National / International News
Proposition 46 tackles painkiller abuse, malpractice caps and mandatory drug and alcohol testing of doctors. Backers say the law would enhance patient safety, but doctors say the cost is too high.
Born in 1900, Anna Stoehr has seen dramatic shifts in technology. But when the Minnesota woman tried to create a Facebook account, she hit a snag. The service couldn't handle her early birthdate.
Seventy-six of those were healthcare workers who had contact with the first Ebola patient. Only one had contact with the second Ebola patient.
Airports around the world have begun screening passengers arriving from West Africa for signs of Ebola. But as producer Rebecca Hersher live-tweets, not all of the exams are as strict as promised.
Sean Haugh is making waves as a Libertarian candidate in North Carolina's U.S. Senate race. He isn't the only one: Independent candidates are a factor in at least a dozen races.
Raising money for Ebola is hard.
“We try to put up stories and information and photos and let people know we have a microsite and a designated button that makes it easy for people to give,” says Jana Sweeny of the American Red Cross.
But people aren’t giving in significant numbers. The Red Cross, UNICEF and Doctors without Borders have raised a combined $20 million toward combating Ebola. Compare that to the $486 million the Red Cross alone raised after the 2010 earthquake in Haiti.
“In the case of disease outbreak, I think that Americans tend to think immediately of government, our government helps manage that,” says Sweeny.
The CDC Foundation – the philanthropic arm of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention – is having more success than the traditional charities; it’s raised $40 million.
“What we’ve had to say to our donors is trust those 150 CDC experts who are putting their lives on the line,” says Foundation President Charlie Stokes.
Stokes says major givers like Mark Zuckerberg and his wife Dr. Priscilla Chan, who pledged $25 million Tuesday, are trusting CDC epidemiologists to spend money at the scientists’ discretion. That risk, plus the invisibility of a viral epidemic makes raising money tricky, Stokes says.
“We’re talking about raising funding for people who are not yet sick but may die two weeks from now,” he says. “It’s harder to put a face on those victims.”
So, Stokes puts a face on public health scientists in the spooky Hazmat suits in West Africa, and how they are the ones best positioned to control this virus.
At this point, you're probably familiar with MOOCs – those massive open online courses offered by the likes of Harvard, Stanford and MIT. MOOCs are often geared toward college kids or curious adults. But that’s changing.
MOOCs are going to high school.
One of the people tasked with making the jump is Dr. Jeneen Graham at St. Margaret’s Episcopal School in California. She currently teaches psychology to 18 students; next year she’ll be teaching thousands. “I think it’s incredible,” says Graham, “and also a little bit scary.”
Graham is creating an intro to psychology MOOC for the online learning nonprofit EdX, one of the biggest MOOC providers. Her class will be one of about two-dozen free high-school classes EdX is launching.
Graham says for St. Margaret's, it’s a chance to extend the school's mission of service and education. And personally, she says, her high school self would have jumped at the chance to take a class like this. “I grew up in a small, rural town and I didn’t have access to this kind of course work,” says Graham. “I think I would have loved it.”
Those are the kids the new EdX offerings are after. Kids who are motivated. Kids without access.
Many of the courses are AP level in subjects like physics, environmental science and chemistry. They are taught by high school instructors and professor from Berkeley, Rice and MIT.
“A lot of high schools do not have a rich set of AP courses, it’s just too expensive,” says Anant Agarwal, the CEO of EdX.
MOOCs, on the other hand, are free (though students can pay for a “certificate of achievement”).
Agarwal thinks the number of middle and high schoolers taking EdX’s MOOCs could one day grow to about a third of their students. That’s a pretty compelling market, considering EdX has about 3 million users now.
“I think high schools will embrace this, because learners can directly take some of these high school courses,” says Agarwal.
The big question is whether they’ll finish them. Currently, the MOOC completion rate is only about 10 percent.
It's a number that has slowed the adoption by high schools – but not stopped it. Some allow students to take college-geared MOOCs for credit as part of an independent study. In Florida, there’s a state law that allows students to earn credit for certain MOOCs.
And while there has been hand wringing at the university level about MOOCs replacing professors, the high school educators I talked to weren't worried.
“I see MOOCs as a supplement,” said Craig Wilson, head of the University of Miami Global Academy. “ An addition to, not a take away from, the education experience.”
His school is an online program, that has experimented with creating its own MOOCs.
He says there are parts of the MOOC model that can work with high-schoolers—but it’s not perfect.
Most teenagers, he says, need teachers or mentors. They need help getting across the finish line.
“What I think is that high-schoolers still need that sense of community,” says Wilson
The ed-tech industry is also trying to figure out how to work that sense of community and adult supervision into MOOCs.
The digital education company Amplify is experimenting with a mentor based model. It’s offering an AP Computer Science MOOC— with in-school coaches.
Of course, some super motivated, hyper-focused high schoolers aren’t waiting on adults to figure MOOCs out.
They’re doing it for themselves.
Take, for instance, James Lintner. He’s a 17 year old student in Georgia who takes MOOCS in his free time. So far, he says, he’s completed five, including classes in behavioral economics, energy, and medicinal chemistry.
“I feel like if I’m learning something, that’s better than rotting my mind playing video games,” he said.
Lintner says the classes have helped him figure out what he might want study in college. He’s also hopeful they might help him get in. He’s including the MOOCs in the extracurricular section on his applications.
Now you basically have to go to college before you can get into college.
The United States is on the verge of becoming the world’s top producer of oil, according to the International Energy Agency. But the oil boom is also leading to a boom in toxic oil field waste that can end up in open pit disposal sites. There are increasing concerns over the dangers these disposal sites pose for air quality.
All energy producing states have to deal with an ever-escalating amount of waste. In Wyoming, there are 35 commercial waste pits and permits pending on six more. North Dakota shipped 1.75 million tons of oil and gas waste to landfills in 2013. And, while Colorado - like North Dakota - has been tightening regulations on the waste water resulting from drilling operations, the state's solid waste pits are still left uncovered.
None of these states have conducted studies to determine if the air coming off pits is safe. A recent investigation in Texas by InsideClimate News and the Center for Public Integrity uncovered a troublesome gap in oversight by state and federal regulators over these giant pools of oil field muck.
That problem is clear in the situation facing the residents of Nordheim, Texas, a town of 300 people about 75 miles southeast of San Antonio. Farmers and ranchers gathered recently at the old dance hall there to organize against what they see as an environmental threat to their town.
"They’re going to dump liquid oil field waste, all the chemicals that have to do with fracking," rancher Jim Fulbright said, "and they have to do something with it."
Here's what he's worried about: two enormous oil waste disposal facilities – one 200 acres and the other 575 acres - proposed for right outside of his town. Retired teacher Lyn Janssen is worried about her ranch, settled by her family in 1897. "There’s really no reason for our area to become the dump site for the Eagle Ford Shale,” she said.
Nordheim is in the middle of the most productive parts of the Eagle Ford Shale, a geological formation saturated in oil. But because it’s locked in a rocky honeycomb, it was once thought that this oil was too expensive and troublesome to get out of the ground. New drilling technologies like fracking changed that. Each day, 900,000 barrels of oil are produced in the Eagle Ford play. In 2013, it generated $87 billion in total economic output for the state of Texas. And many people in Nordheim, like Fulbright, are also getting oil royalty checks from this oil and gas bounty.
"I'm not against fracking," he said. "I’m not against the oil and gas industry. It’s necessary. The country needs the energy." The proposed waste facilities near Nordheim and elsewhere in South Texas call for billions of gallons of toxic sludge to be dumped in the plastic-lined pits left open to the air, where fracking waste is allowed to evaporate. What’s left behind is a viscous goop that’s mixed with soil and eventually buried on-site. There are currently at least 67 large commercial surface facilities for oil field waste operating in Texas.
And if you live or work nearby, it's hard to miss.
"There ain’t no Chanel No. 5 there – it all stinks,” Fulbright said.
It doesn’t just stink – the EPA and others have found that the fumes contain chemicals known to be hazardous to human health, including volatile organic compounds like benzene. But, because oil and gas waste is exempted from federal hazardous waste regulations, most states don’t require monitoring waste pit air emissions. It’s impossible to know whether chemicals are drifting into the air at levels that could affect human health.
The only hope that residents of Nordheim have to stop the pits is to block their permitting at the Texas Rail Road Commission – the state agency that has oversight of the oil and gas industry. So, last month about 30 residents of Nordheim chartered a bus and took the 150-mile trip to Austin to testify at a public hearing about the pits. One-by-one, they stood before the hearing examiner and explained how the proposed waste pits would contaminate their water wells and pollute nearby creeks.
"We have 36 acres of land that’s adjacent to the proposed site. We have a 150-f00t deep water well. It is 60 feet from the property line of the proposed waste facility,” resident Howard Ann Bouman said.
“My husband and I own 54 acres that is bordered by Smith Creek. All of the toxins that are allowed in and out of the facility because they talk about mechanical failure or human error and those things are going to run into the creeks,” Gail Tisdale said.
Also at the hearing was Republican state Representative Geanie Morrison, who has represented Nordheim for over 15 years. She expressed her concerns, even though she does believe the state needs these facilities.
“I am not naïve that we always be confronted with the 'not in my backyard' position. But this is truly in the backyard of the entire city of Nordheim," she said.
But as Nordheim had its say, so did the company proposing the pits - Pyote Reclamation Systems. John Soule is their attorney and his argument in favor of the permitting hinged on the fact that the oil field waste going into the pits is considered non-hazardous. He stressed that point five times in the first two minutes of his presentation:
"The waste that will be received," he said, "is RCRA or Resource Conservation and Recovery Act exempt oil and gas waste, by definition non-hazardous.”
A week after the hearing, the CEO of Pyote Reclamation Systems, George Wommack, expressed confidence about the ruling from the railroad commission. He was representing his company at their booth at the DUG Eagle Ford Conference in San Antonio, a gathering of about 4500 oil industry professionals. Wommack was there pitching his services as an oilfield waste processor.
He restated the fact the the company is dealing solely in non-hazardous materials: “They need to understand this is nonhazardous material. It’s mainly rocks and dirt that has come in contact with the hydrocarbon.”
But that's the key issue in this dispute: Is oil and gas waste hazardous, or not?
Right now, oil and gas waste is officially considered non-hazardous because of a decision made by Congress and the EPA back in 1988 to exempt oil and gas waste from federal regulations. It was a move to spur domestic oil production and keep costs low. Professor Ernest Smith, of the University of Texas School of Law, says it was all about politics. He literally wrote the book - a text book - on oil and gas law and is a specialist in the area.
“The oil and gas companies had sufficient pull that they were able to get it classified as non-hazardous,” he said.
But Smith believes this exemption won’t last forever. He says pressure is building on the federal government to fix it. But that would come at quite a cost to industry, at least a three-fold increase in waste processing costs. That’s why that change isn't likely to happen in time to keep the pits out of Nordheim.
Wells Fargo, Citigroup and JP Morgan Chase all reported earnings Tuesday morning. The results were more or less what analysts expected, with two banks barely beating expectations, and JP Morgan Chase barely missing. But all three are profitable, with gains in the single-digit billions of dollars for the quarter.
"The return to profitability by banks of all sizes is a good thing for our economy," says Aaron Klein, director of the Financial Regulatory Reform Initiative at the Bipartisan Policy Center. "It shows that loans are being made and repaid."
But the more significant change since the financial crisis is the quality of those loans. "You've seen a significant reduction in lending to individuals who are outside the traditional credit box," says Klein.
Safer loans are part of a broader sea change in bank processes that have reduced risk, sometimes at the cost of profits.
"I would say [the big banks are] far safer, better capitalized today than they were before the crisis, but they certainly aren’t as profitable," says Fred Cannon, global director of research at KBW.
In addition to making safer loans, banks have been forced to spin off risky "proprietary trading" desks, and to increase capital or equity. The latter directly impacts one key measure of profitability: Return on equity.
"Citigroup is a good example," says Cannon. "Before the crisis, because they didn’t have much equity, the returns on equity, were you know in the mid-twenties. And today, Citigroup struggles to make it to 10 percent."
A less profitable Citigroup, but a safer financial system?
"So that’s the good news," says Dennis Kelleher is the president of Better Markets, an organization that pushes tighter regulation of the financial industry. "The bad news is if those circumstances repeat themselves, we’re not in dramatically different position than we were in '08."
The problem, he says, is that while the big banks may be less likely to fail, if they do fail, they're still too big to avoid having taxpayers bail them out.
Oil prices have been on a downward swing for the past few months and now there is an expectation among industry forecasters that demand for oil will slow soon.
The International Energy Agency says oil demand growth is at its lowest in five years, with demand expected to grow by 700,000 barrels a day. That’s 200,000 fewer than it previously expected.
Antoine Halff is the chief oil analyst for the agency: “The main driver really has been the economy," says Halff. “The economic recovery continues to be slower than expected.”
The agency lowered its forecasts in large part because the International Monetary Fund recently lowered its forecast for GDP growth worldwide.
“And now China, which for the last 10 to 15 years was the main engine of economic growth, has been slowing dramatically as well,” says Halff.
Slower growth in Asia and in developing nations around the world is a big factor in oil demand. Last year, for the first time, the demand for oil in developing countries exceeded that of developed nations.
Growth in those developing nations is slowing, a worrying sign for oil producers, says IHS oil analyst Jamie Webster. “It’s also a worrying sign for the economy and for oil markets because that is really considered to be the home for demand growth long term.”
Despite the drop in global demand, so far at least, oil production has not declined. As a result, analyst Steven Kopits expects gas prices to drop in the U.S. which could spur demand.
“The caveat on that is that the miles per gallon for our automobiles has increased quite a bit," he says. "For new cars over the last seven years, or so it’s up 20 percent.”
Renewable energy sources don’t make up a big enough share to cut into demand for oil. But gains in efficiency, and the rise of the electric car, Kopits says, could be game changers.