Saturday, January 16, 2016

Don't infer from Obama line that wind power is cheaper; only in a few places, and for new power

In his State of the Union speech this week, President Obama said, “In fields from Iowa to Texas, wind power is now cheaper than dirtier, conventional power.” reports, "That is true in some pockets of the country, but the national average for coal and gas prices is still less" than wind. Coal and gas cost about $65 per megawatt-hour, while solar and onshore wind cost $80/kwh.

Obama's mention of Iowa and Texas was on point. "Wind energy has become increasingly cost competitive compared with fossil fuel-generated energy, and Obama rightly points out that in some areas of states like Iowa and Texas, wind energy is already cheaper than energy produced by coal or natural gas," Robert Farley writes for FactCheck, noting that Texas and Iowa "were among the leading wind-energy producers in 2014."
Ethan Zindler, head of U.S. research at Bloomberg New Energy Finance, told Farley that the main reason for lower prices in the Great Plains states “is that there’s extraordinary wind in these states and developers are finding ways to take greater advantage of this with newer, larger wind turbines.” And if a utility is building new generation, “There’s no question wind is less expensive,” Zindler said.

BNEF says the cost of generating electricity from coal and gas rose in 2015, while the cost of wind and solar power went down, thanks to improved technology and lower financing costs," Farley reports. "If the price trends continue, Bloomberg estimates that wind power will be cheaper than energy produced by fossil fuels, even without government subsidies, in the next 10 years."

Obama also "stretched the facts . . . on jobs, deficits, health care, military spending and carbon emissions," FactCheck reports.

FactCheck, a non-profit founded in 2003, is the oldest of the journalistic fact-checking sites and the one with the most detailed reports. Based in the Annenberg School of Communication at the University of Pennsylvania, its reports can be published free of charge, with appropriate attribution.

Friday, January 15, 2016

Rural residents typically more financially responsible than urban ones, says credit report

Rural residents are generally more financially responsible than urban ones, says a study by that ranks all 50 states and Washington, D.C. The most financially responsible state is Montana, while the least financially responsible is Maryland. Following Montana are South Dakota, North Dakota, Maine, Vermont, Nebraska and Iowa. Following Maryland as the least financially responsible are: Washington, D.C. (No. 50), Arkansas (49), Virginia (48), Texas (47) and Nevada (46).

Researchers say the most financially responsible states shared a common trait of having a mostly rural demographic profile that lacks major cities, Fred Williams reports for Creditcards. John Rogers, chief business development officer at the Montana Office of Economic Development, told Williams, "We do have a population that is pretty conservative about their personal finances. I think it's a cultural thing . . . also probably a more rural thing."

Williams writes, "To measure money management ability, compared consumers' average credit scores, from the credit bureau Experian, to their median household income, per the U.S. Census. We then ranked the states by differences between the two: The top states had credit scores much higher than their income. In the middle, credit scores about match income rank. Poor performers had high income but relatively low credit scores. Differences in state job markets and the age of their population influenced their scores but didn't explain all the variations in money management ability." (To see the interactive map, click here)

Agriculture Secretary to lead effort to battle rural struggles with heroin, suicide, finances, health

President Obama has appointed Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack to lead an effort to battle struggles in rural areas with increased heroin use, suicide rates, financial stress, and decreased physical and mental health, Juliet Eilperin reports for The Washington Post. Heroin and opiate use—which has moved from urban areas to rural ones—kills about 30,000 people a year, and heroin-related deaths increased 28 percent from 2013 to 2014.

Vilsack will unveil the new initiative during a town hall discussion today at Ohio State University, "where he will be discussing the expansion of the administration’s rural-development efforts in 11 counties experiencing persistent poverty in the part of Appalachia that extends into southern Ohio,"  Eilperin writes. "In an interview Thursday, Vilsack said that while any long-term solution to the problem will have to be pursued by the next president, the current administration could help develop a comprehensive strategy and elevate the issue in the American consciousness."

Republican and Democratic lawmakers have shown a willingness to expand federal support to tackle heroin and opiate use, Eilperin writes. "The budget agreement struck last month provided the administration with more than $400 million to address the epidemic, an increase of more than $100 million from the previous year. It also cut language barring the use of federal funds for needle-exchange programs, a move that many public health advocates had sought." (Read more)

President Obama issues temporary ban on new federal coal leases

The Obama administration today "ordered a moratorium on new leases for coal mined from federal lands as part of a sweeping review on the government’s management of vast amounts of taxpayer-owned coal throughout the West," Joby Warrick reports for The Washington Post. Interior Secretary Sally Jewell said "it was time for a re-examination of the decades-old coal-leasing program, from health and environmental impacts to whether U.S. citizens are getting a fair return for the hundreds of millions of tons of government-owned coal that is mined and sold each year." The move will have no immediate effect on production or jobs, Jewell said.

"Hundreds of millions of tons of federally owned coal are mined by private companies each year under laws requiring the federal government to seek maximum benefit for resources on public lands," Warrick writes. "Environmental groups and some independent analysts have long argued that taxpayers are under-compensated for coal extracted from vast mines on federally owned land across the West and that prices do not reflect societal costs from pollution from coal-burning."

Currently, mining companies "pay a 12.5 percent royalty rate for coal taken from surface mines, compared to an 18.75 percent royalty for oil and gas from offshore drilling," Warrick writes. "Coal companies say the actual rates paid to the government are much higher because of bonuses and other fees paid through lease agreements. Most of the coal mined from federal lands is used in U.S. electricity generation, though some is sold overseas. Government-owned coal harvested in the Powder River basin–the country’s biggest coal-producing region, straddling Wyoming and Montana–accounts for about 10 percent of all U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, according to a study last year by the Center for American Progress and the Wilderness Society."

Republicans move to force Obama to veto resolution blocking Waters of the U.S. rules

Congressional Republicans want to force President Obama to veto a measure to eliminate the administration's Waters of the U.S. (WOTUS) rules, Philip Brasher reports for Agri-Pulse. Despite lacking a two-thirds vote to approve the resolution in either chamber in previous votes, "the House on Wednesday gave final congressional approval to a disapproval resolution that would eliminate the rules."

House Speaker Paul Ryan wrote in the Omaha World-Herald that "the veto would force Obama 'to be up front with the American people about his administration's power grabs and will set the stage for correcting these abuses in 2017,'" Brasher writes. "House Agriculture Chairman Mike Conaway, (R-Texas) argued during the floor debate that 'farmers and ranchers deserve a government that will review and consider their thoughts, not a government that refuses to engage stakeholders and hands down orders from on high.'”

Some Democrats call the move a waste of time, Brasher writes. Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass) told him, “We don't pass legislation. Instead we pass sound bites, and that's what we're doing here. This chamber has become an echo chamber, if you will, for the Republican Congressional Campaign Committee and its priorities."

"Republicans are running out of legislative options to stop the rule," Brasher writes. "Republicans wanted to add language to the fiscal 2016 omnibus spending bill that would have blocked enforcement of the rule should the court stays be lifted, but the White House refused to allow the provision. The resolution was drafted under the Congressional Review Act, which allows Congress to reject major new regulations." (Read more)

Where do baby carrots come from? Many consumers clueless about food supplies

For those people who see baby carrots in the store and imagine a farmer planting rows of tiny orange sticks that turn into tiny orange carrots, think again. Despite making up 70 percent of all carrot sales, baby carrots are "milled, sculpted from the rough, soiled, mangled things we call carrots, and they serve as an example, though perhaps not a terribly grave one, of how disconnected we have all become from the production of our food," Roberto Ferdman reports for The Washington Post.

David Just, a professor of behavioral economics at Cornell University who studies consumer food choices, told Ferdman, "The majority of consumers have no clue what they’re eating or how it’s produced. There are so many people who honestly believe there are baby carrot farmers out there who grow these baby carrots that pop out of the ground and are perfectly convenient and smooth." (Post graphic)
Baby carrots were invented by Mike Yurosek, a carrot farmer from California, Ferdman writes. "In the early 1980s, the carrot business was stagnant and wasteful. Growing seasons were long, and more than half of what farmers grew was ugly and unfit for grocery shelves. But in 1986, Yurosek, itching for a way to make use of all the misshapen carrots, tried something new. Instead of tossing them out, he carved them into something more palatable."

"At first, Yurosek used a potato peeler, which didn't quite work because the process was too laborious," Ferdman writes. "But then he bought an industrial green-bean cutter. The machine cut the carrots into uniform 2-inch pieces, the standard baby carrot size that persists today. When Mike Yurosek & Sons, Yurosek's now-defunct California company, delivered his next batch to Vons, a local grocery chain, he included a bag of the new creation. He suspected he was on to something but hardly anticipated such an enthusiastic response."

The rest, as they say, its history, with carrot sales in 1987 jumping by almost 30 percent, Ferdman writes. "By 1997, the average American was eating roughly 14 pounds of carrots per year, 117 percent more than a decade earlier. The baby carrot doubled carrot consumption." (Read more)

Thursday, January 14, 2016

State-level map: Only 58% of U.S. workers have access to employer-based retirement plans

More than 30 million workers do not have access to employer-based retirement plans, according to a state level map by The Pew Charitable Trusts. "Workers in the United States accumulate the vast majority of their retirement savings through employer-based plans, but large gaps in coverage exist." Analysis focused on full-time private sector wage and salary workers ages 18 to 64.

Analysis found that 58 percent of workers had access to retirement plans, with 49 percent participating. The highest access rate is in Wisconsin, at 70 percent. Rates are also high in Minnesota (69 percent); Iowa and North Dakota (68); and South Dakota, Washington and Maine (67). The lowest percents are in Florida (46), New Mexico (49), Texas (50) and Nevada and California (51). Florida also has the lowest participation rate, at 38 percent, while Wisconsin and Minnesota lead with a participation rate of 61 percent.

Employees in larger companies are more likely to have access to plans, with 74 percent of companies with 500 or more companies offering plans and only 22 percent of companies with less than 10 employees having plans. Only 38 percent of Hispanics participate in plans, compared to 63 percent of white and non-Hispanic. (Read more)

Rural Wisconsin Initiative would expand broadband, improve education and healthcare

Republican lawmakers on Wednesday announced the Rural Wisconsin Initiative, "a series of seven bills lawmakers say are designed to help smaller towns and villages throughout the state grow in the future," Amanda Tyler reports for WEAU in Eau Claire. Bills "would expand broadband internet access; attract teachers to small schools; and provide grants for science, technology, engineering and math programs for local schools."

One of the keys is to provide equal opportunities for students and teachers in rural areas, Tyler writes. Augusta School District administrator Ryan Nelson told Tyler, “Just because we are rural doesn't mean that we provide any less of a quality education for our kids. Any type of legislation that might continue to support the efforts of rural school districts is always a positive move."

Another initiative is to improve healthcare to small towns "by increasing funding for programs that encourage physicians to take residencies in rural hospitals," Tyler writes. Dr. Joan Hamlin, program director at Eau Claire Family Medicine, said the proposal is a step in the right direction but isn't enough to meet the needs of rural areas. She said funds "would need to be higher than the $250,000 being proposed by lawmakers." If all the measures pass, they are expected to cost between $13 to $15 million.

Rural Illinois sign warns drivers of 'suicidal deer'

Drivers in rural Button Township in Ford County, Illinois, are being warned to look out for suicidal deer, Will Brumleve reports for the Ford County Record. Last year the county of about 14,000 residents had 33 reported vehicle-deer collisions. To warn drivers of the dangers of deer in roads, the Ford County Highway Department purchased four signs for $42 each that read, "Suicidal Deer." So far only one sign has been installed because of fear that the current one might be stolen or damaged, said Button Township Highway Commissioner Ron Hilligoss. (Brumleve photo)

Hilligoss said he got the idea to purchase the signs after his nephew sent him a picture of a similar sign he saw in Colorado, Brumleve writes. Hilligoss told Brumleve, “I thought it was really a good thing because it gets your attention. A lot of people see it. If you ask anybody where a deer crossing sign is, they couldn’t tell you, but they know where that one is at. It’s just nice to see something that constantly reminds you that there are deer running out there.” So far in 2016 the county has had one vehicle-deer collision.

Politico ranks New Hampshire nation's strongest state, Louisiana weakest; 8 of 10 weakest in South

New Hampshire is the strongest state, and 8 of the 10 weakest states are in the South, led by Louisiana as the nation's weakest state, according to Politico Magazine's rankings of states, Manuela Tobias reports for Politico. States were ranked based on: annual per capital income; unemployment; percent below poverty level; home ownership rate; high school graduation; life expectancy at birth; infant deaths per 1,000 births; obesity; violent crime rate; employment in computer, science and engineering; math and reading scores; Well-Being score; GINI index; and H.L. Mencken's 1931 rankings.

"To pull the list together, we consulted 14 existing rankings from sources like the U.S. Census Bureau, the Centers for Disease Control and the FBI and then averaged each state’s different rankings," Tobias writes. "The resulting list, inspired by American Mercury editors H.L. Mencken and Charles Angoff’s 1931 series 'The Worst American State,' doesn’t promise scientific infallibility. But it’s based on the simple idea that education, health and wealth generally make us better off, while crime, unemployment and death do not."

Following New Hampshire at the top of the list was Minnesota, Vermont, Utah, Colorado, Massachusetts, Wyoming, Iowa, Connecticut and Hawaii. Louisiana was ranked 51st. Also at the bottom was Mississippi (50th), Alabama (49), Arkansas (48), West Virginia (47), Tennessee (46), Oklahoma (45), Kentucky (44), Nevada (43), Georgia (42), New Mexico (41) and South Carolina (40).

Minnesota and New Hampshire tied for the top spot last year, while Mississippi was ranked last. In 2014, New Hampshire was the strongest and Mississippi the weakest.

Backer says ethanol's anti-Cruz campaign could backfire; newspaper poll shows lead dwindling

Attacks by ethanol industry lobbyists against Republican presidential candidate Ted Cruz could come back to haunt the industry if Cruz wins the Iowa caucuses, said Iowa Rep. Steve King, Philip Brasher reports for Agri-Pulse. King, a Cruz supporter, told Brasher, “If they fall short, then ethanol takes a huge hit politically. We'll never see another candidate come to Iowa believing that ethanol is an important component if you're going to be a candidate for president.”

A poll released Wednesday by The Des Moines Register suggests that attacks against Cruz are working, with 25 percent of likely voters supporting Cruz, down from 31 percent one month ago, Brasher writes. Donald Trump is favored by 21 percent of voters and Marco Rubio 12 percent. Three other polls have Trump leading. The caucuses will be on Feb. 1.

"The ethanol industry has long relied on the Iowa caucuses to procure pledges of support for biofuels from presidential candidates," Brasher writes. "Cruz is ideologically opposed to government mandates and subsidies and is sponsoring legislation that would phase out the Renewable Fuel Standard. He and King have emphasized, however, that he is separately proposing to take regulatory actions that could encourage the use of ethanol blends over 10 percent. Cruz also has pledged that he would investigate allegations that the oil industry is illegally discouraging service stations from selling higher ethanol blends."

America's Renewable Future "issued a statement suggesting Cruz had shifted under pressure from farmers and now supported maintaining the RFS through 2022," Brasher writes. "The group noted that he had once called for repealing the RFS. Cruz and aides insist that he has been consistent on the issue since his phaseout plan would extend the RFS through 2022, although at reduced levels. Cruz accused the ethanol industry of trying to “to snooker the people of Iowa and convince the people of Iowa that a government mandate is the only way for ethanol to survive.” (Read more)

State law does not prohibit Ohio residents from owning bobcats, appeals court rules

Ohio residents can now own bobcats, Eric Freedman reports for the Great Lakes Echo, a project of the journalism department at Michigan State University. The state Court of Appeals ruled "that private ownership of a bobcat isn’t banned because the Ohio legislature didn’t explicitly include it in a 2012 law regulating possession of dangerous wild animals." Adam Federer had sued after the Ohio Department of Natural Resources (DNR) "refused to renew his annual license because scientists and the state Agriculture Department classify the bobcat is a lynx and thus a 'dangerous wild animal.'" (DNR photo)

Federer, who has owned the bobcat since 2003, said he had "no problems getting an annual license from the DNR until 2014, when the agency denied his application based on the 2012 law," Freedman writes. "That law requires a permit from the state Agriculture Department to get a DNR license. The legislative roster of taboo animals lists 'lynxes, including Canadian lynxes, Eurasian lynxes and Iberian lynxes' but doesn’t mention bobcats, Among the other animals banned for private ownership and sale are bears, lions, jaguars, Cape buffaloes, elephants, crocodiles, rhinoceroses, leopards, Komodo dragons, tigers and northern night monkeys. The law makes exceptions, including for accredited zoos, aquariums and wildlife shelters, research facilities, licensed circuses and veterinarians temporarily caring for the animals."

There are between 725,000 to 1,020,000 bobcats in the wild, states Defenders of Wildlife. Males typically weigh between 16 to 28 pounds and females 10 to 18 pounds. The animals, which live 12 to 13 years, are typically 17 to 23 inches tall and 25 to 41 inches in length. Bobcats mainly hunt rabbits and hares but are also known to eat rodents, birds, bats, adult deer and lamb, poultry and young pigs.

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Georgia Farm Bureau president is elected president of American Farm Bureau Federation

Vincent "Zippy" Duvall
Vincent "Zippy" Duvall has been elected president of the American Farm Bureau Federation, "succeeding Bob Stallman who decided not to run for re-election after 16 years at the helm of the nation's largest farm organization," Spencer Chase reports for Agri-Pulse. "Duvall is a poultry, cattle and hay producer from Greene County, Georgia, who served as president of the Georgia Farm Bureau for nine years." Scott VanderWal was elected AFBF vice president.

Duvall told AFBF members after being elected: "We are American farmers and ranchers: the people that lead and feed and fuel the world. I know you're proud of it, but it is a responsibility that comes to my shoulders that I want to carry each and every day realizing the burdens that you're carrying on your shoulders.”

In October Duvall spoke with Brad Haire of Southeast Farm Press about why he wanted to be president: “What I plan to do and what we’ve already been doing is getting out there and really listening to our grassroots and state Farm Bureaus and seeing what they want their organization to focus on and how they want to move forward. Organizationally, we need to search ourselves and look for common goals that we all want to reach. And we’re seeking out and building relationships with key policymakers. . . . Our job is to speak for farmers when they can’t be at the tables where decisions are made that impact their lives and business.”

“The future of American agriculture is bright all over this country. We just have to find the areas of policymaking that are going to encourage growth," Duvall said. "The American Farm Bureau Federation president is the face of the voice of American farmers. He is going to be out and around not just the country but the world talking about American agriculture and how hard we are working, not only to protect our natural resources, but to produce the amount of food we need to feed additional population but also to talk about the quality of food we provide for them . . . and telling the stories of farmers and ranchers."

Virginia making it easier for coal miners to transition to other types of mining in the state

In a move to make it easier for Virginia coal miners to find work in other types of mining, miners certified to work at surface coal mines will now be certified to work in the mineral mining industry, reports The Associated Press. Previously, the state Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy required additional training for workers hoping to transition from surface mining to other types of mining. Last year Virginia issued 1,565 general mineral miner certifications and 614 surface certifications for coal miners. The state has 444 permitted mineral mines.

During the past 10 years the state has lost 40 percent of its coal jobs, according to Virginia Energy Patterns and Trends. "Virginia's peak production year was 1990, when the state's mines produced over 46.5 million tons. By 2004, Virginia's production had declined to 31 million tons. In 2004, surface mines produced 33 percent of the coal mined in Virginia." Most of the state's coal mining takes place in Buchanan, Dickenson and Wise counties in the southwestern part of the state.

California county paying thousands of dollars each year to clean up large trash items from rural roads

A familiar story is rearing its ugly head in Northern California, where rural roads in Sonoma County—about an hour north of San Fransciso—have become dumping grounds for people looking to discard large trash items like mattresses, refrigerators, furniture and even a boat, Julie Johnson reports for The Press Democrat. "Most Fridays, a Sonoma County probation crew drives around collecting large items discarded illegally along the county’s picturesque rural roads." Janine Crocker, a staffer with the Sonoma County roads department, told Johnson, "They’re all over the county. It’s everywhere." (Democrat photo by Christopher Chung: Trash dumped on a road in front of a Sonoma County rural business)

The county pays nearly $11,000 each year to discard items properly at the dump, Johnson writes. "In 2009, the county posted signs and six motion-detector surveillance cameras in the worst spots with a $500,000 grant from the California Integrated Waste Management Board to catch violators. It also started a website, which has since been deactivated, to educate the public about illegal dumping." At the time, the county estimated the total cost of "cleaning up the steady stream of trash being dumped along waterways and roads was $250,000 per year." A current estimate was not available. (Read more)

Pilot program helping rural female veterans suffering from postpartum depression

A pilot program created by the University of Iowa and the Veterans Administration aims to help rural veteran mothers suffering from postpartum depression, Anne Easker reports for Iowa Now. Michael O’Hara, professor in the UI Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences, told Easker, “Women in rural areas often don’t seek out or have access to mental health care. Reaching out in particular to rural veteran women seemed to me like it was just something important to do.”

About 40 women have participated in the pilot program, MomMoodBooster, which consists of six sessions over six weeks "that target managing mood, increasing pleasant activities, managing negative thoughts, increasing positive thoughts and planning for the future," Easker writes. "Phone coaches also call to check in with the women, tracking progress, answering questions and providing encouragement."

Each year about one in eight new mothers—about 300,000 total—suffer from postpartum depression, according to the MomMoodBooster website. The program is open to women who have had a baby in the past year, are feeling down or depressed and have access to high-speed Internet.

Vermont approves power line from Canada to supply renewable electricity to region

In an attempt to make the switch from power plants to renewable energy, Vermont utility regulators have approved a plan to build a 1,000-megawatt transmission line that uses Canadian electricity to feed the regional power grid, Wilson Ring reports for The Associated Press. "TDI New England is still awaiting its final federal permits before it can begin construction and contracts to deliver power, but the system could become the first piece of a system to supply renewable electricity to Massachusetts, Connecticut and Rhode Island." (The proposed TDI New England route through Vermont is in blue.)

"Unlike the Northern Pass project proposed for northern New Hampshire, the $1.2 billion, privately funded TDI project faced no significant opposition in Vermont, something unusual for the state," Ring writes. The main reason is that the project, which would provide power to about one million homes, would be out of sight, with almost 100 miles of cable at the bottom of Lake Champlain and the other 50 miles buried underground.

"To win approval from Vermont regulators, TDI agreed to fund $720.9 million in payments and benefits over the expected 40-year life of the project once the line is carrying electricity," Ring writes. "It includes $263 million for Lake Champlain cleanup projects, almost $109 million for renewable energy programs and $135.7 million in benefits to Vermont electric ratepayers. And those figures don't include construction jobs or jobs once the line is in operation."

Free Farm Foundation Forum Jan. 20-21 to focus on antibiotic use in humans and animals

The next free Farm Foundation Forum, from Jan. 20-21 at the National Press Club in Washington D.C., will focus on antibiotic use in humans and animals. "Panel members will examine issues and actions in animal health, human health, the retail/market sector and the public policy arena, including what those actions mean domestically and globally," Farm Foundation states. Joe Swedberg, chair of Farm Foundation's Antimicrobial Education Project Advisory Committee, will moderate the panel. Panel members are: Terry Coffey, Ph.D., Smithfield Foods; Steve Solomon, M.D., Global Public Health Consulting; Jerome Lyman, McDonald's Corporation, retired; and Kathy Talkington, Pew Charitable Trusts.

Registration is required. To register to attend the event, click here. To register for the free audiocast, which will take place at 9 a.m. Eastern Time on Jan. 20, click here. For those unable to attend the event or participate in the audiocast, the event will be posted in the forum's archives after being broadcast. (Read more)

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

In Oct., only 1/3 of eligible rural residents were on Obamacare in states using federal exchange

Rural residents have shown little interest in signing up for Obamacare in states using the federal health insurance exchange, according to analysis from the Rural Policy Research Institute, based on data through October 2015, just before the current enrollment period opened.

The lowest number was in Iowa—a state that expanded Medicaid—where only 18.3 percent of eligible rural residents had signed up for coverage. Numbers were also low in South Dakota (21.1 percent), Ohio (21.4), Arizona (22.3), Alaska (23.5), North Dakota (24.4), Arkansas (25.8), Oklahoma (26.4) and Louisiana (29.4). The highest percentage was in Maine, 63.2, followed by New Hampshire (53), Michigan (52.9) and Wisconsin (50.3).
Some residents are failing to sign up because of confusion about the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, said Tony Logan, the U.S. Department of Agriculture's state director for Rural Development. Logan "said the state is trying to get health care information into rural areas is by educating people on the ease of access to signing up, as well as improved benefits from the 81 plans available," Craig Shoup reports for The News Messenger in northern Ohio.

The federal tax penalty for not having coverage in 2016 is higher: 2.5 percent of income, or $695, whichever is greater. Obamacare advocates hope that will encourage more enrollment.

Coal production hits 30-year low; Central Appalachian production down 40% in 2015

Coal production in the U.S. reached a 30-year low in 2015, according to a U.S. Energy Information Administration report released Friday, Bobby Magill reports for Climate Central. "Appalachian coal, produced mainly in West Virginia and Kentucky, was hit the hardest in 2015, falling 40 percent below the region’s annual production average between 2010 and 2014."

"Coal production has been trending downward since its peak at nearly 1.2 billion short tons in 2008, declining to 900 million short tons in 2015. Last year’s production declined 10 percent from 2014, according to the EIA," Magill writes. Low natural gas prices and President Obama's Clean Power Plan regulations to reduce carbon emissions are largely blamed for the drop in coal production. (EIA graphic)

House OKs Freedom of Information Act reform bill

The House on Monday passed bipartisan legislation that "would limit exemptions under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) that now allow federal agencies to hold back information," Megan R. Wilson and Cristina Marcos report for The Hill. "The bill would also create a single online portal for people to make FOIA requests and require agencies to publicly post frequently requested records online."

The bill would "reform how agencies can redact some information using Exemption 5, which is often derisively referred to as the 'withhold because you can' statute," Wilson and Marcos write. "In practice, it is supposed to apply to 'interagency or intra-agency communication,' such as draft documents. The legislation, however, requires agencies to disclose any 'records that embody the working law, effective policy or the final decision of the agency.'"

"It also mirrors the Senate legislation in requiring that Exemption 5 cannot be used on any information older than 25 years," Wilson and Marcos write. "The measure would codify nonbinding directions from the Obama administration and the Justice Department on how to fulfill document requests with a 'presumption of openness,' in addition to improving public digital access to records released through FOIA and making oversight of the process more independent . . . Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) on Monday would not say whether the Senate’s version of the legislation would be placed on the calendar."

The Society of Professional Journalists applauded the move. SPJ National President Paul Fletcher said in a statement: "This legislation helps journalists and other citizens better access their government, and today’s vote proves that Congress can work together to make government more transparent and accountable. Congress doesn’t approve FOIA fixes very often, so getting this legislation through the Senate and signed into law would be a big win for transparency and helping the American people obtain the information they are entitled to see.”

While Central Appalachian coal mines shutter, Ky. imports cheaper coal from other regions, states

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, (R-Ky.), an outspoken critic of President Obama's Clean Power Plan rules to require a one-third reduction in carbon dioxide emissions by 2030, has invited fourth general coal miner, Howard Abshire, an Eastern Kentucky resident, as his guest for tonight's State of the Union address. Abshire, who lost his job to a mine closure, is temporarily employed removing mining equipment from closed mines.

McConnell said in a statement: “I am honored that Howard accepted my invitation to attend the President’s final State of the Union Address, and I am glad to welcome him and his wife, Wray Lyn, to the U.S. Capitol. Howard, who was a proud Kentucky coal miner, represents the hard-working lifestyle of many people in Eastern Kentucky. He has spent most of his life working in underground mines to help power our nation; however, the President’s War on Coal has devastated coal country and unfortunately contributed to the loss of thousands of jobs in Kentucky, one of which was Howard’s.” (Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet graphic)
The Clean Power Plan and President Obama shouldn't bare the full brunt of Central Appalachian's coal woes, said Kenneth Troske, Sturgill Professor of Economics at the University of Kentucky,
Curtis Tate reports for McClatchy Newspapers. Troske told him, “Most of what’s going on is being driven by basic economics. Is government regulation a factor? It’s not the primary factor that’s driving it.” For example, Central Appalachian coal last month was selling for $43.50 a ton, compared to $32.60 in Western Kentucky, Illinois and Indiana, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

Numbers like that led Kentucky, the nation's third leading coal producer, to import 39 percent of its coal from other states in 2015, Tate writes. While 90 percent of the state's electricity is powered by coal, "the percentage of Eastern Kentucky coal that fires the state’s power plants has plunged from 32 percent in 1983 to 4 percent in 2015."

Coal in the Eastern Kentucky mountains, which is lower in sulfur dioxide, is more expensive to mine and transport, Tate writes. "Much of the remaining coal in Eastern Kentucky has to be trucked to rail or barge loading facilities, adding to the cost. Power plants that have installed scrubbers to remove sulfur dioxide can burn less expensive higher-sulfur coal mined in Western Kentucky or other state. Even though that coal has to be transported farther to plants by rail or barge, it’s still less expensive than the coal that’s mined in Eastern Kentucky."

Meet the rural Oregon sheriff trying to keep the peace during armed standoff in Oregon

Ward speaks with Ammon Bundy (Oregonian photo by Beth Nakamura)
While much of the media attention concerning the armed protesters at Oregon's Malheur National Wildlife Refuge has been on Ammon Bundy and his followers, Sheriff Dave Ward has been using his rural values and military experience to hold things together among the community of 7,000 in Harney County, Les Zaitz reports for The Oregonian. "Ward, 42, has made statement after statement calling on Bundy and his crew to quit the occupation that they started Jan. 2. He leads the twice-daily briefings by police as they consider their options."

After leaving a recent meeting with Bundy, he made his way to a gathering of about 50 concerned residents, Zaitz writes. "As the meeting broke up, Ward stayed put in the Diamond School gymnasium. He listened to every last person who wanted a moment of his time. He listened to advice, criticism and kudos, focusing on each citizen as if they were the only person in the room. Two hours later, he was among the last to leave the school, stepping into the dark, icy night to return to the maelstrom that has been his life for two months."

"He has approached this crisis with the discipline he learned in the military, watchfulness that served him well in war zones and the humility from a lifetime of church service," Zaitz writes. "He has not provoked the militants. He hasn't threatened them with arrest. He has admonished them publicly and in private as if they're miscreant juveniles caught out after curfew. 'Go home,' has been his message. 'Your families need you,' he says."

Ward, who was an active outdoorsman and an athlete growing up in Douglas County, Oregon, joined the Army, participating in 'Operation Restore Hope' in Somalia and later did a tour in Afghanistan, Zaitz writes. In 1994, he joined the Oregon Army National Guard and worked a mill job in his hometown of Drain. "He couldn't stand being cooped inside, so he crossed the mountains and worked instead as a ranch hand in remote Lake County—building fence, tending cattle,and working on a haying crew . . . He went back into the Army in 1998, serving a four-year hitch at a Texas base on a crew tending Patriot missiles. He started in law enforcement as a corrections deputy in Lake County in 2002. By the time he applied to become Harney County sheriff in late 2014, Ward had worked as a jailer, a patrol deputy and a probation officer."

In his cover letter, Ward wrote: "I've spent many years of my life serving our country, stateside and abroad, to protect the constitution and believe it is the sheriff's responsibility to protect each person's rights under the constitution of the United States," Zaitz writes. "Ward highlighted his varied experience including 'working efficiently in high stress situations.'"

"He was the one that proposed to other law enforcement the unusual roadside meeting," Zaitz writes. "He wanted to meet Bundy face to face, something that had not occurred since the occupation started. Federal authorities advised against it, but Ward persisted," not wanting to miss any chance at a peaceful ending. "At night, he said, he lays in bed, reviewing the days events, asking himself what more could be done or what could have been done better. When he says 'I don't want anyone to get hurt,' the tone indicates he means it."

D.C.-based reporters for local newspapers still dwindling; many states lack any such reporters

From 2009 to 2014 "the number of D.C.-based reporters for local newspapers around the country who are accredited by the Senate to cover Congress declined by 11 percent, according to data from the U.S. Senate Press Gallery, which accredits Capitol Hill journalists," Kristine Lu and Jesse Holcomb report for the Pew Research Center. (Pew map)

The number of states without a dedicated D.C. reporter has probably grown. Pew said 21 states lacked such a reporter in 2014, but last year The Courier-Journal of Louisville, owned by Gannett Co. Inc., closed its Washington bureau though its two senators were Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and presidential candidate Rand Paul.

Gannett and some other media companies still cover Washington with reporters assigned to more than one state delegation. Gannett, which owns papers in 30 states, had 18 D.C. reporters when Pew did its survey. Since then it has abolished Gannett News Service and created the "USA Today Network," which includes many of the former GNS reporters, such as Maureen Groppe, who is technically a USA Today reporter but writes for Gannett papers in Indiana and Michigan.

McClatchy, which had 36 D.C. reporters and owns papers in 14 states, recently reassigned D.C. reporter Curtis Tate to cover stories for papers in Wichita, Belleville, Ill., and Lexington, Ky. Tate's reporting on oil trains won an award from the National Press Foundation. Another McClatchy reporter "covers immigration, labor and North Carolina," Pew notes, but most such reporters "are spread across multiple papers in several states (one Gannett correspondent describes her beat as encompassing Tennessee, South Carolina, Alabama, Virginia and North Carolina)." Community Newspaper Holdings Inc. recently hired a D.C. reporter, Kery Murakami.

Of the states that lack a Capitol Hill reporter, most "tend to have smaller populations and thus small congressional delegations," with the exception of Arizona and Indiana (both with a nine-member delegation). "Traditionally, news organizations around the country sent their own reporters to Washington to keep tabs on their elected lawmakers and find out how readers would be locally affected. But declining revenues and budget cuts have forced changes to this approach."

Monday, January 11, 2016

FAA's assertion of authority over drones rankles local officials, who cite urban-rural differences

University of Georgia photo
The Federal Aviation Administration is headed for clashes with local and state officials over drones, over which the FAA claims exclusive authority. "Local and state lawmakers, concerned about the safety and privacy risks that drones pose, have been passing rules about the machines at a rapid pace . . . with many of the regulations placing tough restrictions on areas to fly and clamping down on the use of drones to snoop on neighbors," but now the FAA says many local or state rules wouldn't stand up to court challenges because Congress gave it power over aviation, reports Cecilia Kang of The New York Times.

"The intervention of the FAA is now frustrating local lawmakers, who complain that the agency wants them to back off their own rules—even as it is seen as too lenient on drone users," Kang writes. "Lawmakers said the agency’s drone rules did not go as far as many states and municipalities that are explicitly banning flights within cities and over homes, strengthening privacy protections and imposing steep criminal and financial penalties on violators. As a result, some state and city officials are digging in to defend their own drone regulations."

In that battle, local officials are opposed by tech companies, which "want a light touch by regulators to help give their drone efforts the widest possible latitude," Kang reports. "Companies such as Amazon and Google have hired dozens of lobbyists over the last year to visit aviation committees on Capitol Hill, explaining their plans to deliver packages and create entirely new segments of entertainment and sports."

Daniel R. Garodnick, one of the New York City Council members who proposed an ordinance to ban most drone flights in the city, require users to get licenses and insurance, and make violations criminal misdemeanors, says the FAA rules fail to distinguish between urban and rural areas. “New York City is different from the cornfields of Iowa,” he said. “That should be obvious to everyone.”

Arch Coal files for bankruptcy protection, says it will keep operating as usual

Arch's Black Thunder Mine, 2007 (Photo by Matthew Brown, AP)
Arch Coal Inc., "the holder of the second-largest reserve of coal in the U.S., filed for creditor protection Monday" in St. Louis, Bloomberg News reports. "The company said it has an agreement with a majority of its senior lenders to erase $4.5 billion in debt from its balance sheet and allow it to keep operating without interruption. Arch has been losing money since 2012."

In a statement filed with Arch's Chapter 11 bankruptcy petition, Chief Financial Officer John T. Drexler said “A confluence of economic challenges and regulatory hurdles has hobbled the coal industry.” Less Chinese demand, Australian competition and cheap natural gas "pushed competitors Patriot Coal Corp., Walter Energy Inc. and Alpha Natural Resources Inc. into bankruptcy last year," Bloomberg notes, also citing "high pension costs and the threat of stricter environmental regulation."

Arch said environmental rules have made it more expensive for companies to use coal. "It blamed Environmental Protection Agency rules for causing more than 400 coal-fired generators to close," Bloomberg reports. "Overall, 23 percent of the generating units are expected to retire or convert by 2025, Arch said." For more from the company on its reorganization, click here.

The company has 11 mines in seven states. An environmental group in Wyoming's Powder River Basin, where Arch has more than 90 square miles of mines, including the nation's second-largest, Black Thunder, said the bankruptcy should not reduce the company's responsibility to reclaim its strip mines. "Arch has a $458 million reclamation liability. State and federal taxpayers must not be left with the bill," said Bob LeResche, president of the Powder River Basin Resource Council. (Read more)

Bakken drilling boom is over, but production remains strong, and that's a hope for Williston

It's a refrain heard often in rural America: "People loved to leave this town. Kids grew up and got out." This is William Yardley of the Los Angeles Times, writing from Williston, N.D., which has become a center of the oil industry: "Take me to Minot, they would say. To Fargo or Bismarck. Anywhere but this emptiness. Then the boom began, and the world came to them. Young men arrived by the thousands seeking their fortunes in the Bakken formation, an abundant source of crude oil cracked open by hydraulic fracturing and soaring oil prices."

But now the boom has gone bust, and Williston is trying to avoid becoming the next chapter in "a story that has defined the American West, whether the resource was fur, gold or timber," Yardley reports. "The city used its newfound wealth to build a $70-million high school, a $68-million recreation center, and new water and sewer systems. It renovated Main Street and created a city position for someone to write parking tickets. Highways have been widened, and an airport is under development."

Williston's hope is that oil production in the Bakken hasn't declined as fast as the count of oil rigs operating in the region, now down to 2009 levels, the Williston Herald reports. "The U.S. Energy Information Administration forecasts that production from the Bakken, which peaked at 1.2 million barrels a day in 2015, will remain above 1 million barrels in January," Yardley notes. While drilling jobs have dwindled, production workers are still needed, but those jobs are much fewer.

As the boom goes to bust, Williston is closing the "man camps" of mobile homes for drillers coming in and out of two- or three-week rotations, which created problems. "A recent program on the National Geographic Channel, "Fracking Hell," portrayed the Bakken area as a hub of drugs and crime," Yardley notes. But developers also built about 10,000 houses and apartments, the prices of which have plummeted. The city's population is 30,000, down from a high of 36,000, but the oil boom has changed it forever. One example: the Williston Herald site has a story about the Saudi Arabian oil company. 

Apply by Feb. 5 for journalism workshop in R.I. on global change in coastal ecosystems

The Metcalf Institute for Marine & Environmental Reporting is accepting applications for its 18th Annual Science Immersion Workshop for Journalists: Global Change in Coastal Ecosystems.  The workshop will be held, June 5-10, 2016, at the University of Rhode Island’s Graduate School of Oceanography, one of the nation’s premier oceanographic research institutions and home of the Metcalf Institute.

Ten early- to mid-career journalists will be selected for the fellowship, which includes tuition, travel support, room and board, and career-changing professional training. A Metcalf release says they will:
  • Gain skills and confidence to translate scientific publications for public audiences;
  • Develop a greater familiarity with research methods and basic statistics;
  • Explore the development and use of sea level rise models for projecting impacts and responses;
  • Measure emerging aquatic contaminants, potentially harmful chemicals not currently monitored or regulated;
  • Conduct a fisheries survey aboard the URI research vessel;
  • Discuss the relationships between climate change and extreme weather;
  • Enjoy off-deadline interactions with scientists and cultivate contacts for future reporting.
Journalists who are new to reporting on science and environmental topics are invited to apply. "Applicants must demonstrate a strong interest in improving and expanding their coverage of environmental topics and a desire to gain a better understanding of scientific research methods through field and lab work," the release says. Applications must be submitted online, postmarked or emailed by Feb. 5. Apply here.

Cooperative Extension Service has website that's all about safety and health on farms and ranches

Farming is one of the most dangerous occupations, but many injuries and deaths could be prevented with relatively simple measures, as the Minneapolis Star Tribune showed in its recent series, "Tragic Harvest." Much more information about agricultural health and safety is available on a Cooperative Extension Service website.

Most information on the site comes from the National Institute on Occupational Safety and Health and the land-grant universities that are part of the extension service. It is assembled by the Farm & Ranch eXtension in Safety and Health Community of Practice, comprising extension agents and faculty who collaborate with industries and governments. "FReSH also works with smaller organizations such as Farm Safety for Just Kids and AgriSafe Network to disseminate their resources as well," an extension service news release said.

National Farm and Ranch Safety and Health Week is Sept. 16-22, 2016.