There’s almost unlimited clean, geothermal energy under our feet. New tech could help unleash that potential in New Mexico.

Albuquerque Journal, N.M

There’s almost unlimited clean, geothermal energy under our feet. New tech could help unleash that potential in New Mexico.

Kevin Robinson-Avila, Albuquerque Journal, N.M. – January 28, 2023

Jan. 28—Canadian company Eavor Inc. drilled an 18,000-foot well bore this past fall in southwest New Mexico to prove it could hammer its way through deep-underground, hard-granite rock to reach previously untapped geothermal energy.

Eavor’s well now stands as the deepest hole ever drilled in New Mexico, successfully demonstrating that the company’s new technology can potentially crack open access to vast subsurface hot-rock formations that offer massive amounts of clean, renewable energy.

Eavor’s success is just the latest achievement in what could soon become a global renaissance in geothermal development that’s got both industry experts and public officials hyped about the potential for unleashing a virtually unlimited source of clean energy for electric generation, and for heating and cooling of homes and buildings.

“We have massive geothermal resources sitting below our feet, but it’s been elusive to tap into the deep subsurface areas we need to reach to extract that energy economically and use it,” Eavor Vice President of Business Development Neil Ethier told the Journal. “… Our drilling project in southwest New Mexico showed that our technology can unlock that geothermal potential, and it’s now ready for commercial development.”

In fact, the company is preparing to break ground in Nevada on its first 20-megawatt geothermal power plant in the U.S. using its new technology to exploit deep hot-rock formations. The project will supply power to local utility NV Energy, pending approval by state regulators in Nevada.

That project could be the first of many new power plants Eavor expects to build in western states, where geothermal energy is more readily accessible at levels closer to the surface than in other places. Eventually, that could include New Mexico as well, which has the sixth-highest geothermal potential in the nation, according to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Colorado.

“New Mexico’s geothermal resource is very good,” Ethier said. “It’s a wonderful opportunity for New Mexico to develop clean, firm, baseload electricity that employs New Mexicans.”

Eavor is one of many companies now aggressively pursuing geothermal development with modern drilling technologies that allow them to tap into the deep underground rock formations that eluded the industry in years past.

Texas-based Fervo Technologies, for example, has also signed new power purchase agreements in western states to build modern geothermal power plants, including three separate projects with utilities in California for a combined total of nearly 100 MW of generation. And, as that company perfects its drilling techniques — and as economies of scale kick in to lower costs — Fervo expects to target a lot more places for geothermal development, including New Mexico, said Fervo Senior Associate for Policy and Regulatory Affairs Laura Singer.

“We definitely see New Mexico as an opportunity for the future once we get our drilling costs lower and our techniques fully hammered out,” Singer told the Journal.

State legislation

Both Eavor and Fervo met with a geothermal working group last year that state Sen. Gerald Ortiz y Pino, D-Albuquerque, formed to explore local development potential, paving the way for newly proposed legislation in this year’s session to promote the industry.

Ortiz y Pino has filed the Geothermal Resources Development Act, Senate Bill 8, to provide $25 million in state money for grants and loans for research and development of geothermal energy projects around New Mexico. And he filed a second bill, SB-173, to offer up to $10 million annually in tax breaks for new geothermal projects.

The legislation could inspire more investment in both geothermal electric generation, and use of geothermal energy to heat and cool homes and buildings.

Heating-and-cooling technology is well developed. But it requires more education and promotional incentives to encourage broad market adoption and deployment.

In contrast, geothermal electric generation based on today’s emerging technologies that target deep hot-rock formations is still evolving. But it’s nearing the commercial break-out point.

“We’re on the cusp of it,” Ortiz y Pino told the Journal. “Eavor just drilled a hole nearly 19,000 feet deep to show it can do this. That opens the door to a lot more potential development as other energy companies jump in.”

Both of Ortiz y Pino’s bills have bipartisan support, with two Republican senators co-sponsoring them. And more bipartisan backing is likely, Ortiz y Pino said.

That’s because, apart from offering clean “baseload” energy that can operate 24/7 all year long, today’s emerging technology could also create direct employment opportunities for workers in the oil and gas industry as the state diversifies away from fossil fuels.

Drilling for heat, not hydrocarbons

Indeed, it’s the modern drilling technologies developed by the oil and gas industry that are opening the gateway to deep underground geothermal energy, making the drilling rigs and skilled workforce that manage today’s oil and gas operations essential for companies like Eavor and Fervo to bust through hard, subsurface granite to reach hot-rock formations.

“We’re piggybacking off technology advancements in oil and gas drilling,” Ethier said. “But instead of drilling for hydrocarbons, we’re drilling for heat. Fifteen years ago we couldn’t do this.”

Modern hydraulic fracturing methods that include hardened drill bits to crack open tough shale beds — plus advanced seismic sensor technology and data analysis to pinpoint and accurately target underground hydrocarbon deposits — all contributed to the shale gas revolution, allowing the industry to exploit previously untapped oil-and-gas reservoirs.

More recently, horizontal drilling technology has pushed oil and gas operations into unprecedented levels of development, permitting operators to penetrate laterally into shale beds stretching in all directions to reach more pockets of hydrocarbons.

Now, those same drilling techniques — combined with further technology development by the geothermal companies themselves — is creating a paradigm shift that, for the first time, lets developers dig far below the shallow hot water aquifers that the geothermal industry has traditionally targeted to instead bore deeper down into hot-rock formations.

That capability opens up access to far more geothermal energy in many more places, because developers are no longer limited to exploring and developing around volcanos and fault lines where natural subsurface fracturing has created pools of relatively shallow, underground reservoirs. Such conditions are relatively rare and are concentrated in certain places, such as the western U.S.

“The industry has been historically limited to conventional wet, steamy reservoirs where developers look for the steam and natural fault lines,” Singer said. “We don’t need steam now. We look instead for hot rock at reasonable depths. Subsurface heat exists everywhere — it’s just a matter of how deep it is.”

Nearly 20 years ago, extensive research showed that intense subsurface heat is ubiquitous and basically inexhaustible nearly everywhere below the Earth’s crust, with heat level depending on depth, said Shari Kelly, a senior geophysicist and field geologist with the state Bureau of Geology and Mineral Resources.

“We came to realize that no matter where you are in the U.S. — even if it’s Connecticut — if you drill deep enough you can reach temperatures that are usable for heat and electricity,” Kelly told the Journal. “… That really shifted the perspective on geothermal development.”

The challenge, however, has been lack of adequate drilling technology that could slice through hard rock to reach the necessary depths while also withstanding extreme subsurface temperatures that can shut down drilling equipment.

“Today’s drilling technology allows developers to reach those deep depths,” Kelly said. “It’s a game changer.”

Advancing the technology

Companies like Fervo and Eavor are now building on oil and gas drilling technology to develop techniques and methods specifically geared toward deep geothermal development.

Fervo, for example, has developed advanced data analytics using down-hole fiber optics to gather and analyze real-time data on flow, temperature and performance of geothermal resources, Singer said. That provides much greater insight into subsurface behavior, allowing the company to precisely identify where the best resources exist and optimize well performance.

Once the hole is drilled and fracked, the company pumps cold water down into the well bore, where it’s heated to between 350 and 400 degrees Fahrenheit and then brought back to the surface to create steam to run a turbine generator.

Conventional wells that tap into existing hot water aquifers usually don’t penetrate below 3,000 feet down, and those wells generally only produce between 200- and 300-degree heat. In contrast, Fervo is targeting rock formations at 8,000-10,000 feet down, providing much greater heat for more efficient and abundant generating capacity.

“Some companies are looking to drill extremely deep into extremely hot rock,” Singer said. “We’re not. We’re targeting more moderate depths that allow us to use existing oil and gas drill bits and equipment.”

Eavor, meanwhile, has created new technology to drill far deeper wells of up to 23,000 feet or more, Ethier said. That requires extreme temperature-resistant equipment with reinforced drill bits to break through hard granite rock.

To do that, it’s created proprietary insulated drill pipes and partnered with industry vendors to design new drill bits. It’s also developed advanced down-well control technology to precisely place liquid-filled pipes through two well bores that pump water down for heating at the geothermal resource and then bring it back up again.

And the entire process is contained in a novel, closed-loop system where the water being heated never leaves the underground or surface pipes. Rather, it absorbs heat from the hot-rock bed like a radiator, using horizontal drilling to place piping offshoots directly next to the geothermal resource, which then heats up the water inside the tubes before it’s brought back to the surface.

“We have over 30 patents covering a lot of technology components, including proprietary software, hardware and system design,” Ethier said.

Eavor directly tested most of its technology in the New Mexico Bootheel at a drill site located next to the Lightning Dock geothermal power plant near Lordsburg. That’s the only conventional geothermal facility currently operating in the state.

“We met all our technology milestones,” Ethier said.

Future employment opportunities

That test operation also demonstrated lucrative future employment potential for oil and gas industry workers. Two conventional drilling rigs were used on the project, which lasted from August to December last year.

“We had more than 50 people employed at the rig site throughout construction,” Ethier said. “And that doesn’t include local services we used for fuel and water delivery, or for sewage and garbage disposal. It was also a boon for local hotels and restaurants in the area.”

As industry development gains momentum and companies begin drilling deeper wells for power plants, and for heating and cooling applications, a lot more employment opportunities could emerge for skilled oil and gas drilling crews, engineers and seasoned industry professionals.

In fact, most companies now pursuing modern geothermal development are largely run by former oil and gas executives and staffed by industry workers. Helmerich & Payne Inc., for example — an oil and gas drilling rig operator — is an investor in Eavor.

Global drilling company Baker Hughes also formed a partnership with two industry giants, Continental Resources and Chesapeake Energy, to test whether they can profitably turn spent natural gas wells into geothermal facilities, according to Politico. And Chevron New Energies, a subsidiary of Chevron Corp., is partnering with Sweden’s Baseload Capital to develop new geothermal technologies, starting with a new project in Weepah Hills mountains in Nevada.

“We’re not taking away from the oil and gas industry, but adding stability to it,” Ethier said. “This can provide a just transition for energy diversification that offers other options for employment.”

Forging ahead

Full-scale deployment of emerging geothermal technology — now called enhanced geothermal systems, or ESG — is still a few years off, but it’s a lot closer that many think, Singer said.

“We’re ready to deploy,” she said. “This is not technology that needs to be reinvented, because the technology and skills are there. It’s a matter of just starting to drill wells, and we’re ready to go.”

As momentum accelerates, it will allow drilling and development costs to decline through economies of scale and continuous technology and system efficiency improvement, making ESG more economical compared with fossil fuels like natural gas, Singer added.

“One reason for the shale gas revolution success was continuous drilling and constantly evolving technology and techniques to bring down costs,” Singer said. “Geothermal has not yet experienced that, and it’s what’s needed.”

Challenges remain. More temperature-resistant drilling technology, for example, is critical as wells go deeper, and a lot more subsurface research is needed to identify the best places for geothermal development.

Permitting issues could also cause problems, slowing development down the same way transmission projects are routinely held up through local, state and federal regulatory requirements that delay planning and construction for years.

But federal- and state-level investment and incentives can help with all those challenges. The U.S. Department of Energy announced in September a new “Energy Earthshot” to lower the costs for ESG by 90% to $45 per megawatt hour by 2035, which would make it significantly more affordable than today’s prices for natural gas.

That includes $44 million in new investment’s in ESG through the DOE’s Frontier Observatory for Geothermal Energy Research laboratory in Utah, plus $84 million in funding under the federal Bipartisan Infrastructure Investment law to support four ESG demonstration projects in different locations.

State-level initiatives like Ortiz y Pino’s bills can also help. And apart from potential bipartisan legislative support, environmental organizations are getting on board, given geothermal’s potential to provide clean backup power for intermittent solar and wind facilities as the state transitions from fossil fuels to renewables.

Some environmental activists took leading roles in Ortiz y Pino’s working group, and environmental organizations are expected to firmly back the senator’s bills in this year’s session.

“It’s such a great opportunity for us to supplement wind and solar in a sustainable fashion,” Ortiz y Pino said. “Geothermal runs 24/7, 365 days a year. It doesn’t go away, and it makes freeing ourselves from fossil fuels much more realistic.”

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In Texas Oil Country, an Unfamiliar Threat: Earthquakes

The New York Times

In Texas Oil Country, an Unfamiliar Threat: Earthquakes

J. David Goodman – January 28, 2023

A truck disposes of wastewater from fracking near Pecos, Texas on Jan. 13, 2023. (Paul Ratje/The New York Times)
A truck disposes of wastewater from fracking near Pecos, Texas on Jan. 13, 2023. (Paul Ratje/The New York Times)

PECOS, Texas — The West Texas earth shook one day in November, shuddering through the two-story City Hall in downtown Pecos, swaying the ceiling fans at an old railroad station, rattling the walls at a popular taqueria.

The tremor registered as a 5.4 magnitude earthquake, among the largest recorded in the state. Then, a month later, another of similar magnitude struck not far away, near Odessa and Midland, twin oil country cities with relatively tall office buildings, some of them visible for miles around.

The earthquakes, arriving in close succession, were the latest in what has been several years of surging seismic activity in Texas, a state known for many types of natural disasters but not typically, until now, for major earth movements. In 2022, the state recorded more than 220 earthquakes of 3.0 magnitude or higher, up from 26 recorded in 2017, when the Bureau of Economic Geology at the University of Texas began close monitoring.

So unheard-of were strong earthquakes in the flat, oil-rich expanse about a six-hour drive west of Austin that some residents at first mistook the November quake for a powerful gust of wind. Lloyd Chappell, a retired propane deliveryperson who was in his recliner at the time, thought one of his grown sons was making a joke of shaking his chair. But no one was there. His water sloshed around in his glass for 30 long seconds.

“We’ve heard noises before — out there in the oil field, they drop big tanks, or things like that,” said Chappell, 66. “But I’d never felt that before.”

The vast majority of the temblors have been concentrated in the highly productive oil fields of the Permian Basin, particularly those in Reeves County, north and west of the city of Pecos. The county’s official population of 14,000 does not account for thousands of mostly male transient workers staying in austere “man camps” and RV parks, brought there by the promise of good pay in exchange for long hours, stark terrain and dangerous work.

Now earthquakes have become part of the same calculation.

“In West Texas, you love the smell of the oil and gas patch because it’s the smell of money,” said Rod Ponton, a former Pecos city attorney who once unintentionally attained international fame by appearing as a worried cat during a court hearing on Zoom. “If you have to have the ground shaking every two or three months to make sure you have a good paycheck coming in every month, you’re not going to think twice about it.”

The economy of Pecos and a handful of surrounding towns — some little more than sand-blown highway intersections and crowded gas station convenience stores — revolves around the oil fields.

John Briers moved several months ago to a man camp in Orla, in Reeves County, to take a job at one of two convenience stores because the pay was twice as much as he was getting in Houston. “It’s nice to have so much space,” he said of the area. “But it’s two hours from the nearest cardiologist.”

When the November earthquake struck, Briers, 55, was working at the store, whose central seating area acts as an informal workers cafeteria. The force was enough to shake the building, he said, and to push a large mobile crane, parked nearby, into a trailer. Briers likened it to the artillery he felt while serving in the military in Afghanistan.

On a recent weekday, a lunchtime crowd of mostly men in dusty work boots and shirts emblazoned with company logos streamed into the store from white pickup trucks, mostly uninterested in discussing earthquakes. Had they felt any of the quakes that seismic monitors showed striking across the oil fields?

“No.”

“No, sir.”

“Nobody really cares while the money is there,” said Nick Granado, 31, stopping briefly before grabbing lunch. He said he had been at home in Pecos with his wife and 2-year-old child at the time of the November earthquake. “It was different,” he said of the shaking. “But I wasn’t scared.”

In Reeves County, oil and gas production has increasingly meant hydraulic fracturing, a process of extraction that produces, as a byproduct, a huge amount of wastewater. Some of that wastewater is reused in fracking operations, but most of it is injected back under the ground. It is that process of forcing tens of billions of gallons of water into the earth that, regulators and geoscientists agree, is to blame for many of the earthquakes.

The connection between wastewater disposal and earthquakes has been long understood. Other states with substantial fracking operations have also seen the ground shake as a result, including Oklahoma, where a similarly rapid increase in earthquakes more than a decade ago included a 5.6 magnitude quake in 2016 that forced the shutdown of several wastewater wells.

Getting rid of the “produced” water is an important business in West Texas, and locations labeled “SWD” — for saltwater disposal — dot the landscape of drilling rigs and truck-worn roads. Each of the past few years, about 168 billion gallons of wastewater have been disposed of in this way, according to data from the Railroad Commission of Texas, which regulates the oil industry.

Texas only recently began its statewide program of monitoring for earthquakes, after a series of small quakes in North Texas rattled residents of Dallas and Fort Worth. The monitoring started in 2017 — just as petroleum development accelerated in the Permian Basin, particularly in and around Reeves County — and began to detect the increasing seismic activity.

“It was really very fortuitous,” said Peter Hennings, the principal investigator for the Center for Integrated Seismicity Research at the University of Texas.

Hennings said that while natural earthquakes can occur in West Texas, they can also be induced through human activity: the injection of a large amount of water in a short period of time adds fluid pressure under the earth, which essentially decreases the “clamping” between rocks along natural faults and allows them to slip, creating an earthquake.

And seismologists have established a relationship between smaller earthquakes and larger ones, Hennings said: The more small earthquakes you have, the greater the likelihood of a bigger one.

The problem can be addressed by cutting back on the amount of saltwater being injected back into the ground. Oklahoma, for example, did so in recent years and has seen a reduction in the number of earthquakes.

In 2021, the Texas Railroad Commission noted “an unprecedented frequency of significant earthquakes” in and around Reeves County and asked companies to implement their own wastewater plans, hoping to decrease the number of 3.5 magnitude or greater earthquakes by the end of this year.

To address earthquakes outside Odessa and Midland, state regulators suspended permits for deep disposal wells. And just north of the border with Texas, New Mexico regulators have been taking their own steps to control saltwater disposal, including $2 million in fines to Exxon over compliance failures.

The fracking issue has been a big one for Texas environmental groups, which have raised concerns about pollution, climate change, social inequity — and now earthquakes. “It is past time for the Railroad Commission of Texas to update the rules on injection wells,” said Cyrus Reed, the conservation director for the Sierra Club’s Lone Star Chapter, adding that there should be limits on injecting “polluted fracking wastewater” in places impacted by seismic activity.

For local officials in West Texas, the earthquakes have presented new and unforeseen concerns about the structural integrity of buildings and buried pipes, as well as basic questions such as, what are you supposed to do in an earthquake?

“It brought to light that we need to do some safety training,” said the Pecos city manager, Charles Lino. He had been in a staff meeting on the second floor of City Hall — a building Lino described as “very old” — when the floor began to move for what felt like a minute during the November earthquake, whose epicenter was northwest of town.

“Most of the staff were a little shaken and were, like, what do we do?” he said. “I don’t know how to react either, because I’m from this area.” Lino said the city was just beginning to develop its earthquake training.

Months earlier, in March, the head of emergency management for the county, Jerry Bullard, began keeping track of earthquakes. “There were two yesterday and one today,” he said on a recent weekday, looking at his list. He presented his catalog to the county’s leaders at a meeting in December. “They were kind of surprised,” he said.

His concern has been focused on the area’s older infrastructure, including the three-story courthouse in Pecos. But the county has been traditionally hands-off when it comes to building codes in unincorporated areas. “This county does not even have a fire code out in the county,” Bullard said.

At the same time, storing additional wastewater — with its volatile mix of chemicals — above ground in order to avoid injecting too much into the earth has created a new hazard, Bullard said. There were two explosions this month at saltwater disposal facilities in the county, setting off fires and “a black stream of smoke” visible for miles around, he said.

So far, the earthquakes have not caused much notable damage. Some residents said they noticed new cracks in their walls or patios, or a roof that appeared to slant a little more than before. Earthquake insurance is not something people generally purchase in West Texas, although there has been talk of it now, particularly in the larger cities of Odessa and Midland.

“We have tall buildings — not a lot of tall buildings — but people are concerned about foundations,” said Javier Joven, the mayor of Odessa, who met with state regulators and Midland leaders about the issue in 2021. Most of the area’s taller buildings were constructed decades ago, without the requirements now common in earthquake-prone areas, officials said. (Several in Midland have long sat empty, with some recently demolished or slated to be.)

So far, he said, officials have not taken steps to change building codes to address earthquakes, which could add significant new costs to construction. In the meantime, each tremor has become a topic of conversation. The mayor said he had felt at least three.

“The big popular discussion out here is: Did you feel it? Did you feel it?” he said. “And everyone goes on Facebook: I felt it. I felt it.”

Transition into El Nino could lead to record heat around globe

Fox Weather

Transition into El Nino could lead to record heat around globe

Andrew Wulfeck – January 27, 2023

Transition into El Nino could lead to record heat around globe

When the world’s largest and deepest ocean basin warms, satellites will be busy over the Pacific Ocean detecting analogous water temperatures but also, if history repeats itself, landmasses across the globe will have to deal with heat that could be record-breaking.

Since reliable technology started keeping track of world temperatures in the 1950s, the warmest year of any decade were periods dominated by an El Niño event, and the coldest were from La Niñas.

“During El Niño, unusually warm sea surface temperatures in the central/eastern tropical Pacific lead to increased evaporation and cooling of the ocean. At the same time, the increased cloudiness blocks more sunlight from entering the ocean. When water vapor condenses and forms clouds, heat is released into the atmosphere. So, during El Niño, there is less heating of the ocean and more heating of the atmosphere than normal,” National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration experts wrote in a 2022 ENSO blog.

The world’s last El Niño ended nearly four years ago, but it’s the event of 2015-16 that holds records for not only being one of the strongest El Niños on record but also causing the world’s warmest temperatures.

The year 2016 ended with temperatures around 1.8 degrees Fahrenheit above normal, making it the warmest period on record. During the dog days of summer, more than 124 million people were under extreme heat warnings in the U.S. as communities from the Southwest to the Southeast reported record heat.

END OF TRIPLE-DIP LA NINA IN SIGHT: WHAT IT COULD MEAN FOR SPRING SEVERE WEATHER SEASON

The globe is currently still in a La Niña, which is expected to end in the coming months.

The climate pattern has been in control of weather for three years and made history by becoming the first triple-dip La Niña of the 21st century.

Also, during this phase, NOAA reported the world experienced some of its warmest temperatures ever, despite the pattern being known for its cooling effect.

The base mark of near-record heat has some climatologists concerned that once an El Niño is able to shake off the lagging effects of La Niña, temperatures could be off to the races and reach levels never seen before.

“The ongoing La Niña may prevent global average temperature from breaking the record in 2023, but greenhouse gas-induced global warming grows steadily in magnitude. In fact, it most likely helped 2020, a year of La Niña, to tie the all-time high of 2016, a year following a major El Niño,” Shang-Ping Xie, a climate dynamicist at Scripps Institution of Oceanography, wrote in an ENSO discussion.

WHAT ARE EL NINO AND LA NINA CLIMATE PATTERNS?

Computer model guidance shows a trend towards the El Niño state, especially in the latter half of 2023 and possibly continuing into 2024.

If history repeats itself, a protracted El Niño episode could result in warm, if not record-breaking, temperatures.

Significant questions remain on exactly when the world reaches the neutral state and begins the trek through El Niño. Some climate models prematurely killed off the current La Niña during its three-year stretch, so the exact timeframe of transition is not set in stone.

The rarity of a stubborn La Niña state and global temperatures that haven’t declined as readily as during past events, has some experts pointing to climate change as playing an increasingly pivotal role in patterns.

Monthly global temperature anomalies since January 1950
Monthly global temperature anomalies since January 1950

NOAA experts admit what is complicating outlooks are climate change’s influences on Pacific wind and water temperature patterns or what is known as the El Niño-Southern Oscillation.

“If temperatures warm faster in the western Pacific than in the eastern Pacific, the background tropical circulation could become more La Niña-like. But if the trend pattern changes as global temperatures continue to rise, meaning the east starts warming faster than the west in the future, the whole circulation across the tropical Pacific could become more El Niño-like,” Michelle L’Heureux, a scientist at NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center, posted in a recent blog.

Big Tech was moving cautiously on AI. Then came ChatGPT.

The Washington Post

Big Tech was moving cautiously on AI. Then came ChatGPT.

Nitasha Tiku – January 27, 2023

Big Tech was moving cautiously on AI. Then came ChatGPT.

Three months before ChatGPT debuted in November, Facebook’s parent company Meta released a similar chatbot. But unlike the phenomenon that ChatGPT instantly became, with more than a million users in its first five days, Meta’s Blenderbot was boring, said Meta’s chief artificial intelligence scientist, Yann LeCun.

“The reason it was boring was because it was made safe,” LeCun said last week at a forum hosted by AI consulting company Collective[i]. He blamed the tepid public response on Meta being “overly careful about content moderation,” like directing the chatbot to change the subject if a user asked about religion. ChatGPT, on the other hand, will converse about the concept of falsehoods in the Quran, write a prayer for a rabbi to deliver to Congress and compare God to a flyswatter.

ChatGPT is quickly going mainstream now that Microsoft – which recently invested billions of dollars in the company behind the chatbot, OpenAI – is working to incorporate it into its popular office software and selling access to the tool to other businesses. The surge of attention around ChatGPT is prompting pressure inside tech giants including Meta and Google to move faster, potentially sweeping safety concerns aside, according to interviews with six current and former Google and Meta employees, some of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak.

At Meta, employees have recently shared internal memos urging the company to speed up its AI approval process to take advantage of the latest technology, according to one of them. Google, which helped pioneer some of the technology underpinning ChatGPT, recently issued a “code red” around launching AI products and proposed a “green lane” to shorten the process of assessing and mitigating potential harms, according to a report in the New York Times.

ChatGPT, along with text-to-image tools such as DALL-E 2 and Stable Diffusion, is part of a new wave of software called generative AI. They create works of their own by drawing on patterns they’ve identified in vast troves of existing, human-created content. This technology was pioneered at big tech companies like Google that in recent years have grown more secretive, announcing new models or offering demos but keeping the full product under lock and key. Meanwhile, research labs like OpenAI rapidly launched their latest versions, raising questions about how corporate offerings, like Google’s language model LaMDA, stack up.

Tech giants have been skittish since public debacles like Microsoft’s Tay, which it took down in less than a day in 2016 after trolls prompted the bot to call for a race war, suggest Hitler was right and tweet “Jews did 9/11.” Meta defended Blenderbot and left it up after it made racist comments in August, but pulled down another AI tool, called Galactica, in November after just three days amid criticism over its inaccurate and sometimes biased summaries of scientific research.

“People feel like OpenAI is newer, fresher, more exciting and has fewer sins to pay for than these incumbent companies, and they can get away with this for now,” said a Google employee who works in AI, referring to the public’s willingness to accept ChatGPT with less scrutiny. Some top talent has jumped ship to nimbler start-ups, like OpenAI and Stable Diffusion.

Some AI ethicists fear that Big Tech’s rush to market could expose billions of people to potential harms – such as sharing inaccurate information, generating fake photos or giving students the ability to cheat on school tests – before trust and safety experts have been able to study the risks. Others in the field share OpenAI’s philosophy that releasing the tools to the public, often nominally in a “beta” phase after mitigating some predictable risks, is the only way to assess real world harms.

“The pace of progress in AI is incredibly fast, and we are always keeping an eye on making sure we have efficient review processes, but the priority is to make the right decisions, and release AI models and products that best serve our community,” said Joelle Pineau, managing director of Fundamental AI Research at Meta.

“We believe that AI is foundational and transformative technology that is incredibly useful for individuals, businesses and communities,” said Lily Lin, a Google spokesperson. “We need to consider the broader societal impacts these innovations can have. We continue to test our AI technology internally to make sure it’s helpful and safe.”

Microsoft’s chief of communications, Frank Shaw, said his company works with OpenAI to build in extra safety mitigations when it uses AI tools like DALLE-2 in its products. “Microsoft has been working for years to both advance the field of AI and publicly guide how these technologies are created and used on our platforms in responsible and ethical ways,” Shaw said.

OpenAI declined to comment.

The technology underlying ChatGPT isn’t necessarily better than what Google and Meta have developed, said Mark Riedl, professor of computing at Georgia Tech and an expert on machine learning. But OpenAI’s practice of releasing its language models for public use has given it a real advantage.

“For the last two years they’ve been using a crowd of humans to provide feedback to GPT,” said Riedl, such as giving a “thumbs down” for an inappropriate or unsatisfactory answer, a process called “reinforcement learning from human feedback.”

Silicon Valley’s sudden willingness to consider taking more reputational risk arrives as tech stocks are tumbling. When Google laid off 12,000 employees last week, CEO Sundar Pichai wrote that the company had undertaken a rigorous review to focus on its highest priorities, twice referencing its early investments in AI.

A decade ago, Google was the undisputed leader in the field. It acquired the cutting edge AI lab DeepMind in 2014 and open-sourced its machine learning software TensorFlow in 2015. By 2016, Pichai pledged to transform Google into an “AI first” company.

The next year, Google released transformers – a pivotal piece of software architecture that made the current wave of generative AI possible.

The company kept rolling out state-of-the-art technology that propelled the entire field forward, deploying some AI breakthroughs in understanding language to improve Google search. Inside big tech companies, the system of checks and balances for vetting the ethical implications of cutting-edge AI isn’t as established as privacy or data security. Typically teams of AI researchers and engineers publish papers on their findings, incorporate their technology into the company’s existing infrastructure or develop new products, a process that can sometimes clash with other teams working on responsible AI over pressure to see innovation reach the public sooner.

Google released its AI principles in 2018, after facing employee protest over Project Maven, a contract to provide computer vision for Pentagon drones, and consumer backlash over a demo for Duplex, an AI system that would call restaurants and make a reservation without disclosing it was a bot. In August last year, Google began giving consumers access to a limited version of LaMDA through its app AI Test Kitchen. It has not yet released it fully to the general public, in spite of Google’s plans to do so at the end of 2022, according to former Google software engineer Blake Lemoine, who told The Washington Post that he had come to believe LaMDA was sentient.

But the top AI talent behind these developments grew restless.

In the past year or so, top AI researchers from Google have left to launch start-ups around large language models, including Character.AI, Cohere, Adept, Inflection.AI and Inworld AI, in addition to search start-ups using similar models to develop a chat interface, such as Neeva, run by former Google executive Sridhar Ramaswamy.

Character.AI founder Noam Shazeer, who helped invent the transformer and other core machine learning architecture, said the flywheel effect of user data has been invaluable. The first time he applied user feedback to Character.AI, which allows anyone to generate chatbots based on short descriptions of real people or imaginary figures, engagement rose by more than 30 percent.

Bigger companies like Google and Microsoft are generally focused on using AI to improve their massive existing business models, said Nick Frosst, who worked at Google Brain for three years before co-founding Cohere, a Toronto-based start-up building large language models that can be customized to help businesses. One of his co-founders, Aidan Gomez, also helped invent transformers when he worked at Google.

“The space moves so quickly, it’s not surprising to me that the people leading are smaller companies,” said Frosst.

AI has been through several hype cycles over the past decade, but the furor over DALL-E and ChatGPT has reached new heights.

Soon after OpenAI released ChatGPT, tech influencers on Twitter began to predict that generative AI would spell the demise of Google search. ChatGPT delivered simple answers in an accessible way and didn’t ask users to rifle through blue links. Besides, after a quarter of a century, Google’s search interface had grown bloated with ads and marketers trying to game the system.

“Thanks to their monopoly position, the folks over at Mountain View have [let] their once-incredible search experience degenerate into a spam-ridden, SEO-fueled hellscape,” technologist Can Duruk wrote in his newsletter Margins, referring to Google’s hometown.

On the anonymous app Blind, tech workers posted dozens of questions about whether the Silicon Valley giant could compete.

“If Google doesn’t get their act together and start shipping, they will go down in history as the company who nurtured and trained an entire generation of machine learning researchers and engineers who went on to deploy the technology at other companies,” tweeted David Ha, a renowned research scientist who recently left Google Brain for the open source text-to-image start-up Stable Diffusion.

AI engineers still inside Google shared his frustration, employees say. For years, employees had sent memos about incorporating chat functions into search, viewing it as an obvious evolution, according to employees. But they also understood that Google had justifiable reasons not to be hasty about switching up its search product, beyond the fact that responding to a query with one answer eliminates valuable real estate for online ads. A chatbot that pointed to one answer directly from Google could increase its liability if the response was found to be harmful or plagiarized.

Chatbots like OpenAI routinely make factual errors and often switch their answers depending on how a question is asked. Moving from providing a range of answers to queries that link directly to their source material, to using a chatbot to give a single, authoritative answer, would be a big shift that makes many inside Google nervous, said one former Google AI researcher. The company doesn’t want to take on the role or responsibility of providing single answers like that, the person said. Previous updates to search, such as adding Instant Answers, were done slowly and with great caution.

Inside Google, however, some of the frustration with the AI safety process came from the sense that cutting-edge technology was never released as a product because of fears of bad publicity – if, say, an AI model showed bias.

Meta employees have also had to deal with the company’s concerns about bad PR, according to a person familiar with the company’s internal deliberations who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal conversations. Before launching new products or publishing research, Meta employees have to answer questions about the potential risks of publicizing their work, including how it could be misinterpreted, the person said. Some projects are reviewed by public relations staff, as well as internal compliance experts who ensure the company’s products comply with its 2011 Federal Trade Commission agreement on how it handles user data.

To Timnit Gebru, executive director of the nonprofit Distributed AI Research Institute, the prospect of Google sidelining its responsible AI team doesn’t necessarily signal a shift in power or safety concerns, because those warning of the potential harms were never empowered to begin with. “If we were lucky, we’d get invited to a meeting,” said Gebru, who helped lead Google’s Ethical AI team until she was fired for a paper criticizing large language models.

From Gebru’s perspective, Google was slow to release its AI tools because the company lacked a strong enough business incentive to risk a hit to its reputation.

After the release of ChatGPT, however, perhaps Google sees a change to its ability to make money from these models as a consumer product, not just to power search or online ads, Gebru said. “Now they might think it’s a threat to their core business, so maybe they should take a risk.”

Rumman Chowdhury, who led Twitter’s machine-learning ethics team until Elon Musk disbanded it in November, said she expects companies like Google to increasingly sideline internal critics and ethicists as they scramble to catch up with OpenAI.

“We thought it was going to be China pushing the U.S., but looks like it’s start-ups,” she said.

Travelers opting for rail again as Amtrak expands options

CBS News

Travelers opting for rail again as Amtrak expands options

Peter Greenberg – January 27, 2023

In the post-pandemic world, while many travelers have been obsessed with airlines, ground stops, cancellations and delays, Amtrak’s ridership is bouncing back — more than doubling in the Northeast corridor, and 88% across the country. At the same time, Amtrak was strengthening its long-haul services, with trains like the Empire Builder, the Zephyr, the Sunset Limited and the Southern Crescent, the Southwest Chief and the Coast Starlight, to name a few.

And while we don’t yet have true high-speed rail yet in this country — and may never have it — there are some improvements in the service. And why don’t we have high-speed rail? Because Amtrak doesn’t own its tracks. The freight lines do, and they have no interest in high-speed rail.

That may also explain why Amtrak doesn’t exactly own a great on-time service record — because their trains often have to pull over to a siding to let a 100-car-long freight train lumber through.

At the same time, Congress has never properly funded Amtrak to allow it to grow and upgrade and to be able to reinvest profits in its product.

In some cases, Amtrak has brought back the dining cars. But even more important, Amtrak has announced a major upgrade to its fleet, with the new “Amtrak Airo” trains — with more spacious interiors and modernized amenities will be rolling out across the U.S. in about three years. The cars will feature more table seating, better legroom and more room for all your electronic devices.

Until then, there’s some good news. Amtrak doesn’t promote it very well, and most passengers don’t know about it, but Amtrak actually sells a USA rail pass. For just $499, you get to travel Amtrak for 30 days and up to 10 rides. It’s a great deal — and children under 12 ride for $250.

And with new high-speed routes launching in several European countries in the past few months — Spain, in particular, has new options for travelers as train operators compete and prices fall — train travel in Europe is an increasingly attractive option.

The Eurail Pass has never been a better deal. It now enables rail travel in 33 European countries, an expansion from the initial 13 countries, with prices starting at $218. One Eurail pass for $473 gives you two months of train travel.

One caveat: you must buy your Eurail pass in conjunction with your roundtrip airline ticket from the U.S. to Europe. You can’t purchase it once you get there. And you can even get a Eurail pass that’s valid for three months.

Arizona is not out of water, despite all those headlines you might read

AZ Central – The Arizona Republic

Arizona is not out of water, despite all those headlines you might read

Joanna Allhands, Arizona Republic – January 25, 2023

Michael Rudolph (Dynamite Water) loads his water truck at the Scottsdale fill station on Dec. 29, 2022, located northwest of the intersection of Pima and Jomax roads in Scottsdale, Ariz. Rudolph was delivering water to a client in Rio Verde Foothills.
Michael Rudolph (Dynamite Water) loads his water truck at the Scottsdale fill station on Dec. 29, 2022, located northwest of the intersection of Pima and Jomax roads in Scottsdale, Ariz. Rudolph was delivering water to a client in Rio Verde Foothills.

The national press has had a field day with two not-so-positive Arizona water stories.

About 500 homes in the unincorporated community of Rio Verde Foothills can no longer haul water from Scottsdale, the neighboring city to the south.

Meanwhile, a state-produced model has found that the area north and west of Buckeye does not have enough groundwater to support future massive developments.

They’re alarming stories, but the coverage has piled on the hyperbole. Some headlines have made it sound as if an entire “Arizona town” was cut off.

One even took a giant, misleading leap: “Phoenix runs out of water.”

Arizona is not living with its head in the sand

The Colorado River – once 40% of the state’s water supply – is dwindling. About 80% of Arizona and about 20% of its population has no rules on groundwater pumping, which is draining many of our rural aquifers.

Add in these troubles sprouting in metro Phoenix, an area covered by the state’s most stringent groundwater management rules, and we’ve got urgent issues that require urgent responses.

But the headlines make it sound as if we’re completely botching our jobs as water stewards.

That’s not entirely fair, either.

Judge rules:Scottsdale doesn’t have to serve Rio Verde Foothills

Most metro Phoenix cities have spent decades storing water underground for a (non-)rainy day, for example. They have long recycled most of their wastewater, though we don’t yet drink it.

And while much of the coverage has focused on the fact that there isn’t enough water in parts of the far West Valley to support thousands of acres of future development, it glosses over why that growth may never occur:

Because we had the foresight decades ago to create an assured water supply program, which requires builders to prove they have secured enough water for the long haul before they can plat lots.

We have water protections. They need shoring up

Is that program fail proof? No.

The root cause of Rio Verde Foothills’ water problems is that state law allows property owners to subdivide land into less than six lots and avoid requirements to prove they have secured a 100-year water supply.

Homes were built solely on the promise of hauled water. The potential risk of such a deal was glossed over with homeowners. And despite all the negative coverage lately, people are still building in the area.

It doesn’t matter that these so-called wildcat lot splits encompass a fraction of the homes we build every year. Or that not all homes in Rio Verde Foothills are affected, just those that relied on Scottsdale for hauled water.

The headlines on repeat are that Arizona doesn’t have enough water to grow or even sustain existing residents.

The story is more nuanced than the headlines

The full story is more nuanced.

Water is still being hauled to Rio Verde Foothills, albeit from other spotty sources that are vastly more expensive. Residents haven’t lost water; they’ve lost access to cheap water.

That is unlikely to change if EPCOR, a private water provider, is given the green light in April to more permanently serve these residents. Solving the affordability problem won’t be easy.

Meanwhile, on the far west side of the Valley, developers either must find renewable water sources to build on large swaths of open desert or find affordable ways to grow closer in areas with the capacity to serve new residents.

That doesn’t mean growth is done.

It means we’ll have to rethink how and where we do it, and no, that won’t be easy, either.

Want to counter the narrative? Then up our game

Fixing the cracks through which some development has fallen would be a good start.

In Rio Verde Foothills, the solution cannot simply be to force Scottsdale to serve non-residents. We need to tackle the root problem, which means we need to rein in wildcat lot splits.

Lawmakers could change how we define “subdivisions” – that might be the cleanest fix. Or they could give counties more power to say no to homes that plan to haul water, particularly in areas like Rio Verde Foothills where groundwater is spotty.

In the West Valley, lawmakers must address a proliferation of “build-to-rent” homes, which are touted as a much-needed affordable housing alternative but also aren’t required to prove a long-term water supply before building.

If civic and elected leaders want to counter the narrative that Arizona is irresponsible, they need to get better at telling the full story – which, yes, means more clearly touting the things we’ve done well.

But because perception is reality in water, and virtually everyone else has similar success stories, they also need a clear plan – shared loudly and on repeat – for how they intend to up our game.

And, more importantly, the resolve to do it.

Fox’s ‘Straight News’ Anchor Harris Faulkner Lets Rick Scott Peddle His Medicare Lie

Daily Beast

Fox’s ‘Straight News’ Anchor Harris Faulkner Lets Rick Scott Peddle His Medicare Lie

Justin Baragona – January 26, 2023

Fox News
Fox News

Fox News anchor Harris Faulkner on Thursday allowed Sen. Rick Scott (R-FL) to repeatedly push the lie that Democrats slashed hundreds of billions of dollars in funding for Medicare—even though that spurious claim had been debunked months ago.

In fact, not only did Faulkner—often labeled one of Fox’s “straight news” anchors—allow Scott’s falsehood to slide, she wondered how the Florida lawmaker would be able to work with Democrats since they’re “incapable of telling the truth.”

With the GOP now holding a slim majority in the House, the party has shifted much of its focus to austerity and pushing spending cuts across the board. Despite insisting during the midterms that they wouldn’t target Social Security and Medicare, House Republicans are now leveraging the fight over the debt ceiling to explicitly weigh proposals that would slash these entitlement programs.

Faulkner, who began her Thursday program by decrying the Democratic “spend, spend, spend” agenda amid rising debt, sounded the alarm over the “alarming” crisis facing entitlement programs. She aired a clip of President Joe Biden accusing Scott and Republicans of looking to reduce Social Security and Medicare.

Fox ‘Straight News’ Anchor Declares Biden ‘Hates at Least Half’ the U.S.

“I don’t know one Republican, including me—we would never cut Medicare or Social Security. I’m gonna do everything I can to make sure there are no cuts in Medicare or Social Security,” the senator exclaimed. “But let’s remember, the Democrats, they all voted to cut $280 billion out of Medicare last September and Biden signed it.”

“Yes,” Faulkner empathically agreed.

“Let’s just remember—$280 billion they cut, and they want to say other people will do it,” Scott continued.

Though the Fox anchor heartily endorsed Scott’s assertion, fact-checkers knocked down this claim last year—which centers on provisions in the Inflation Reduction Act that allows Medicare to negotiate drug prices with manufacturers.

According to government budget scorers, the Democratic-led bill that passed last year would save taxpayers anywhere between $237 billion and $288 billion due to pharmaceutical companies agreeing to lower prices on medications for Medicare patients. Still, Scott—whose GOP policy agenda last year drew widespread criticism for proposing to cut Social Security—insisted at the time that this was a reduction in benefits.

Fox ‘Straight News’ Anchor Echoes Tucker’s ‘Poorer and Dirtier’ Line About Migrants

CNN anchor Dana Bash, meanwhile, pushed back against his talking points during an interview last October, telling Scott that the legislation “allowed for negotiation for prescription drug prices, which would ultimately bring down the price and the costs for Medicare consumers.”Faulkner, however, was content to let Scott’s lie stand on Thursday.

Having already agreed with him once, the Fox anchor teed the Florida Republican up for a second round by airing comments from a Fox Business host who accused Democrats of “lying through their teeth” about the debt ceiling and Republicans’ stance on entitlements.

“I have to get your reaction to that because you have to negotiate with these people and you hear Larry Kudlow describing Democrats as they’re incapable of telling the truth about what we owe,” Faulkner declared.

After Scott grumbled that “they are not going to be honest with the American public,” the wealthiest U.S. senator expressed concern that “Wall Street has done really well” while average Americans suffer.

Fox News Airs Poll, Anchor Immediately Scolds Colleague for Citing It

“That’s a flip of what the rhetoric is, isn’t it?” Faulkner reacted. “Democrats are looking across the aisle at you as Republicans and saying we are the ones who care about the middle class and seniors, but now what we’re seeing is that’s not actually true!”

Scott then repeated his false claim about Medicare cuts.

“They cut Medicare, Harris! They cut Medicare just four months ago,” They cut $280 billion out of Medicare, and they wanna say we want to cut it? No, I’m gonna fight like hell to make sure we preserve Medicare and Social Security because we can, we should, and we owe it to our seniors, but we have to do it by living within our means.”

Rather than correct the record, the Fox News anchor instead said that “everybody” has to live within a budget before moving on to Biden’s classified documents scandal.

A perfect storm for the whole food system right now’: One of the world’s largest fertilizer companies warns that every country—even those in Europe—is facing a food crisis

Fortune

‘A perfect storm for the whole food system right now’: One of the world’s largest fertilizer companies warns that every country—even those in Europe—is facing a food crisis

Tristan Bove – January 26, 2023

The Ukraine war upended the global economy in many ways. Energy markets have been among the most affected, with declining Russian oil and natural gas exports to the West sparking a domino effect of fuel crises worldwide. But the war has also warped another critical facet of the global economy: food.

Prior to the war, Russia and Ukraine were global breadbaskets as top producers and exporters of wheat, sunflower seeds, and barley. The fighting ended up aggravating hunger and food crises in low-income countries that are dependent on imports. But both Russia and Ukraine are also key cogs in the global fertilizer industry, and the war has triggered a shortage of the critical commodity that few people consider but is nevertheless essential to global food security.

Much as Russian President Vladimir Putin leveraged the world’s reliance on his country’s fossil fuels to weaponize energy supplies during the war, he is doing something very similar with fertilizer and food, Svein Tore Holsether, CEO of Norwegian chemical company Yara International, among the world’s largest fertilizer producers and suppliers, told the Financial Times in an interview published Thursday.

Putin’s energy gambit, which sent fossil fuel prices soaring and left Europe on the brink of recession last year, has so far not gone as expected, with a warm winter working against him and Europe able to buy natural gas from elsewhere. But Holsether warned the world’s reliance on Russia for fertilizer threatens more disruption of food supply, adding to existing challenges of logistics bottlenecks and climate change.

“If you look at the role that we have allowed Russia to have in global food supply, we depend on them. How did that happen? What kind of weapon is that? And Putin is weaponizing food,” Holsether said.

“It is sort of a perfect storm for the whole food system right now: very challenging in Europe, of course, with higher prices; even worse in other parts of the world where a human being dies every four seconds as a result of hunger,” he added.

Global fertilizer crisis

When natural gas prices surged last year after Russia invaded Ukraine, so did prices for fertilizer, which manufacturers such as Yara produce with ammonia and nitrogen obtained as a byproduct from natural gas. Fertilizer prices had already begun increasing in 2021 due to high energy costs and supply-chain issues.

Declining natural gas prices and weak demand among farmers have eased pressures somewhat over the past few months. Earlier this month, fertilizer prices fell to their lowest level in nearly two years in tandem with natural gas prices. But despite falling prices, Holsether insists that the global fertilizer market is precarious, and countries should shift from relying on Russian natural gas, to safeguard their agricultural industries.

“Putin has weaponized energy and they’re weaponizing food as well,” Holsether told the BBC at last week’s World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. “It’s the saying, ‘Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.’”

Fertilizer prices remain high by historical standards, and the World Bank warned earlier this month that global supply is still tight due to the war, production cuts in Europe, and stricter export controls in China.

Averting a food crisis

If fertilizer is in short supply or prices remain unaffordable to many countries, farmers may be unable to keep their soil fertile enough for crops.

Concerns over fertilizer have taken center stage in recent weeks in Africa, which is heavily reliant on Russian food imports, and where agricultural production has taken a blow in recent years due to drought in many countries. The eastern Horn of Africa—including Somalia, Sudan, and Kenya—has been particularly hard-hit, as it is likely on the verge of a sixth straight failed rainy season, the worst drought conditions in 70 years of recorded data.

Securing additional sources of fertilizer was the cornerstone of a $2.5 billion U.S. food assistance package to Africa signed last month, while Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen noted the importance of stabilizing fertilizer supply in Africa multiple times during a visit to Zambia this week.

“Now we’re in 2023, it’s tragic and shouldn’t be like that,” Holsether told the FT about the state of global hunger. “That should be a very strong reminder of the need to have a more robust food system—from a climate perspective, from a logistics perspective, but also from a political perspective.”

Holsether said that all countries must become more self-sufficient with their food production. For fertilizer, he touted the promise of “green fertilizers” that use hydrogen and renewable energy to produce ammonia rather than natural gas, saying that clean and local solutions are critical to decoupling the global food system from Russia’s war.

Holsether also warned that European nations should not rely on their wealth to avert a food or fertilizer crisis. Like with natural gas, Europe has in recent months turned to the U.S. for nitrogen to replace Russian imports, but Holsether warned that Europe buying its way out of a food crisis is no remedy for global food insecurity.

“Yes. Not near term…there will be a shortage and there will be a global auction for food—but Europe is a wealthy part of the world,” Holsether said when asked if Europe should be concerned for its food security.

“But we need to think it through,” he added, saying that Europe buying food and fertilizer products from other countries will only create more global supply shortages and take away from other countries in dire need.

“In terms of food and food security, when you have that, you see wars or mass migrations, extremism, all these things,” he said.

Democrats revel in the GOP’s ‘doozy’ of an idea for a national sales tax

Yahoo! Finance

Democrats revel in the GOP’s ‘doozy’ of an idea for a national sales tax

Ben Werschkul, Washington Correspondent – January 25, 2023

It’s a bill that is opposed by Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-CA), unlikely to pass the GOP-controlled House of Representatives, and has approximately 0% chance of becoming law anytime soon.

But Democrats don’t want to stop talking about the Republicans’ proposal to replace income taxes with a national sales tax.

“This so-called fair tax plan is the craziest yet. It’s a real doozy,” Chuck Schumer said on Wednesday as the Senate Majority Leader took time out of his schedule to appear alongside House Democratic Leader Hakeem Jeffries (D-NY) for a press conference devoted to the subject. “Just the biggest lollapalooza I have ever seen around here.”

President Biden is also set to focus on the subject in a big way in a speech Thursday in Springfield, Virginia, with White House aides promising a contrast between the Democratic and GOP economic agendas that they hope voters will remember in coming years.

U.S. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) meets with leader-elect of the House Democratic Caucus Hakeem Jeffries (D-NY) in Schumer's office on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., December 21, 2022. REUTERS/Evelyn Hockstein
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY), left, meets with Hakeem Jeffries (D-NY), the leader the House Democratic Caucus, in Schumer’s office on Capitol Hill in December. (REUTERS/Evelyn Hockstein)

Rep. Earl L. “Buddy” Carter (R-GA) is the leading proponent of the idea and pushed back in a statement to Yahoo Finance, saying “Washington Democrats are fear-mongering about this bill because it takes power away from the federal government and puts it in the hands of the American people.”

Yet even voices sympathetic to Republicans urge the party to back away.

Grover Norquist, a tax reduction advocate, told Semafor it was “a political gift to Biden and the Democrats;” the conservative Wall Street Journal editorial page called it “masochism;” and Steve Forbes of flat tax fame called it a “belated, but huge Christmas present” for Democrats.

To top it off, Larry Kudlow, the former Director of Donald Trump’s National Economic Council, said it “really is a lousy idea” when he interviewed McCarthy on Tuesday.

What’s in the ‘Fair Tax Act’

The bill itself is called the Fair Tax Act and was formally introduced on Jan. 10 by Carter. As of Wednesday afternoon, the bill had amassed 23 co-sponsors.

The bill would eliminate all income taxes — from the payroll tax to corporate taxes to personal income taxes and more — and would also eliminate the Internal Revenue Service, just the latest salvo in the GOP’s feud with the tax-collection agency.

And while Americans may like the idea of no longer filling out tax forms each April, the bill would replace the trillions of dollars lost with a national sales tax.

The rate would begin at 23% in 2025 and could increase. An analysis of the plan from the Brookings Institution found that a rate around 30% — on top of existing state sales taxes — would be needed to cover the losses.

WASHINGTON, DC - MARCH 29: Rep. Buddy Carter (R-GA) speaks during a budget hearing to discuss President Joe Biden's budget for the fiscal year 2023 on March 29, 2022 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Roberto Schmidt-Pool/Getty Images)
Rep. Buddy Carter (R-GA) during a budget hearing in 2022. (Roberto Schmidt-Pool/Getty Images)

Economists have also criticized the plan for lowering the the tax burden from high-income earners and corporations and shifting the onus to middle- and lower-class Americans who spend a much higher percentage of their monthly income on goods and services.

The Tax Policy Center found the idea would be a hike for 80% of Americans and a tax cut for the richest Americans. The top 20% would go from paying 84.2% of all federal income taxes to 65.1% under a theoretical federal retail sales tax.

The plan has become high profile and controversial enough that Speaker McCarthy revealed his own personal opposition to the idea Tuesday during a brief exchange with reporters. That’s even after he reportedly agreed to a full vote in the House of Representatives in the weeks ahead as part of the deal with far-right Republicans who elected him Speaker.

But now, a full vote seems less likely in the near future. Three New York Republicans have already announced their opposition to the proposal and those “no” votes along with McCarthy would mean the bill would likely be defeated if put up for a full House vote.

Carter maintains that the bill removes complexity from the tax code, will encourage economic growth, and is better for working Americans. But the Georgia Congressman doesn’t seem to be expecting a floor vote soon.

“I’m excited for open debate on this legislation and for it to go through the committee process,” he said, adding it will be an opportunity for “a transparent discussion” about improving the tax system.

‘Go home and tell your moms’

Meanwhile, the unlikelihood of a national sales tax doesn’t seem to be dampening Democrats’ enthusiasm for discussing the issue.

During a recent speech, President Biden sarcastically proclaimed: “National sales tax, that’s a great idea…go home and tell your moms, they’re going to be really excited about that.”

On Capitol Hill, Sen. Jon Tester (D-MT) sent a letter to Senate leadership Tuesday, pledging “I will take on anyone” to stop the idea while his colleagues like Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and Chris Murphy (D-CT) have taken to Twitter to mock the proposal.

“You wonder who is sitting in some dungeon, some laboratory, some basement cooking up these extreme ideas to try jam them down the throats of the American people,” added Leader Jeffries Wednesday.

It was former Georgia Congressman John Linder who first proposed the idea in 1999 and later co-authored a book called “The Fair Tax Book: Saying Goodbye to the Income Tax and the IRS.”

“The only tax collector that the consumer would ever see is the smiling face behind the register at the local grocery store,” Linder said in 2000 about the proposal that has been periodically revived over the last 20 year without ever gaining widespread Republican support.

Ben Werschkul is Washington correspondent for Yahoo Finance.

Startup aims to convert invasive zebra mussels in Lake Michigan into a renewable product

USA Today

Startup aims to convert invasive zebra mussels in Lake Michigan into a renewable product

Alex Garner – January 25, 2023

Zebra mussels are an invasive species in the US.
Zebra mussels are an invasive species in the US.

PLYMOUTH, Wisc.— AntiMussel hopes to mitigate trillions of invasive zebra mussels infiltrating the Great Lakes by harvesting them for use in paper and pharmaceutical products.

The Plymouth, Wisc.-based startup, which has raised nearly $20,000 in funding and placed second at county and regional pitch competitions, will launch a pilot program this spring to remove the mollusk from Lake Michigan.

In a 250-square-meter and 80-foot-deep area, AntiMussel will connect a suction to the lake floor and transport them to shore. Wind speed and water temperature data will also be collected.

AntiMussel hopes to use the abundance of zebra mussels as a renewable resource for calcium carbonate, which is typically processed from limestone into varying products like Tums, white melamine paint and plastic.

Ideally, the company wants to create a renewable calcium carbonate product with a corporate partner.

A view of the Sheboygan lighthouse as seen, Tuesday, May 31, 2022, in Sheboygan, Wis. A search for a man who was last seen near a break wall on Lake Michigan will continue today, according to the Sheboygan Fire Department
A view of the Sheboygan lighthouse as seen, Tuesday, May 31, 2022, in Sheboygan, Wis. A search for a man who was last seen near a break wall on Lake Michigan will continue today, according to the Sheboygan Fire Department

“I want to skip that 6 to 8 million years of geology that it takes to make limestone and instead remove the mussels from the lake where we don’t want them, process them, and we end up with a ground calcium carbonate material that is exactly what is being sold on the market now,” Tyler Rezachek, AntiMussel founder and U.S. veteran, said.

Subscriber exclusive: It’s mid-January and the Great Lakes are virtually ice-free. That’s a problem.

Participating in the pitch competitions helped Rezachek connect with University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee professors, who will take him along on a research boat this spring to study zebra mussels, too.

“I was really kind of an entrepreneur in search of a problem,” Rezachek said about starting AntiMussel. “And zebra mussels (have) been something that I’ve heard about my whole life but never heard anything else about other than how to stop them from spreading.”

Zebra mussels were likely brought to the Great Lakes from Europe and Asia via ship ballast water in the 1980s. Since then, they’ve completely invaded the region and have riddled waterways feeding into the Mississippi River and western states Texas and California, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.

They negatively impact ecosystems in several ways, like outcompeting and incapacitating native mussel and other aquatic species.

Additionally, a female zebra mussel can release up to 1 million eggs per year once reaching reproductive age of two, according to the National Parks Service.

Not much can be done to remove them once a large population has invaded a lake or river.

“At this point, they’re so well established that I could have boats out there sucking zebra mussels all day every day and probably never put a dent in the population,” he said.

Today, an estimated 300 to 750 trillion zebra mussels are in the Great Lakes.

Zebra mussels can also overwhelm commercial, agricultural, forestry and aquaculture industries in the state, according to the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources.

They also burden taxpayers.

According to some estimates, broad removal and resulting increases in water bills can cost taxpayers up to $1.5 billion a year.

Rezachek said only 3% of the costs is dedicated to preventing further spread.

According to Rezachek, efforts to get rid of zebra mussels center on taking them off infrastructure, like applying chemicals or pressure washing, rather than completely removing them from the water.

“None of those solutions stop mussels from reproducing or remove the resulting shell,” he said. “They just push them away.”

A young woman checks over her cell phone while getting some beach time in at Deland Park, Saturday, July 9, 2022, in Sheboygan, Wis.
A young woman checks over her cell phone while getting some beach time in at Deland Park, Saturday, July 9, 2022, in Sheboygan, Wis.

The remaining shells wash onto beaches.

“We can’t walk on a lot of beaches on Lake Michigan now because they’re covered in mussel shells, and they’re razor sharp and they’ll cut your feet and your dog’s feet,” Rezachek said. “And they’re just going to keep collecting there, and the waves just keep pushing them on the beaches. So, unless we remove those in mass, we can never make beaches reusable for people again.”

Heavily infested water bodies like Lake Michigan are beyond the point for a complete elimination of zebra mussels, but there is still hope for smaller lakes.

While AntiMussel will focus on the Great Lakes, it also hopes to conduct customer surveys to see if landowners across the state need zebra mussel clean-ups on private beaches or in lakes.

“The smaller lakes that maybe only have a few thousand mussels in them, they’re not lost,” Rezachek said. “We can get those back and eliminate the mussels there, but then we have to stop them from getting there.”

To help prevent the spread, the National Parks Service suggests boaters drain boats, motors and livewells (circulating tank) before leaving an area of water, wash boats and trailers, and let them dry for at least five days before taking the boat out again because zebra mussels, dependent on water currents and transportation, can infest boat motors and livewells.