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.
Update—Weds, March 4, 2:50pm ET: The Senate vote to override President Obama's veto has failed, falling four votes shy.
We knew this was coming: About a month after the Senate narrowly passed a bill to force President Barack Obama to approve the Keystone XL pipeline, the president vetoed the bill Tuesday afternoon, hours after the White House said he would do so "without drama or fanfare or delay."
The contentious legislation arrived at the White House on Tuesday morning from Capitol Hill, where Republicans pushed the bill quickly through both chambers in their first burst of activity since taking full control of Congress....
The move sends the politically charged issue back to Congress, where Republicans have yet to show they can muster the two-thirds majority in both chambers needed to override Obama's veto. Sen. John Hoeven, the bill's chief GOP sponsor, said Republicans are about four votes short in the Senate and need about 11 more in the House.
The veto, which the White House has long promised on this or any other Keystone-approval bill, is the first one in the last five years. It essentially blocks what Republican leaders like Sen. Mitch McConnell (Ky.) have called a top priority of this congressional session.
Obama's beef with the bill isn't necessarily with the pipeline itself. Instead, the president wants the approval process to go through the State Department, which normally has jurisdiction over international infrastructure projects.
In his memo to the Senate, the president said: "Because this act of Congress conflicts with established executive branch procedures and cuts short thorough consideration of issues that could bear on our national interest—including our security, safety, and environment—it has earned my veto."
The administration still hasn't indicated whether it will approve the pipeline, even though there aren't any more bureaucratic hurdles to clear. Early this month, the window for government agencies to weigh in closed. The most significant comment came from the Environmental Protection Agency, which said that if oil prices go much lower than they are, moving oil from Canada by truck or train could become too expensive. So a green-light for the pipeline would lead to greater greenhouse gas emissions than if it were not approved.
The final question now is whether the president agrees.
An oil train smolders after it derailed and exploded in West Virginia last week.
Last week, a train carrying oil from North Dakota derailed in West Virginia, spilled oil into a river, and sent a horrifying fireball shooting into the sky. The incident came only a few days after another oil train spill in Ontario. In fact, in the last few years the number of oil train accidents has skyrocketed, thanks to booming production in the northern US and Canada that has overwhelmed the existing pipeline network.
Oil train accidents like those could become a regular fixture in headlines across the US, according to a Department of Transportation analysis uncovered by the Associated Press over the weekend:
The federal government predicts that trains hauling crude oil or ethanol will derail an average of 10 times a year over the next two decades, causing more than $4 billion in damage and possibly killing hundreds of people if an accident happens in a densely populated part of the U.S.…
If just one of those more severe accidents occurred in a high-population area, it could kill more than 200 people and cause roughly $6 billion in damage.
The report blamed the projections on the drastic uptick in oil-by-rail traffic, as well as on severely lagging safety standards for rail cars (check out our in-depth multimedia story on the latter here).
When carbon dioxide emissions from power plants and cars rise into the atmosphere, they don't always stay there. While the majority of these emissions hang around to create the greenhouse effect that causes global warming, up to 35 percent of man-made carbon falls into the ocean. When that happens, the pH level of the ocean drops, causing a phenomenon known as ocean acidification. Some scientists call this the "evil twin" of climate change.
Over the last century, the oceans have become about 30 percent more acidic, a faster rate of change than at anytime in the last 300 million years. That's really bad news for any sea creatures that live in hard shells (shellfish) or have bony exoskeletons (i.e., crabs and lobsters), and for coral. Fish larvae and plankton can also be affected. And since many of these organisms are food for bigger fish and mammals, ocean acidification puts the whole marine ecosystem at risk.
Of course, humans depend on these critters as well, especially in coastal communities whose economies are deeply tied to the fishing industry. In the last few years, the threat to oyster harvests in the Pacific Northwest has been well documented. But every bit of the US coastline bears some level of risk, according to a new report in Nature. The study offers the first comprehensive projection of which parts of the US coast will be worst off, and when ocean acidification could reach dangerous levels there.
Julia Ekstrom, a climate adaptation researcher at the University of California-Davis, combed through existing scientific literature for three key types of data: How ocean acidification is projected to change in different regions over the next century; how dependent individual local economies are on the shellfish harvest (the study focused only on bivalves like oysters—other critters could be the subject of future research); and social factors that could help communities adapt, like pollution controls (runoff from rivers can also affect local pH) or the availability of other jobs. That data, combined, led to the map below.
Purple indicates the time at which ocean acidification is expected to become serious enough to significantly affect shellfish (darker is sooner); red indicates how vulnerable a region would be to a drop-off in shellfish productivity. So Washington, for example, could see the impacts soon but is relatively well-prepared to handle them. Impacts to the Gulf Coast are expected much further in the future but could be more economically severe.
Ekstrom et al, courtesy Nature
The good news is that many of what could be the hardest-hit communities still have time to prepare. Then again, the outlook could be worse in some places (Maine, for example) if you conducted similar research on lobsters and other vital fisheries. Ekstrom said localized predictions like this are key to enabling communities to prepare and can also help scientists decide where to focus efforts to monitor and track acidification as it progresses.
Obama's climate plan calls for power plants in Virginia like this to be closed or renovated.
This week, representatives from the state-level agencies that manage electric grids met in Washington, DC, for a collective freak-out about President Barack Obama's flagship climate policy. The Clean Power Plan, as it's called, aims to slash the nation's carbon footprint 30 percent by 2030. It would require every state to reduce the carbon "intensity" of its power sector—that is, how much greenhouse gas is emitted for every unit of electricity produced.
There's a unique reduction target for every state, and a likewise diverse array of things for state regulators to hate: They argue the plan is a gross overreach of federal authority; that it will bankrupt utility companies, drive up monthly bills for ratepayers, and lead to power shortages; that states won't be adequately credited for clean-energy steps they've already taken; and that the deadlines for compliance are just downright impossible to meet. And coal companies are justifiably worried that the plan could kill their business.
"They had the keys in their hand," NRDC's Haq said, "but instead they're handing them over to the EPA."
More than a dozen states (mostly coal-dependent states in the South, which could be hit hardest by the rules) are already raising hell in what's shaping up to be the environmental version of state-level challenges to Obamacare. As our friend David Roberts at Grist highlighted this week, a number of states have joined a lawsuit challenging the EPA's legal authority to regulate carbon dioxide emissions. And across the country in those states and others, bills are cropping up that could make it hard or impossible for individual states to meet their mandated carbon targets. The idea is effectively to stonewall the EPA and hope the regulations get killed in court.
The most recent battle is playing out this week in Virginia, where a state representative with ties to the coal industry wants to make it more difficult for the state's Department of Environmental Quality to comply with the president's climate goals.
First, a little background: The nation's first anti-EPA bill came early last year in Kentucky, before the Clean Power Plan was even released. The proposed EPA rule would require Kentucky to cut its power-sector carbon emissions roughly 35 percent by 2030. That's bad news for the coal industry, which supplies more than nine-tenths of the state's power. So using a model bill developed by the conservative American Legislative Exchange Council (which has deep ties to the coal industry), Kentucky legislators passed a law that essentially prevents the state from complying with the Clean Power Plan. The new law bars the state from adopting any implementation plan that includes renewable energy or energy efficiency, or that encourages power plants to switch from coal to natural gas. With those restrictions, the EPA goal does indeed seem unreasonable; the state's top climate official recently told Inside Climate News that he has no idea how to meet the EPA's demands and stay within state law.
So just how much plastic is there? A new study in Science yesterday put out some pretty horrifying numbers: In 2010, the study finds, between 4.8 and 12.7 million metric tons (that's about 10.5 billion to 28 billion pounds) of plastic entered the oceans—the median of those estimates is 1.3 times the weight of the Great Pyramid at Giza.
If we want to crack down on all that plastic, knowing where it all comes from could be as important as knowing how much there is. That's the main idea behind this study. A team of scientists led by University of Georgia environmental engineer Jenna Jambeck set out to calculate how much plastic every one of the world's 192 coastal countries dumps into the ocean. To do it, they combined data on each country's per-capita waste generation, the size of the population living within 50 kilometers of the ocean, the percentage of waste that is plastic, and the percentage of plastic waste that is "mismanaged" (defined as "either littered or inadequately disposed").
The last step is to estimate how much of the mismanaged coastal plastic waste actually washes into the sea. (This is the step that explains the wide uncertainty range in the grand totals above.) Jambeck drew on existing literature on waste streams from places like South Africa and the Bay Area to reach an estimate of 15-40 percent; she then applied that range across the board.
The chart below shows the worst offenders, in terms of total plastic pollution in the ocean in 2010, using data from the study. The top-ranks belong to middle-income countries with rapidly growing coastal populations that lack the resources to keep pace with waste management infrastructure. By contrast, even though the United States has relatively good waste management, its per-capita waste production is so high that it makes the top 20.
That's right: China alone dumped nearly 5 billion pounds of plastic waste into the ocean in 2010. But what's even worse is just how much the study projects these numbers will grow in the future, based on predictions of population growth in each country by 2025. The chart below shows the top-ranked countries in terms of total mismanaged plastic waste (in other words, not all of this plastic is necessarily winding up in the ocean). China is still very much in the lead, and India shows a disturbing explosion of plastic pollution: