Sunday Reading – 03/05/2023

The following links are just news items and opinions that pass my desk throughout the week. I don’t necessarily support or advocate any of the items, they are just interesting reads.

Drought is now over in more than half of California, including the Bay Area, feds say – Soaked by heavy rains in recent weeks and flooding from a parade of atmospheric river storms since late last year, the majority of California — including the Bay Area — is no longer in a drought, federal officials reported Thursday.

Overall, 49.13% of California’s land area now can be classified as in a drought, down from 84.6% last week, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor, a weekly report issued by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the University of Nebraska.

That’s the lowest percentage since July 21, 2020, when 48.2% of the state was in a drought, according to the report.

“The Pacific weather systems of this week and last week added to copious precipitation that has been received from atmospheric rivers since December 2022, especially over California,” wrote Richard Heim, a meteorologist with NOAA.

The last time that no part of California was in at least a moderate-level drought was February 2020, the report noted.

On Thursday, 24.9% of California remained in “severe drought,” the second-worst category, down from 91.8% in November.

According to the report, none of California’s 15 coastal counties, where many reservoirs are 100% full, are still in any kind of drought status. The Sierra Nevada, which has the biggest snow pack in 30 years, is also completely out of drought from Fresno County’s higher elevations to Sierra County north of Lake Tahoe.

In the Bay Area, all nine counties are either entirely or mostly in “abnormally dry” status now, a level below drought. Read More > in the East Bay Times

Yosemite breaks snow record; park closed indefinitely – Yosemite National Park will remain closed indefinitely because of the severe weather battering California.

The park was shut down last Saturday as heavy snowfall and whiteout conditions in the Sierra prevented safe travel. It had been expected to reopen Thursday, but the same train of winter storms that hit over the weekend has continued and showed little sign of letting up.

On Tuesday, Yosemite Valley counted 40 inches of snow on the ground, surpassing the previous record for the date of 36 inches in 1969, according to park officials.

“We’re committed to opening the park as soon as we can do it in a safe manner,” Yosemite spokesman Scott Gediman told The Chronicle.

Yosemite officials did not estimate when the park might reopen and advised the public to monitor the park’s website and social media channels for further information. Read More > in the San Francisco Chronicle

Lab Leak Most Likely Origin of Covid-19 Pandemic, Energy Department Now Says – The U.S. Energy Department has concluded that the Covid pandemic most likely arose from a laboratory leak, according to a classified intelligence report recently provided to the White House and key members of Congress.

The shift by the Energy Department, which previously was undecided on how the virus emerged, is noted in an update to a 2021 document by Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines’s office. . . .

The FBI previously came to the conclusion that the pandemic was likely the result of a lab leak in 2021 with “moderate confidence” and still holds to this view.

The FBI employs a cadre of microbiologists, immunologists and other scientists and is supported by the National Bioforensic Analysis Center, which was established at Fort Detrick, Md., in 2004 to analyze anthrax and other possible biological threats.

U.S. officials declined to give details on the fresh intelligence and analysis that led the Energy Department to change its position. They added that while the Energy Department and the FBI each say an unintended lab leak is most likely, they arrived at those conclusions for different reasons.

The updated document underscores how intelligence officials are still putting together the pieces on how Covid-19 emerged. More than one million Americans have died in the pandemic that began more than three years ago.

The National Intelligence Council, which conducts long-term strategic analysis, and four agencies, which officials declined to identify, still assess with “low confidence” that the virus came about through natural transmission from an infected animal, according to the updated report. Read More > in The Wall Street Journal

California’s ‘population center’ in 1880 was near Stockton. These maps show where it is now – Five miles outside the city of Shafter in the San Joaquin Valley is a field of red and pink roses. The surrounding area located northwest of Bakersfield is known for its rose farms, producing about 40% of all roses grown in the U.S.

But residents may be surprised to learn that this area — more specifically, this rose farm — lies at the center of California’s population.

That’s according to an analysis by the U.S. Census Bureau that identifies the average location of where residents in each U.S. state live. You can think of it like the population’s balance point — if California was a scale and each person had equal weight, the center is where the scale would balance. The Census Bureau calls this balance point a “population center.”

When the metric was first calculated for California in 1880, it was in San Joaquin County near the city of Stockton. At the time, 49% of state residents lived in the Bay Area and 27% just in San Francisco.

But over the next 50 years, a population boom in Los Angeles County drew the state’s population center to the south. From 1880 to 1890, the center moved from San Joaquin County to Stanislaus — the county just south of San Joaquin. By 1900, it again moved south by one county to Merced and even further south to Fresno County in 1910. It stayed in Fresno over the next decade, then moved to Kern in 1930 where it has since remained. Read More > in the San Francisco Chronicle

Birth rates are declining in California. Here’s why experts think it’s happening. – California’s birth rate is at its lowest level in roughly 100 years, according to a new report from the Public Policy Institute of California. 

According to the January report, the number of births hit a peak in 1992 at roughly 613,000 children born. Now, more than 30 years later, that number dropped by nearly a third to 420,000. Authors called the trend “a new baby bust.”

The report also found that birth and marriage rates have taken an “especially sharp” decline among young people. Teen births also dropped, but authors noted they were not frequent enough to affect larger trends. 

The numbers may not seem significant now, but in the decades to come, the decline can have significant consequences for society and the economy, the report’s authors wrote. 

“Fewer children will mean declining K-12 enrollment and more school closures,” the report reads. “Longer term, it will weaken demand for infrastructure, including housing and transportation. It will also mean fewer working-age adults to care for an aging senior population.”

Authors did point out, however, that lower birth rates could “spur environmental gains that accrue from a lower population.”

Experts say economic, financial and cultural shifts all play a factor in the complicated decision to have — or not have — children. Read More > at CapRadio

New Bill To Prevent The Covert Release Of Sexually Violent Predators Into Communities – A bill to help prevent the covert releasing of Sexually Violent Predators (SVPs) into communities across the state was formally introduced into the Senate on Monday.

Senate Bill 832, authored by Senator Brian Jones (R-San Diego) would aim to make the highest criteria of any potential placement of an SVP be that of public safety. The bill, also known as the Sexually Violent Predator Accountability, Fairness, and Enforcement Act (SAFE Act), would also require the Department of State Hospitals (DSH) to take ownership in the placement process by approving any placements before the vendor can sign any leases for placement locations and would mandate that the Director of DSH is to publicly report annually how many SVPs are in each county, and in which supervisorial district.

The DSH, along with the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation and the Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CAL FIRE), would also be required to assess all land under their control and report to the Governor and Legislature any inventory of facilities that could be used to house SVPs. Finally, SB 832 would prevent an SVP from being placed within 5 miles of federally recognized “Indian country.”

Senator Jones wrote the bill due to many SVPs released from jail being moved  to communities across the state without much warning. In particular, many are moved to rural areas and nearby Indian reservations where the SVP is not known, where citizens could inadvertently be placed into potentially dangerous situations as a result, and where law enforcement is not of adequate levels to help deal with the influx of SVPS. While local and County officials have taken action against SVP placement in some areas of the state, many areas that are not equipped to handle SVPS moving in are still receiving them, adding to the urgency of SB 832 following other prior SVP bills of Jones’ including SB 841, which was introduced last year. Read More > in the California Globe

City Transit Systems Begin to Peer Over the Fiscal Cliff – For Bay Area Rapid Transit, fare revenue used to be a point of pride.

In the years before the COVID-19 pandemic, BART had a higher farebox recovery ratio — a measure of how much of the annual budget is covered by rider fares — than all the other transit providers in the region and most other transit systems across the country. It was a sign of the system’s health as well as the city’s: People wanted to ride the trains, and the region was organized well enough that they were useful. But the pandemic inaugurated a drastic drop in ridership that is likely to last, as more employers, especially those in the tech industry, shift to remote work.

BART carried 118 million riders in 2019, and fewer than 35 million in 2022; its operating ratio dropped over the same period from 71 percent to 21 percent. A region that was built around one of the strongest downtown job centers anywhere now has the highest rate of remote work and the slowest downtown recovery in the country, says Alicia Trost, BART’s chief communications officer.

“That dynamic duo of highest and slowest is — what’s the right adjective? — it’s very detrimental to our future. It is forcing us to invert our funding model,” Trost says.

Like almost every other big transit system in the U.S., BART is now facing a fiscal cliff, the moment when the federal government’s enormous pandemic financial relief for transit systems runs out and agencies are forced to find a way forward. BART’s budget is balanced for the 2023-2024 fiscal year, but next year, it’s facing a $140 million deficit.

Every year after that the system is looking at a deficit of around $300 million. As it tries to avoid draconian service cuts, which it says would ultimately yield limited cost savings and create even deeper revenue losses, BART is looking to a future where riders pay less of its costs and the whole region invests more.

How can you fill a revenue gap when the riders haven’t come back? For San Francisco’s transit systems, the path forward is looking increasingly like a broad regional ballot measure that asks voters to put up more money for transit. But that likely won’t be possible until at least 2026, says Rebecca Long, director of legislation and public affairs at the Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC), the metropolitan planning organization for the region. That’s because in 2024, MTC is also hoping to ask voters to address a different regional crisis — housing costs — with a major funding measure. Read More > at Governing

End of the Line? The Homelessness Crisis Is Sending BART Careening Toward Fiscal Disaster – …Sledge told The Standard that she takes the train to the end of the line as often as three times a week because she prefers it to staying in a homeless shelter. And she’s just one of the scores of homeless people across the region who use the train system as a temporary shelter that’s relatively safe and out of the cold. 

BART may be a transit system, but like so many others in big cities across the nation, the agency is struggling with how to address the seemingly ever-growing homelessness crisis as it careens toward financial disaster. The agency’s spending on social service interventions and related items has ballooned to upward of $30 million annually, with federal funding expected to run out in two years and hundreds of millions in deficits to follow as the pandemic continues to wreak havoc on public transit revenues.

And there is no savior in sight.  

At a time when the agency desperately needs to win back commuters—its monthly ridership sits at around 40% compared with what it was pre-Covid—riders are particularly frustrated with its performance both on managing homelessness and delivering basic service. 

Alongside bad weather and operator shortages, BART’s on-time performance dipped below 75% in November and has continued to decline in the intervening months. Delays due to police activity, which can stem from drug activity or other crimes, frequently stymie service according to BART data.  

A recent customer survey from BART showed a 6% increase in those who were dissatisfied with BART’s service compared with a 2020 survey. The proportion of those reporting they were “very satisfied” dropped from 39% to 26%. 

The issue that BART riders ranked as the one the agency has done the worst job on? Addressing homelessness. 

The agency’s conundrum mirrors that of other transit systems nationwide struggling with the dual crises of rising homelessness and diminished ridership post-Covid. And it also reflects familiar debates over stricter police enforcement versus investing in social services. Read More > in The San Francisco Standard

California keeps sending toxic soil to out-of-state landfills — Newsom and legislators are slow to change course – State lawmakers are planning an oversight hearing that will look into how California handles toxic soil from old industrial, military and other cleanup sites — waste contaminated with things such as lead, petroleum hydrocarbons and the infamous insecticide DDT.

CalMatters investigation last month revealed businesses and government agencies routinely dispose of contaminated soil at landfills in Arizona and Utah — states with weaker environmental regulation and oversight — as opposed to in California where the waste would need to go to specialized hazardous waste disposal facilities.

Two of the most heavily used landfills are near Native American reservations in Arizona, including one landfill with a spotty environmental record.

California state and local government agencies largely oversee or directly manage the cleanup projects disposing the waste out of state. California’s own hazardous waste watchdog — the Department of Toxic Substances Control — is one of the biggest out-of-state dumpers and has continued to take its toxic waste to Arizona despite the public revelations, according to information the department recently provided.

Gov. Gavin Newsom has positioned himself as a national leader on environmental issues. His office failed to respond to requests for comment both before and after CalMatters’ initial report. Read More > at CalMatters

PG&E delivers bill shocks to customers amid soaring natural gas prices – Soaring prices for natural gas and this winter’s icy blasts have jolted unsuspecting PG&E customers with brutal — and fast-rising — monthly utility bills.

Experts point to an array of factors driving California’s crushing surge in monthly utility bills — with natural gas prices, especially, a culprit.

“The natural gas costs are really high, but just in California and on the West Coast,” said Severin Borenstein, director of UC Berkeley’s Energy Institute at Haas. “In the rest of the U.S., natural gas has become cheap, very cheap.”

“One factor is gas pipeline capacity,” Borenstein said. “If we had more pipeline capacity, you would see more gas going from low-cost areas to the West Coast.”

Plus, reserves of natural gas aren’t available to the same extent as in years past.

“We have less storage on the West Coast than in past years,” Borenstein said. “When we don’t have as much storage of natural gas, prices can go through the roof.”

One major complication: The gas storage field at Aliso Canyon in the San Fernando Valley region of Los Angeles County suffered a massive leak in 2015 that forced the shutdown of the energy complex in 2016. In 2017, Southern California Gas resumed storage in the field, although on a limited basis.

In January, Bay Area prices for natural gas piped into the home — roughly equivalent to PG&E gas services — rocketed higher by 24.4% compared to January 2022, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. That was a big jump from December’s annualized increase of 14.7%. And it was the largest year-to-year increase since September 2022, this news organization’s analysis of the federal agency’s report determined.

The Bay Area’s recent frigid weather, punctuated this month by unusual snow storms, also has contributed to the jump in PG&E bills.

During 2022, PG&E generated $6.62 billion in revenue from its gas utility operations, up 20.1% from the $5.51 billion PG&E realized in 2021 from gas revenue.

During the October-through-December fourth quarter of 2022, PG&E generated $2.05 billion in revenue from natural gas utility operations, up 24.2% from the $1.65 billion in revenue in the fourth quarter of 2021.

Gas revenue is rising at a much faster rate than the utility’s overall revenue, the company’s annual report shows. In 2022, PG&E realized total revenue of $21.68 billion from electricity and gas operations, an increase of 0.5% from the $20.64 billion in revenue in 2021. Read More > in The Mercury News

Sites Reservoir: What’s the holdup? – California’s recent winter storms have prompted a lot of talk about whether they will ease the drought. But water storage is a key part of that equation.

Enter the long-awaited Sites Reservoir? In less than two weeks of storms, the reservoir could have captured 120,000 acre-feet of water from the Sacramento River, enough to serve about 1.3 million Californians for a year, according to water agencies supporting the project. When complete, Sites would store 1.5 million acre-feet, compared to 50 million total for California’s existing reservoirs.

But the $4.4 billion project has been on the drawing board for more than 40 years, prompting a growing chorus of criticism from legislators and growers. So what’s the holdup? 

CalMatters’ Alastair Bland explains: Acquisition of water rights, permitting and environmental review are still in the works. Kickoff of construction, which includes two large dams, had been scheduled for 2024, but likely will be delayed another year. Completion is expected in 2030 or 2031. Read More > at CalMatters

Too little salt could be risky for heart failure patients – It may seem counterintuitive, but a new study review suggests that consuming too little salt could be harmful to heart failure patients.

Doctors currently recommend a low-sodium diet to lower blood pressure and avoid fluid buildup and swelling, which can be common symptoms for heart failure. The condition develops when the heart muscle becomes too weak or stiff to effectively pump blood to the rest of the body.

But the new meta-analysis of nine randomized, controlled trials found that restricting dietary sodium intake below the standard recommended maximum of about 2.3 grams per day did not bring additional benefits, and it also may increase the risk of death.

The findings will be presented March 5 at the American College of Cardiology’s annual meeting, in New Orleans. Read More > at UPI

Dow said it was recycling our shoes. We found them at an Indonesian flea market – At a rundown market on the Indonesian island of Batam, a small location tracker was beeping from the back of a crumbling second-hand shoe store. A Reuters reporter followed the high-pitched ping to a mound of old sneakers and began digging through the pile.

There they were: a pair of blue Nike running shoes with a tracking device hidden in one of the soles.

These familiar shoes had traveled by land, then sea and crossed an international border to end up in this heap. They weren’t supposed to be here.

Five months earlier, in July 2022, Reuters had given the shoes to a recycling program spearheaded by the Singapore government and U.S. petrochemicals giant Dow Inc. In media releases and a promotional video posted online, that effort promised to harvest the rubberized soles and midsoles of donated shoes, then grind down the material for use in building new playgrounds and running tracks in Singapore.

Dow, a major producer of chemicals used to make plastics and other synthetic materials, in the past has launched recycling efforts that have fallen short of their stated aims. Reuters wanted to follow a donated shoe from start to finish to see if it did, in fact, end up in new athletic surfaces in Singapore, or at least made it as far as a local recycling facility for shredding.

To that end, the news organization cut a shallow cavity into the interior sole of one of the blue Nikes, placed a Bluetooth tracker inside, then concealed the device by covering it with the insole. The tracker was synched to a smartphone app that showed where the shoe moved in real time.

Within weeks, the blue Nikes had left the prosperous city-state and were moving south by sea across the narrow Singapore Strait to Batam island, the app showed. Reuters decided to put trackers in an additional 10 pairs of donated shoes to see if wayward pair No. 1 had been a fluke.

It wasn’t.

None of the 11 pairs of footwear donated by Reuters were turned into exercise paths or kids’ parks in Singapore. Read More > at Reuters

China Is Full Steam Ahead With New Coal Plants As The West Goes GreenChina approved the equivalent of two new large coal plants each week last year even as the United States and other Western nations prioritized renewable energy.

As worldwide energy costs increase amid the Russian invasion of Ukraine and persistent supply chain bottlenecks, Chinese authorities approved 106 gigawatts of new coal power projects in 2022, more than quadrupling the 23 gigawatts approved in 2021, according to an analysis from the Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air.

“Coal power plant permitting, construction starts and new project announcements accelerated dramatically in China in 2022, with new permits reaching the highest level since 2015,” the clean energy organization said. “The coal power capacity starting construction in China was six times as large as that in all of the rest of the world combined.”

Developers in the United States have meanwhile transitioned away from coal: nearly one-quarter of the nation’s 201 gigawatts of coal power capacity is slated to be retired by 2029, according to data from the Energy Information Administration. Companies have not reported any future plans to construct new coal facilities as of September 2022. Read More > at The Daily Wire

Mortgage demand from homebuyers drops to a 28-year low – Mortgage rates moved higher again last week, pushing buyers back to the sidelines just as the spring housing market is supposed to be heating up.

Mortgage applications to purchase a home dropped 6% last week compared with the previous week, according to the Mortgage Bankers Association’s seasonally adjusted index. Volume was 44% lower than the same week one year ago, and is now sitting at a 28-year low.

This as the average contract interest rate for 30-year fixed-rate mortgages with conforming loan balances ($726,200 or less) increased to 6.71% from 6.62%, with points rising to 0.77 from 0.75 (including the origination fee) for loans with a 20% down payment. That is the highest rate since November of last year.

Mortgage rates have moved 50 basis points higher in just the past month. Last February, rates were in the 4% range. Read More > at CNBC

Mortgage rates jump back over 7% as inflation fears drive yields higher – The average rate on the 30-year fixed mortgage jumped back over 7% on Thursday, rising to 7.1%, according to Mortgage News Daily.

Growing fears that inflation is not cooling off are pushing bond yields higher. Mortgage rates loosely follow the yield on the U.S. 10-year Treasury.

“Rates continue to move at the suggestion of economic data, and the data hasn’t been friendly. This is scary considering this week’s data is insignificant compared to several upcoming reports,” said Matthew Graham, chief operating officer at Mortgage News Daily.

Rates went over 7% last October. That was the highest level in more than 20 years. But they pulled back in the following months, as inflation appeared to be easing. By mid-January rates were touching 6%, spurring a big jump in buyers signing contracts on existing homes.

So-called pending home sales rose an unexpectedly strong 8% from December, according to the National Association of Realtors. But the past four weeks have been rough. Rates have moved 100 basis points higher since the start of February.

For a buyer purchasing a $400,000 home with 20% down on a 30-year fixed loan, the monthly payment, including principal and interest, is now roughly $230 a month more than it would have been a month ago. Compared with a year ago, when rates were in the 4% range, today’s monthly payment is about 50% higher. Read More > at CNBC

Daily walk prevents one in 10 early deaths – study – You don’t have to be a runner or play sport to feel the benefits of exercise – fitting a brisk walk into your day is good enough, UK analysis suggests.

It found if everyone did as little as 11 minutes of daily activity, one in 10 premature deaths could be prevented.

Most people don’t manage to do the minimum recommended 150 minutes of exercise a week, however.

But doing some exercise is better than doing nothing, the researchers from the University of Cambridge say.

The NHS recommends everyone does 150-300 minutes of physical activity that raises the heart rate every week or 75-150 minutes of vigorous activity per week, which makes you breathe hard.

The research team looked at hundreds of previous studies on the benefits of physical activity and concluded that even doing half the recommended amount could prevent one in 20 cases of cardiovascular disease and nearly one in 30 cases of cancer.

That equates to 75 minutes per week – or 11 minutes per day – riding a bike, walking fast, hiking, dancing or playing tennis. Read More > in the BBC

COVID may have leaked out of a Chinese lab, after all. So much for ‘misinformation.’ – Nearly three years ago, a reporter asked then-President Donald Trump whether he had seen evidence that gave him a “high degree of confidence” that COVID-19 had emerged from a lab in China.

“Yes, I have. Yes, I have,” Trump said. “And I think the World Health Organization should be ashamed of themselves because they’re like the public relations agency for China.”

In Trump fashion, he later took that sentiment and made it more inflammatory by using “Wuhan virus” or “Chinese virus” when talking about COVID-19. The left was quick to label such phrases as racist, but also disregarded why the president used those words. 

Earlier in 2020, Arkansas GOP Sen. Tom Cotton said the following: “We don’t have evidence that this disease originated there (the Wuhan lab), but because of China’s duplicity and dishonesty from the beginning, we need to at least ask the question to see what the evidence says, and China right now is not giving evidence on that question at all.”

Much like they did with Trump, many in the news media denounced Cotton’s comments as supporting a “fringe” theory and promulgating a “debunked” conspiracy.  

Could an accident have caused COVID-19?:Why the Wuhan lab-leak theory shouldn’t be dismissed

‘I remember it very well’:Dr. Fauci describes a secret 2020 meeting to talk about COVID origins

In 2021, a reporter – not an opinion writer like myself – at The New York Times who covers the pandemic and global health wrote on Twitter that maybe “someday” we’ll stop talking about the “lab leak theory” and its “racist roots.” She later deleted that tweet after ensuing backlash.

It turns out that there was cause for skepticism about the virus’ roots. 

A Wall Street Journal report from the weekend revealed how the U.S. Energy Department has joined the FBI in saying that COVID-19 likely spread from a Chinese lab. The Energy Department holds heft as it oversees U.S. laboratories, and it made its determination after new intelligence came to light. 

Similarly, on Tuesday, FBI Director Christopher Wray gave Fox News the first public confirmation of the bureau’s assessment that the virus “most likely” originated from a lab

Other intelligence agencies still contend that the virus resulted from a natural transmission or are undecided. Read More > at USA Today

Americans Have the Lowest Trust in News in the World – People are aware of America’s infamous political polarization and the seepage of strange partisan and ideological outlooks into every aspect of modern life. Perhaps less well understood, the increase in seemingly irresolvable partisan conflicts also coincides with a total collapse in public trust of objective news reporting among most Americans and a steep increase in the number of Americans checking out from national news altogether.

The Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism and YouGov released a fascinating study last year examining news consumption and media habits across the world based on interviews with 93,000 people in 46 markets on 6 continents. This impressive study provides a wealth of comparative data across different national contexts and political environments.

Two findings from the 2000+ sample of citizens in the United States really stand out:

Only 26 percent of Americans express general trust in the news—tied for the lowest level of trust in the world along with the citizens of Slovakia. The survey asked respondents whether they agree or disagree with the following statement: “I think you can trust most news most of the time.” As the report authors note (and as seen in the charts below):

Trust in the news has fallen in almost half the countries in our survey, and risen in just seven, partly reversing the gains made at the height of the Coronavirus pandemic. On average, around four in ten of our total sample (42 percent) say they trust most news most of the time. Finland remains the country with the highest levels of overall trust (69 percent), while news trust in the USA has fallen by a further three percentage points and remains the lowest (26 percent) in our survey.

The political divides in news trust within America are also stark. For example, nearly three times as many Americans on the political left as on the political right say they trust the news most of the time—39 percent vs. 14 percent, respectively. In comparison, there is almost no ideological divide in a country such as Finland where around 7 in 10 people on both the political left and the right say they trust the news most of the time. Read More > at The Liberal Patriot

A new nuclear lifeline – Federal regulators gave California’s last nuclear power plant a new lease on life on Thursday.

The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission ruled that Pacific Gas & Electric can keep running the Diablo Canyon plant under its current license past its scheduled expiration date of 2025 while the utility seeks a longer-term extension. 

According to CalMatters’ environment reporter Nadia Lopez, PG&E is seeking a 20-year extension, a customary duration for nuclear power plant applications, though the Legislature only extended the plant’s legal life until 2030.

What to do about Diablo is an increasingly pressing concern as California commits to ever-more ambitious goals to decarbonize its grid and electrify the vehicles on its roads. The nuclear power plant near San Luis Obispo provides roughly 10% of the state’s electricity — and in a steady and reliable flow needed to balance out intermittent wind and solar power. Read More > at CalMatters

How U.S. Shale Changed The Face Of Global Politics – In the early 2000s, a revolution was unfolding in the energy industry. Technological advancements in horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing had unlocked vast reserves of oil and natural gas trapped in shale rock formations deep beneath the earth’s surface.

The U.S. was sitting on top of one of the largest shale deposits in the world, known as the Permian Basin, which spans parts of Texas and New Mexico. As companies began to explore and drill in this region, they discovered that there were immense amounts of oil and gas waiting to be extracted.

This discovery sparked what would become known as the historic U.S. shale boom – a period of rapid growth in domestic oil and gas production that would have significant geopolitical implications for years to come.

The U.S. shale boom had far-reaching geopolitical implications that continue to shape global politics today. Here are just a few examples:

Reduced Dependence on Foreign Oil

The most immediate impact of the shale boom was that it dramatically reduced America’s dependence on foreign sources of oil. In 2005, net imports accounted for more than 60% of U.S. petroleum consumption; by 2019, that figure had fallen below 10%.

This shift towards domestic energy production has given American policymakers greater flexibility when it comes to foreign policy decisions related to energy security. For example, sanctions against major oil-producing countries like Iran or Venezuela are less likely to have severe economic consequences for Americans since they can rely on their own domestic supply instead.

Increased Energy Security

In addition to reducing dependence on foreign sources of oil, increased domestic production has also improved energy security within the United States itself.

During times when global energy markets are volatile or disrupted (such as during wars or natural disasters), having a reliable source of domestically produced energy gives America an advantage over other countries whose supplies may be more vulnerable. Read More > at OilPrice

Do Masks Work? It’s a Question of Physics, Biology, and Behavior. – On March 28, 2020, as Covid-19 cases began to shut down public life in much of the United States, then-Surgeon General Jerome Adams issued an advisory on Twitter: The general public should not wear masks. “There is scant or conflicting evidence they benefit individual wearers in a meaningful way,” he wrote.

Adams’ advice was in line with messages from other U.S. officials and the World Health Organization. Days later, though, U.S. public health leaders shifted course. Mask-wearing was soon a pandemic-control strategy worldwide, but whether this strategy succeeded is now a matter of heated debate — particularly after a major new analysis, released in January, seemed to conclude that masks remain an unproven strategy for curbing transmission of Covid-19 and other respiratory viruses.

“There’s still no evidence that masks are effective during a pandemic,” the study’s lead author, physician and epidemiologist Tom Jefferson, recently told an interviewer.

Many public health experts vigorously disagree with that claim, but the study has caught attention, in part, because of its pedigree: It was published by Cochrane, a not-for-profit that aims to bring rigorous scientific evidence more squarely into the practice of medicine. The group’s highly regarded systematic reviews affect clinical practice worldwide. “It’s really our gold standard for evidence-based medicine,” said Jeanne Noble, a physician and associate professor of emergency medicine at the University of California, San Francisco. One epidemiologist described Cochrane as “the Bible.”

The new review, “Physical interventions to interrupt or reduce the spread of respiratory viruses,” is an updated version of a paper published in the fall of 2020. It dropped at a time when debates over Covid-19 are still simmering among scientists, politicians, and the broader public.

For some, the Cochrane review provided vindication. “Mask mandates were a bust,” conservative columnist Bret Stephens wrote in The New York Times last week. “Those skeptics who were furiously mocked as cranks and occasionally censored as ‘misinformers’ for opposing mandates were right.”

Meanwhile, masks continue to be recommended by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which describes them as “a critical public health tool.” And this winter, some school districts issued short-term mandates in an effort to curb not just Covid-19, but other respiratory viruses, including influenza and RSV.

The polarized debate conceals a murkier picture. Whether or not masks “work” is a multilayered question — one involving a mix of physics, infectious disease biology, and human behavior. Many scientists and physicians say the Cochrane review’s findings were, in a strict sense, correct: High-quality studies known as randomized controlled trials, or RCTs, don’t typically show much benefit for mask wearers.

But whether that means masks don’t work is a tougher question — one that has revealed sharp divisions among public health researchers. Read More > at Real Clear Science

Why do we swear so much? – Swearing heightens attention and recall, and also enhances pain relief. Maybe that’s why people from all races, classes and education levels swear

Swearing (aka cursing) means using “bad” words and is found in the languages of all cultures. My Collins English Dictionary defines a swear word as “a socially taboo word or phrase of profane, or insulting character”. Swearing has the potential to be offensive, objectionable, inappropriate or unacceptable in any given social context.

Although its universal nature suggests swearing serves a purpose, perhaps not served by the rest of our language, we do not acknowledge this. We look on swearing, at best, as coarse, vulgar language and we teach our children not to swear. So, why does it stubbornly persist and could some categories even serve a useful purpose?

People from all races, classes and education levels swear, eg 72 per cent of men and 58 per cent of women in the United States swear in public. Language researchers report that women swear less than men, but women’s swearing may simply be more context specific. Swearing is reviewed by Karyn Stapleton and others in Lingua, Volume 277, October 2022.

Most modern swear words fall into three categories: religion (eg damn, hell); sex (eg f**k); bodily excretions (eg sh*t). Nowadays the religious category is likely to be less offensive to people than words in the excretory/sexual category. Swearing is often sanctioned through a variety of mechanisms – censorship, fines, social disapproval.

Sociologists divide swearing into three categories. (A) annoyance swearing: using swear words to provide emotional and stress relief, eg when you accidentally hit your thumb with a hammer or drop an expensive vase on to a tiled floor; (B) abusive swearing: designed to insult and offend; (C) social swearing: To express joy or anger, verbal emphasis, humour or social bonding, and to construct/display identity. Read More > in The Irish Times

Permanent daylight saving time bill gets renewed push in Congress – Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., has reintroduced legislation to make daylight saving time permanent across the country, which he says would end the “antiquated practice” of changing clocks twice a year.

“This ritual of changing time twice a year is stupid. Locking the clock has overwhelming bipartisan and popular support. This Congress, I hope that we can finally get this done,” Rubio said in a statement Thursday.

The bill, called the Sunshine Protection Act, passed the Senate last year by unanimous consent, meaning no senators opposed it. But it stalled in the House and expired at the end of the last session of Congress.

If it is enacted, daylight saving time, which begins in March and ends in November, would become permanent year-round in the U.S.

Rep. Vern Buchanan, R-Fla., has introduced companion legislation in the House.

“There are enormous health and economic benefits to making daylight saving time permanent,” Buchanan said in a statement. “Florida lawmakers have already voted to make daylight saving time permanent in my home state and Congress should pass the Sunshine Protection Act to move Florida and the rest of the country to year-round daylight saving time.” Read More > at NBC News

About Kevin

Manager of Mainframe Operations and Optimization – USS-UPI, Co-Founder and Board Member - Friends of Oakley A Community Foundation, Trustee RD 2137, Advisory Board – Opportunity Junction
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