Tim McDonnell joined Climate Desk after stints at Mother Jones and Sierra magazine. He remains a cheerful guy despite covering climate change all the time. Originally from Tucson, Tim loves tortillas and epic walks.
Especially in New York and New Jersey, where snowfall could be up to one foot, major flooding is also predicted, on par with what you would expect from major hurricane landfall. Farther south, Uccellini said, Kentucky and North Carolina could face ice storms and freezing rain. Through the weekend, he said, East Coasters should expect delays affecting highways and air travel. The electric utility in DC said it has hundreds of crew members standing by to fix downed electric lines, and Port Authority workers in New Jersey are preparing to insulate underground train systems from the flooding:
As my Climate Desk friend Eric Holthaus explains at Slate, this storm is "the real deal." Uccellini said his staff are working around the clock (and sleeping in their offices) and doubling the number of weather balloons being dispatched to get the best up-to-date forecast. But even now, he said he was surprised by the unusual level of agreement across a wide range of models, satellite reports, and other data sources. In other words, chances are slim that the storm turns out to be a nothingburger.
"I would suggest people pay attention to this system," he said.
The upshot: Now's the time to buy some bottled water and batteries, and don't drive to work tomorrow if you can help it. Oh, and, uh, make sure to tweet responsibly:
2015 was almost certainly the hottest year since we began keeping records, according to data released today by NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. In a press release Wednesday, NASA stated that it was 94 percent confident that last year was the warmest since 1880. Here's a chart from NOAA:
"Record warmth was spread throughout the world," said Thomas Karl, director of NOAA's National Centers for Environmental Information. "Ten of 12 months were records. That's the first time we've seen that."
Shattered global temperature records are becoming increasingly commonplace, thanks to climate change; with today's announcement, all five of the hottest years on record have occurred in the last decade. But the amount by which 2015 shattered the previous record, in 2014, was itself a record, scientists said. That's due in part to this year's El Niño, characterized by exceptionally high temperatures in the Pacific Ocean.
But Gavin Schmidt, director of NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies, said the effects of El Niño only really appeared in the last few months of the year, and that 2015 likely would have been a record year regardless.
"2015 was warm right from the beginning; it didn't start with El Niño," he said. "The reason this is such a record is because of the long-term trend, and there is no evidence that trend has slowed or paused over the last two decades."
Schmidt added that El Niño is likely to persist into 2016, which means we could be in for a record-breaking year yet again.
A couple of years ago, Steven Weissman, an energy lawyer at the University of California-Berkeley, started to shop around for solar panels for his house. It seemed like an environmental no-brainer. For zero down, leading residential provider SolarCity would install panels on his roof. The company would own the equipment, and he'd buy the power it produces for less than he had been paying his electric utility. Save money, fight climate change. Sounds like a deal.
But while reading the contract, Weissman discovered the fine print that helps make that deal possible: SolarCity would also retain ownership of his system's renewable energy credits. It's the kind of detail your average solar customer wouldn't notice or maybe care about. But to Weissman, it was an unexpected letdown.
Just a few days after President Barack Obama promised new actions on climate change during his final State of the Union address, his administration has unveiled a sweeping overhaul of how coal can be extracted from federal land.
Interior Secretary Sally Jewell announced on Friday that she was placing a moratorium on new coal-mining leases on public land and that her department would begin a multiyear review of how those lease contracts are awarded. The policy change is likely to make the leases more expensive for mining companies, to generate increased royalties for the government, and to offset the damage coal production and consumption do to the environment.
"We haven't done a top-to-bottom review of the coal program in 30 years," Jewell told reporters. She added that her department will search for ways "to manage [coal] in a way that is consistent with the climate change agenda."
This is a big win for environmental groups. But don't expect it to result in an overnight decline in coal use, the nation's No. 1 source of greenhouse gas emissions. Jewell said the lease moratorium will not "have any impact at all on coal production" and that the review will largely be carried out by the next presidential administration. All of the Republican presidential contenders have vowed to scale back Obama's climate legacy; the Democratic candidates have vowed to push it forward.
"This is the first time any administration has taken such a serious look at the management problems, and also the environmental costs, of fossil fuel production on public lands."
About 40 percent of all US coal extraction takes place on federal land, much of that in Wyoming, the nation's top coal producer. For years, environmentalists have complained that the coal industry enjoys royalty rates much lower than offshore oil or other publicly owned fossil fuels. Those low rates make it cheaper for coal companies to operate and may also be a raw deal for the public that has to deal with the impacts, from local environmental degradation to global climate change. While offshore oil companies typically pay a royalty rate of about 18 percent, Jewell said, the rate for coal is only 8-10 percent. A Government Accountability Office report in 2014 found that undervalued coal leases cost the US Treasury nearly $1 billion per year in lost revenue.
When the leasing policy was originally created decades ago, Jewell said, "our practice was really about getting as much coal as possible" to feed the nation's power plants. Now, many scientists agree that the exact opposite approach is needed to have any chance of limiting global warming. A 2015 study found that 92 percent of US coal reserves need to stay buried to have any hope of limiting warming to 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit), the cap enshrined in the international climate agreement brokered in Paris last month.
Jewell said there are about 50 pending coal leases that could be halted by the moratorium; leases that have already been approved will be allowed to go forward, and there will be no change to any current mining operation. There's enough coal in reserve under existing leases to continue production at its current rate for another 20 years, she said. Many of the leases that could be put on ice were unlikely to have gone into production anyway, said Matt Lee-Ashley, director of the public lands program at the Center for American Progress. That's because, with prices so low, big coal companies in the West routinely snatch up leases just to keep in their back pocket without necessarily developing them.
In effect, Lee-Ashley said, "it's a pause on adding additional stockpiles on coal."
The coal companies, he added, "are well resourced to continue mining for the foreseeable future."
Still, the announcement is yet another headache for an industry that has already had a very bad start to 2016. Coal has been battered over the last few years by competition from cheap natural gas and by new climate regulations from the Obama administration. US coal production is at a 30-year low, one of the country's biggest companies recently declared bankruptcy, and once-promising export markets in China now seem to be drying up.
The leasing reform quickly faced a backlash from Republican lawmakers who represent coal states.
"Once again the administration is circumventing Congress, the voice of the American people, to launch another unilateral attack on coal," Rep. Ed Whitfield of Kentucky said in a statement. "We will continue to fight to ensure our policies promote access to affordable, reliable energy."
Kentucky is among the two dozen coal-reliant states that are suing the Obama administration over its plan to limit greenhouse gas emissions from power plants.
Lee-Ashley countered that the reforms are "a giant step forward" on Obama's climate agenda. "This is the first time any administration has taken such a serious look at the management problems, and also the environmental costs, of fossil fuel production on public lands," he said. He cautioned that if a Republican follows Obama in the White House, he or she could impede the climate-oriented aspects of the reform. But he said the financial overhaul should enjoy bipartisan support, since it boils down to giving the American people a fair price for their natural resources.
"When you look at the money being lost to taxpayers through these loopholes, anybody who believes in good business should be able to carry it forward," he said.
In his State of the Union address this week, President Barack Obama gave an approving nod to the price of oil, which is now the lowest it has been in more than a decade.
"Gas under two bucks a gallon ain't bad, either," he said.
For motorists, that logic is unassailable. But depending on where in the country you live, the low oil price could come back to haunt you in unexpected ways. According to new federal data, half a dozen states with prominent oil drilling industries have taken heavy blows to their budgets. That could prompt a sweep of spending reductions and cuts to education, poverty programs, and other social services.
"It could be hugely problematic for some of these states," said Michael Leachman, director of state fiscal research at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.
The data show a steep drop in revenue from severance taxes, which natural resource companies pay to states when they extract oil, coal, or natural gas. When oil prices drop, oil production drops next, followed by severance tax revenue. And for states such as Alaska, Wyoming, and North Dakota, which draw a majority of their income from severance taxes, that means the budget can quickly implode. Now, policymakers in those states are scrambling to make up the shortfall in other ways and decide which state programs could face the chopping block.
Alaska's decline in revenue has been especially severe:
The Energy Information Administration report notes that Alaska's severance tax income—which provides three-quarters of the state's budget—went from $5 billion in 2012 to practically zero in 2015. As the New York Timesreported, that drop has the state's governor considering re-instating an income tax for the first time in 35 years. Meanwhile, legislators in North Dakota are considering cutting $100 million in spending after tax revenues came in nearly 10 percent lower than expected. Even though oil production there hasn't changed much, the EIA found that "total severance tax revenues fell from more than $3.5 billion in 2014 to $2 billion in 2015 as oil prices declined."
A similar story is playing out in Oklahoma, where, the EIA notes, "collections from state sales taxes and individual and corporate income taxes are also significantly affected by oil and natural gas prices":
Trying to predict oil prices far out into the future is a fool's errand, so it's hard to say how lasting the damage to these states could be. Still, there's reason to think that the oil market is in for a bumpy road ahead, thanks to a growing market for electric vehicles, increasing fuel efficiency standards, and high volumes of oil coming out of Saudi Arabia and other OPEC countries. According to Bloomberg, oil demand in the US is flatlining even as nationwide oil production increases:
The current tax crisis could signal an urgent need for oil-reliant states to diversify their tax base, Leachman said.
"There's no question it's not sustainable in Alaska," he said. Other states are at risk of following suit. "You're going to have to rethink your strategy for funding public services if you think oil and gas prices are going to stay really low levels."