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.
Once upon a time a father sat his son on his lap and said, "Son, one day you will have a bottle of wine, but you will not have a corkscrew to open it with. You will look around for some sort of apparatus with which to free the wine from the bottle."
"Daddy, should I use a knife to push the cork into the bottle?"
Fracking has done some incredible things for North Dakota: It has the fastest-growing economy and lowest unemployment in the nation, and it is second only to Texas in churning out oil. But as with any gold rush, the boom comes with a human cost for those involved—illness, injury, and fatalities. (For a firsthand view of conditions in North Dakota's fracking fields, watch the video above, which we produced in 2012.)
In fact, across all industries, North Dakota has the least-safe working conditions of any state in the country, according to federal data compiled in a new report from the AFL-CIO. The report ranked North Dakota dead last for workplace safety. (Massachusetts ranked the most safe.) North Dakota had by far the highest overall workplace fatality rate, 17.7 deaths per 100,000 workers—about five times higher than the national average. According to the report, that's one of the highest fatality rates ever reported in any state.
The rise in fatality rates coincides with the state's oil and gas boom: In 2007, before the boom was really underway, the rate was 7 deaths per 100,000 workers, still on the high end but not exceptional. The chart below shows how that rate began to skyrocket in 2010-11, just as oil production began to surge as well.
Of the 65 people killed on the job in North Dakota in 2012, 15 worked in the mining and oil and gas industry. Another 25 worked in construction. Some jobs that are classified as construction are in fact linked directly to oil and gas operations, like the workers who build well pad sites and roads before the actual drilling begins. (The Bureau of Labor Statistics records aren't granular enough to know exactly how many construction workers were killed doing jobs related to the oil and gas boom.)
A spokesperson for the North Dakota Petroleum Council pointed to a slight drop in premium rates for the state's worker's comp program as evidence that "workplace safety has improved," but the BLS data compiled in the AFL-CIO report tell a different story.
As blue-collar workers flooded the state for an essentially limitless number of high-paying, risky jobs driving trucks and working on fracking rigs at a breakneck pace, the energy industry's fatality rate in North Dakota climbed to unbelievable heights. According to the report, in 2012 the mining and oil and gas sector rate was 104 deaths per 100,000 workers, six times the national average; in the construction sector, the rate was 97.4 per 100,000, almost 10 times the national average.
Grand Cayman Island is a speck of white sand about twice the size of Manhattan floating in the Caribbean Sea halfway between Cuba and Belize. It's known mainly as an offshore tax haven—"Wolf of Wall Street" Jordan Belfort spoke to a gathering of business leaders there recently—and as a stopover for cruise ships packed with sunburned Americans sipping bright blue cocktails with paper umbrellas.
It's also a key haven of marine biodiversity, sporting 36 different coral species (corals are tiny animals that build rock-like reef structures) and 350 kinds of fish. Generally speaking, coral reefs are some of the most ecologically rich habitats on Earth, supporting 25 percent of marine life in less than one percent of the ocean environment. They're a first line of defense for coastal communities against devastating storm surges. In Cayman, as in many small island nations, reefs are the backbone of the local tourism and subsistence fishing industries. And they're rapidly dying off.
A study published last October found that on reefs around Little Cayman, a kind of suburb island adjacent to Grand Cayman, coral cover fell from 26 to 14 percent just between 1999 and 2004. Since the early 1980s, coral cover across the entire Caribbean has plummeted 80 percent, so that living corals now cover only 10 percent, on average, of available surface area. And a 2011 report from the World Resources Institute that labeled reefs around Grand Cayman as highly threatened found that what's happening there is a microcosm of a global trend: 90 percent of the world's coral will be at risk of disappearance by 2030, thanks primarily to ocean acidification and global warming, both products of greenhouse gases released by human activity.
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.
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 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.