Tim McDonnell

Tim McDonnell

Climate Desk Associate Producer

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.

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This Year's Wildfires Could Incinerate the Nation's Fire Budget

| Thu May 1, 2014 4:27 PM EDT
California has already logged 1,000 wildfires this year.

The upcoming wildfire season could cost $400 million more to fight than the Forest Service and Interior Department have in their available budgets, according to a report those agencies released today.

The forecast estimates that the Forest Service and Interior will need to spend a combined total of about $1.8 billion fighting wildfires this year (though the actual amount could be significantly higher or lower), while only $1.4 billion is available for that activity. The difference will have to be drawn out of the budget reserved for other activities, including fire-related work like clearing brush and controlled burns. In other words, the cost of fighting fires will take resources away from the very programs designed to keep fires in check.

The projected expenditures are the highest in several years, according to a statement from the US Department of Agriculture, which oversees the Forest Service. After record-breaking drought in the West over the last year, this year's fire season is expected to be especially frightful—by mid-April, California had already tallied nearly 1,000 fires for 2014 (without even counting fires occurring on federal land).

"With climate change contributing to longer and more intense wildfire seasons, the dangers and costs of fighting those fires increase substantially," Interior Dept. Assistant Secretary Rhea Suh said in the statement.

If you live in a wildfire-prone area, don't panic—federal firefighters will still be hard at work across the country this summer. But this is a familiar song and dance for the Forest Service: The agency has had to borrow against itself for firefighting costs in 7 of the last 12 years. (Last year was especially bad, as the sequester slashed the fire prevention budget.) The problem stems from the fact that firefighting costs have to be drawn out of the agency's fixed operating budget, rather than a special emergency fund like the kind used by FEMA to pay for recovery from other natural disasters. When costs exceed that budget, preventative programs—which likely do more to limit the devastation than firefighting itself—suffer.

"This is obviously not a sustainable approach to managing any budget," especially with the high firefighting costs of recent years, said Nature Conservancy policy analyst Cecilia Clavet.

Budget legislation recently introduced in Congress and backed by the White House aims to remedy the recurring problem by creating an emergency fund for federal firefighting agencies to tap when their costs go beyond the fixed budget. But that bill is still in its early stages, and in any case it would only take effect starting in fiscal year 2015, which begins in October—after the fire season has largely passed.

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No, New York Times, Keystone XL Is Not a "Rounding Error"

| Fri Apr. 25, 2014 12:16 PM EDT
keystone chart
Tim McDonnell

The New York Times had an interesting story earlier this week that aimed to put the carbon footprint of the Keystone XL pipeline, widely derided by environmentalists as the coup de grâce for climate change, in a broader context. The main takeaway was that even if the pipeline gets built, the carbon emissions from the oil it will carry will be such a small slice of the global pie as to be practically negligible; one analyst quoted in the story dismisses Keystone's carbon footprint as a "rounding error."

The story is right about a couple things: For the Obama administration to take a strong stance on climate change, finalizing and enforcing tough new limits on emissions from cars and coal-fired power plants will likely have a much bigger impact than blocking this one pipeline (a final decision on the pipeline was delayed once again by the State Department last Friday). And in any case, according to the State Department's latest environmental assessment, most of the Canadian oil that the pipe would carry is going to get dug up and burned one way or another, so blocking the pipeline won't necessarily be a win for the climate.

It shouldn't surprise anyone that, as the chart above shows, the footprint of this one infrastructure project is much less than that of the entire US economy. But that doesn't mean we should write off all that oil's carbon footprint altogether. In fact, the Times story's own such chart dramatically understates what that footprint will really be, using a statistic out of context that's an order of magnitude lower than the latest official estimate.

The Times writes that the pipeline will be responsible for an annual 18.7 million metric tons of emissions, citing a 2013 letter from a top EPA administrator to senior State Department officials offering feedback on their environmental review of the pipeline. But in the letter, that figure isn't presented as an estimate of the pipeline's total footprint. Instead, it's an estimate of how much greater the emissions will be as a result of the pipeline carrying oil sands crude, the exceptionally carbon-heavy oil that will run in the pipe, as opposed to an equivalent volume of conventional crude oil.

In other words, 18.7 million metric tons is only the difference between conventional and oil sands oil, the extra carbon boost that comes from using a dirtier fossil fuel, what the EPA letter calls "incremental emissions."

The real number to look at is from the State Department's final environmental analysis (last paragraph on page ES-15) released in January, and it's much higher. According to that report, over its full lifecycle (from production to refinement to burning) the oil carried by the pipeline will emit 147-168 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent emissions annually—more than the whole nation of Pakistan, according to Energy Information Administration statistics, and about as much as 41 coal-fired power plants.

The Times analysis is also problematic because it makes an erroneous apples-to-oranges comparison between country-level emissions data from the Energy Information Administration that counts only carbon dioxide, and Keystone emissions estimates that are given in terms of "carbon dioxide equivalent" and thus count other greenhouse gases like methane (although CO2 still accounts for the lion's share). For a better apples-to-apples comparison, I only included the US in my chart (and not the other nations included in the Times chart), because an official estimate of carbon dioxide equivalent emissions is only available for that country.

Although even the State Department Keystone estimate is a small-ish chunk of total US emissions, it's certainly nothing to sneeze at, especially when President Obama has repeatedly linked approval of the pipeline to a finding that it won't have a major impact on climate change.

This Climate Scientist Just Won Another Victory in Court

| Fri Apr. 18, 2014 3:15 PM EDT
Michael Mann called the decision "a victory for science."

Michael Mann, the perennially embattled climate scientist best known for his "hockey-stick" temperature graph, came out victorious yesterday in a court battle against a Virginia legislator and a conservative think tank that had sought to obtain thousands of Mann's emails and research documents from his time as a University of Virginia professor.

The Virginia Supreme Court ruled that unpublished scientific research can be exempted from the state's Freedom of Information Act requirements, because disclosing such information would cut into the university's competitive advantage over other universities. As a result, some 12,000 of Mann's emails and papers won't be released to the Energy & Environment Legal Institute (formerly known as the American Tradition Institute) and Virginia Delegate Robert Marshall (R-Prince William), who had requested the documents in 2011.

In a statement on his Facebook page, Mann called the decision "a victory for science, public university faculty, and academic freedom."

Back in 2012, a lower Virginia court ruled that the documents in question were considered "proprietary," and thus shielded from FOIA requests. ATI appealed the decision, and the case landed with the state's Supreme Court last October. The main question was whether research-related documents should get the same kind of protection as trade secrets and other information that could cause financial harm if released. ATI argued that Mann's emails didn't merit such protection, while Mann and U-Va. maintained that scientists should be able to hammer out their work behind closed doors before presenting a finished product to the public.   

In a brief filed with the Supreme Court late last year, the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press argued that in protecting Mann's research, the lower court had actually set the scope too wide, leaving open the possibility that a university could claim virtually any document to be proprietary. But yesterday's Supreme Court ruling revised the exemption criteria so that non-research-related documents—things like budgets and communications between administrators—could still be accessed with a FOIA, said Emily Grannis, the Reporters Committee staffer who authored the brief.

Of course, Grannis said, the ruling is only binding in the state of Virginia, but it could serve as a model for how other states set limits for what qualifies as proprietary if similar cases arise elsewhere.

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