Tim McDonnell joined the Climate Desk after stints at Mother Jones and Sierra magazine, where he nurtured his interest in environmental journalism. Originally from Tucson, Tim loves tortillas and epic walks.
Fire crews burn out an area at the Shirley Fire near Lake Isabella, California, on Sunday.
The central California wildfire that yesterday destroyed three homes and forced hundreds of evacuations is just the latest blaze to strain the nation's overburdened federal firefighting system. By Monday evening the Shirley Fire had consumed 2,600 acres near Sequoia National Forest and cost more than $4 million, as some 1,000 firefighters scrambled to contain it. (It's now 75 percent contained.) Meanwhile, families on an Arizona Navajo reservation are being evacuated today in the face of an 11,000-acre blaze that as of Tuesday morning was zero percent contained.
This year, in the midst of severe drought across the West, top wildfire managers in Washington knew they were going to break the bank, even before the fire season had really begun. In early May, officials at the US Department of Agriculture (which oversees the Forest Service) and the Department of Interior announced that wildfire-fighting costs this summer are projected to run roughly $400 million over budget. Since then, wildfires on federal land have burned at least a half-million acres, and the Forest Service has made plans to beef up its force of over 100 aircraft and 10,000 firefighters in preparation for what it said in a statement "is shaping up to be a catastrophic fire season."
But the real catastrophe has been years in the making: Federal fire records and budget data show that the US wildfire response system is chronically and severely underfunded, even as fires—especially the biggest "megafires"—grow larger and more expensive. In other words, the federal government is not keeping pace with America's rapidly evolving wildfire landscape. This year's projected budget shortfall is actually par for the course; in fact, since 2002, the United States has overspent its wildfire fighting budget every year except one—in three of those years by nearly a billion dollars.
Solar power can help Arizona make big mandated cuts to its carbon intensity.
Yesterday the Environmental Protection Agency rolled out the centerpiece of President Obama's climate strategy—a plan to limit carbon dioxide emissions from the nation's power plants. The main takeaway was that by 2030 the regulations will cut these emissions, the biggest single driver of global warming, by 30 percent compared to 2005 levels. But under the hood, things get a little more complex.
Rather than a consistent national standard, the proposed rule sets a different standard for every state, based on the EPA's assessment of what each state can realistically achieve using existing technology at a reasonable cost. The goal applies to a state's carbon intensity, the measure of how much carbon pollution comes from each unit of electricity produced in that state, rather than total carbon emissions. States like Kentucky and West Virginia, for example, rely heavily on coal power and have a higher carbon intensity than states like California that are more energy-efficient and have more renewable energy. By 2030, each state will be required to meet a carbon intensity target lower than where it is today; how much lower, exactly, depends on what the EPA thinks the state can pull off.
States will have broad leeway to devise individual plans to meet their targets, which could include installing air-scrubbing technology on plants themselves, adopting more robust energy efficiency standards, or switching from coal to cleaner sources like natural gas or renewables.
Here's a ranking of which states will have to shrink their carbon footprint the most:
This Kentucky coal-fired power plant will be updated to continue operation under the new rules.
Update, Monday, June 2, 9:45 a.m. EDT: You can check out our live coverage of the announcement and reaction to the proposed power plant regulations here.
Update, Sunday, June 1, 6:30 p.m. EDT: The Wall Street Journal is reporting that on Monday the EPA will announce sweeping new limits on carbon dioxide pollution from the nation's existing power plants. The plan is said to require a nationwide reduction in carbon emissions by an average of 30 percent over 2005 levels by 2030, with different specific targets for each state. The rules, which will have a one-year public review period before becoming final, could represent one of the biggest actions taken by the US government to slow climate change.
On Monday, President Obama is set to unveil details of the cornerstone of his climate plan: Limits on carbon dioxide emissions from the nation's fleet of existing power plants. The rules are likely to be the biggest step toward the president's goal of cutting US greenhouse gas emissions 17 percent by 2020. The rules are already taking heat from the fossil fuel industry and Republicans in Congress, despite having the support of a majority of Americans. So what's all the hullabaloo about, exactly? Here's what you need to know:
Why regulate carbon dioxide emissions from power plants? By now it's well established that carbon dioxide from human activities is the single biggest driver of climate change. The news this month that severe glacial melting in Antarctica has already nearly guaranteed up to 10 feet of global sea level rise was just the latest reminder of the dire need to slash our carbon pollution. Power plants and vehicles are the two biggest sources of this pollution in the United States, accounting for about 38 and 31 percent of carbon emissions, respectively. The Obama administration has already taken aim at motor vehicles; it placed new emissions limits on cars in 2009 and ordered them for heavy-duty trucks this year. But there are currently no restrictions—at all—on how much carbon pollution the nation's existing fleet of power plants can produce.
Coal-burning power plants in America alone exceed the total carbon emissions of Central and South America.
In the United States, as in many countries, the single biggest source of electricity is also the dirtiest: Domestic coal-fired plants produced 1.45 billion metric tons of CO2 in 2012, according to Environmental Protection Agency data, equal to about 305 million cars. That's more than 67 percent of the power sector's total carbon emissions, even though coal accounts for just 37 percent of the energy mix. Put another way, coal-burning power plants in America alone exceed the total carbon emissions of Central and South America.
Limiting emissions could also have benefits beyond slowing climate change: A study released this week by public health researchers at Harvard and Syracuse universities found that controlling the amount of carbon released by power plants also cut down on emissions of toxic pollutants like sulfur dioxide and mercury, which contribute to asthma, heart disease, and other serious health impacts—not to mention that sulfur dioxide causes acid rain.
America's carbon emissions have declined from their 2007 peak, and last fall the EPA issued rules for power plants that could prevent many (or any) new coal plants from being built. (For the time being, thanks to the fracking boom, cheap natural gas has made construction of new coal plants unlikely for economic reasons.) With next week's rule, the EPA is looking to fill in the deepest part of America's carbon footprint.
After the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster, when an oil rig explosion sent five million barrels of oil gushing into the Gulf of Mexico, the company behind the spill, BP, went swiftly into damage-control mode. One of its first steps was to buy up a third of the world's supply of chemical dispersants, including one called Corexit that was designed to concentrate oil into droplets that sink into the water column, where in theory they can be degraded by bacteria and stay off beaches.
After the spill, roughly two million gallons of Corexit were dumped into the Gulf. There's just one problem: Despite BP's protestations to the contrary, Corexit is believed to be highly toxic—not just to marine life but also to the workers who were spraying it and locals living nearby—according to a new segment on Vice that will air tonight on HBO at 11 pm ET. (For its part, BP has said that its use of dispersants was approved by the federal government and that it isn't aware of any data that the disperants pose a health threat.)
The show follows cleanup workers, local doctors, and shrimpers, and suggests that four years after the spill, Corexit contamination could be nearly as big a problem as the oil itself. You can watch a short clip from tonight's show above.