Tuesday, November 25, 2014

11/25/2014 at 6:40am

A few of the newspapers and websites that ran the Daily Yonder's local reports on food-stamp usage.

The writer of the email was curious.

The editor of the Lincoln County Record in Nevada was delighted to have a local story about food stamp usage.

But why had a national publication like the Daily Yonder written an article just for a Lincoln County, Nevada? What made their county so special, out of the 3,144 in the United States?

It was a fair question.

First, the easy answer: The food-stamp program is news in Lincoln County.

During the Great Recession, the percentage of Lincoln County residents participating in the Supplemental Assistance Nutrition Program (SNAP, as it is called) more than doubled. Although the county had a participation rate lower than the Nevada or national averages, the federal program was still providing more than a half-million dollars a year in food aid. In a county of only 5,300 residents, that was a fair amount of money coming into the local economy.

After the congressional dustup about food stamps in the debate over the most recent farm bill, SNAP was certainly something folks were talking about.

But still, why single out one county in Nevada and write a story for that county’s local paper?

The answer was that we hadn’t written just one story. We’d generated thousands of different local stories – complete with local leads, data and charts – for most rural counties in the United States. And we had sent the stories to nearly every editor we could find who served a rural community.

By the end of the email exchange, the editor in the small Nevada county probably didn’t feel quite as special for getting individualized attention from the Daily Yonder’s research and editorial contributors. But the Lincoln County Record still had a story that was news for its community.

Using data to generate stories is nothing new for the Daily Yonder. Bill Bishop, one of our founding editors, started that focus more than seven years ago when he and Julie Ardery launched the Daily Yonder.

Our national stories that look at broad trends in rural America – like the difference in urban and rural unemployment rates – help inform the national debate about the future of rural America.

But a critical piece of the discussion about rural America isn’t occurring in national or regional media, or even in specialized national websites like the Daily Yonder. It’s happening in community newspapers and at small radio stations. And that’s where the Yonder wants to be.

After all, locally focused journalists are the ones who continue to serve the interests of rural residents, while big dailies and television stations have pulled their reporters back to their metropolitan hubs.

11/24/2014 at 6:00am

Photo by Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press A train carrying crude oil killed 47 people when it derained and exploded in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, in July 2013.

The safety of millions of Americans who live, work or play within a mile of tracks where Bakken oil trains run are in the hands of three mortal men.

Unfortunately, these men make up the North Dakota Industrial Commission.

“It’s a little like the Wild West up in the Bakken, where everybody gets to do what they want to do,” says Myron Goforth, president of Dew Point Control LLC, in Sugarland, Texas. “In the Eagle Ford (Texas shale play), you’ve got to play by the rules, which forces the oil companies to treat it (crude) differently.”

Not in North Dakota, where oil regulators are finally feeling pressure to require the Bakken oil producers to render the trains non-explosive. The push comes six years after the first massive Bakken oil train explosion outside of Luther, Oklahoma, and seven months since the last, in downtown Lynchburg, Virginia, where a quirk of physics turned the exploding tanker cars towards the river, sparing many people and buildings.

Making the trains safer has been possible all along. It seems that politicians in some states don’t want their citizens or towns incinerated, nor do they wish to watch property values drop in the meantime.

Will the North Dakota Industrial Commission act?

Spoiler alert: No.

The Bakken crude needs to be “stabilized,” to remove all explosive “natural gas liquids” such as ethane, propane and butane. That requires billions of dollars in additional equipment and infrastructure, and the oil companies don’t want to pay for it.

11/21/2014 at 6:33am

Source: Mark Haggerty/Headwaters Economics The chart shows the loss in tax revenue over a five-year period for a typical new shale-oil well in North Dakota, based on a drop in the price from $98 to $78 a barrel of crude. Local governments's share (green bars) of a typical well would drop about $80,000 over the period. Losses to state revenue (yellow) and permanent investments (blue) for future development needs would be even greater.

Falling oil prices could mean millions of dollars less in tax revenue for local governments in oil-producing regions, even as counties and municipalities have to continue paying for the impact of oil boom.

To get a handle on the possible impact of falling oil prices on local government revenues, I looked at the difference in tax income that occurs when oil prices drop from $98 to $78 a barrel for in North Dakota’s Bakken shale oil fields. That’s comparable to the change we’ve seen in the recent decline of oil prices.

The change in price could result in about $200 million less for local governments over five years, and $350 million less for state government. Losses for that state’s permanent investment fund would be even higher.

Those figures include only an estimated 2,500 new wells and don’t include lost revenues on the state’s existing wells, which number in the tens of thousands.

States are already stingy with sharing revenues with local communities to fund infrastructure and services required during the oil boom. And local governments need oil revenue to pay for annual, recurring expenses even as some states have invested in permanent funds to meet long-term needs. High oil prices can mask these problems in fiscal policy, but today’s lower prices—if they persist and if drilling continues apace—may expose these weaknesses. Communities will have less money to deal with the same intensity of industrial and population-growth related impacts.

11/20/2014 at 6:22am

President Barack Obama, a former Chicago community organizer and perhaps our most urban president, just did something that could make a real difference for rural America. Last week he came to the defense of the principle of net neutrality, and he urged the Federal Communications Commission to reclassify broadband service under Title II of the Telecommunications Act.

This could be a big win for rural communities and small towns. Let me tell you how.

Net Neutrality
Net neutrality is the principle that all information is treated equally and that no website or streaming service can pay for a faster lane.

President Obama explained it: “We cannot allow Internet service providers to restrict the best access or to pick winners and losers in the online marketplace for services and ideas… I believe the FCC should reclassify consumer broadband service under Title II of the Telecommunications Act.”

The president’s calling for Title II reclassification is an unequivocal commitment to ensure that rural Americans don’t get stuck in the slow lane. Thank you, Mr. President.

The Internet helps rural communities revitalize our local economies, share our culture with global audiences and amplify our voices in debates that shape society.

For example, Becky McCray owns a liquor store and cattle ranching business in Hopeton, Oklahoma, a town of 30 people. She also writes about how to run a small business and connects with other rural business owners across the country via her blog, Small Biz Survival.

You can’t buy Becky’s products online, but she uses the Internet for every aspect of her businesses: to bid on merchandise, to run her iPad as a cash register, to market her products. The Internet allows her to compete with large liquor businesses in metropolitan areas and to stay in her rural community. Without network neutrality, Becky will be at a competitive disadvantage. She simply does not have the same capital that a big Internet-based company like BevMo! has to speed up their connection.

President Obama stood up for Becky and small, rural business owners like her.

11/19/2014 at 12:57pm

Photo by Gary Cameron/Reuters Anti-Keystone XL Pipeline activists demonstrate outside Louisiana Senator Mary Landrieu's house.

The Senate’s vote over the Keystone XL pipeline on Tuesday was mostly sound and fury. But it did signify something: Mary Landrieu’s hopes of winning her run-off election in Louisiana’s U.S. Senate race in early December.

Landrieu, the Louisiana Democrat, introduced the measure to approve the pipeline in the Senate. Observers say she hopes her very visible support for the pipeline will help her in her re-election bid against U.S. Representative Bill Cassidy, a Republican.

That the Senate approval of the pipeline fell just short of the magic number to move forward is a secondary concern, according to this theory. Because pipeline supporters will most likely have an easy time passing a similar measure in the Senate in January, when the new Congress is seated.

But January is too late to affect the December runoff race for Landrieu.

The controversial pipeline would carry tar-sands oil from Canada to points south, including Louisiana, where it could be refined, thus creating jobs for Louisianans.

National Geographic has a good “thumbsucker” on the Keystone XL issue, including how the pipeline has become snagged in foreign relations, climate-change negotiations and national and state politics. There’s even a little information on the critical role Nebraska landowners and advocates have played in this international issue.

Even if Congress voted for the Keystone proposal, which officially depends on a decision from President Obama because the line crosses the border with Canada, there’s still a long row to hoe – or trench to dig – before final approval.

The case is in the Nebraska Supreme Court because of how state government handled the routing process. President Obama could veto congressional approval, which would create a much higher bar for supporters to get over. The pipeline may need another round of approvals from South Dakota because it’s been delayed so long. And meanwhile, the drop in the price of oil changes the economics of the project.

11/19/2014 at 6:04am

Photo by www.daladophotography.com Smoke rises from the Luke Fiddler (Coal Run) underground mine fire. A proposed pipeline that would
carry natural gas from the Marcellus shale region would go through the area, which is susceptible to combustion in old underground mines.  

When Pete Tipka first learned a company wanted to run a natural gas pipeline through his property in Bear Gap, Pennsylvania, he considered it.

 “When the pipeline letter came in the mail, I knew nothing about it. I thought— oh, I’ll make some money… Then I did some research.”

It wasn’t easy. He couldn’t get much out of the government.

“People were apprehensive about giving information,” Tipka said. “They clam up and don’t say nothing.”

The company sent a landman to negotiate with property owners, but, according to Tipka, “he was a typical land person. An employee of a huge corporation, there to make landowners happy,” not to provide unbiased information.

The “Atlantic Sunrise” pipeline would run through 10 Pennsylvania counties, connecting other pipelines and moving natural gas for export. It’s a proposal from Williams Partners, a Tulsa-based Fortune 200 company.

Photo courtesy of Nixnootz Pete Tipka points to the route the proposed pipeline would take through his land in Pennsylvania.As of November 2014, the pipeline is in a “public input” stage, before the federal government approves or denies the project. The project will also apply for eminent domain, which would give pipeline owners the power to take land if landowners won’t sell rights voluntarily.

Tipka started to worry about the proposed pipeline splitting his land in half – land that his family has owned for over 175 years. He went to public meetings held by the company, but company representatives quickly dismissed his concerns.

His bigger concern, though, lies in the mountain to the south of his land, where his great grandpappy milled timbers for the mines.

11/18/2014 at 7:35am

Via the U.S. Geological SurveyUse of the herbicide glyphosate, known by the brand name Roundup, has expanded since 1992, according to U.S. Geological Survey records. Genetically modified "Roundup Ready" soybeans, which allow farmers to kill weeds without killing the crop, became available in 1994.

When I was a kid, I worked next to my folks pulling weeds from around fences and buildings on the farmstead every Saturday afternoon. Those were the days.

Starting when it was first released in 1974, the herbicide Roundup became a great labor saver for us. Dad loved to spray it around the farm, killing all those weeds and grasses without ever once shaking out a root ball.

He thought Roundup was the best thing ever.

I also remember the time Dad sprayed too close to the corn east of the house on a windy day, killing off about half an acre. That's when he said if we could ever develop crops immune to Roundup, the farmer would have it made.

He died a year before Roundup Ready soybeans were released in 1994.

Dad always read the label, even if he didn't take it to heart. He used to say Roundup was so benign, you could eat it on your breakfast cereal. He also pointed out it made a great hand cleaner. That’s true, it did. Grease comes right off with Roundup. That may have been at least in part due to soapy chemicals that help the product coat plants evenly. But it’s also a characteristic of glyphosate, the active ingredient in Roundup.

Besides being a farmer, for awhile during the ’60s and ’70s Dad ran a farm-supply business that sold feed, fertilizer and farm chemicals of the day. An old farmer once told me he owed everything to my dad, who convinced him to apply another herbicide different from Roundup, atrazine, to his weedy corn crop.

We used that one on our farm too.