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While You Were Sleeping: June 2011 

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The string of tornadoes that ripped through the South in late April and into early May caused devastating losses to one industry in particular: poultry farming. In Alabama, poultry farming is a $5 billion dollar a year industry producing more than a billion chickens a year—the third-largest producer in the US. The tornadoes damaged at least 700 poultry houses, and officials say some 3 million chickens died. Because of widespread damage at grain mills and a lack of electricity, farmers are having a hard time getting remaining chickens fed and safely housed. The US Department of Agriculture and a few big-name chicken processors like Tyson and Pilgrim’s Pride are providing some aid to the farmers. Officials estimate it could be up to a year before the state’s poultry business gets back on its feet.
Source: NPR

By the price at the pump, one might assume that oil companies are struggling for revenue. Turns out, in the first three months of 2011, ExxonMobil experienced a surge of profits—earning $10.6 billion from January to April. The Treasury Department says oil companies will get more than $40 billion in tax breaks over the next decade. They get $12 billion for deducting certain drilling costs, and an additional $11 billion for the “energy depletion allowance.” Some of the tax breaks oil companies receive date back to WWII. During a radio address in late April President Obama stated: “That’s $4 billion of your money going to these companies when they’re making record profits.” Republican House Speaker John Boehner supported the view. “Oil companies ought to be paying their fair share,” Boehner said.
Source: NPR

According to the Federal Trade Commission, in 2006 food companies spent nearly $2.3 billion advertising to children. In mid-April, the federal government proposed a sweeping set of reforms and guidelines that would not only change the formulation of the food we serve children, but how that food is marketed as well. With the growing epidemic of childhood obesity, regulators are beginning to focus on the tactics used to market foods high in sugar, salt, and fat to children. The new guidelines, created by the FTC, target a broad range of strategies, including television and print ads that feature brightly colored cartoon characters like Toucan Sam, online games that camouflage as advertisements, product placement in movies, and use of movie characters in fast-food children’s meals—to name a few. The guidelines call for foods advertised to children to meet two basic requirements: They must include healthy ingredients like whole grains, fresh fruits, and veggies; and they cannot contain unhealthy amounts of sugar, saturated fat, trans fat, and salt. Though the efforts by the FTC are well intentioned, they are voluntary guidelines, and companies will be allotted five to 10 years to bring their products and marketing strategies up to date.
Source: New York Times

The Pedestrian and Bicycle Information Center announced in early May a list of 11 Walk Friendly Communities across the US, with eight additional communities receiving honorable mentions. The Walk Friendly Communities is a new national recognition program designed to encourage towns and cities to make safer walking conditions a priority. Each place is ranked in categories of achievement, and awarded either bronze, silver, gold or platinum. Neighborhoods whose residents and visitors find it safe, useful, convenient and pleasant to walk tend to be environmentally friendly in other ways as well. The list focuses in particular on cities that are making strides to create policy changes to encourage walking, and make walking easier. Among the top rankers are Seattle, Santa Barbara, and Hoboken.
Source: Atlantic

According to a survey of GOP voters released on May 10, more than half of Republican voters still doubt whether President Obama was born in the US—despite the White House releasing the president’s long-form birth certificate in April. According to the survey, conducted by Public Policy Polling, 48 percent believed Obama was born in the US, 34 percent answered no, and 18 percent said they weren’t sure. Donald Trump, the GOP wildcard who has taken credit for “forcing” Obama to release his birth certificate now says he does believe that President Obama was born in the US. GOP leaders are now attempting to use the doubt as leverage in the upcoming 2012 elections.
Source: Slate

Facing a $109 million budget gap, the mayor of Providence, Rhode Island, Angel Teveras, has proposed closing schools, cutting police and fire department budgets, raising homeowners taxes, and now—seeking larger payments from the city’s nonprofit universities and hospitals. Nonprofit universities and hospitals provide jobs and bring in tourism—but for cities that rely on property taxes, they provide little help. Traditionally, nonprofit institutions pay what are called “payments in lieu of taxes,” or Pilots. However, cities like Boston, Chicago, and Providence are now seeking to establish new, larger voluntary payments. Some cities are proposing implementing new fees for things like water service, street drainage, and streetlights—others are asking to tighten up the rules on establishing how tax-exempt status is granted. The problem with demanding more money from nonprofits is that they’re facing the same woes as the cities: Endowments have shrunk, investments have lost money, and donor contributions have dwindled—but the demand for their services have remained the same, or risen.
Source: New York Times

The Federal Fish and Wildlife Service is the primary tool for protecting plants and animals against extinction in the US. Since Congress passed the Endangered Species Act 37 years ago, about 1,370 species have been listed. Over the past four years, environmental groups have requested more than 1,230 species be listed—compared with the previous 12 years in which requests averaged about 20 species annually. Last month the agency asked Congress to step in and implement a limit on the number of species it must consider for protection. With accelerating climate change, habitat loss, and invasive species threats, the agency is overwhelmed, politically vulnerable, and essentially can’t handle the job. But some environmental groups see dogging the agency as the best way to ensure they still do their job. WildEarth Guardians began a barrage of petitions in 2007 in response to a steep decline of listings under the Bush administration—only eight species were listed on average yearly, compared with 58 per year in the Clinton administration. Experts acknowledge the difficulty of the task the agency faces, but also state that simply not listing species is not an answer either.
Source: New York Times

Lawmakers from Brazil to Florida have been pushing to loosen restrictions on once-protected lands. Members of Brazil’s Congress fiercely debated proposed revisions to the current Forest Code. Enacted in 1934, the Forest Code requires that 80 percent of a property in the Amazon, and 20 to 35 percent of land in other areas, remain forest. The proposed revisions would exempt small farms from those restrictions—potentially accelerating deforestation. Despite efforts to slow deforestation in the past decade, scientists say about 18 percent of the Brazilian Amazon has already been deforested. However, the legislation has less to do with the environment, and more to do with the economy. Clearing land would put Brazil in a position to be the nation with the greatest potential in the world to expand land for cultivation and cattle grazing. In the US, the Republican-led Florida Legislature pushed through a series of last-minute measures that will make it harder for the public to challenge development and environmental permits, and builders will no longer require developers to prove a project is safe. The Legislature significantly reduced funding for protection and restoration of the Everglades.
Source: New York Times

French lawmakers opened a debate in May on proposals to ban the controversial drilling method for extracting oil and gas from shale—hydraulic fracturing—citing environmental concerns. Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet, the environment minister, said hydraulic fracturing “is not something we want to use in France.” Industry officials say if the drilling practice were to be adapted at any point, they expect to abide by much stricter regulation than is the norm in the US.
Source: New York Times

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