Tag archive for Los Angeles Times

LA Times calls King Coal a liar

The Los Angeles Times has a heckuva team of environmental reporters, including several Pulitzer Prize winners, but as of late, some of the toughest reporting in the paper has come from Neela Banerjee, who in her latest story in politely calls the coal industry and its employees, the miners, liars.

It's fascinating to see how she does it. She introduces a coal miner, and lets him blame the Obama administration and the Environmental Protection Agency for the decline of the industry, and then, after several paragraphs of fairness, lowers the boom and reveals a simpler truth.

"Coal is the only industry we've got, all we've ever had," said Serafino Nolletti, Logan's mayor.

But coal's role in the state economy has been waning for 50 years.
Mechanization stripped away mining jobs, and the shuttering of the
domestic steel industry and much other manufacturing eroded coal

Coal is the third-largest contributor to the state's gross domestic
product, but employs less than 5% of the state's workforce — far less
than other industries, according to Jeremy Richardson, a West
Virginia-raised physicist and fellow at the Union of Concerned


"For the last 100 years, coal has been king in this state," said Jeff
Kessler, a Democrat who is president of West Virginia's Senate and a
sponsor of the so-called future fund. "But it's a king that hasn't
always been good to its subjects. Just because it's all we've known as a
state doesn't mean that's all there is."

As Joel Pett illustrates for the McClatchey chain:


Coal is losing power in this country — and popularity overseas too, as AP's BigStory of the day documents "the beginning of the end":

The U.S. will burn 943 million tons of coal this year, only about as much as it did in 1993. Now it's on the verge of adopting pollution rules that may all but prohibit the construction of new coal plants. And China, which burns 4 billion tons of coal a year — as much as the rest of the world combined — is taking steps to slow the staggering growth of its coal consumption and may even be approaching a peak.

Michael Parker, a commodities analyst at Bernstein Research, calls the shift in China "the beginning of the end of coal." While global coal use is almost certain to grow over the next few years — and remain an important fuel for decades after that — coal may soon begin a long slow decline.


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How to pitch an article: James Wolcott

From a first rate review by Charles McNulty in the Los Angeles TImes. The witty Wolcott, now at Vanity Fair, first worked at the Village Voice, and learned from reading other pitches how to write to intrigue: 

"Avoid preamble — flip the on switch in the first sentence. Find a focal point for your nervous energy, assume a forward offensive stance, and drive to the finish line, even if it's only a five-hundred-word slot …."

It's a lot harder than it sounds, but a good reminder on what to do, and what not to do. 

Meanwhile the LA Times itself is headed for another editor and another excursion to hell. Painful. Despite all its woes, it's a good paper. To be punished for trying so hard has got to hurt.  

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Climate scientists not pushing back against denialism, says American Geophysical Union

A story Sunday in the Los Angeles Times reported that climate scientists were joining in an effort to "push back" against a rise tide of climate change denial. The story said that Monday the American Geophysical Union would announce an effort by 700 scientists to "speak out as experts."

But today the AGU said no, they were organizing no such effort, simply making climate scientists available to answer questions by email, as they had last year, and would again.

"In contrast to what has been reported in the LA Times and elsewhere, there is no campaign by AGU against climate sceptics or congressional conservatives," [said] Christine McEntee, Executive Director and CEO of the American Geophysical Union.

But the story got a ton of publicity: Maybe the public (or the media) wants such a push back?

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Why did Valero invest $5 million in Prop 23?

As part of a story I wrote a couple of weeks back on Prop 23, I looked briefly at the story from the perspective of Valero, the Texas oil company that has poured millions — five million, to be precise — into the initiative, which is intended to gut AB 32, California's Global Warming Solutions Act.

I wanted to try and understand why Valero backed the proposition, and why Chevron (and other oil companies with big operations in California, such as Shell and Exxon) had not.

This proved to be much more difficult than one might imagine, because oil company annual reports are eye-glazing, and — more importantly — because people in the oil business were reluctant to talk.

Despite repeated attempts, Chevron never returned my calls, for example. Valero did, but stuck relentlessly to their talking points, insisting it was all about the recession and jobs. But it became clear from looking at their annual reports, and from talking to experts at the Energy Information Administration, and players such as Fran Pavley, who drafted AB 32, as well as advocates at the Sierra Club and other non-profits, that not all oil companies are opposed to AB 32…only the refiners.

In the Los Angeles Times today, Chevron ran several large ads touting their work in renewable energy and in charity — implicitly saying that Chevron thinks it can succeed under AB 32 just fine.

Which returns us to the question: What was motivating Valero?

In today's paper, in the business section, an excellent story by the Times' climate change reporter, Margot Roosevelt, did look at the initiative from Valero's perspective. Evidently Chevron wouldn't talk to her either, but she cobbled together facts from what Valero reported to business analysts to get to the truth.

Here's the crux: 

First, Valero emits almost a million tons of CO2 a year just from its plant near Long Beach. This was omitted from the on-line version of the story, unfortunately, but here's the fact from the print edition:

For decades California authorities have have regulated the plant's air pollution, water pollution and hazardous waste, including such health-damaging substances such as nitrogen oxides and sulfur oxides, along with toxic soot known as particulates. Now California is taking aim at the plant's 951,913 tons of carbon dioxide.

To reduce these emissions of CO2 will cost the company big bucks:

In fighting AB 32, Valero officials had suggested in the past that the cost of complying with the law could total $170 million a year for its two California refineries, in Wilmington and Benicia. But in the conference call with [financial] analysts, Valero acknowledged that the annual cost might be closer to $80 million.

And, as an expert at the EIA told me, because Valero doesn't drill for oil — although it does harvest oil from Canadian tar sands, and has invested in ethanol — it can't absord refinery costs as the giants can.

Unlike integrated oil companies such as Chevron Corp., Royal Dutch Shell and Exxon, which drill and distribute crude oil as well as refine it, independents such as Valero and Tesoro cannot spread costs across other operations.Through the first nine months of 2010, Valero has posted a profit of $762 million on revenue of $63.6 billion, after two calendar years of losses.

So a one-time investment of $5 million, versus $80 million to comply?

A drop in the bucket.

[pic of Valero's Wilmington refinery, from the story]


Note to reporter self: Next time you need facts on a business, go to business analysts.

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LA Times to SoCal: Climate Change is Here. Deal with It.

Over the past couple of years I have been critical of the paper for its all-or-nothing coverage of global warming (where they will run enormous stories about climate change in, say, the Arctic, but neglect to mention consequences here in California the US when covering other less-sexy environmental stories not specifically about climate change.)

That's the implicit message of the reporting in The Los Angeles Times over the last few months on water issues. Over the past couple of years I have been critical of the paper for its all-or-nothing coverage of global warming (where they will run enormous stories about climate change in, say, the Arctic, but neglect to mention consequences here in California or the US when covering other less-sexy environmental stories not specifically about climate change.)

I am now honor-bound to applaud its apparent shift in attitude, but I'm sincere about my praise.

A couple of examples. First, from a front-page story on the Westlands water district near Fresno:

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger last month asked President Obama to declare
Fresno County a disaster area to boost federal aid. But that's not what
the farmers say they want. At a recent town hall meeting in Fresno,
while some women in the audience knitted, men in baseball caps and
T-shirts shouted down officials from the Interior Department: "We don't
want welfare, we want water."

But climate change is
intensifying competition for this resource and may well force changes
in the way the valley has been farmed for decades.

This area,
once known as part of the great California desert, has always depended
on water from somewhere else. In the early part of the century,
homesteaders dug wells or hauled water from up north, but in 1952 they
banded together to form the Westlands Water District. It later
contracted to buy water from the federal government, which built a
system of canals and reservoirs that captures water in the northern
part of the state and sends it to farmers in the Sacramento-San Joaquin

Because of its subordinate water rights, the
600,000-acre Westlands Water District is often last on the long list of
groups receiving water from this federal project. In the last two
years, below-average rainfall and a shrinking snowpack have made the
supply even tighter than usual.

Second, from a typically first-rate story by Bettina Boxall about how Chino is recycling local water, and relying much less on importing:

Climate change threatens the Sierra snowpack, while environmental
restrictions — including those Davis fought for — have slashed the
amount of water Los Angeles can suck from the Owens Valley and
neighboring Mono Basin. Drought has cut Colorado River flows, while
rising demand from up-river is ending the surplus deliveries that
helped fill the Colorado River Aqueduct.

Shipments through the 444-mile-long California Aqueduct could be
permanently constricted by the ecological collapse of the
Sacramento-San Joaquin delta, the heart of the state's waterworks.

When the Los Angeles County Economic Development Corp. studied
potential water sources for the region last year, it concluded that
increasing conservation, capturing storm water and recycling could
yield roughly as much water as the Southland is getting from the delta.

Mitigation of greenhouse gas emissions may or may not happen (probably not, I'm sorry to report). Which means that we will adapt, or we will fail to adapt, and pay the price. That's how to cover this issue now.

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Economic Stimulus Package: Good News for Yosemite?

At The
Los Angeles Times, reporters specializing in science and the environment are becoming something of an endangered species. Before being purchased by real estate tycoon Sam Zell, the newspaper employed over a thousand editors and reporters; now it's about half that, according to the numbers meticulously compiled by the LA Observer.

But it's still the biggest newspaper on the West Coast, and still employs some of the best reporters in the business, including Kenneth Weiss, who co-wrote a Pulitzer Prize-winning series on our trashed oceans. Other first-rate reporters focusing on the environment, whose efforts should not be overlooked include Bettina Boxall and Julie Cart, who first caught my eye with a piece she cowrote on Marlene Braun, a Bureau of Land Management employee who killed herself rather than consent to the ruination of California's priceless grasslands, the Carrizo Plain.

This past Sunday, Cart wrote a first-rate piece on how the Civilian Conservation Corps helped build the national park system we know and love, focusing on Yosemite.

Cart opens:

The economy was a shambles. Millions of Americans were out of work. Saying something drastic needed to be done, the newly elected president announced a massive economic stimulus package aimed at repairing the nation's sagging infrastructure and putting people back to work.

The first "emergency agency" established by President Franklin D. Roosevelt was the Civilian Conservation Corps, which eventually put 3 million men to work in the national park system.

I talked with Scott Gediman, the National Park spokesperson for Yosemite, about the story. (Which he liked, by the way.) He said that although today's Congress does not want to create new programs, or revive the CCC, which was phased out after World War II, the idea of government investment in park infrastructure is widely popular on both sides of the aisle in Congress.

"We have hundreds of projects on the boards," he said. "The National Parks has a maintenance backlog of about $8 billion. In Yosemite, the Ahwahnee Hotel is overdue for a seismic retrofit. That's the kind of infrastructure project that requires a great deal of professional expertise, but we also have a lot of projects — like the Four Mile Trail from the valley to Glacier Point — that could benefit from CCC-type work. We have eight hundred miles of trail in Yosemite Park."

When asked to name names of prominent backers of government funding for infrastructure investment in the National Parks, Gediman surprised me by mentioning Mitch McConnell — the Senate Minority Leader who has been loudly protesting the size and scope of the President's stimulus package, complaining about $70 million for climate research, $20 million for fish barriers, and other environmental projects.

One question: Why is it wise to invest in national parks, but not in the health of our environment?

[A view of the valley from the Wawona Tunnel, constructed by the CCC, courtesy of Buck Forester's incredible photostream]

View from Wawona Tunnel

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Richard Halsey: Chaparral is Not for Burning

The Los Angeles Times is quite literally not what it used to be.

Just five years ago it employed a thousand or more editors and writers; now it's down to about 600, according to former staffer Kevin Roderick's LA Observed. The daily paper weighs about half, often less, of its older, richer self.

One can only hope that the savings in trees not pulped will someday be made up on the all-powerful electron stream known as the Internet, although early prospects are not encouraging.

Nonetheless, the LA Times is still by far the biggest reporting outlet on the West Coast, and still publishes excellent stories, as it did this week with Joe Mozingo's All He's Saying is Give Brush a Chance, about a naturalist named Richard Halsey and his crusade to save Southern California chaparral.

As the story puts it:

Chaparral, [Halsey] says, does not need to burn to the ground every 30 years
to remain healthy. Just the opposite. Too much fire will eventually
decimate the native flora — some of the most diverse in the nation —
leaving a biological wasteland of invasive weeds.

Many people might not know the difference, viewing chaparral as a brown, dead thicket of thorns and brush.

But with the help of top botanists and fire ecologists, Halsey is on a
campaign to correct the record about California's most widespread,
misunderstood and maligned type of vegetation.

In doing so, he hopes to limit brush clearance plans to the edges of suburbia, away from the backcountry.

I think a big part of the confusion is rooted in a couple of English words that are used as conversational shorthand, but which carry more baggage than speakers may realize. Those words are "supposed to" and "meant to" (as in, chaparral is "supposed to" burn). These words imply predestination, and that concept is backed up by the fact that many species of chaparral, such as manzanita and chamise, require the searing temperatures of fire to open seeds and begin again.

Even worse, biologists have extended this concept into the scientific literature, arguing that plants a few decades old are "senescent" or even "decadent," despite being in perfect health, and capable of living for many decades more. Chaparral is no more predestined to burn after ten or twenty years than redwood trees are predestined to be cut down by loggers after 500 or a 1000 years…it's just worked out that way all too often in California history.

Halsey…likes to point out the absurdity of this ["elderly brush"] theory…by simply calling the plants "senile," as if the manzanita were in
an advanced state of dementia.

Halsey further makes the point by talking of "old growth" chaparral, as in the manzanita picture below. As the story says, he is a "quirky" — that is, unexpectedly open — guy.

Once I saw him speak at a conference of fire managers in his neck of the woods, San Diego. He happened to say that he had been working closely with firefighters, and admired them, and had learned a lot from them. When he took questions, I asked him what he had learned — curious to hear what a naturalist would take away from the difficult and dangerous work of battlng wildland fires.

The question stumped him. He admitted he couldn't think of an example, at least not at that moment. Rarely do you see that kind of honesty in an advocate of any sort. Halsey's institute calls itself the voice of the chaparral. Long may it speak out for California's forgotten lands. 

Old growth manzanita

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It’s No Party at the LA Times

Miguel Bustillo, a first-rate reporter and writer who came up through the ranks of the LA Times, is leaving to take a job with the Wall Street Journal. American journalism is full of LA Times ex-pats: another is  Robert Lee Hotz, was the top writer at the paper on global warming issues before he left for the WSJ. The LA Times hasn’t found a real replacement yet, as far as I can tell. The issue is covered haphazardly.

But what’s most interesting — and saddening — about this news is that Bustillo, like so many readers who happen not to live in Santa Monica or downtown L.A., can’t understand why Southern California’s best newspaper choose to give up its dominance in places like the San Fernando Valley and Ventura County. The paper was doing a superb job of covering Ventura County, both its issues, its people, and even its artists. Now we’re lucky if its issues get an occasional mention in the California section. When even the insiders can’t figure this out, you know something is terribly wrong (from Bustillo’s parting letter to his friends at the paper, via LA Observed)

I was fortunate enough to work on a lot of memorable stories. But the
one that will always resonate in my mind was the 1994 Northridge
Earthquake. I was 22 at the time, just starting out. The Valley edition
was treated like a minor league affiliate by some of the more pompous
denizens of Times Mirror Square. But on that day, the Valley newsroom
rose to that challenge like nothing I’ve seen before or since. It was
magic, and as I played my small intern’s part in the reporting that
day, I knew I had made a good career choice. That Pulitzer was richly
deserved. Some of the stringers who contributed to that coverage are
among this paper’s best reporters today.

I will never understand why the LA Times pulled back from Ventura and
the Valley. That was the biggest strategic mistake this paper ever
made. I bet anyone who worked in those places, covering local news like
I did, would agree.

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Celtics Get Off the Mat, Win Round One

Pierce sustains a strained knee; Perkins a strained ankle. But despite hearing "a pop" in his knee, Pierce overcomes the pain, comes out of the locker room. gets back into the game. Hits a couple of big shots, and the Celts pull out tgame one in Boston. Lakers rattle out a dozen shots, lose by less than ten. And the paper offers a digitized painting to help us remember, which echoes a Magic/Bird picture, looks cool…


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LA Times: The Nightmare, Now on Steroids

As new boss Sam Zell hires a passel of executives from Clear Channel to run the newspaper. Via the WSJ:

Tribune has hired half a dozen radio executives since
Mr. Zell took effective control of the company in a leveraged buyout in
December, most prominently Mr. Michaels, a former radio chief for Clear
Channel Communications known for helping consolidate the radio industry
as well as for wacky stunts. He once arrived at a radio broadcasters’
conference carried on a litter and dressed in the garb of an Egyptian
pharaoh to underscore in a speech how powerful consolidation would
prove for radio.

Mr. Abrams started last Tuesday and in the past few
days Mr. Michaels has hired four other radio executives from Clear
Channel, all former colleagues. They include Jerry Kersting, finance
chief of Clear Channel’s radio division and engineer of many of the
acquisitions that helped turn the radio division into the powerhouse it
is today; senior vice president of programming Marc Chase; vice
president of technology Steve Gable; and vice president of programming
Sean Compton.

My sympathies to those who must try to put out a newspaper for wacky corporate radio honchos.

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