Thursday, April 25, 2013

Tracking bird flu: US wildlife workers on the front line against deadly strains

Story originally appeared on NBC News.

They were once featured on the show “Dirty Jobs” but the wildlife experts who spend weeks each year wrestling wild birds to swab their behinds for avian flu don’t mind. They’re happy to be on the front line, keeping an eye out for infected birds that might bring new and deadly strains of influenza to the United States.

The program’s been dialed back a bit since it started in 2005, but the U.S. Geological Survey and Fish and Wildlife Service experts are paying close attention to reports of a new and deadly strain of bird flu – the H7N9 virus. It’s infected 102 people in China at last count, and killed 20 of them.

No one is sure where, exactly, it’s coming from. Domestic chickens don’t seem to be a source, nor do pigs, and the virus has been traced to pigeons and finches. It doesn’t seem to be spreading from person to person easily.
“Right now the situation in China seems to be more of a public health situation than a wildlife situation,” says Hon Ip, who has been working on the avian surveillance program since it started up in 2005.

“We are going to see whether it really is going to be extensively in wildlife before we ramp up our surveillance in this country.”

The bird surveillance program started as concern grew over H5N1 – the other bird flu virus – which has spread to 15 countries since 2003, infecting more than 600 people and killing about 60 percent of them.

Ip and his colleagues showed the H5N1 virus was definitely spread by migrating birds, but they’ve also shown, so far, that the highly pathogenic type has not yet come to the U.S.

Just about every other type of bird flu has, however. Birds can carry dozens of different varieties of influenza, and some make them sick, while others don’t. There’s highly pathogenic influenza – high-path for short – that can sweep through a flock of chickens in days. Other types don’t seem to cause so much as a sniffle in birds.

And different species are infected differently. Dometic ducks don’t seem to be bothered by H5N1, but they can give it to chickens which, in turn, can sometimes infect people.

The best way to check is to test the birds. This is where “Dirty Jobs” comes in. People are tested for flu with a nasal swab. You can test birds this way, too, but they also spread flu in their feces. So they need a swab of the cloaca – the all-purpose opening that birds have on the back end.

“Yes, it’s a dirty job,” Ip says, laughing. The Discovery Channel show featured the USGS and Fish and Wildlife Service project during season 3 in 2007.

The team has tested more than 450,000 migratory birds from 284 different species in all 50 states. Now they focus on Alaska, Maine and Iceland. The USGS National Wildlife Health Center also tests sick and dead migratory birds, especially ducks, geese and swans.

“We are working a lot smarter. We kind of know which locations are better,” Ip says. Waterfowl were especially likely to carry H5N1. But H7N9 looks different.

Genetic tests suggested one ancestral carrier was a finch, and other tests suggested pigeons might carry it. “Should it ever be in wild birds, there is a possibility it may be in species other than waterfowl.  We need to know that,” Ip says.

The finch species is found across the northern hemisphere, in Asia, Europe and North American. “It is called a brambling,” Ip says. “There are some bramblings that come straight into Alaska and into the lower 48. These little birds are just amazing. They are so small and yet able to migrate these incredible distances.”

The little orange and gray birds have not been shown yet to carry H7N9. Instead, genetic tests showed they may have carried some of the genes that mixed with genes from other bird flu viruses to create H7N9. Flu viruses do this kind of thing all the time – an animal can be infected with more than one type of flu strain at once, and the viruses meet up and swap genetic material.

That is what happened with the 2009 pandemic of H1N1 swine flu. The new virus was an indirect descendant of the 1918 “Spanish Flu” that killed upwards of 50 million people. Over the decades, it picked up genes from various types of bird and pig influenzas.

“It was a virus that ultimately came from birds but it evolved in swine before it became a human pandemic virus,” Ip says. “Maybe new mammalian viruses can arise when mammals are directly infected by birds.”

So far, neither H5N1 nor H7N9 seems to have developed the ability to pass easily from one person to another.  If one or the other does, however, experts worry. “Whenever a new type of influenza virus infects humans it is a cause for concern,” says Jim Pipas, a virologist at the University of Pittsburgh. “First, because H7N9 is so different from influenza viruses currently circulating in the human population, humans are likely to lack an effective immune response to the virus. … This is why it is so important to maintain surveillance and to be ready to produce a vaccine if necessary.”

Lufkin Vaults Simmons Into Top 10 Advising on Energy M&A

Story originally appeared on Bloomberg.

Simmons & Co., the Houston advisory boutique founded in 1974, has slipped into the spotlight with roles on two of the biggest oil and industrial deals this year.

The firm advised Texas oil pump maker Lufkin Industries Inc. (LUFK) on its $3.3 billion sale to General Electric Co., announced yesterday. Simmons, alongside UBS AG, advised private-equity firm KKR & Co. on its $3.7 billion offer last month for industrial-equipment maker Gardner Denver Inc. (GDI)

The Lufkin deal helped Simmons crack the top 10 in advising on energy mergers & acquisitions this year, compared with 30th in 2012, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. That and the Gardner Denver transaction are Simmons’s largest since 2007, when the firm won a role on Transocean Ltd.’s $17 billion purchase of GlobalSantaFe Corp., data show.

Simmons, run by Chief Executive Officer Mike Frazier, has now worked on more than $7 billion in deals this year, eclipsing 2012’s more than $5 billion. The firm, which specializes in oil and gas services transactions, was founded almost 40 years ago by Matthew Simmons, a well-known advocate of the “peak oil” theory that posits the earth is running out of the fuel. He died at 67 in an accidental drowning in 2010.

CEO Frazier declined to comment on this article through Libby Covington, a spokeswoman for Simmons.

Evercore Partners Inc., another boutique advisory firm, currently holds the top spot in advising on energy M&A this year with $11.8 billion in transactions, bolstered by the $2.4 billion takeover of Berry Petroleum Co. by Linn Energy LLC, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. The biggest deal so far this year in the energy sector is Royal Dutch Shell Plc’s agreement in February to buy liquefied natural gas assets from Repsol SA for $4.4 billion.

Historical M&A

The strongest year for energy M&A was 2011, led by Kinder Morgan Inc.’s October agreement to buy El Paso Corp. for $21.1 billion. There have been more than $60 billion in global energy deals so far this year, a more than 20 percent decline from the same period a year earlier, data compiled by Bloomberg show. In the industrial sector, there have been more than $90 billion in transactions in 2013.

Global M&A stumbled last quarter as transactions slowed in March, data compiled by Bloomberg showed. Deals shrank to $485.5 billion, a 32 percent decline from the year-earlier period, as the proposed takeovers of icons such as Dell Inc. and H.J. Heinz Co. failed to spark a rally.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

BP may delay $10 billion Mad Dog oil scheme in Gulf of Mexico

Story originally appeared on Fox News.

BP is reviewing its biggest new oil project in the Gulf of Mexico, due to rising development costs across the industry, and could delay the $10 billion scheme.

British oil major BP said on Friday that rising costs made the current plan, under which construction would start this year, difficult to justify, becoming the latest company to reconsider the economics of a major project.

"The current development plan for Mad Dog Phase 2 is not as attractive as previously modeled, due largely to market conditions and industry inflation," it said in a statement.

The company wants to get its core Gulf of Mexico business, which accounts for around a tenth of its global output, back on track after the disastrous 2010 Macondo oil spill, which is still the subject of a court case in New Orleans.

It classes Mad Dog 2 as a "mega project", meaning it requires gross investment of more than $10 billion.

Construction of Mad Dog 2, set to become BP's biggest new oil development in the Gulf for a decade, had been scheduled to start by the end of this year and the company has said oil should start pumping by the end of the decade.

"BP fully intends to develop the resources at Mad Dog Phase 2 and is committed to moving forward with the right plan," it said. "It is too early to speculate when the details of the final plan will be approved by BP and its co-owners."

Elsewhere in the industry, cost over-runs prompted Woodside Petroleum to consider a different plan for its $45 billion Browse liquefied natural gas project in Western Australia in April.

France's Total said in March it was abandoning a multibillion-dollar oil sands project in Canada.

BP, in cooperation with co-owners Union Oil Company of California, a wholly owned subsidiary of Chevron Corp., and BHP Billiton Petroleum, is now evaluating how to develop the second phase of Mad Dog.Construction of Mad Dog 2, set to become BP's biggest new oil development in the Gulf for a decade, had been scheduled to start by the end of this year and the company has said oil should start pumping by the end of the decade.

"BP fully intends to develop the resources at Mad Dog Phase 2 and is committed to moving forward with the right plan," it said. "It is too early to speculate when the details of the final plan will be approved by BP and its co-owners."

Elsewhere in the industry, cost over-runs prompted Woodside Petroleum to consider a different plan for its $45 billion Browse liquefied natural gas project in Western Australia in April.

France's Total said in March it was abandoning a multibillion-dollar oil sands project in Canada.

BP, in cooperation with co-owners Union Oil Company of California, a wholly owned subsidiary of Chevron Corp., and BHP Billiton Petroleum, is now evaluating how to develop the second phase of Mad Dog.

"I see it as a delay. I think it'll probably push back the final investment decision by, I would estimate, about 12 months," Macquarie analyst Jason Gammel said.

A tumble in the oil price, which is down nearly $10 a barrel since the start of this month, could also be weighing on BP's plans for the deep-water field.

The oilfield could contain up to 4 billion barrels of oil equivalent (boe). Mad Dog 2 involves building a second platform on the field and 33 subsea wells to exploit new discoveries.

Shares in BP traded up 1.1 percent, outperforming the European oil and gas index which was 0.4 percent higher.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Up to 15 dead in Texas fertilizer plant blast, scores hurt, police estimate

Story originally appeared on CBS News.

WASHINGTON Rescue workers searched rubble that witnesses compared to a war zone early Thursday for survivors of a fertilizer plant explosion in a small Texas town that killed as many as 15 people and injured more than 160 others. The blast left the factory a smoldering ruin and leveled homes and businesses for blocks in every direction.

The explosion in downtown West, about 20 miles north of Waco, shook the ground with the strength of a small earthquake and could be heard dozens of miles away. It sent flames shooting into the night sky and rained burning embers, shrapnel and debris down on shocked and frightened residents.

Texas resident describes blast "They are still getting injured folks out and they are evacuating people from their homes," Waco police Sgt. William Patrick Swanton said early Thursday morning. He added later, "At some point this will turn into a recovery operation, but at this point, we are still in search and rescue."

Swanton said authorities believe that between five and 15 people were killed in the blast, but stressed that is an early estimate. There is no indication the blast was anything other than an industrial accident, he said, adding that the extent of the devastation won't be known until later in the morning.

Swanton said the area would be treated as a crime scene after the search and rescue effort finished, as investigators seek to learn what caused the explosion. He said no evidence of criminal activity has been found so far.

CBS News has learned President Obama was briefed on the situation Wednesday night, and the White House is monitoring developments through the Federal Emergency Management Agency -- FEMA -- the lead federal agency coordinating with state and local officials who are responding. No specific request for federal assistance had been made by local officials.

KTVT aired video of the explosion itself:

Among those believe to be dead -- members of a group of volunteer firefighters and a single law enforcement officer who responded to a fire call at the West Fertilizer Co. shortly before the blast. They remained unaccounted for early Thursday morning.

Swanton said he had no details on the number of people who work at the plant, which was cited by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality in 2006 for failing to obtain or to qualify for a permit. The agency acted after receiving a complaint in June of that year of a strong ammonia smell.

Homes and vehicles shredded by West, Texas fertilizer plant explosion 9 Photos Texas fertilizer plant explosion View the Full Gallery » The explosion that struck around 8 p.m. leveled a four-block area around the plant that a member of the city council, Al Vanek, said was "totally decimated." The toll included 50 to 75 houses, an apartment complex with about 50 units that one state police officer said was reduced to "a skeleton," a middle school, and the West Rest Haven Nursing Home, from which first-responders evacuated 133 patients, some in wheelchairs.

Other witnesses compared the scene to something from the Iraq War or the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, and authorities said the plant made materials similar to that used to fuel the bomb that tore apart that city's Murrah Federal Building.

Although authorities said it will be some time before they know the full extent of the loss of life, they put the number of those injured at more than 160 early Thursday. West Mayor Tommy Muska told reporters that his city of about 2,800 residents needs "your prayers."

"We've got a lot of people who are hurt, and there's a lot of people, I'm sure, who aren't gonna be here tomorrow," Muska said. "We're gonna search for everybody. We're gonna make sure everybody's accounted for. That's the most important thing right now."

In the hours after the blast, many of the town's residents wandered the dark and windy streets searching for shelter. Among them was Julie Zahirniako, who said she and her son, Anthony, had been playing at a school playground near the fertilizer plant when the explosion hit. She was walking the track, he was kicking a football.

The explosion threw her son four feet in the air, breaking his ribs. She said she saw people running from the nursing home and the roof of the school lifted into the air.

"The fire was so high," she said. "It was just as loud as it could be. The ground and everything was shaking."

The town's volunteer firefighters had responded to a call at the plant at 7:29 p.m., Swanton said. Due to the plant's chemical stockpile, "they realized the seriousness of what they had," he said.

Muska was among the firefighters, and he and his colleagues were working to evacuate the area around the plant when the blast followed about 20 minutes later. Muska said it knocked off his fire helmet and blew out the doors and windows of his nearby home.

Eyewitnesses describe situation near massive explosion in West, Texas. The main fire was under control as of 11 p.m., authorities said, but residents were urged to remain indoors because of the threat of new explosions or leaks of ammonia from the plant's ruins. Swanton said early Thursday authorities were not concerned about lingering smoke from the fire.

Dozens of emergency vehicles amassed at the scene in the hours after the blast, as fires continued to smolder in the ruins of the plant and in several surrounding buildings. Aerial footage showed injured people being treated on the flood-lit football field that had been turned into a staging area.

Vanek said first-responders treated victims at about half a dozen sites, and he saw several injured residents from the nursing home being treated at the community center. Swanton said the injured rescued so far had been taken to hospitals in Waco and a triage center at high school in nearby Abbott.

About 100 of the injured were treated at Hillcrest Baptist Medical Center in Waco, where five people were in intensive care. Another 65 were taken to Providence Health Center in Waco. Officials said the injuries included broken bones, bruises, lacerations, respiratory distress, and some head injuries and minor burns.

Officer on "tornadic effect" of explosion, fatalities Erick Perez, 21, of West, was playing basketball at a nearby school when the fire started. He and his friends thought nothing of it at first, but about a half-hour later, the smoke changed color. The blast threw him, his nephew and others to the ground and showered the area with hot embers, shrapnel and debris.

"The explosion was like nothing I've ever seen before," Perez said. "This town is hurt really bad."

Information was hard to come by in the hours after the blast, and entry into the town was slow-going as the roads were jammed with emergency vehicles rushing in to help. A spokeswoman for Texas Gov. Rick Perry said the state sent personnel from several agencies to help, including the Texas Commission for Environmental Quality, the state's emergency management department and an incident management team. Also responding is the state's top urban search and rescue team, the state health department and mobile medical units.

The U.S. Chemical Safety Board said it was deploying a large investigation team to West. American Red Cross crews from across Texas also headed to the scene. Red Cross spokeswoman Anita Foster said the group was working with emergency management officials in West to find a safe shelter for residents displaced from their homes.

In 2001, an explosion at a chemical and fertilizer plant killed 31 people and injured more than 2,000 in Toulouse, France. The blast occurred in a hangar containing 300 tons of ammonium nitrate, which can be used for both fertilizer and explosives. The explosion came 10 days after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the U.S., and raised fears at the time it was linked. A 2006 report blamed the blast on negligence.

Monday, April 15, 2013

Chevron: Safety oversights, poor record keeping contributed to massive Richmond refinery blaze

Story originally appeared on Contra Costa Times.

RICHMOND -- In an 80-page report released Friday on its own investigation into last summer's massive refinery fire, Chevron U.S.A. Inc. acknowledged its failure to identify and replace a corroded pipe and vowed to take steps to prevent a similar accident from happening again.

The oil giant also acknowledged that it mishandled its response to the pipe leak that sparked the blaze.

The report, submitted to the Contra Costa Health Services department and released to the media Friday morning, arrived at many of the same general findings as the U.S. Chemical Safety Board, one of the agencies investigating the Aug. 6 fire that sent more than 15,000 people to area hospitals and shut down the heart of the refinery for months.

The safety board said in a public meeting April 5 that Chevron missed multiple opportunities to replace the pipe blamed for the blaze.

Chevron's own investigation revealed four "causal factors" that triggered the fire, which injured several workers and sent more than 15,000 people to area hospitals. The four factors were:

Once a pipe leak was discovered, workers did not "recognize the risk of piping rupture and the possibility of auto-ignition." As a result, workers may have worsened the leak by removing the aluminum weather jacketing from the pipe and using firefighting equipment to remove the pipe insulation.

A 2002 discovery of significant thinning to the pipe that later ruptured was buried in a software database, limiting the "ability for future decision makers to utilize the data."

Inspectors failed to grasp the importance of inspecting carbon steel components vulnerable to corrosion.

A 2011 component inspection was incomplete, passing over the pipe that ruptured a year later. The inspection could have alerted officials that the pipe had thinned to unsafe levels.

Political leaders said the report was further evidence that the fire should trigger big changes at the refinery and within the refining industry.

"Chevron's report underscores the need to conduct a full independent safety culture audit of the refinery as ordered by the county's Health Department last week," county Supervisor John Gioia, of Richmond, wrote in an email Friday. "It is clear that the refinery's process safety culture and decision-making procedures about equipment replacement need to be thoroughly reviewed."

Chevron officials hailed the report as a cause for refinery safety improvement.

"Our report concludes that the causes of the incident were multifaceted," Chevron said on its company Facebook page. "The refinery's management and our entire work force are implementing a comprehensive set of actions, not simply to address the issues underlying the August incident, but also as part of our commitment to continuous improvement."

In the report, Chevron emphasized what it described as numerous improvements in safety procedures and comprehensive component screenings to ensure that another incident does not occur.

Chevron has inspected every piping component "potentially susceptible to sulfidation corrosion," according to the report, a total of 4,600 pipes and pipe components in the massive refinery. Inspectors found four pipes that required replacement, according to the report.

Moving forward, the refinery will adhere to a new policy of inspecting 100 percent of piping components during inspections, rather than just selective screenings.

The Chevron report also suggested the refinery, which has long guarded technology secrets and prohibits visitors from taking photographs while on the property, will open up to more peer review and outside technical experts to get additional opinions on safety procedures and component quality.

The Chemical Safety Board is expected to go even further in its recommendations next week. CSB officials have said that regulators and outside experts need more access to refineries and must play a greater role in ensuring that safety procedures are followed and new science is incorporated into those standards.

The Aug. 6 fire shut down the No. 4 crude unit until last week, when the state Division of Occupational Safety and Health (Cal/OSHA) gave Chevron the green light to restart operations. Chevron anticipates resuming production in the unit by the end of June.

Friday's report comes ahead of a highly anticipated unveiling of the Chemical Safety Board's investigation findings and safety recommendations, scheduled for Monday. A community meeting on the findings is scheduled for 6:30 p.m. April 19 at the Richmond Civic Center.

Cal/OSHA issued more than 25 violations stemming from the fire and slapped the energy giant with more than $900,000 in fines, the biggest in the agency's history.

"As early as 2002 ... the Richmond refinery could have taken timely action to replace the piping that failed on Aug. 6," said Dan Tillema, the Chemical Safety Board's lead chemical incident investigator, during a public hearing April 5. "However, Chevron failed to do so."

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

BP calls first witness at trial over Gulf spill

Story originally appeared on USA Today.

NEW ORLEANS (AP) — BP's first witness at a trial over the deadly Deepwater Horizon disaster testified Monday that the company safely drilled its Macondo well in the Gulf of Mexico before a series of mistakes led to an April 2010 blowout, which triggered the nation's worst offshore oil spill.

Retired LSU petroleum engineering professor Adam "Ted" Bourgoyne Jr., an expert in drilling operations, said crew members and BP supervisors on the rig followed "normal industry practices" before encountering problems as they tried to plug the well.

"I think the well was drilled safely, basically because standard industry practices were followed. There were no major problems that weren't properly handled," he said. "I even noted that they were taking extreme care to follow all the safety procedures with respect to reporting little minor things that happened, like washers falling out of derricks."

Bourgoyne said he disagreed with many conclusions of Alan Huffman, an expert witness for the federal government who testified earlier in the trial. Huffman accused BP of deviating from industry standards and continuing to drill despite clear signs of trouble.

Huffman concluded that BP repeatedly failed to drill with a "safe drilling margin," which he defined as the cushion between the well's mud weight and its fracture gradient. The mud weight must be kept heavy enough to keep fluids from flowing up the well without fracturing the formation that is being drilled.

"One of the things that Dr. Huffman suggested was that the way that the drilling margin was managed presented dangers, extreme danger to the men and women onboard the Deepwater Horizon. Do you agree with that?" BP attorney Mike Brock asked Bourgoyne.

"No, I don't agree with that at all," he responded.

Bourgoyne said he believed the drilling margin allegations had no connection to the blowout.

He also disagreed with Huffman's claims that BP repeatedly misrepresented the well's pressure integrity test results and gave federal regulators a "very false impression" of what was happening during the drilling operation.

"Did your review indicate that BP conducted an appropriate pressure integrity test at each interval where it should be conducted?" Brock asked.

"Yes, they did," Bourgoyne said.

Bourgoyne joined many other experts and government investigations in concluding that crew members failed to properly monitor the well and rig supervisors misinterpreted a key safety test just before the blowout.

"They called it a pass when it was a fail," he said of the test. "It was surprising that they called it a pass. I think the data was clearly there."

Two BP well site leaders, Robert Kaluza and Donald Vidrine, are charged with manslaughter in the deaths of 11 rig workers and await a separate trial. Their indictment accuses them of misinterpreting the same test.

Bourgoyne said the BP supervisors and crew members employed by rig owner Transocean Ltd. discussed the test results "as a group" and ultimately "bought into" an alternate explanation for abnormal drill pipe pressure.

"This is very surprising to me, but it happened. And I think it was a group decision," he said. "They had a lot of confidence in one another, and once they made the decision, they were convinced they were right."

Plaintiffs' attorney Jim Roy asked Bourgoyne if a "moron" ought to know whether the test is a success based on the pressure readings.

"No comment?" Roy asked.

"No comment," replied Bourgoyne, who later added, "I think, in general, this crew was competent and had the appropriate training. Why they made this mistake, you can't explain it."

Bourgoyne said the blowout could have been averted if the test had been properly interpreted, but he identified "a lot of contributing causes to this disaster."

"It takes a whole series of failures to line up for something like that to happen," he said.

U.S. District Judge Carl Barbier is hearing testimony without a jury. Barring a settlement, he could decide how much more money BP and its contractors owe for their roles in the catastrophe.

The first phase of the trial, which has entered its seventh week, is designed to identify causes of the blowout and assign fault to the companies involved. Barbier plans to hold a second phase that examines BP's efforts to stop the spill and quantifies how much oil spilled into the Gulf.

Testimony by BP witnesses is expected to last at least two weeks.

Monday, April 8, 2013

As marijuana goes legit, investors rush in

Story originally appeared on USA Today.

Pot entrepreneurs have high expectations for a future market in legalized marijuana.

Brendan Kennedy and Michael Blue are nice boys. Really. They're bankers. Yale MBA classmates. Wearers of ties.

And, if luck and changing laws cooperate, they'll be drug barons of a certain kind.

Kennedy, 40, and Blue, 34, are in the vanguard springing up to seize the market for legal marijuana, which is accelerating with last fall's legalization of most personal pot consumption in Colorado and Washington state. They're running a Seattle private-equity fund, Privateer Holdings, designed to buy up the smaller marijuana-related businesses to create one bigfat one.

After Washington and Colorado, the pot business is, if not mainstream, at least ready to push toward it. Advocates hope to legalize personal use in another 14 states by 2017, mostly among the 16 states besides Washington and Colorado where medical pot is legal (it's also legal in Washington, D.C.). Industry estimates say today's $1.5 billion legal market could quadruple by 2018.

The public is trending toward legalization. In a Pew Research Center poll released Thursday, a majority of Americans (52%) favored legalization, the first time that threshold has been reached since polling on the issue began in 1969.

What's striking is how conventional many of the business people's backgrounds — and their plans — increasingly are. Instead of backing marijuana dispensaries, investors such as Privateer and San Francisco-based ArcView Group are rushing to find consulting firms, software companies and insurance agencies to serve the new market. Even Privateer's strategy of merging small companies to form a big one is familiar: In traditional buyout shops, it's called a "roll-up."

Just don't say that word to Kennedy, unless you want him to blush. Scratch the term "growing the business" — he catches that one in midsentence, correcting his wording to "expand.'' And forget weed, ganja or pot. He uses the scientific term, cannabis. And the cannabis business is good, he says.

"We're building the first all-inclusive name brand in the cannabis business,'' Kennedy declares earnestly. "And it doesn't include Bob Marley, or the Grateful Dead, or …''

"Or puns,'' Blue says drolly. "There are so many.''

Jokes aside, the striking thing about the new gold rush in pot is how familiar it sounds to people used to the technology business.

Just like Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, start-up pot investors such as Kennedy, Blue and ArcView CEO Troy Dayton — whose company runs an angel-investor network matching companies with rich activists — talk about how big and fragmented the market is, and how the relative handful of legal businesses out there lack the leadership and tools they need to (sorry, Mr. Kennedy) grow the industry. That leaves the field open for people who can bring capital and experience, they say.

That part is true. The best way to estimate the potential size of the legal market for cannabis begins with the illegal market — which is somewhere north of $18 billion a year in pot Americans consume already, said Harvard economist Jeffrey Miron. The trade journal Medical Marijuana Business Daily says the $1.5 billion legal market could reach $6 billion by 2018.

The challenges are myriad. Some are specific to selling a product still illegal in most states. But others are very ordinary, thanks partly to the business' Bohemian roots.

"It's not an industry loaded with operating talent,'' said Josh Rosen, a former Credit Suisse stock analyst who runs Phoenix-based MC Advisors, which backs renewable-energy companies and is, well, experimenting with pot. "But the economics are very similar to other businesses. You can run a Harvard Business School analysis.''

It's hard to say exactly how many people are trying to make pot a business like any other. About 2,000 legal dispensaries are open around the United States, estimates Kris Krane, managing director of Phoenix-based consulting firm 4Front Advisors. Privateer and Dayton's group are the biggest publicly announced clusters of investors. There are even a handful of public companies: The most valuable, San Diego-based Medical Marijuana, is worth about $200 million.

Increasingly, the cultural overlap between the pot business and just plain business is occurring because they're attracting the same people.

Adam Wiggins, a member of Dayton's investor network, sold software-as-a-service company Heroku to for $250 million. Alan Valdes, chairman of Seattle-based Diego Pellicer — which plans 24 upscale marijuana shops as the anchor of what he hopes will become a Harley-Davidson-like lifestyle brand — is director of stock-exchange-floor operations for DME Securities. He appears sometimes on CNBC, talking about stocks. Kennedy, meanwhile, came from Silicon Valley Bank.

"The industry has grown up a lot since we launched in 2011,'' said Chris Walsh, editor of Medical Marijuana Business Daily. "It was the activists and hippies. We're seeing more grownups over the past two years, and accelerating in the last six months.''

Others involved still have an eye on the politics of the industry, as well as the economics. Dayton, for example, was chief fundraiser for the pro-legalization Marijuana Policy Project until 2010. Wiggins, who's on MPP's board, said they're not mutually exclusive.

"Almost any software you can think of is made by someone who enjoys a toke,'' he said.


Even so, selling pot is a federal crime — something that seeps into business conversations like smoke wafting under bedroom doors.

Many investors, including Privateer, plan to cut their risk by not buying and selling marijuana itself, Kennedy and Dayton said. MJ Freeway Software Solutions helps pot-dispensary owners document supply chains once considered evidence of conspiracies, while Krane advises them on how to adapt best practices on prosaic issues such as store design and human resources policy from top retailers like Old Navy.

Privateer's first buy was Leafly, a Yelp-like website and mobile app that reviews 500-plus strains of cannabis, luring 2.3 million monthly visitors. The heavy traffic has allowed Leafly to begin selling ads. Several help pot entrepreneurs who can't otherwise buy insurance because most insurers think their businesses are too risky, said Patrick McManamon, managing director of Cleveland agency Cannassure.

The people at the most legal risk, Kennedy and Blue reason, are marijuana dispensary owners, because the federal government could raid the stores and confiscate the investment. That stance may represent an abundance of caution: President Obama, whose memoir paints him as a regular pot smoker in his high school days, said in December that prosecutors have "bigger fish to fry'' than recreational pot users.

"We've never seen a consulting firm become a target,'' said Krane.

Citing a 2009 Department of Justice memo that said federal prosecutors shouldn't use resources to pursue marijuana businesses clearly complying with state law, he said he should be safe if he only serves clients licensed in their home states. But a different DOJ memo in 2011 said large-scale pot growing, even for medical marijuana shops, is still illegal, even when federal law allows it. Attorney General Eric Holder told a Senate committee last month that the department is still working on its response to Colorado's and Washington's new laws.

For Amy Poinsett and Jessica Billingsley, who run Denver-based MJ Freeway, helping store owners keep track of valuable product from field through the cash register is a valid software market: They sell to about 400 legal stores in the 16 medical-marijuana states, making their 2-year-old company profitable.

Wiggins was impressed enough to agree to invest in MJ this year. Its software illustrates that pot markets will behave like other markets — they'll get more capital-intensive, more concentrated and more professional, assuming legalization spreads, he said.

"I'm definitely a capitalist,'' he says. "And the operations technology always tends to be where the biggest change comes.'"


Nothing about the rapid growth of marijuana markets, or even the hands-off-the-pot business strategy, is an automatic winner.

Clearly, the feds could cripple the business. Even the strategy of profiting from marijuana without touching it could run afoul of money-laundering laws, if those services are bought with drug proceeds, said UCLA professor Mark A.R. Kleiman, who is advising Washington's liquor board on regulating legal pot stores.

There's also a good chance that a legal pot market won't expand consumption as much as entrepreneurs think, Miron said. Colorado and California have already seen a sharp consolidation of medical-marijuana shops opened by people who thought the market would take off faster. A referendum on the ballot in Los Angeles in May would limit the number of medical-marijuana shops to 135 that opened by 2007. Careful regulation could also hurt a business that, like the alcohol industry, stands to make most of its profits from the few people who consume too much, Kleiman said.

"To the extent that there's money to be made, a lot of it is already being made,'' by illegal operations, Miron said. "The notion that there will be new wealth is exaggerated.''

That uncertainty doesn't bother those lining up for a green rush.

The marijuana business is packed with people who aren't much on conventional opinion, and pot smokers are used to legal risk, Rosen said.

Wiggins says the open-source software industry that made him rich "used to be a long-haired hippie business, too.'' Risk means less competition, because the weak-kneed won't jump in, Rosen said. "The extra layer of risk is where the opportunity comes from,'' he notes.

And, yeah, for some entrepreneurs and investors, a joint's lingering ability to shock is also part of the appeal.

Take Billingsley, MJ Freeway's chief operating officer. The 35-year-old mom lives in red-state Georgia, works on one of the most boring pieces of the drug business imaginable and looks basically like any other small-business owner who has spent a dozen years doing information-technology consulting. Yet she gets her own little buzz from messing with neighbors' heads, strategically doling out the news of what she does for a living.

"I used to be very circumspect about it,'' she said, laughing. "Now when I get bored at a kids' function, I just drop the bomb.''

NASCAR takes steps to drive 'green'

Story originally appeared on USA Today.

Racing teams are using a 15% ethanol blend and NASCAR has embarked on a tree-planting binge

With growling engines that gulp fuel, NASCAR isn't exactly the first place you'd go looking to find efforts to go green.

But spring has sprung, and for April, the racing organization is showcasing its efforts to become ecological. Well, as much as it can, anyway.

First and probably foremost, NASCAR is using a 15% ethanol blend for fuel, which is 50% more ethanol than is found in the E10 blends at everyday service stations. Ethanol is denatured alcohol usually made from corn. Of course, it's not E85, the 85% ethanol blend that's been around for years, but still is step in the right direction.

E15 fuel is going to be used in all three of NASCAR's national racing series.

NASCAR is making sure fans know about its "green" efforts. For instance, Kansas Speedway is going to stick the "NASCAR Green" logo on the infield grass and the backstretch wall. The start/finish line will be painted green. A Toyota Camry hybrid will serve as pace car for the race.

NASCAR has also gone on a tree-planting binge. The goal is to plant enough trees that offset the carbon emissions from all that NASCAR driving. It's not an impossible goal: NASCAR says a single tree absorbs a metric ton of carbon dioxide over its lifetime, about the same amount of carbon dioxide from a Spring Cup car driving 500 miles.

So, for instance, Ford plans to plant one tree for every lap a Ford driver leads in either of two racing series during April. And UPS has partnered with the Arbor Day Foundation to plant more than 8,000 trees.

"Our NASCAR Green activities this month comprise our most ambitious and collective effort to date in reducing our sport's impact on the environment," said NASCAR CEO Brian France in a statement.

Friday, April 5, 2013

Fukushima cooling system fails for second time in a month

This story originally appeared on the Guardian.

The cooling system for a fuel storage pool at one of the reactors at the Fukushima nuclear plant has failed, Japanese regulators have said.

There was no immediate danger from the failure, the second at the plant in a month, they said.

The Fukushima plant was severely damaged by the March 2011 tsunami that devastated Japan's north-east coast and suffered multiple meltdowns. It is currently in the process of being decommissioned.

A spokesman for the Nuclear Regulation Authority said an alarm went off on Friday afternoon at reactor No 3, and that the cause of the failure was still under investigation.

A spokesman for the plant's operator said it would take two weeks before temperatures approach dangerous levels following a cooling system failure.

Last month, a power cut caused a two-day failure in a cooling system.

Monday, April 1, 2013

Oil Pipeline Ruptures in Arkansas

Story originally appeared on the New York Times.

Emergency crews worked Saturday to contain several thousand gallons of crude oil that spilled from a ruptured Exxon Mobil pipeline in central Arkansas.obil were still investigating the cause of the rupture, which occurred on Friday afternoon in a section of the Pegasus pipeline near the town of Mayflower, which has about 1,700 people and is 25 miles north of Little Rock.

The local authorities said in a statement on Saturday that 22 homes in the vicinity of the spill had been evacuated.

As soon as the spill was detected, the pipeline was shut down and isolation valves were closed to prevent further leakage, Exxon Mobil said in a statement.

About 2,000 feet of boom was set up to contain the oil, and 15 vacuum trucks were deployed to clean it up, Exxon Mobil said. About 4,500 barrels of oil and water had been removed by Saturday evening, the company said.

Crews were working to make sure no oil entered nearby Lake Conway.

The Environmental Protection Agency classified the leak as a “major spill,” Exxon Mobil said.