The Billings Outpost

In Costa Rica, elections matter, or maybe don’t

By T.J. GILLES - For The Outpost

SAN VITO, Costa Rica – Election day in this former banana republic is like flag day – not the red, white, and blue tricolor stripes of the national emblem but the varied banners of the 13 (!) political parties with dogs, however small, in the fight.

Folks wear their party’s T-shirt and cars, pickups and farm trucks prowl the winding streets of this mountain town with flags a-flying: The green and white of the perpetual powerhouse PLN (National Liberation Party), the yellow and red of the PAC (Citizens’ Action Party), the blue and red of Social Democrats, the yellow (red lettering) of Frente Amplio (Broad Front).

Youthful enthusiasts beat drums, blow horns, chant slogans and blow kisses. The street leading down to the school polling place in San Vito, founded by Italians following World War II, is lined with brightly colored campaign tents. Volunteers offer to explain issues or candidates, or show the proper place to mark an “X.”

Vendors sell cool refreshments, food, or lottery tickets. Taxis arrive. Buses jammed with voters from distant rural areas disgorge the party faithful. All that’s lacking are jugglers and clowns dressed in party colors – which they do have in the nation’s capital, San Jose.

Costa Rica has its elections in February, one of a couple of months of dry season in a nation known for its bad roads and abundant rainfall – more than 10 feet a year. “Summer,” they call it, as streams and lakes dry up, leaves on some tree species turn brown or yellow and fall to the ground. The heat is on.

Voting is mandatory in Costa Rica. There´s a (never levied) fine, but about 30 percent of Ticos eschewed suffrage this time around. This 70 percent turnout compares to Montana’s 72 percent (of those who bothered to register) in the most recent election, and the Treasure State has a reputation for being one of the higher states in participation.

My landlord, Francisco Herrera, voted once when he was 18 but never went back. About 40 years ago, his man won and turned out to be a scoundrel, even worse than the rank-and-file Latin American politicians.

“They´re all crooks. They´re all liars!” Mr. Herrera says, echoing millions of Americans disenchanted with their imbedded two-party system.

Mr. Herrera has never been levied a fine despite decades of electoral abstinence and constantly dealing with government entities for taxes, restaurant and bar licenses, inspections and certification for his new “canopy” zip line where customers fly on a cable through the air among the treetops and over a lake that these days is more of a mud flat.

On the other side of the political spectrum is the Pittier family of San Vito. Gizelle and Pedro footed the bill for their daughters’ eight-hour bus ride from San Jose, where they attend college, to vote for the second-place candidate, Johnny Araya Monge, because “this election is so important.”

I have never been to a Costa Rican Jaycee meeting, but I imagine part of the Jaycee Creed says, “We are a nation of scofflaws, not men,” in a world of unhelmeted motorcyclists, unlicensed and uninspected taxis and restaurants, illegal hunting (all hunting is illegal), gold-mining and shark finning.

Despite a perception of corruption, bribes and chicanery throughout the spectrum of Costa Rican society, elections seem relatively clean – and tame.

A few issues are off the table. It’s hard to brand anyone a “socialist” in a country that has had universal health care for 65 years. And nobody – or everybody – is “soft on defense” when the 10,000 colones ($20) bill features a silhouette of President Jose Figueres Ferrer in 1949 symbolically taking a pickaxe to the walls of the old fort in San Jose and abolishing the military. Pre-dating Joni Mitchell´s “Woodstock” song, he actually turned the fort into a butterfly (and history) museum.

And despite all the multi-colored flags, Costa Ricans often seem to believe they are offered neither choice nor echo.

Sure, La Nacion (the country´s largest newspaper and so-called “maker of presidents”) branded the Broad Front candidate, Jose Maria Villarta, a “chavista.” comparing him to the late Venezuelan demagogue Hugo Chavez.

I suspect the real threat posed by Mr. Villarta was his perpetually scruffy beard and the fact that he was the only candidate (of the top five) to appear at the televised debates … without a necktie! He got third.

And sure, some friends up north informally slung a little mud on social media regarding the National Libertarian candidate, Otto (no relation to Che) Guevara.

His family was compared to the Kennedys. The Guevaras are into everything in the far-flung province of Puntarenas, and there was a listing of the family’s thousands of hectares of prime finca, beach-front hotels, factories and other enterprises – and pointing out that Mr. Guevara has never done a lick of work in his life. He got fourth.

Even a week or so prior to the elections, some of the more obvious also-rans already were “mothering up” to the front-runners on who – and at what price — they might be supporting in the second round, where the two top vote-getters square off again on April 6.

There is no majority party in Costa Rica, so all are members of a loyal – and shifting – opposition.

The 67-member Legislative Assembly has only two parties with double-digit membership. The National Liberationists – of the pick-swinging Mr. Figueres, current president Laura Chinchilla and current hopeful and former San Jose mayor of Mr. Araya – has 18. The Citizen´s Action Party (PAC) of the top vote-getter, Jose Guillermo, Solis has 13.

So there may be some strange bedfellows in this country of 4.5 million, which promises to be carbon-neutral by 2020. Laws will be passed – and largely ignored. Taxis and restaurants will continue to operate outside the law and under the table. Hunting and cockfighting will continue to be both illegal and wildly popular. Logging with neither a government permit – nor the landowner´s permission – and gold mining in national parks and other protected areas will continue to support families, as they have for generations.

Maybe the election abstainers have a point.

 

Last Updated on Thursday, 20 February 2014 22:00

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MATE Show expected to draw thousands

The 38th annual MATE Show and Home & Health Expo kicks off Thursday, Feb. 20, at MetraPark in Billings, running through Saturday, Feb. 22. Doors are open from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Thursday and Friday with Saturday offering open doors from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.

More than 400 exhibitors will be on hand displaying products in more than 700 booths encompassing 100,000 square feet, making this the largest show of its kind in Montana.

The longstanding MATE Show is the flagship component of the event featuring the latest in farming and ranching equipment, products and services. This year’s spotlight feature item will be zero turn lawn mowers, displayed throughout the show in the demonstration area.

Stop by the MATE Theatre daily to gain valuable information on a number of topics specific to rural living from ATV safety to weed control and heating your home to local insect control. Other outstanding features of the event are the Bull Pen Preview presented by the Northern Ag Network with a great lineup of bulls from some of Montana’s best seedstock operations.

The MATE Show is also a chance to win the grand prize of a John Deere CX Gator, donated by area John Deere dealers and who doesn’t dream of winning the Sunshine Infrared Sauna being given away at the Home & Health Expo. There is something for everyone at this year’s MATE Show and Home & Health Expo.

CPR Saturday will once again be featured during this year’s event offering attendees an opportunity to brush up on their CPR training or get certified, Feb. 22. Registration must be done in advance via cprsaturday.com or by calling 255-8410.

Free tickets are available at the NILE Office, or First Interstate Bank locations. Also, tickets can be found at all MATE Show Exhibitors. For a complete list of events, vendors and map of the 2014 MATE Show and Home & Health Expo, go to www.themateshow.com.

Last Updated on Thursday, 20 February 2014 21:58

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Charlie Russell gets updated book

“Charlie Russell, The Cowboy Years,” Second Edition. By Jane Lambert

By WALLY McLANE - For The Outpost

When you have a character – in more ways than one – like Charles M. “Charlie” Russell, it is hard to get everything you wanted said in one book.  Thus it is with Jane Lambert and her second edition.

Lambert gives some further details on a couple of events in Charlie’s life from the first edition; plus discusses more of his “cronies.”

We have an expression that an event can get “western,” meaning it is anything BUT routine and mundane. Apparently a couple of Russell’s cronies were involved in divorces – “western” style.

One crony left town before he suffered an unexplained death at the hands of his wife, this not being her first time. Another one was “divorced” as a result of a shootout – she fired first, but he was a better shot.

Another crony that Lambert wrote about was a hand, later a foreman, for the O Circle outfit both at their Marias River location and just across the border at their Alberta location.

I found this one really interesting because, while researching for an article I wrote on the early days of Fort Benton, I found out the Circle outfit was one of the reasons the Montana Department of Livestock and its counterpart in Alberta came up with a law that a ranch on both sides of the border cannot have the same brand. It had to do with taking a tally of the livestock at tax time. It wasn’t done at the same time in both places, and the cattle had a tendency to drift.

Charlie Russell lived at an interesting time, and knew a lot of people in various walks of life.  Once again, if you are a student of the Old West, this book is an ideal example of “and the saga continues.”

Last Updated on Thursday, 20 February 2014 21:56

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Intern sought

The Montana Stockgrowers Association is seeking a student intern for the summer of 2014. The internship will focus on involvement in the beef cattle community of Montana and will include work with MSGA Policy, Communications, and Marketing and Membership staff members. Students should be at least college juniors, majoring in a field related to agriculture, and preferably have a background in (or working knowledge of) the cattle or beef industry. Go to bit.ly/MSGAIntern2014 or call the MSGA office in Helena at (406) 442-3420.

 Application packets must be completed by April 1.

 

Last Updated on Thursday, 20 February 2014 21:54

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GMOs: Red flags and red herrings abound

FLASH IN THE PAN

By ARI LEVAUX

In case you missed it, there has been an interesting discussion about genetically modified food over at Grist.org. It began with a series of posts by Nathaneal Johnson in which he dissected, in impressively neutral and skeptical fashion, most of the arguments for or against GM food that you’ve ever heard.

Johnson’s posts managed to draw attention and respect from voices on all sides of the issue. By way of his quest to take no side, he managed to get on a lot of people’s good sides. The comment section was, at times, somewhat civil and well-behaved, no minor feat among GMO pundits, and there were even examples of constructive debate. 

After six months of researching and posting, Johnson came to the conclusion that GMOs are neither as scary as many GM food haters claim, nor as world-saving as claimed by supporters of GM food. In an attempt to put the discussion to bed, he wrote, in what he thought was the series’ capstone, “The most astonishing thing about the vicious public brawl over GMOs is that the stakes are so low.”

All of the sudden, folks respectfully had beef with Johnson. Two responses were published at Grist, one by Mother Jones food columnist (and former Grist food writer) Tom Philpott, a longtime critic of GM food, and one by Ramez Naam, author of “The Infinite Resource: The Power of Ideas on a Finite Planet.”

Philpott argued that GMOs do matter, because they are a load-bearing pillar of a misguided agriculture system, while Naam wrote that GMOs matter because they can, and already do, benefit people and the environment, not just corporations and factory farms. According to Philpott, most GMOs have been used to sell pesticides and herbicides. He called the vast majority of GMOs currently on the market “an appendage of the pesticide industry, which has dominated the technology from the start.”

Naam, who supports GM food, and also a proponent of “sensible labeling,” wrote that GM crops have more impact in poor countries than rich ones. He discussed genetically modified Bt cotton in India as an example of how GM crops can help boost the income of small farmers.

While Philpott and Naam inhabit opposing camps on the GMO issue, their arguments are not mutually exclusive. If Naam is right and GM crops can be a force for good, it does not derail Philpott’s assessment of how GMOs have impacted agriculture to date. If Philpott is right, and GMOs have done little more than boost yields of corn and soy while selling more chemicals, it doesn’t mean that the technology shows no promise.

If they’re both right, their arguments could define an important chunk of common ground between both sides, on the playing field that Johnson leveled.

My take on all this is that the conversation can continue, respectfully and productively, if some basic compromises are made among people on both sides of the issue.

Skeptics of GM food should come to grips with the fact that the act of genetic manipulation is itself not unholy. As it is, few GMO haters would refuse medicine made with assistance from GM bacteria, like insulin, or a blood clot thinner used to treat a stroke. As GMOs have proven useful in medicine, they could also be useful in agriculture.

By the same token, proponents of GM foods should remember that for most skeptics of GM food, the bare act of genetic manipulation isn’t even the issue. It’s the process by which the technology has been rolled out that’s pissing them off. In many ways, the script is playing out according to old fears, and there seems little public recourse available.

The epitome of this power imbalance, of course, is Monsanto, which is simultaneously the world’s largest biotech corporation, seed company, organic seed company, and is one of the world’s largest pesticide companies. That’s a ridiculous concentration of power. A profitable concentration, if you’re on board, as genetically modified corn and soy covers about half of all U.S. cropland. But given we already grow way more corn and soy than we should, how is this a good thing?

The Rainbow papaya in Hawaii is an example of a GM food that resulted from a more confidence-inspiring process: a collaboration between farmers and a university, to solve a serious problem. An outbreak of ringspot virus was destroying Hawaii’s small papaya industry. A resistant papaya was engineered, and the problem appears to have been solved with little evident downside.

There is now an effort under way to use genetic modification to save Florida’s orange orchards, which are threatened by the greening virus. Bananas and chocolate, as well as other beloved and economically important crops, are susceptible to viruses as well, with many agricultural regions having already lost their ability to produce these crops. GMO haters might want to do a gut check by asking themselves if they would forgo GM chocolate if it was the last chocolate on earth.

And those who believe that all GM skeptics are being paranoid should remember that there is nothing inherently safe about introducing GM plants into people and the environment. If not tested and regulated appropriately, there will be problems. As the way has been paved by a corporate-led rush to create and perfect the most profitable biotech seeds, this process has led to a suspect product.

The rollout of GM foods has been awkward and wrong-footed since it began, in 1994, with the first GMO food ever to be commercially licensed: the slow-ripening Flavr Savr tomato. Its creators at Calgene had sought to use a process called antisense knockdown to shut down certain genes, and the Flavr Savr was approved according to this understanding. The 2006 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, meanwhile, was awarded to a team that figured out that in addition to the antisense knockdown, something entirely different was happening in that tomato as well, a process that is now known as RNA interference.

The Flavr Savr was pulled from the market, not because it was operating via a previously unknown pathway, but because it was too mushy. It turns out the world didn’t need another sucky supermarket tomato, yet we all took a risk, in a sense, on a tomato that was approved before anyone knew what was going on. That’s a horrible risk vs. return.

Red flags and all, skeptics need to face the fact that our species’ walk down the GMO trail is inevitable. And Naam is likely correct when he argues that biotech could prove a valuable tool to have in the chest when dealing with some important human and environmental problems.

After Philpott’s and Naam’s rebukes of his “GMOs don’t matter” conclusion, Johnson posted a response of his own, beneath the headline: “OK, GMOs matter, but the noisy fight over them is a distraction.”

He acknowledges that there are problems with GM foods, but thinks they have been overblown, and are solvable. He believes they have potential, though it’s barely been proven.

“There’s an entire industry pushing the argument that GMOs are the solution. I agree with the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development that GMOs could be part of the solution, but we shouldn’t let the hype distract us from all the other ideas out there.”

The battle over GM food has become a proxy for a philosophical debate about the appropriate places of science and capitalism, and their powerful union, in our lives. This is an important, ongoing discussion to be having. But it’s a separate discussion, even if GM crops offer many cases in point.

The potential benefits and risks of GM food lie in the processes by which this neutral technology is deployed. So let’s focus on these processes, as part of focusing on how best to solve the problems that most need solving.

Last Updated on Thursday, 13 February 2014 00:28

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It’s time to throw money at endangered species

By CARA CHAMBERLAIN

Endangered animals are “vicious,” “chicken-sized,” “unlikable,” and/or “insignificant.” Their genetic authenticity is questionable — subspecies? what’s a subspecies? — and their fitness debatable: Manatees, bison and pronghorns come to mind — all beasts that have not adapted to the trappings of contemporary man.

To read many popular accounts about the animals that form a growing cadre of the officially vanishing, you might conclude that it is their fault. Moreover, you would discover that these antediluvian critters attract numerous radicals and lawyers seeking to foist their continued presence upon us, stalling the entire economic regime of the United States.

What’s a country to do?

One proposal is to weaken the Endangered Species Act (ESA), a 41-year-old law signed by that liberal environmentalist president, Richard Millhouse Nixon. The ESA, it has been alleged, is invoked by nominal allies of the desert pupfish, Karner blue butterfly, and spotted owl simply to quash all development because ... well, because.

Compared to a new coalbed methane field, an agribusiness plot, or a tract housing development, of what use is, say, an Amargosa vole? Most people probably don’t even know what a vole is, let alone what its use might be. And, anyway, aren’t there other voles? Why should we care about the Amargosa one? Even by vole standards, its body is stubby, its ears embarrassingly small. When it was thought to be extinct, no one missed it much.

Naturally, radicals do not fret just about mammals (some of which are, to be honest, cute and furry). They also support birds. Lots of Hawaiian species you’ve never seen or heard of demand notice along with two sorts of eiders and two types of cranes. Wouldn’t one eider and one crane be plenty for any nation?

Here in Montana we are fighting to keep the greater sage grouse (Centrocercus urophasianus) off the endangered list, a cause that our own Steve Daines has championed to stop “federal overreach” and “abuse” that “fringe groups” use to severely restrict energy extraction, agriculture and the “outdoor recreation industry” — this according to Congressman Daines’ website. It is odd that a bird whose presence is a marvel of adaptation, whose spring displays are amazing spectacles that draw photographers and other outdoor enthusiasts, and whose worth as a source of food has been recognized for thousands of years should somehow be a grave threat now. Hmm. Are humans themselves just less adaptable these days?    

Clams, crustaceans, insects and plants are all protected by the ESA. It is, of course, very unlikely that fringe groups have a soft spot in their hearts for the purple catspaw mussel. They undoubtedly simply exploit it to stop economic progress. In fact, these fringe groups, as Congressman Daines calls them, have managed, according to the Forest Service, to halt 34 development projects (out of 100,000) in the past 15 years alone.

As people like Congressman Daines continue their push to weaken or reform the ESA, species continue to become extinct. In its present form, the law seems unable, then, to fulfill its purpose. Even if most animals on the list boast continued existence, it has been unable to stop the tide of extinction. Millions of dollars later, and what do we have to show for it? An extinct Caribbean monk seal no one really needed anyway.

Scientists (a fringe group?) claim that humans are causing the “Sixth Great Extinction.” This means that animals and plants are succumbing at a rate much greater than has been normal (excepting five other extinction episodes) in earth’s history. If this is true, then, according to the Center for Biological Diversity (another one of those notorious “fringe” groups), 30 percent to 50 percent of all species will be extinct by 2050.

Of course, we don’t just have 30 percent to 50 percent of species living in isolation. Keystone species, as they have been called, maintain the health and diversity of entire ecosystems. Some creatures are important pollinators, and their worth is, thus, quantifiable. Some plants and animals contribute to the cleanliness of our marshes and rivers. Others hold the keys to pharmaceutical innovation. A few are, admittedly, simply unique.

There is no guarantee, of course, that we ourselves will squeak through among the 50-70 percent to survive past 2050, is there?

So let’s put things in perspective. Thirty-six years from now, when we look up from our new super-intelligent phones, we may notice that the Bakken is long played out and that food and water are rather scarce as fisheries collapse and aquifers shrink or become contaminated. Air? Who knows? And what of the sage grouse?

“Throwing money at problems” like education, science, and preserving the earth’s biomes never works — or so we’re told. The only people who really flourish from those cash bombardments are coal, oil and gas companies. Still, it just may be that people like Congressman Daines will wish they had actually strengthened the ESA and shoveled billions toward putting the brakes on species extinctions. They may regret not listing as threatened both Centrocercus urophasianus and Homo sapiens sapiens.

Cara Chamberlain teaches English at Rocky Mountain College.

 

Last Updated on Thursday, 13 February 2014 00:26

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Tester, Baucus score high on environmental scorecard

By DEBORAH COURSON SMITH - Big Sky Connection

Montana’s congressional delegation earned some of the highest and lowest numbers on a new annual scorecard from the League of Conservation Voters.

Members of Congress were rated on their 2013 votes in the House and Senate on bills connected to clean energy, wildlife issues and land conservation. Former Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., earned 85 percent; Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., earned 92 percent; and Rep. Steve Daines, R-Mont., earned 4 percent, said Theresa Keaveny, executive director of Montana Conservation Voters.

“We are hoping,” she said, “that in the next year, Congressman Daines gets more in step with Montana voters, who in poll after poll show their support for our clean and healthful environment, for clean water and our open spaces.”

Keaveny said Daines has voted to side with oil companies over protecting water, air and Montana’s outdoor heritage. Montana Conservation Voters and League of Conservation Voters are nonpartisan groups that focus on conservation issues and public health protections.

Keaveny said climate change, which science shows is caused by fossil-fuel pollution, is one of her group’s priorities, impacting family farm and ranch agriculture, fish and wildlife and Montana’s outdoor economy.

“We are very concerned that the impacts of climate change are ones that aren’t going to go away,” she said, “and we need to see action in Congress to move us towards a clean, renewable energy future.”

The average score nationwide was 58 percent for the Senate and 43 percent for the House. The National Environmental Scorecard has been issued annually for more than 40 years.

The scorecard is online at scorecard.lcv.org.

 

Last Updated on Thursday, 13 February 2014 00:23

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Report finds problems in coal leasing process

By DEBORAH COURSON SMITH - Big Sky Connection

A Government Accountability Office report on the federal Bureau of Land Management’s coal-management program has outlined a number of problems related to competition, and oversight in determining fair market value of federal coal leases.

In 90 percent of leases reviewed, there was only one bidder, the report found - and almost every time, that bid was accepted even though federal law requires competitive bidding.

Steve Charter, chairman of the Northern Plains Resource Council, said the bottom line is that Montana isn’t seeing the money it should from coal leases.

“We’ve been following it for a long time and nobody’s paid much attention,” he said, “and here just in the last year, it has finally been scrutinized.”

Another criticism was aimed at not valuing coal accurately under the new model of demand - which is coal for export. Sen. Edward Markey, D-Mass., is calling for a halt to new sales until changes are made. He estimated that recent sales across the nation have been undervalued by around $200 million.

The timing is right to stop new leases and revamp policies, Charter said, noting that would not stop existing leases or production.

“There’s kind of questionable demand for coal right now,” he said. “Generally, it would be a good time to pause, step back and examine the whole program.”

In addition, the GAO report found that the Interior Department is not providing full information to the public about leases. The report is online at gao.gov.

 

Last Updated on Thursday, 13 February 2014 00:18

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If feds don’t, states may stop ethanol subsidy

FLASH IN THE PAN

By ARI LEVAUX @arilevaux

While recent Supreme Court rulings on voting rights and same-sex marriage have held the nation’s attention, another decision slipped quietly under radar. In late June, the Supreme Court refused to hear a challenge to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s program to raise the ethanol content of gasoline from 10 percent to 15 percent, thus clearing the way for more ethanol in gasoline.

The new draft Farm Bill included more than a billion dollars’ worth of support for all things ethanol. While this action at the federal level is bullish for ethanol, many states are calling bullshit.

The fact that most ethanol is made from corn means that an increase in the ethanol content of gas could create, or exacerbate, a variety of problems, like higher food prices and elevated levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide.

Ethanol production has also been linked to the spread of a dangerous form of E. Coli.

But while federal support for ethanol appears to be as unstoppable as it is misguided, some individual states have shown the kind of horsepower that could turn around this dead-end policy. In June, Florida repealed its Renewable Fuel Standard, and that standard’s mandate that gasoline contain 10 percent ethanol. And in May, Maine lawmakers approved a bill banning ethanol in gas, and asked the federal government to do the same.

The Maine House Republicans posted the following on Maine.gov:

“Evidence is mounting that ethanol is a failure in virtually every way. It takes more energy to produce it than the fuel provides. Food supplies around the world have been disrupted because so much of the corn crop now goes to ethanol. It costs taxpayers billions of dollars in subsidies at a time when our nation is already $12 trillion in debt. Even environmentalists have turned against it; research shows that ethanol production increases the amount of carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere.”

Maine’s Democrats have voted and spoken against ethanol as well. Indeed, “bipartisan” doesn’t begin to describe the diversity of opposition to ethanol. Ethanol fuel’s many problems have drawn together an opposing orgy of strange bedfellows, including the petroleum lobby, environmentalists, foodies, food processors, auto enthusiasts (cars don’t like ethanol, either) and citizens of all political bents-basically everyone outside of the corn belt and D.C.’s beltway. Only corn growers or the politicians they support stand to gain from ethanol, while all the rest of us get are the consequences.

Currently, 40 percent of the U.S. corn crop is used to make ethanol. Raising the allowable amount of ethanol in gasoline, as the Supreme Court’s recent decision greenlights, will likely increase demand for corn, drive up its price, and collaterally make food more expensive.

Already, increased corn demand created by ethanol policy in recent years has led to more land being cleared for agriculture. This activity, and the intensive tillage and monoculture-style farming system that produces most corn, has resulted in widespread loss of topsoil: 80 to 100 billion tons lost annually by some estimates. The vast and expanding monocultures of corn that blanket the Midwest are part of this problem.

Topsoil sequesters carbon dioxide. The more topsoil that’s lost, the less carbon dioxide is sequestered, yielding essentially the same result as adding more carbon dioxide to the atmosphere. Because of agriculture’s impact on soil loss, Allan Savory, a renowned rangeland and desertification specialist, considers agriculture one of global warming’s worst culprits, and has compared its effects to those of coal mining. Thick, healthy soils also absorb and hold water, while thin soil is less able to retain rainfall and irrigation, which increases the amount of water used in agriculture, which washes away even more topsoil.

When the energy costs of production, processing and transport are added up, ethanol is a net loss, according to T.J. Rogers, CEO of solar panel maker SunPower Corp. “Ethanol is a total waste,” Rogers told Watchdog.org, echoing the words of the Maine Republicans. “The bottom line is that it takes between one and 1.3 gallons of gasoline-equivalent energy to produce one gallon of ethanol.”

Meanwhile, on the food-safety front, a byproduct of ethanol production called distillers grains, widely used in cattle feed, turns out to be a rich source of E. coli 0157, the pathogen behind several recent recalls of E. coli-tainted beef. Though links between distillers grains and specific cases of food-borne illness have yet to be established, it has been demonstrated that the higher the percentage of distillers grains in cows’ diets, the higher the level of E. coli 0157 in those cows.

It’s frustrating to see ethanol policy, which is clearly destructive and unproductive on so many fronts, being pushed for such transparent reasons. And one has to wonder if the level of federal support for ethanol would be any different if, instead of the Iowa caucus in the heart of corn country, the New Hampshire primary was the first event of the presidential election season.

But the recent rebuffs to ethanol in Florida and Maine are hopeful signs that fighting it out at the state level can be an effective means of change.

Again, the Maine House Republicans:

“We’re not so naïve as to think a resolution from the Maine Legislature will light a fire under Congress. Ideally, Congress should repeal the ethanol laws because they are doing more harm than good. Our objectives are more modest but will still encounter opposition; the Midwest ethanol lobby has powerful advocates on Capitol Hill and billions of subsidy dollars are at stake.

But if Maine sparks other states to act, we could coerce Congress to stand up to the special interests.”

As the Farm Bill bobs and weaves its way through the halls of Congress, it’s probably too much to hope that the dollars allocated to ethanol support will suddenly dry up. But given the broad opposition to ethanol policy – owing to the fact that it’s basically insane – I like the states’ chances to defeat it, step by step. As we’ve just witnessed with same-sex marriage, sometimes when the states lead, the federal government follows.

Last Updated on Thursday, 03 October 2013 20:58

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Rocky professors win major reseach award

Rocky Mountain College

Rocky Mountain College students will benefit from research study opportunities thanks to efforts of two RMC professors closely working with the Geological Society of America and ExxonMobil.

Dr. Thomas J. Kalakay, RMC associate professor, geology, and Dr. Derek Sjostrom, RMC assistant professor, geology, recently received the GSA/ExxonMobil Bighorn Basin Field Award. The award included a one-week field seminar where participants were “exposed to some of the industry’s latest techniques and concepts in petroleum systems analysis,” Dr. Kalakay said. “Through our participation we will be able to integrate cutting edge industry concepts into our geology classes.”

Establishing collaborative relationships with professional geoscientists at ExxonMobil, the world’s largest privately owned oil and gas company, will lead to exceptional research study opportunities for faculty and students at RMC, according to Dr. Sjosrom.

“I plan on having a series of undergraduates work on research projects in collaboration with ExxonMobil geoscientists,” said Dr. Sjostrom. “The first projects will focus on Mesozoic rocks exposed in the southern Pryors and into the Bighorn Basin proper.”

According to Sjostrom, RMC is located in a world-class hydrocarbon-producing region. The location, combined with new industry connections and an already strong relationship with local oil industry experts, sets RMC apart from all other schools in the region, he noted.

In a unique collaboration of academic and industry professionals, the GSA and ExxonMobil seminars focus on the Wyoming basin that has been explored and studied for more than 100 years by geoscientists.

The seminars are taught by four ExxonMobil professionals, who between them, have more than 100 combined years of research in integrated basin analysis, with specific skills in tectonics, geochemistry, structure, sequence stratigraphy, sedimentology, paleontology, hydrocarbon systems analysis, and integrated play analysis.

Through the exchange of ideas and development of projects the program will benefit students, academic professionals and the oil and gas industry. It also supports ExxonMobil’s efforts to hire high-caliber geoscientists, according to Jennifer Nocerino, a program officer with the non-profit GSA.

“ExxonMobil has veteran geoscientists with broad backgrounds and terrific experience. We were pleased when they approached the GSA to propose the creation of a hands-on experience for faculty and students,” Nocerino said.

ExxonMobil funds the Bighorn Basin Field Award program with GSA organizing and administering it. Nocerino said for students it is a rare opportunity and for all participants it is prestigious to be selected. Only 20 college students (15 undergrads and five graduate students) and five college faculty are chosen from more than 300 applicants.

“The program involves five teams, with each one making field trips in order to study the rocks,” Nocerino said. “Each team does their own research and interpretation then the information is shared. It’s a meeting of talented minds from academia and industry.”

GSA manages the lodging and meals, all funded by the ExxonMobil grant.

The Geological Society of America, founded in 1888, is a scientific society with more than 25,000 members.

 from academia, government, and industry in more than 100 countries. Through its meetings, publications, and programs, GSA enhances the professional growth of its members and promotes the geosciences in the service of humankind. Headquartered in Boulder, Colorado, GSA encourages cooperative research among earth, life, planetary, and social scientists, fosters public dialogue on geoscience issues, and supports all levels of earth science education.

Last Updated on Thursday, 03 October 2013 20:00

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