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Archive for April, 2011

A new study from Cornell Professor Robert Howarth shows that natural gas from shale beds extracted through hydraulic fracturing or “fracking” has the same effect on the climate as burning coal, tarnishing one of the natural gas industry’s major claims of being a less polluting and more climate friendly fossil fuel.

A megawatt of electricity from a natural gas power plant will generally produce anywhere from 1/3 to 1/2 of the greenhouse gas emissions, specifically CO2, compared to a megawatt from a coal plant.  And since coal plants have rightfully been targeted as the biggest climate polluters the natural gas folks have been positioning themselves as the cheaper, cleaner alternative.

Not so fast, since methane, the main component of natural gas, is also a greenhouse gas that the EPA rates as having 20 times the heat-trapping capacity of CO2.  Since so much methane is released into the atmosphere during the fracking and drilling process, Howarth’s study questions that assumption, implying the climate benefits are minimal, if they even exist.  From The Hill:

More broadly, many gas supporters see domestic reserves as a “bridge” fuel while alternative energy sources are brought into wider use.

Howarth’s study questions this idea.

“The large GHG footprint of shale gas undercuts the logic of its use as a bridging fuel over coming decades, if the goal is to reduce global warming,” the study states.

But [natural gas industry spokesmen] also note that gas has other advantages over coal as an energy source, due to its lower emissions of conventional pollutants including nitrogen oxides and sulfur dioxide.

The study cautions that the research is not meant to justify continued use of oil and coal, but rather to show that using shale gas as a substitute might not provide the desired checks on global warming.

Howarth and Cornell engineering Prof. Anthony Ingraffea, who also worked on the study, acknowledged uncertainties in the nexus between shale gas and global warming in a presentation last month.

“We do not intend for you to accept what we reported on today as the definitive scientific study with regard to this question. It is clearly not. We have pointed out as many times as we could that we are basing this study on in some cases questionable data,” Ingraffea said at a mid-March seminar, which is available for viewing on Howarth’s website.

“What we are hoping to do by this study is to stimulate the science that should have been done before, in my opinion, corporate business plans superceded national energy strategy,” he added.

This is an incredibly important discussion to have, especially given the impacts that fracking is having on our air, water, health, and our state budget.

UPDATE: The Texas Energy Report got some good response from around the Capitol and we couldn’t help include it:

“Sounds like the coal industry may have funded it,” joked Sen. Troy Fraser (R-Horseshoe Bay), author of Senate Bill 15, which would create a 20-year energy and environmental policy council for Texas.

“The direction they’re going is exactly opposite of what we hear that natural gas is cleaner with less greenhouse emissions. We’ve always worked under that premise,” said Fraser who is also chair of the Senate Natural Resources Committee.

***“I would like to see it. I don’t know what they’re drawing their conclusions on. I would say it’s interesting – significant I don’t know,” said Rep. Jim Keffer, chairman of the House Energy Resources Committee.  “We’ll have to take a look at it. I’m sure there’ll be another side.”

Keffer is the author of a bill to require oil and gas companies drilling for shale gas to disclose the contents of chemicals they inject into the ground with water and sand during fracking. Fracking involves high-pressure injections of water into the ground to fracture rock formations and release gas.

The Environmental Defense Fund of Texas, which has embraced Keffer’s bill as the most significant fracking disclosure measure in the nation, said more work is needed to determine the air quality implications of fracking.

“Though we have questions about the study’s emissions estimates, it nevertheless highlights the importance of getting better data,” said Ramon Alvarez of the EDF.

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By promoting cleaner energy, cleaner government, and cleaner air for all Texans, we hope to provide for a healthy place to live and prosper. We are Public Citizen Texas.

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Could your trip down to the neighborhood meat market, or your favorite burger joint be contributing to the demise of the Amazon rainforest?  Cattle ranching in Brazil is the leading cause of deforestation in the Amazon. This is old news though.  Cattle ranching has been the leading cause of deforestation in the Amazon rainforest since the 70s.  The cattle industry in Brazil is responsible for 80% of the deforestation of the Brazilian Amazon region to be exact.  This means that the ever growing cattle sector in Brazil is also a huge contributor to the greenhouse effect.  According to Greenpeace, statistics show that 2.5 acres of the rainforest is destroyed every 18 seconds.  To compound the situation, the number of cattle in Brazil has nearly doubled since 1990.  Back in the 90s, Brazil only produced enough beef to feed its own population.  Today, the cattle production industry, located in the heart of the Amazon on a territory known as Mato Grosso, has increased by at least 50 billion.  Here in Mato Grosso, pasturelands have been cleared for cattle grazing the size of Portugal!

Pie chart of deforestation in the Amazon

Recently, Brazil has also just earned itself the title of largest beef exporter in the world, exporting everywhere from Hong Kong, the European Union, and even to the United States (primarily fast food restaurants).  According to the Center for International Forestry Research, ‘between 1990 and 2001 the percentage of Europe’s processed meat imports that came from Brazil rose from 40-75 percent’ and by 2003 for the first time ever, ‘the growth in Brazilian cattle production—80% of which was in the Amazon—was largely export driven.’

The United States has recently been in dispute with Brazil over the cotton production industry, and (thank heavens!) placed a ban on the import of Brazilian beef…but hold on folks:  that ban is set to expire at the end of this year.  Another important note to consider: this ban on Brazilian beef imports is not a complete ban, in fact, many restaurants and other fine dining businesses in the US continue to partake in the destruction of the Amazon.  The ban only pertains to grocery stores, and is currently in debate as to whether or not it will be lifted.  The ban depends upon the dispute over cotton production industry between the two countries.  The ban was originally instated in the US due to the high levels of foot and mouth disease prominent in Brazilian beef. (more…)

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The Texas Progressive Alliance reminds you that it does not shut down as it brings you this week’s blog roundup.

Off the Kuff discusses the bet the Republicans have made about how the voters will react to deep cuts to public education.

At TexasKaos, Lightseeker warns Don’t Buy Into the Lie – Help Spread the Truth About the Fiscal Mess! Updated with video! Check it out – be part of the solution, not part of the problem…

From Bay Area Houston: Unlike the gop who believes the solution to teen pregnancy is duct tape and a $50,000 speaking engagement by Bristol Palin, PP actually provides education services, family planning services, and low cost birth control.

Barack Obama asked the question “Are You In?” last week, and PDiddie at Brains and Eggs decided he wasn’t.

Texas has a revenue problem that’s so bad even the GOP is starting to realize it. WCNews at Eye On Williamson posted about that this week, Texas GOP tax talk getting louder.

The Texas Cloverleaf looks at the potential, and potentially wacky, new districts in which Denton County might end up.

CouldBeTrue of South Texas Chisme notes that republicans want to stop you from voting, kill public education and control women’s uteri. Did you see anything about creating jobs, except for the special uterus police?

Neil at Texas Liberal noted that while it is great for Houston Mayor Annise Parker that she raised $1 million for her reelection campaign in a single night, this fact is much less relevance to a public that finds little to care about in a Houston city politics that is nearly devoid of grassroots enthusiasms.

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Most folks outside of Wisconsin and the Washington beltway were not paying much attention to that state’s recent state supreme court justice election, but in the wake of the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision this election was a study in what judicial elections have evolved into — a trend of “noisier, nastier and costlier” elections that began when the Chamber started targeting judicial candidates in the 1998 elections.  Click here to read the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law’s report, The New Politics of Judicial Elections, 2000-2009: Decade of Change.  And click here to check out the TV ads that ran during this campaign.

This might have been a study in public campaign financing as both candidates received $300,000 in public financing to wage their campaigns, but instead it evolved into a battle of outside group spending with incumbent justice Prosser garnering substantially greater financial support than challenger Kloppenburg.

As the groundswell against Wisconsin’s controversial governor Scott Walker built, the ads paid for by outside funding started filling the airwaves.  Prosser received the benefit of $2,216,120 in outside advertising support, and Kloppenburg received $1,365,340 in outside advertising support.

Kloppenburg and Prosser ran neck and neck in this race despite Prosser’s financial advantage, no doubt to Prosser being linked with Walker which greatly handicapped his campaign, and the race ended so closely that there is bound to be a recount so this story is not over, but it is a cautionary tale about the effects of outside support on judicial political campaigns of which Texas has been a target (see, the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law’s report, The New Politics of Judicial Elections, 2000-2009: Decade of Change.

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By promoting cleaner energy, cleaner government, and cleaner air for all Texans, we hope to provide for a healthy place to live and prosper. We are Public Citizen Texas.

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Texas oil and gas officials will plead with House Appropriations Committee members next week that the industry needs its $1.2 billion annual tax break, more than children need fully funded schools or the elderly need nursing homes to stay open.

The committee will take testimony on April 14 from industry representatives and others on the controversial tax break for producing “high-cost” shale gas. The tax incentive has been for a controversial drilling method known as fracking in which rock formations are broken with high-pressure water injections. It has come under fire in recent weeks as lawmakers grapple with a budget shortfall estimated at $27 billion.

As it would happen, Public Citizen will be participating in a press conference that same morning of Thu Apr 14, at 10am, on the South Capitol steps, with great folks actually living up on the Barnett Shale and who have been documenting the health impacts. If you’d like to show up to show solidarity both for folks living with drilling and to support getting rid of this corporate welfare tax loophole in favor of fixing our budget deficit, feel free to come by.

For folks living in the Barnett Shale region of the state, leaving this tax break in place would just add insult to injury.  Many in North Texas are grappling with environmental impacts from the natural gas drilling that they believe are adversly impacting their water, their air quality and their health.  To suffer the economic impacts of cuts to vital and important services while giving this highly lucrative industry a corporate welfare “tax break” would be too much to ask of these Texas citizens.

The state has been giving out this ‘high-cost’ gas exemption to wells that only cost $24,000 and above to drill, while a leaked interim report from the Legislative Budget Board that was never published shows that eliminating the oil and gas industry’s tax break would bring in $2.4 billion to the state per budget cycle.

It is going to be an interesting hearing.

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Today, the Senate Natural Resources Committee passed out a state energy policy bill that no longer calls for the closure of the state’s worst air polluting power plants

According to committee chair Troy Fraser (R-Horseshoe Bay), Senate Bill 15 would create a 12-member Texas Energy Policy Council to advise legislators on “strategic, market-based” energy and environmental choices over the next 20 years.  We all know how well favoring market-based energy has worked since deregulation here in Texas.

The committee substitute for the original bill that was filed clearly favors coal-fired electric plants even though Fraser sold the committee on the idea that it was not intended to give a competitive advantage for one type of generation over another.

The bill, also directs the Texas Railroad Commission, to conduct a study projecting reserves and future prices of coal and natural gas.

The bill, as filed, directed the Public Utility Commission to identify the heaviest air polluting power plants and recommend closure of at least 4,000 megawatts worth of electric generating capacity.  The bill, as substituted and passed out of the committee, removes that language and instead would only require identification of the 10 percent of electric generating capacity that would be “most impacted by compliance with environmental regulation” and “barriers to retirement” of those plants.

The new energy policy council created by the bill would consist of officials from the Texas House and Texas Senate, the Public Utility Commission, Texas Railroad Commission, Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, General Land Office, Electric Reliability Council of Texas, State Energy Conservation Office and academia.

So chalk up another win for fossil fuels, at least so far this session.

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A 2003 Nuclear Regulatory Commission report shows the susceptibility of US nuclear power plants to blackouts that could lead to core damage.

Click here to read the 2003 NRC report and click here to read the 2005 re-evaluation report.  Draw your own conclusions but be warned, these are not user friendly reports.

Click here to go to MSNBC”s interactive US map showing the risk for plants around the country.

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In most years, the dark clouds over the Texas Panhandle in the spring means rain. This year, they’re more likely be an indicator of wildfires which have already burned thousands of acres in March as the state stares once again into the face of a severe drought.

Our neighbor, Oklahoma was drier in December, January, February and March than it has been in any similar period since 1921. That’s saying a lot in the state known for the 1930s Dust Bowl, when drought, destructive farming practices and high winds generated severe dust storms that stripped the land of its topsoil.

March 29, 2011 Drought Monitor MapThe drought stretches from the Louisiana Gulf coast to Colorado, and conditions are getting worse, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor.  The area in Texas covered by an extreme drought has tripled in the past month to 40 percent.  A daunting prospect for a state that was just starting to recover from our last drought.

Drought indicators in east-central Texas puts the region in the Exceptional Drought (D4) level, and if rain does not materialize soon, intensification of the current drought is likely. And the drought regions in northern and central Texas continued to depict worsening conditions as well, as the lingering benefits of scant late-winter rainfall gives way to dry, hot weather.

An extreme drought is declared when there’s major damage to crops or pasture and widespread water shortages or restrictions.  Weather forecasters expect the drought in Texas to continue or get worse through June in most of the state with the danger of fire remaining extremely high according to the National Weather Service.  They are also warning that this could be one of the more devastating droughts on record if the state doesn’t start getting normal to above normal rainfall before June.

According to the state climatologist, John Nielsen-Gammon, Texas hasn’t had a drier October to February period since 1967. The five months that ended Feb. 28 saw only 4.8 inches of rain on average across the state. In a typical year, an average of 9.7 inches would fall.  As examples, Midland got .1 inches of rain in March, while College Station got 6 inches. Usually, those cities would get 4.6 and 19.1 inches respectively.

The drought has been made worse by warmer than normal temperatures.  This past Sunday, low humidity and winds up to 55 mph fueled the spread of wildfires across West Texas, and four big ones burned more than 11,000 acres.  Currently nearly 180 of Texas’ 254 counties have burn bans.

While the state fights the EPA tooth and nail over the regulation of greenhouse gasses, Texans get to see first-hand, the impacts of climate change on our daily lives.  It’s going to be a long hot summer folks.

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Is a proposed rule change by the Texas Railroad Commission (RRC) going to allow state sanctioned theft of property owners mineral rights? 

Sen. Wendy Davis (D Fort Worth) is asking the Texas Railroad Commission to hold two town hall meetings, including one in Fort Worth, to discuss her concerns that owners of mineral rights in the 24-county Barnett Shale are getting short shrift in proposed rule changes dealing with forced pooling as well as a proliferation of related exceptions the RRC has been granting to two provisions – Rule 37 and the No Perforation Zone permits — both of which were intended to protect property owners from having their mineral rights drained without their permission.

Davis wrote a letter to Commissioners Elizabeth Ames Jones, Michael Williams and David Porter on March 22nd stating, “Very few Texas citizens are aware of these issues or their potential impacts . . . I believe it is your duty to educate the public on these issues and to extend the comment period to adequately include input from the public on these critical issues.”

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Senate Bill 875 by Sen. Troy Fraser (R-Horsehoe Bay) would take away a Texan’s right to sue a company for “nuisance” or “trespass” resulting from greenhouse gas emissions if that company is compliant with air emissions permits issued by Texas Commission on Environmental Quality or an agency of the federal government.

The bill would roll back Texas nuisance law that predates the Clean Air Act, protecting businesses that emit greenhouse gases from enforcement actions, civil lawsuits or criminal claims.

The Texas Chemical Council, Association of Electric Companies of Texas, Texas Association of Business, Texas Association of Manufacturers and Texas Pipeline Association and other business groups back the bill, but environmental groups oppose the measure.

The bill is designed to put a halt to a trend of public nuisance claims as a way to regulate greenhouse gas emissions. Although the EPA has announced plans to issue rules governing greenhouse gas emissions, air quality permits held by Texas businesses do not currently regulate greenhouse gas emissions.

Our ownTom “Smitty” Smith of Public Citizen’s Texas office, testified against the bill in committee, telling the committee that greenhouse gases are effectively a nuisance because they can cause adverse health effects, change the fertility cycles in plants and animals, and require retrofitting of roads and bridges to withstand greater temperatures. The bill would take away a legal tool citizens have used that predates the Clean Air Act and one that has been used by citizens to sue oil and gas companies.

Smitty further testified that if the standards are unclear, the fallback position you have is nuisance. It interferes with your enjoyment of the environment or causes health effects making the bill far more nefarious than it appears on the surface.

Sen. Kirk Watson (D-Austin) argued, “It’s not right, to say you can do whatever you want with greenhouse gases simply because you are in general compliance with some permit that doesn’t cover greenhouse gases.”

Even the TCEQ has reported that the bill could “hamper the agency’s ability to cite a nuisance violation for greenhouse gases” and allow the “nuisance” to persist and result in lower revenues from penalties, according to the bill’s fiscal note.

Bill by bill, this legislature seems intent upon whittling away protections for individual Texas citizens in favor of the rights of industry.

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A crucial ban on mining uranium around the Grand Canyon is about to expire, and corporations have already staked more than 1,100 claims to drill.

Ripping up radioactive material around a national landmark, with its fragile ecosystem and designation as one of the seven natural wonders of the world, will cause irreversible damage to its beauty and wildlife, put nearby communities at risk (especially the Havasupai, a Native American tribe who inhabit the canyon itself) and contaminate the water supply for millions who live nearby.

Thousands have already signed a petition started by Suzanne Sparling of Arizona calling on the U.S. Bureau of Land Management to extend the ban on uranium mining around the Grand Canyon.

A nationwide outcry has forced the Interior Department to extend the time window for public comment about the decision.

To read more about the impacts of uranium mining on the Grand Canyon, click here to visit the Grand Canyon Trust’s website whose mission is to protect and restore the Colorado Plateau — its spectacular landscapes, flowing rivers, clean air, diversity of plants and animals, and areas of beauty and solitude.

You can click here to send an email to your representatives in Congress telling them you support U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar’s new Bureau of Land Management “Wild Lands” policy.

There is just a short time to protect one of America’s most important national parks, click here to sign Suzanne Sparling’s petition.

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On April 13th, the Uptown Marble Theater at 218 Main Street in Marble Falls will present the world theatrical premiere of Green Dreams, a 50 minute documentary about the revolution at the Pedernales Electric Cooperative. Following the screening will be a meet & greet with PEC’s newly-hired CEO, R.B. Sloan.

Former PEC General Manager Bennie Fuelberg has been sentenced to 300 days in jail, the entire former board of directors has either resigned or been voted out. The co-op has been wracked with scandal and tales of intimidation and mismanagement.

But a new day has dawned. PEC has a new, leaner, reform-minded board of directors, new bylaws and a member Bill of Rights. Transparency and member input have become desirable goals when once they were forbidden. And, some say, it all began with a phone call.

In 2006, filmmaker Ric Sternberg called the PEC, his electric co-op, for information about any “green” programs that the co-op might offer. This phone call led to more calls until he began to realize that decisions were being made by what appeared to be a rubber-stamp board of directors who maintained their well-paid positions, some for as many as 40 years, by a proxy voting process that was rigged – no competition.

Ric registered a web domain and organized a loose-knit group of PEC members who called themselves PEC4U. That rag-tag organization began the struggle for democracy and transparency at the Pedernales Co-op, which soon led to a member lawsuit and the “house of cards” crumbling. Meanwhile Ric, being a documentarian, started to record the process. Green Dreams is the result. It tells the story of the revolution and then talks about the future as it might be. The film is being presented as a conversation-starter – the beginning of a dialogue among members about where PEC should be headed.

The film screening will be followed by a meet & greet – an opportunity for PEC members to meet R.B. Sloan, the Pedernales Electric Co-op’s brand new CEO.

The theater will open at 7:00pm for casual socializing. The program will begin at 7:30pm. After the screening, the filmmaker and some of the people seen in the film will be available for Q&A. The meet & greet with Mr. Sloan will be in the theater’s lobby, beginning at about 8:45pm. Admission is free and all are welcome.

The documentary will be shown at other theaters in the PEC service area.  Watch for other scheduled showings.

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In another effort to stave off critics who call a $1 billion annual tax break for high-cost gas producers in Texas outrageous, a study paid for by the industry has emerged intended to scare folks into believing that for every $1 the state spends in tax breaks it gets back about $4 in related economic activity and that will disappear if we take their tax break away.

Former Deputy State Comptroller and current lobbyist Billy Hamilton has produced an industry-backed study for the American Natural Gas Alliance on what they claim the impact of the withdrawal of the tax incentive would have on Texas.   The  industry is rightly concerned that the tax break would come under attack as the state tries to close a $27 billion budget gap.

Hamilton’s analysis concludes that ending the tax break would result in an immediate loss in 2012 of 35,000 and $3.8 billion in economic output, estimating Texas would lose 94,400 jobs each year and $10.4 billion each year in economic output.

The industry has been saying for some time that if Texas dumps this tax break, states like Pennsylvania will get the driller’s business, but Texas has the largest reserve of natural gas in the nation and it is hard to believe the industry would pull up stakes to move elsewhere.  It is not like they aren’t making plenty of money here in Texas.  And the state hasn’t seemed concerned that they are losing renewable energy manufacturing jobs by not providing that industry with tax breaks/incentives, so no sympathy here.

Worthy of discussion here is exactly who is getting these state tax cuts, and according to the Houston Chronicle, it’s mostly companies from out of state.

Not surprisingly, the top five firms that saved the most as a result of the exemption represent the largest oil and gas producers in Texas:

Oklahoma-based Devon Energy, saved $113.8 million in fiscal year 2010 under the exemption. Devon reported net earnings last year of $4.6 billion.

Next on the list was XTO Energy Inc., a subsidiary of Exxon, which saved $113.2 million on its “high cost” gas operations in Texas. XTO reported $2 billion in net earnings last year. Others who received top financial benefits were: Canadian-based EnCana, which saved $60.6 million, Oklahoma-based Chesapeake Energy, which saved $59.4 million and Enron spin-off EOG Resources of Houston, with $58.6 million in savings.

These tax breaks really amount to little more than subsidies of some of the most profitable companies around. It would be one thing if these were Texas companies, but when Texas taxpayers are subsidizing Oklahoma and Canadian companies, something is very, very wrong. We can expect the corporate welfare queens to cry when their gravy train is threatened, but their protected status at the Legislature, thanks to millions in campaign contributions to Texas politicians, insures that they won’t actually be in danger of cuts.  Not like our schools, or grandma’s nursing home. Perhaps if our teachers and the elderly were represented by out of state special interests who can dip into their huge profits to bribe donate to politicians, they could be safe from cuts, too.

If, in fact, there are no sacred cows as the legislature tries to deal with the budget deficit, then this tax break needs to be on the table too.

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The Texas Progressive Alliance would have voted against HB1 as well as it brings you this week’s blog roundup.

Off the Kuff notes that when one Bradley goes away, another one gets nominated.

Three Wise Men examines the possibility of a federal government shutdown and what Republicans are doing with the budget in Texas.

Musings rounds up news on teacher layoffs across Texas.

Presenting the comedy gold of the Honorable Anthony Weiner of The Bronx, NY, now showing for a limited time at Brains and Eggs.

CouldBeTrue of South Texas Chisme says you just have to read the paper to see how republicans are destroying every thing and everybody they can.

WCNews at Eye On Williamson says It’s time for the left to join the class war.

At TexasKaos, more on Perry’s assult on our State’s future. See GOP Robs Texas of its Future. If this doesn’t make clear what Perry is doing, you will never get it.

Marking the 43rd annivesary of the death of Martin Luther King, Neil at Texas Liberal reposted his 2011 MLK Reading & Reference List. Every day is the right day to be hopeful. Study MLK’s life and make the decision to take action for a better America. Nobody will do the work of freedom and democracy for you.

Who would have guessed that the biggest problem we have in the US is that taxes are too low? Turns out, that’s THE problem with the budget, not spending.

 

What a week. And here’s a little something for today:

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Wanted: Short term, possibly long term position that pays thousands of dollars for up to an hour of work requiring little training working in perilously radioactive environments.

A Tokyo Electric Power Co. (TEPCO) official said this week that the company has tasks fit for “jumpers” (ジャンパー) — workers so called because they “jump” into highly radioactive areas to accomplish a job in a minimum of time and race out as quickly as possible.  Sometimes jumpers can make multiple runs if the cumulative dosage is within acceptable limits — although “acceptable” can be open to interpretation.  In cases of extreme leaks however the radiation might be so intense that jumpers can only make one such foray in their entire lives, or risk serious radiation poisoning.

Asked how the contaminated water could be pumped out and how long it would take, a TEPCO official replied: “The pump could be powered from an independent generator, and all that someone would have to do is bring one end of the pump to the water and dump it in, and then run out.”

Translation: Jumpers wanted.

In its attempts to bring under control its radiation leaky nuclear power plant that was severely damaged by last month’s massive earthquake and tsunami,  TEPCO is trying to get workers ever closer to the sources of radiation at the plant.

Workers are reportedly being offered hazard pay to work in the damaged reactors of up to $5,000 per day.

So if you aren’t concerned about the quality of your life 10 to 15 years down the line and are not planning on having children, this may be the job for you.

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