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.
Excess gas flares off at a well site outside Williston.
At 7:00 am local time this morning, Lonnie's Roadhouse Cafe in Willison, North Dakota, was already bustling, packed to the gills with truckers and roughnecks tanking up on coffee and omelettes for another day in that town's ongoing fracking boom.
It's become a typical scene here in the last several years, as new drilling technology has unleashed massive deposits of oil from the Bakken Shale, in the process slashing unemployment to the lowest anywhere in the nation, minting a new class of oil wealth, and generally upending what was once a backwater prairie town—turmoil Climate Desk witnessed first-hand last year (see video below). And it looks like that growth is here for the long haul: A new analysis out yesterday from the US Geological Survey doubled previous estimates of how much oil is in reserve under North Dakota, up to 7.4 billion barrels, which would make it the largest oil field in the country.
"It's good," Lonnie says. "It'll keep our people working." And eating, presumably.
The new numbers come as no surprise to the fossil fuel titans behind the boom: Back in 2011, fracking kingpin Harold Hammsaid he thought the Bakken will ultimately churn out 24 billion barrels. While the new federal analysis doesn't go quite that far, it does confirm that places like Lonnie's are likely to be jam-packed for the forseeable future. The exact expiration date of the boom remains unclear: Local officials are hesitant to pin it down, and estimates made before yesterday's analysis range from 20 to 100 years, depending on technological advances, future oil prices, and the level of private investment. But the USGS report could help clear that up: Sen. John Hoeven (R-N.D.) requested the update in 2011 precisely to boost confidence in the corporations slinging up hotels, restaurants, and other services for the surging worker population.
The last time USGS took a crack at guessing what the Bakken might hold was in 2008; the upward revision since then comes mainly as a product of the learning process that happens when developers start to drill. As more wells go in and more oil comes out, geologists can refine their sense of what lies in store, said Jim Ladlee, associate director of Penn State University's Marcellus Center, which tracks the fracking revolution nationwide.
"The technology is always evolving," he said, "there's constant change and constant evolution going on."
At the same time, the new estimate takes into account for the first time the Three Forks Formation, a nearby oil deposit that was previously—incorrectly—thought to be unproductive. It also nearly triples previous assumptions about natural gas reserves.
Back in 2011, Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) declared war on energy-efficient light bulbs, calling "sustainability" the gateway into a dystopic, Big Brother-patrolled liberal hellscape. When the lights went off during Beyoncé's halftime set at the last Superbowl, conservative commentators from the Drudge Report to Michelle Malkin pointed blame (erroneously) at new power-saving measures at New Orleans' Superdome. And one recent study found that giving Republican households feedback on their power use actually encourages them to use more energy.
Why do conservatives, who should have a natural inclination toward conservation, have a beef with energy efficiency? It could be tied to the political polarization of the climate change debate.
A study out today in thejournal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences examined attitudes about energy efficiency in liberals and conservatives, and found that promoting energy-efficient products and services on the basis of their environmental benefits actually turned conservatives off from picking them. The researchers first quizzed participants on how much they value various benefits of energy efficiency, including reducing carbon emissions, reducing foreign oil dependence, and reducing how much consumers pay for energy; cutting emissions appealed to conservatives the least.
The study then presented participants with a real-world choice: With a fixed amount of money in their wallet, respondents had to "buy" either an old-school light bulb or an efficient compact florescent bulb (CFL), the same kind Bachmann railed against. Both bulbs were labeled with basic hard data on their energy use, but without a translation of that into climate pros and cons. When the bulbs cost the same, and even when the CFL cost more, conservatives and liberals were equally likely to buy the efficient bulb. But slap a message on the CFL's packaging that says "Protect the Environment," and "we saw a significant drop-off in more politically moderates and conservatives choosing that option," said study author Dena Gromet, a researcher at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School of Business.
The chart below, from the report, shows how much liberals and conservatives value each argument for efficiency: While liberals (gray) valued all three equally, conservatives (white), were significantly less moved by and most at odds with liberals over the carbon-saving argument.
Meet Alvin Sputnik, one of the few surviving humans in a world that's well beyond any scientific predictions for sea level rise. Equipped with a special diving suit, Alvin, a creation of Australian puppeteer Tim Watts, explores the depths, encounters whales, searches for missing loved one, and learns to find happiness in a post-climate-change world. Now in its fourth year of touring the world, Watts recently stopped at New York University to introduce Alvin to an audience of kids, students, and adults; upcoming shows include Philadelphia, Cleveland, and Pinchincha, Ecuador.
Fossil fuel cheerleaders take note: Renewable energy ain't going nowhere—and it may prove to be the better bet in the long run.
By 2030, renewables will account for 70 percent of new power supply worldwide, according to projections released today from Bloomberg New Energy Finance. Bloomberg analysts examined gas prices, carbon prices, the dwindling price of green energy technology, and overall energy demand (which, in the US at least, is on a massive decline), and found solar and wind beating fossil fuels like coal and natural gas by 2030.
The chart below shows annual installations of new power sources, in gigawatts; over time, more and more of the new energy supply being built each year comes from renewable sources (like wind turbines and solar panels), by 2030 representing $630 billion worth of investment, while new fossil fuel sources (like coal- or gas-burning power plants) become increasingly rare.
The effect of this projected growth, BNEF CEO Michael Liebreich told Climate Desk at a gathering of clean energy investors today in New York, is that damage to the climate from the electricity sector is likely to taper off even as worldwide electricity use grows. "I believe we're in a phase of change where renewables are going to take the sting out of growth in energy demand," he said.
Earlier this month, when a burst pipe spilled thousands of gallons of heavy oil into an Arkansas suburb, the message from the White House went something like: "Everybody chill, the EPA has it under control." But reporters on the scene found the cleanup orchestrated by the same company, ExxonMobil, that allowed the spill, and heard only crickets when they asked the EPA about its involvement.
Turns out, on some of the nation's most pressing environmental health issues, the EPA's transparency record isn't exactly crystal-clear.
So with a vote on President Obama's new pick to head the EPA, Gina McCarthy, coming up as soon as next week, it perhaps isn't a surprise that Congressional scrutiny of her nomination has centered more on the agency's secret-keeping habits than on its environmental enforcement goals. At a hearing last Thursday before the Senate's Environment and Public Works Committee, McCarthy got grilled on EPA's transparency record by Republican members, led by Louisiana's David Vitter. On Tuesday, the committee's Republicans sent a memo demanding details on her plans to open up the agency's inner workings.
But for all their zeal, Vitter and his GOP colleagues (including climate change denier-in-chief James Inhofe (R-Okla.)) might be barking up the wrong tree: A major thrust of their complaint against McCarthy, a feisty Bostonian currently overseeing EPA's air quality division, hinges on the use of email aliases by top EPA officials and the possibility that they've used personal email accounts for official business, an issue currently under investigation by the EPA Inspector General.
An uncovered cache of "secret" emails revealed discussion of turducken and Santa-themed coal ash jingles.
Outgoing EPA administrator Lisa Jackson and Bush-era EPA head Christie Whitman both created official email addresses under fake names (Jackson's was "Richard Windsor," after a pet dog), apparently to circumvent a chronic deluge of spam. McCarthy says she doesn't have an alias email and told the Senate committee she found only one instance of using her personal email for work—which didn't stop Vitter, in the memo, from demanding a full audit of her personal emails.
And while the use of unofficial email addresses beyond the reach of federal public records laws clearly raises the specter of important information being kept in the dark, few in the transparency or environmental journalism communities think it should be the focus of complaints about the agency's openness.
"The concerns over fake emails are totally bogus," says Joe Davis, a veteran environmental journalist and a member of the Society of Environmental Journalists' freedom of information taskforce. "This wasn't some made-up thing by Lisa Jackson to fool us all. They're simply efforts to politically damage McCarthy and Lisa Jackson and EPA by people with an anti-regulatory agenda."
Indeed, a review of a cache of "secret" emails from Jackson uncovered such pressing matters as whether "turducken" is a real thing (it is), and lyrics for a Santa-themed jingle about coal ash regulation.