of programs in the Rural Utilities Service, saving $500 million by 2015," Clayton writes. While the commission acknowledged RUS has updated its services to focus on broadband, it concluded "The agency also runs a number of programs which are outdated, overlapping, and which provide limited or questionable public policy benefits. These include the Local Television Loan Program among others." (Read more) The agency is the successor of the Depression-era Rural Electrification Administration, and the main financier of rural electric cooperatives.

"The proposal specifically calls cutting the $5 billion a year in fixed payments that go to grain and cotton farmers as well as reducing the Conservation Security Program authored by Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Ia., and subsidies for overseas promotion of U.S. farm products," Philip Brasher of the Des Monies Register reports on the paper's Green Fields blog. "Congress already faces a tough budget situation when it goes to write the next farm bill, given that nearly 40 programs have no funding after 2012. The commission’s proposed cuts would squeeze the farm bill even more," Brasher writes. (Read more)

Votes for farm subsidies weren't enough to save Democratic lawmakers, subsidy skeptics note

Support for continued farm subsidies in the 2008 Farm Bill wasn't enough to save many rural Democratic representatives in last week's elections. The Environmental Working Group notes that 46 seats switched to Republican "in rural districts that rank in the top half in EWG’s farm subsidy database," writes David DeGennaro, an agricultural analyst for EWG, which has made a name for itself by tracking farm subsidies. "In every single one of those races, incumbent Democrats who were in office in 2008 supported the last Farm Bill and the generous subsidy structure that brought billions of dollars home to their districts."

"Conventional wisdom dictates that House members from rural, agricultural areas – and particularly those who sit on the all-important committee – had better support a Farm Bill that maximizes these subsidy payouts or risk losing their seats," DeGennaro writes. "Tuesday’s results, however, clearly refute the notion that blind service to agribusiness guarantees re-election. If anything, they are a loud signal that there is negligible political benefit to toeing the agribusiness and subsidy lobby line." DeGennaro argues that the Democratic caucus has a chance to advocate for a more progressive agriculture agenda when replacing the outgoing Democrats on the Agriculture Committee.

 Rep. Frank Lucas of Oklahoma is expected to become committee chairman. "Lucas has made clear that direct payments – billions every year in farm subsidies that go out automatically to the largest farm operations regardless of need – are untouchable," DeGennaro writes. EWG wants the GOP to carry its cut-spending mantra to agriculture, arguing that "Voters, it seems, will thank them." (Read more)
Click here for large version of EWG graphic.

MSHA announces public hearings for proposed black lung rule

The U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration has announced six public hearings for discussion of the Obama administration's proposal to end black lung disease among coal miners. "This proposed rule would significantly improve health protections for underground and surface coal miners by reducing their occupational exposure to respirable coal mine dust," Joseph A. Main, assistant secretary of labor for mine safety and health, said in a news release. "It will lower the risk that they will suffer material impairment of health or functional capacity over their working lives." (Read more)

You can see the list of public hearings below:
  • Dec. 7, 2010 -- National Mine Health and Safety Academy -- Beaver, W.Va.
  • Dec. 9, 2010 -- The George Washington Hotel -- Washington, Pa.
  • Jan. 11, 2011 -- Marriott Evansville Airport -- Evansville, Ind.

  • Jan. 13, 2011 -- Sheraton Birmingham -- Birmingham, Ala.

  • Jan. 25, 2011 -- Marriott Salt Lake City -- Salt Lake City, Utah

  • Jan. 27, 2011 -- Mine Safety and Health Administration -- Arlington, Va.

Cause of recently discovered abnormalities in Alaskan birds is unknown

Researchers with the U.S. Geological Survey have discovered a population of birds in Alaska with potentially significant beak abnormalities. Scott Streater of Environment and Energy Daily reports on two studies of wild birds that conclude the deformed beaks are showing up in at least 10 times the number of birds as in an unaffected bird population. The deformity impairs the ability of the bird to eat, hunt, tend their feathers and can make them dependent on household birdfeeders.

Researchers have been unable to identify the source of the problem. Suspected causes include toxic contaminants, genetic mutations, parasitic infections and even changes in diet. Steve Zack, a scientist with the Wildlife Conservation Society, told Streater, "We have no idea what it is, but it's occurring at such a rate it's affecting a significant number of the populations that are being investigated. It's clearly something worth sounding the alarm on." Matt Kirchhoff, director of bird conservation at Audubon Alaska in Anchorage, said, "it's clear it's something in the environment." He added: "The way it's spreading suggests that there are hot spots, that it's not genetic but triggered by something in the environment. So not knowing the cause is a big concern." (Read more, subscription required)

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Publisher John M. McClelland is remembered for devotion to his home state

Publisher John M. McClelland Jr. (Photo, left, in 1975), owner of a small regional newspaper chain, died Oct. 30, at the age of 95. writer Knute Berger wrote a tribute to the long-time publisher of The Daily News, in Longview, Wash. Berger said of his one-time boss, "John McClelland loved Washington, loved quality and reporting, loved publishing, and he had the cash and other resources to make it happen." He compares his experience working on Washington magazine, which was launched by McClelland about the area of the county that he loved, to the media landscape now: "How many publishers today, who are mostly numbers or sales guys, are passionate about historic preservation?  ... McClelland would always look at some grand dining room and imagine his office there. ...  He had a foot in both the future and the past. He was a man who loved the details of history (he oversaw the publication of an important book on local place names), yet he also drove his Trans Am into the future of the high-tech suburbs. He was a man of dignity and tradition who took big risks. He loved old books and maps, but in his prime, was always ready to try something new."

At one time, McClelland wanted his dailies to compete with the two large Seattle newspapers, The Seattle Times and Seattle Post-Intelligencer, but he eventually sold his chain of newspapers, as well as Washington magazine. "We, the staff, felt the loss keenly because we knew no owner would be as passionate about the content as John McClelland," writes Berger. (Read more)

Western Ky. zoning board approves permit for Muslim worship center

In September, we reported that an open records request from the Courier-Journal showed a Mayfield, Ky., zoning board had been pressured into rejecting a permit to open a mosque. On Tuesday, the Mayfield Board of Zoning Adjustments unanimously approved a conditional use permit for the downtown building to be used as a place of worship, Shelley Byrne of The Paducah Sun reports. At the hearing, Heather Weaver, staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union, explained that federal statutes protect buildings that are used for religious purposes, adding that federal statutes superseded any city ordinances.

"Board member Don Costello made the motion to approve the permit, saying the federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000 seemed to require it and noting that a city ordinance did not require downtown businesses to have a specific number of parking spaces available," Byrne writes. No one spoke at the Tuesday hearing against using the building for prayers. The city had expressed concerns about parking at the building, but Weaver noted the group had met in the building for awhile before learning they needed a permit. (Read more, subscription required)

EPA issues emissions rules for oil and gas industry

On Tuesday, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency issued its final rules requiring oil and gas facilities and some electronic manufacturing plants to monitor greenhouse gas emissions. "The new regulations will add those industries to EPA's Greenhouse Gas Reporting Program, which kicked off at the beginning of this year," Gabriel Nelson of Greenwire reports for The New York Times. "Companies are not required to achieve any emissions reductions through the program, but they must produce annual emissions reports that are intended to inform the public and guide policymakers in the quest to address global warming."

"Industry groups such as the American Petroleum Institute have criticized the new rules, saying EPA has underestimated the cost of compliance," Nelson writes. "Because many oil and gas producers rely on smaller facilities in remote areas, the industry will have a harder time complying than other sectors, some of the nation's largest energy companies argued during meetings with White House economists this fall." The oil and gas industry was the last high-profile sector not addressed when EPA issues reporting requirements last year. Petroleum facilities are estimated to contribute about 2 to 3 percent of the nation's greenhouse gases.

"For far too long the public has been kept in the dark about the large volumes of pollution released from facilities in the oil and gas sector," said Emma Cheuse, an attorney at Earthjustice. "EPA's action will strengthen public accountability for this major source of global warming pollution." EPA estimated the cost to the industry would be $62 million for the first year and $19 million for following years or about $22,000 per facility next year. Industry officials said some companies would need to spend between $100,000 and $850,000 on data management software. (Read more)

Halliburton and Cabot Oil & Gas feel effects of hydraulic fracturing

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency subpoenaed Halliburton for information about its hydraulic fracturing formula after the company failed to comply with EPA's prior request for information. "In September, the EPA had asked nine companies that practice hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, to reveal the mix of chemicals they use in the practice which is opposed by environmental groups worried about its effect on drinking water," Timothy Gardner of Reuters reports. "All but Halliburton provided the necessary information, the EPA said." EPA plans to use the data in its comprehensive fracking study.

"EPA is slated to release preliminary results of the study, commissioned by Congress, by the end of 2012," Gardner writes. Halliburton said it is working with EPA to supply the information and had already handed over at least 5,000 pages of documents as of last week. A company spokesperson said Halliburton "was meeting with the EPA 'in order to help narrow the focus of their unreasonable demands' that could require them to prepare about 50,000 spreadsheets," Gardner writes. (Read more) In October, Halliburton announced it planned to make the list of chemicals it used in fracking available on a public website on Nov. 15, Casey Wooten of the Houston Business Journal reported.

Cabot Oil & Gas Co. has been assessed a $12 million fee to provide municipal water service to 18 rural residents whose water wells were contaminated by the company's drilling activities in Marcellus Shale, reports Environment and Energy Daily. The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection has evidence linking the company drilling to the contamination and has proposed connecting the residents to the water main from the nearest town. Cabot would be required to pay the $12 million cost, which breaks down to more than $650,000 per resident. (Read more, subscription required)

Andrew Maykuth of the Philadelphia Inquirer also reported on the Cabot Oil & Gas decision, explaining the political circumstances surrounding the decision. Pennsylvania DEP Secretary John Hanger and Cabot have "been locked in an increasingly hostile public battle over responsibility for the contamination of the water wells in Dimock Township, which has become an icon for anti-drilling activists," Maykuth writes.

"Cabot may not be concerned about its reputation, but there's been a huge damage to Pennsylvania's reputation throughout the world," Hanger told Maykuth. Cabot spokesman George Stark countered the company maintains its drilling did not contaminate the Dimock wells, but the company was willing to pay for less expensive remedies including individual well-water treatment systems. Hanger said DEP had assembled an "overwhelming case" implicating Cabot in the contamination. "There is no ideal solution," he said. "The only ideal situation would have been had the contamination not occurred in the first place." (Read more)

Deer-automobile collisions expected to peak in November

Drivers around the country should be especially cautious in the coming weeks as it's peak season for deer-automobile collisions. "Costly auto-deer collisions make a special jump during the mating season, usually October through December, and peak each November," Erik Eckholm of The New York Times reports. Billy Higginbotham, a wildlife specialist at Texas A & M University, explained, "The bucks throw caution to the wind as they chase does during the breeding season. If this happens to carry them across a roadway, they don’t seem to care."

State Farm Insurance estimates that deer collisions over the past two years reached 2.3 million, up 21 percent compared with five years ago, and still more encounters go unreported, Eckholm writes. Terry A. Messmer of Utah State University estimates the true number of annual deer-automobile collisions may be as high as two million. "These crashes are usually most catastrophic for the animals, but they also account for billions of dollars in car repair and medical costs and hundreds of human deaths annually," Eckholm writes.

The collision risk is greatest in West Virginia where a drivers' odds of hitting a deer over the course of a year are one in 42. State Farm noted in a report last month that Iowa is second, with a 1-in-67 chance, and Michigan is third, at 1 in 70. A driver in Hawaii, on the other hand, has only a 1-in-13,011 chance of hitting a deer — "roughly equivalent to the odds of finding a pearl in an oyster shell," Eckholm writes. Feral hogs also run up the risk of collisions during the fall in states like Texas, Florida and California. (Read more)

Tuesday, November 09, 2010

Rural Ky. paper's use of open records and shoe leather helps lead to indictment of sheriff

A Kentucky sheriff has been indicted by a special grand jury appointed in part because a local newspaper kept reporting on problems in the sheriff's office. Among the problems the Corbin Times-Tribune found were irregularities in how Whitley County sheriff Lawrence Hodge, right, accounted for guns his officers had seized, problems with Hodge’s alleged payments to informants, the failure to present cases against anyone arrested for felony drug violations, and officers' failure to appear in court. In one case, charges were dismissed against a Corbin man arrested for operating a methamphetamine lab near a school after sheriff’s deputies failed three times to appear before the grand jury, the paper reported.

The 6,000-circulation daily also reported that Hodge’s department failed to send seized drugs to the state crime laboratory for examination. It uncovered the information by requesting records from the lab, finding that the department had submitted drugs for testing only once during 2009, though the sheriff said he had been making arrests throughout the year. The paper also requested documents related to the seizure of 18 weapons. Hodge initially told the paper that agents from the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives had seized the weapons instead of his department. Later, Hodge reported that his office had been burglarized. The paper's review of the serial numbers indicated as many as 16 of the missing guns were among those Hodge had reported stolen.

The Times-Tribune's editor at the time, Samantha Swindler, right, told The Rural Blog: "It was a lot of work and, honestly, sometimes it was a little scary. But it is by far the most important work I've done in my career. I know resources in a newsroom can be scarce, but investigative work is essential in small towns, where the good ol' boy system still thrives. I'd just encourage editors to push their reporters to go after these types of leads. It's important. And I'm not taking about important for circulation or ad sales. It's important for society. God help me if I see a wrong in my community and think I don't have the time to right it. If I get to that point, it's time to quit the business." Swindler is now general manager of the Tillamook Headlight-Herald, on the Oregon coast west of Portland. The Times-Tribune is owned by Community Newspaper Holdings Inc.; the chain's vice president for news, Bill Ketter, told The Rural Blog that the work "illustrates what a small, rural paper can do when it holds public officials accountable and doesn't get scared off by the big, powerful sheriff."

Hodge was indicted Monday on 18 charges of abuse of public trust and three counts of tampering with physical evidence — all felonies, the paper reports. The grand jury said Hodge began taking money the first year he was in office. The thefts totaled about $350,000, Commonwealth's Attorney Allen Trimble said. Trimble told The Rural Blog that the paper's "very persistent" reporting "was a very significant influence on me." Without it, he said, Hodge probably would have been indicted anyway, but not before his term ends in January; he lost the primary election.

EPA sued over 15% ethanol-in-gasoline rule

A coalition of farm, food and petroleum industry groups has sued the Obama administration in an attempt to block its approval of higher levels of ethanol in gasoline, reports Allison Winter, of Environment & Energy Daily. The Environmental Protection Agency issued a waiver that allows E15 fuel only in cars and light trucks manufactured in model year 2007 or later. The lawsuit claims EPA does not have the authority to issue the waiver for selected vehicles. The groups argue that the waiver should not be issued until the fuel is safe for all engines -- not just newer vehicles. The suit also claims the EPA did not have enough information to make a decision and did not take enough public comment. (Read more, subscription required)

PNC Bank to stop lending to mountaintop removal mining companies

The top financier of mountaintop removal coal mining announced Monday it would stop lending for projects that use the controversial mining technique. PNC Bank, which becomes the "the latest of a group of major commercial lenders that have backed away from underwriting mountaintop removal projects after pressure from environmental activists," Dylan Lovan of The Associated Press reports. Following recent announcements from other banks that they would no longer finance mountaintop removal, PNC had ascended to the top financing spot according to the Rainforest Action Network, a California-based environmental group.

PNC said it will not fund individual projects or provide credit to coal producers whose primary extraction method is mountaintop removal, which the bank said is "the subject of increasing regulatory and legislative scrutiny." In June, a group of 50 environmental activists protested the bank's ties to mountaintop removal outside PNC's downtown Lexington, Ky., branch. "We're definitely seeing this as a victory and looking at who's next," Martin Mudd, a member of the group Kentucky Mountain Justice which helped organize that protest, told Lovan.

PNC declined to say whether activists' protests prompted the change, Lovan writes. The policy change was part of a corporate responsibility document that was updated late last month. One Kentucky coal industry official acknowledged the announcement was a victory for environmentalists, but said it wouldn't have a large impact. "I think (activists) are successful in this instance, but I do not think it will reduce the amount of mountaintop mining that occurs in Kentucky," Bill Bissett, president of the Kentucky Coal Association, told AP. (Read more)

Report finds shortcomings in monitoring stimulus funding for broadband

A report released Monday by the Department of Commerce's Office of the Inspector General calls for more oversight of federal stimulus package broadband funding. The report concluded: "The National Telecommunications and Information Administration, the agency that has been managing the program, isn’t doing enough to monitor how grantees are spending the stimulus money," Jennifer Martinez of Politico reports. The Inspector General found problems with the program's internal processes, including a recommendation that "NTIA staff needs more training in using the technology systems developed by outside contractor Booz Allen Hamilton to monitor the program’s winners," Martinez writes.

"This transfer of IT knowledge is of particular concern because NTIA is a relatively small-staffed agency charged with the execution of a major program, and it has relied heavily on the expertise and capabilities of (Booz Allen Hamilton) in virtually every aspect" of the program, the report said. Congress did not allocate enough money to manage the program after Dec. 3, but the report argued that NTIA had other strategies to ensure the program's effectiveness. The report also recommended that NTIA complete "tasks more quickly and clearly [outline] responsibilities for other agencies that support NTIA’s grants program," Martinez writes.

"Despite the potential lack of funding, NTIA’s post-award monitoring and oversight practices need to be strengthened in several ways," the report said. "Some agreements with other Commerce agencies are unclear and have not been carefully managed" and "some aspects of award monitoring are not being completed promptly or efficiently." NTIA is waiting for Congress to authorize an additional $24 million so it can monitor its grantees. (Read more)

In spite of election claims, Rep. and Dem. governors will work to implement health care reform

As more Republican governors took control of state governments in last week's election, more states are likely to take a limited, free-market approach to implementing health care reform. "Although the law is a federal statute, it tasks states with administering many of its most important provisions and grants them considerable leeway," N. C. Aizenman of The Washington Post reports. "It is up to states to run markets, known as 'exchanges,' through which individuals and small businesses will be able to buy health insurance plans, often with federal subsidies, beginning in 2014."

Many newly elected Republican governors made disapproval of the Obama administration's health care reform law a central point of their campaigns. States can't prevent the laws' implementation as the federal government is permitted to step in to run an exchange if the state hasn't done so by 2014. Still, the law gives states a fair amount of discretion, leading analysts to predict "Democratic governors and legislatures are likely to emphasize vigorous regulation and government oversight, while Republican state leaders are likely to put greater stock in privatization and other free-market approaches," Aizenman writes.

Republicans gained at least eight gubernatorial seats last week and now control both branches of government in at least 20 states. While many governors have openly campaigned against the law, several analysts predict they will still work behind the scenes with the Obama administration in implementing the law. "I have yet to meet a governor who has said, 'I'm going to intentionally do a bad job at this to make another level of government look bad,'" Alan Weil, executive director of the nonpartisan National Academy for State Health Policy, said. "They're accountable to the people, and the voters are too smart to let someone get away with that." (Read more)

Support for 'fracking' varies from south to northeast

Acceptance of hydraulic fracturing has been anything but uniform, but southern communities appear to be quicker to approve the natural gas drilling technique than their northeastern counterparts. "In the sparsely populated pastures of De Soto Parish in Louisiana, the ability to extract gas from shale — which can involve a process known as fracking — has been welcomed as an economic windfall," Clifford Krauss and Tom Zeller Jr. of The New York Times report. "But 1,400 miles to the north, in Susquehanna County in Pennsylvania, shale gas development has divided neighbors, spurred lawsuits and sown deep mistrust."

"Support for drilling has proved fairly easy in many states, including Louisiana, Texas and Arkansas," Krauss and Zeller write. "But it has met with major resistance in the Northeast." Lawsuits are driving up natural gas drilling production costs in Pennsylvania, where the governor recently ordered a moratorium on new drilling permits in state forests. "They have been drilling oil and gas wells in the South for the last 100 years," Jerry Dugas, a well superintendent for Cabot Oil and Gas in Pennsylvania, told the reporters. "Everyone there is accustomed to seeing all of this stuff and they understand what’s going on, so it’s nothing new. That’s the environment I grew up in."

"Once I came up here [to Pennsylvania]," he added, "it became real clear to me real quick that this is a whole other animal." Southern communities affected by the shale gas boom are more accustomed to the boom-and-bust cycle of the drilling industry, the reporters write. The region hasn't been spared from drilling accidents that have caused controversy in the northeast, but local outcry has been relatively slim. "There was no reaction, really," Charlie Waldon, the mayor of the tiny Stonewall, La., told the reporters. "It’s going to take something major to wake them up." (Read more)

Monday, November 08, 2010

Feds fund ursine underpasses for Georgia bears

The Georgia Department of Transportation is building ursine underpasses along the routes that Georgia's bears traveled before a soon-to-be-widened highway was even envisioned. S. Heather Duncan of the Macon Telegraph reports State Route 96 will bisect the homeland of about 300 black bears in and around the Ocmulgee and Oaky Woods wildlife management areas and the Bond Swamp National Wildlife Refuge, which runs from Interstate 16 to the Ocmulgee River a few miles south of Macon. (Telegraph photo)

The road is expected to become a major east-west trucking corridor between I-16 and I-75, and road officials were concerned. The bears constitute one of three populations in the state. "Road kills will go up," said Bobby Bond, wildlife biologist for the state Department of Natural Resources. "The last thing I want is to hear someone died hitting a 200- to 300-pound bear." Of the $132 million project, $5 million will pay for the 12 wildlife underpasses, reports Duncan. The Federal Highway Administration, which is providing part of the funding, is requiring the underpasses. (Read more)

Price of renewable energy remains barrier to development

While many politicians, environmentalists and consumers continue to express a desire for more renewable energy, more projects are being canceled as governments try to avoid increasing electricity bills. "Deals to buy renewable power have been scuttled or slowed in states including Florida, Idaho and Kentucky as well as Virginia," Matthew L. Wald and Tom Zeller Jr. of The New York Times report. "By the end of the third quarter, year-to-date installations of new wind power dropped 72 percent from 2009 levels, according to the American Wind Energy Association, a trade group."

"They have to look for the ratepayers’ long-term interest," Michael Polsky of renewable energy company Invenergy told the reporters, "not just the bills this year." Invenergy recently had a deal to sell power to a utility in Virginia rejected after regulators concluded, "the ratepayers of Virginia must be protected from costs for renewable energy that are unreasonably high." Renewable energy sources, which already cost more than fossil fuels, have been hurt as the price of coal and natural gas has dropped during the recession.

"The gap in price can pit regulators, who see their job as protecting consumers from unreasonable rates, against renewable energy developers and utility companies, many of which are willing to pay higher prices now to ensure a broader energy portfolio in the future," Wald and Zeller write. In Kentucky, the state public service commission rejected a contract for Kentucky Power to buy electricity from NextEra Energy Resources. The deal was opposed by state Democratic Attorney General Jack Conway, who recently lost his bid for Kentucky's senate seat, and business and industrial electricity users.
"One of the problems in the United States is that we haven’t been willing to confront the tough questions," Paul Gipe, who sits on the steering committee of the Alliance for Renewable Energy, a group advocating energy policy reform, told the reporters. "We have to ask ourselves, 'Do we really want renewables?'" he said. "And if the answer to that is yes, then we’re going to have to pay for them." (Read more)

Link between farm subsidies and obesity called into question

As the debate over the 2012 Farm Bill heats up, the editorial vice president of one agriculture industry trade magazine is getting out in front of one myth about the bill: that farm subsidies cause obesity. "Because grains are subsidized, it's argued, meat is cheap, as are corn-sweetened foods and beverages. Because they're cheap, Americans over-eat them. Because they over-eat them, they're obese," Urban C. Lehner of DTN/The Progressive Farmer writes. Lehner notes while that chain of causation seems logical, a recent study reveals that subsidies "had 'negligible' effects on what Americans pay for food and how many calories they consume."

The study from Justin Alston of the University of California at Davis, Brad Rickard of Cornell University and Abigail Okrent of U.S. Department of Agriculture's Economic Research Service used computer simulations to probe "the effects of eliminating subsidies for 11 different commodities on calorie consumption of 10 categories of food," Lehner writes. Some situations yielded calorie increases while others yielded decreases but the results in both situations were too small to be considered significant. Three simulations suggested eliminating all farm subsidies would actually increase American calorie consumption.

"Why?" Lehner writes. "Because some farm programs that act as subsidies, like our import restrictions on sugar, raise retail food prices. Still, the effect was small -- from 200 to 1,900 extra calories per adult per year." Lehner notes the authors restrict their argument to simulations, but one could use the fact that other countries without subsidies but with obesity problems are further evidence. "As the 2012 farm bill debate intensifies, opponents of subsidies will no doubt advance some respectable arguments," Lehner writes. "But the Choices study makes a strong case that obesity is not one of them." (Read more)

Agriculture groups leave coalition working on sustainability

The move by the agriculture industry to craft standards for "sustainable agriculture" has been left in shambles after  10 members of the 60-member coalition recently resigned. The resigning groups from the Leonardo Academy "included representatives from the National Corn Growers Association, the American Soybean Association, the American Farm Bureau and the United Fresh Produce Association — in other words, all the major production groups," Bill Bishop of the Daily Yonder report. "Nearly 50 other ag groups – from the American Seed Trade Association to Washington State Potato Commission — co-signed the letter of resignation."

The resignation has become "another example of how contentious — and impossible to resolve — agricultural issues have become," Bishop writes. The definition of sustainable agriculture set out in the 1990 Farm Bill was vague and broad but "generally meant agriculture that would protect the environment, sustain farmers and produce food," Bishop writes. The definition is evolving as noted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Economic Research Service, which recently wrote, "As more parties sign on to the sustainable agriculture effort, perceptions about what defines sustainability in agriculture have multiplied."

"The Leonardo Academy is a nonprofit group that helps develop standards for sustainability," Bishop writes. "Leonardo creates large committees with people from all sides of an issue. The committee then develops the standard." The Academy, which developed the LEED system for rating energy savings, has been working on sustainable agriculture standards since 2007. The standards wouldn't carry the weight of government rules but could be used by states and the federal government. The Academy has asked for volunteers to take the place of the 10 resigning members, but critics question whether meaningful standards can be developed without the input of the largest agriculture groups. (Read more)

U.S. attorney denies reports of bribery investigation following Massey mine explosion

In April, we excerpted a National Public Radio report that the Mine Safety and Health Administration and Massey Energy were the targets of a federal investigation regarding allegations of bribery of MSHA officials. Now that report is being refuted as R. Booth Goodwin II, the U.S. Attorney for Southern West Virginia, told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in an email, "The United States Attorney's Office for the Southern District of West Virginia knows of no evidence concerning bribery of MSHA inspectors in connection with the Upper Big Branch mine, nor are we conducting an investigation in that regard."

"Goodwin would not comment on any other aspects of the investigation, including whether he has empaneled any grand juries," Daniel Malloy and Dennis B. Roddy report. Goodwin's email was his first on-the-record comment since the beginning of the investigation. "MSHA, as of Oct. 27, had conducted 247 interviews in its investigation, but several top Massey officials have declined to be interviewed and are challenging the agency's subpoenas in court," Malloy and Roddy write. "By conducting the interviews behind closed doors, the company argues, the agency gave up its Congressionally authorized subpoena power." (Read more)