Molly Redden

Molly Redden

Reporter

Molly Redden is a reporter in Mother Jones' Washington bureau. Previously, she worked for The New Republic, covering energy and the environment and politics, and The Chronicle of Higher Education. Her work has also appeared in Salon, Washington City Paper, and Slate. In her free time, she enjoys cooking and watching too much television. She tweets at @mtredden. Email her at mredden at motherjones dot com.

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Molly Redden is a reporter in Mother Jones' Washington bureau. Previously, she worked for The New Republic, covering energy and the environment and politics, and The Chronicle of Higher Education. Her work has also appeared in Salon, Washington City Paper, and Slate. In her free time, she enjoys cooking and watching too much television. She tweets at @mtredden.

Natural Gas Is Dirtier Than We Thought—But It's Still Better Than Coal

| Thu Feb. 13, 2014 2:00 PM EST

For decades, the Environmental Protection Agency has underestimated US emissions of methane, a greenhouse gas that is 30 times more potent than carbon dioxide. That's the argument of a new analysis appearing in the Feb. 14 issue of Science, which also finds that a big factor behind the lowball estimates is the EPA's poor grasp of methane leaks from the natural gas industry.

The analysis, which examines more than 200 existing studies, is the first to take a broad view of scientific knowledge of methane emissions, and it has critical implications for the use of natural gas. Gas has been touted by its proponents as a cleaner alternative to traditional fossil fuels such as coal—President Obama hails it as a "bridge fuel" that will allow the country to transition to cleaner energy sources—since burning natural gas for energy emits far less carbon dioxide. But because methane, a main component of natural gas, is such a powerful greenhouse gas, the new evidence of narrows the gap between the climate change contributions of gas and coal.

"Our best guess is that methane emissions in this country are about 50 percent more than the EPA [estimates]," says Adam Brandt, an assistant professor of energy resources engineering at Stanford University and the lead author of the analysis. Methane emissions could plausibly be anywhere between 25 to 75 percent more than what EPA measures have shown, Brandt adds. "That amounts to something like 7 to 21 million excess tons of methane every year." Brandt and his co-authors, he says, did not have enough evidence to determine what proportion of total excess methane is released by the natural gas industry, as opposed to by other energy sectors, agriculture, or landfills.

But the study concludes that natural gas as a fuel source still contributes less to climate change than coal. "We don't believe that the evidence suggests that burning coal is better," Brandt says. "There's just not support for that." The reason is that while methane is the more damaging greenhouse gas, carbon dioxide, which coal emits in huge quantities when burned, stays in the atmosphere for a much longer period of time. Coal is a "cleaner" fuel only in the near-term—a period of 20 years or so. Brandt says that over a period of 100 years, natural gas—leaks and all—would still be a less greenhouse gas-intensive source of energy than coal.

Still, Brandt cautions, natural gas is not a long-term energy solution for keeping climate change in check. "Uncontrolled use of gas over a century or more isn't a good thing, from a climate change perspective," Brandt says. "Most climate change scenarios suggest that this can't be a solution for 100 years."

The analysis also concludes that even under the most conservative estimates of methane leaks from the gas sector, keeping diesel-powered powered vehicles, such as buses, on the road contributes smaller amounts of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere than switching to gas-powered buses.

The researchers believe that only a small percentage of methane leaked by the gas sector is coming from the controversial hydraulic fracturing—or fracking—process itself. Rather, accidental leaks that occur as the industry moves and processes natural gas likely account for the biggest proportion of these emissions. One study cited by the analysis found that less than 1 percent of individual pieces of equipment at a single natural gas plant were responsible for nearly 60 percent of its leakage. Brandt says new technology that quickly identifies these "superemitters" is the best hope for reigning in the industry's emissions.

As for why the EPA underestimates methane leaks in the gas industry, the analysis notes that the agency can only measure emission rates at wells and plants where the operators volunteered to allow the EPA on site. In one instance, the EPA asked 30 natural gas companies to allow them on site, but only six cooperated.

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North Carolina Protected Duke Energy from Pollution Complaints Before the Company's Coal Ash Disaster

| Mon Feb. 10, 2014 10:23 AM EST
A coal ash dump site in Fairbanks, Alaska.

Last year, North Carolina's top environmental regulators thwarted three separate Clean Water Act lawsuits aimed at forcing Duke Energy, the largest electricity company in the country, to clean up its toxic coal ash pits in the state. That June, the state went even further, saying it would handle environmental enforcement at every one of Duke's 31 coal ash storage ponds in the state—an act that protected the company from further federal lawsuits. Last week, one of those coal ash storage ponds ruptured, belching more than 80,000 tons of coal ash into the Dan River.

Now environmental groups and former regulators are charging that North Carolina Republican Gov. Pat McCrory, who worked for Duke for 30 years, has created an atmosphere where the penalties for polluting the environment are low.

The Associated Press reports that McCrory's Department of Environment and Natural Resources blocked three federal Clean Water Act suits in 2013 by stepping in with its own enforcement authority "at the last minute." This protected Duke from the kinds of stiff fines and penalties that can result from federal lawsuits. Instead, state regulators arranged settlements that carried miniscule financial penalties and did not require Duke to change how it stores the toxic byproducts of its coal-fired power plants. After blocking the first three suits, which were brought by the Southern Environmental Law Center, the state filed notices saying that it would handle environmental enforcement at every one of Duke's remaining North Carolina coal ash storage sites—protecting the company from Clean Water Act lawsuits linked to its coal waste once and for all.

The Dan River disaster became public on February 3—one day after Duke officials had been alerted that a pipe beneath a coal ash storage pit of nearly 30 acres had ruptured. "The company reports that up to 82,000 tons of coal ash mixed with 27 million gallons of contaminated water drained out, turning the river gray and cloudy for miles," the AP reports. "The accident ranks as the third largest such coal ash spill in the nation's history."

The AP story suggests that McCrory's settlements with Duke are part of a pattern of regulatory slackness. A former North Carolina regulator who recently left to work for an environmental advocacy group after nine years working for the state told the AP that under McCrory, who took office in early 2013, she was often instructed not to fine or cite polluters, but instead to help them reach compliance standards. The article continues:

Since his unsuccessful first campaign for governor in 2008, campaign finance reports show Duke Energy, its political action committee, executives and their immediate families have donated at least $1.1 million to McCrory's campaign and affiliated groups that spent on TV ads, mailings and events to support him.

After winning in 2012, McCrory has appointed former Duke employees like himself to key posts, including state Commerce Secretary Sharon Decker.

His appointee to oversee the state environmental department, Raleigh businessman John Skvarla, describes his agency's role as being a "partner" to those it regulates, whom he refers to as "customers."

"That is why we have been able to turn DENR from North Carolina's No. 1 obstacle of resistance into a customer-friendly juggernaut in such a short time," Skvarla wrote in a letter to the editor of the News & Observer of Raleigh, published in December. "People in the private sector pour their hearts and souls into their work; instead of crushing their dreams, they now have a state government that treats them as partners."

McCrory hit back, telling the AP that his administration is "the first in North Carolina history to take legal action against the utility regarding coal ash ponds." Duke Energy has also made large donations to Democrats, giving $10 million for the Democratic National Convention in 2012.

Meet the GOP Congressional Candidate Who Called Hillary Clinton the "Antichrist"

| Tue Feb. 4, 2014 6:00 AM EST

The biblical devil-beast who will assemble armies to fight the Lord on the final day of the world, according to congressional hopeful Ryan Zinke.

Montana GOP congressional candidate Ryan Zinke made waves last week when, speaking at a campaign stop, he called Hillary Clinton the "Antichrist."*

But before Zinke was in the news for equating the former secretary of state to the Great Deceiver, Mother Jones flagged Zinke for the dubious campaign finance methods surrounding his campaign for Montana's only seat in the House of Representatives.

Zinke, 53, is a former Navy SEAL, a fact he advertised loudly in 2012 when he launched a super-PAC—a political action committee that can raise and spend unlimited amounts of money on political advertising. The super-PAC, "Special Operations for America," (SOFA) raised nearly a quarter of a million dollars in 2012 to support the election of Mitt Romney. And although SOFA didn't succeed in putting Romney in the White House, the election allowed it to gather a substantial list of small-dollar donors and continue raising money after the 2012 election ended. At the end of 2013, the group had $255,904 on hand.

By that point, Zinke was no longer involved with the super-PAC's leadership—he had resigned on September 30 and announced three weeks later that he was running for Congress. Soon, the super-PAC Zinke started became his biggest cheerleader. Throughout last fall, SOFA's website, Facebook page, and Twitter account all urged donors to give to Zinke's congressional exploratory committee, and then, his congressional campaign. In January 2014 alone, SOFA spent almost $60,000 supporting Zinke's campaign. (The last time the seat was up for grabs, in 2012, outside spending totaled $240,000.)

If this strategy, which is entirely legal, sounds familiar, that's because it was pioneered by Colbert Report host Stephen Colbert in 2012. As Mother Jones noted in November:

In January 2012, Colbert summoned Daily Show host Jon Stewart and Trevor Potter, a campaign finance expert, to the Colbert Report studio for a surprise announcement: Colbert was handing control of his super-PAC [to] Stewart. The two comedians signed a two-page document, then held hands and locked eyes while Potter bellowed the words, "Colbert super-PAC transfer, activate!" Colbert then announced that he was forming an exploratory committee to weigh a run for "President of the United States of South Carolina." Stewart, meanwhile, renamed Colbert's super-PAC the Definitely Not Coordinating with Stephen Colbert Super PAC, and promised Colbert he would run ads to support Colbert's presidential bid.

The aim of Colbert's stunt was to show that campaign finance laws are so flimsy that it was legal, in theory, for a politician to start a super-PAC, raise unlimited heaps of cash from big-money donors for that super-PAC, quit the super-PAC, and then run for federal office supported by that super-PAC.

Zinke's campaign, in other words, was pretty shameless before he called Clinton the "Antichrist." And pretty well-funded, too.


*Zinke made the Antichrist comment, which was first reported by the Montana website Bigfork Eagle, after telling his audience, "We need to focus on the real enemy." He did not reply to a request for comment from Mother Jones. When Aaron Flint of Northern Broadcasting asked Zinke about the comment, Zinke said, "I've already been put on the Obama campaign enemy list—and they're just gonna attack. That's all these people do is attack, attack, attack."

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