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.
This Kentucky coal-fired power plant will be updated to continue operation under the new rules.
Update, Monday, June 2, 9:45 a.m. EDT: You can check out our live coverage of the announcement and reaction to the proposed power plant regulations here.
Update, Sunday, June 1, 6:30 p.m. EDT: The Wall Street Journal is reporting that on Monday the EPA will announce sweeping new limits on carbon dioxide pollution from the nation's existing power plants. The plan is said to require a nationwide reduction in carbon emissions by an average of 30 percent over 2005 levels by 2030, with different specific targets for each state. The rules, which will have a one-year public review period before becoming final, could represent one of the biggest actions taken by the US government to slow climate change.
On Monday, President Obama is set to unveil details of the cornerstone of his climate plan: Limits on carbon dioxide emissions from the nation's fleet of existing power plants. The rules are likely to be the biggest step toward the president's goal of cutting US greenhouse gas emissions 17 percent by 2020. The rules are already taking heat from the fossil fuel industry and Republicans in Congress, despite having the support of a majority of Americans. So what's all the hullabaloo about, exactly? Here's what you need to know:
Why regulate carbon dioxide emissions from power plants? By now it's well established that carbon dioxide from human activities is the single biggest driver of climate change. The news this month that severe glacial melting in Antarctica has already nearly guaranteed up to 10 feet of global sea level rise was just the latest reminder of the dire need to slash our carbon pollution. Power plants and vehicles are the two biggest sources of this pollution in the United States, accounting for about 38 and 31 percent of carbon emissions, respectively. The Obama administration has already taken aim at motor vehicles; it placed new emissions limits on cars in 2009 and ordered them for heavy-duty trucks this year. But there are currently no restrictions—at all—on how much carbon pollution the nation's existing fleet of power plants can produce.
Coal-burning power plants in America alone exceed the total carbon emissions of Central and South America.
In the United States, as in many countries, the single biggest source of electricity is also the dirtiest: Domestic coal-fired plants produced 1.45 billion metric tons of CO2 in 2012, according to Environmental Protection Agency data, equal to about 305 million cars. That's more than 67 percent of the power sector's total carbon emissions, even though coal accounts for just 37 percent of the energy mix. Put another way, coal-burning power plants in America alone exceed the total carbon emissions of Central and South America.
Limiting emissions could also have benefits beyond slowing climate change: A study released this week by public health researchers at Harvard and Syracuse universities found that controlling the amount of carbon released by power plants also cut down on emissions of toxic pollutants like sulfur dioxide and mercury, which contribute to asthma, heart disease, and other serious health impacts—not to mention that sulfur dioxide causes acid rain.
America's carbon emissions have declined from their 2007 peak, and last fall the EPA issued rules for power plants that could prevent many (or any) new coal plants from being built. (For the time being, thanks to the fracking boom, cheap natural gas has made construction of new coal plants unlikely for economic reasons.) With next week's rule, the EPA is looking to fill in the deepest part of America's carbon footprint.
After the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster, when an oil rig explosion sent five million barrels of oil gushing into the Gulf of Mexico, the company behind the spill, BP, went swiftly into damage-control mode. One of its first steps was to buy up a third of the world's supply of chemical dispersants, including one called Corexit that was designed to concentrate oil into droplets that sink into the water column, where in theory they can be degraded by bacteria and stay off beaches.
After the spill, roughly two million gallons of Corexit were dumped into the Gulf. There's just one problem: Despite BP's protestations to the contrary, Corexit is believed to be highly toxic—not just to marine life but also to the workers who were spraying it and locals living nearby—according to a new segment on Vice that will air tonight on HBO at 11 pm ET. (For its part, BP has said that its use of dispersants was approved by the federal government and that it isn't aware of any data that the disperants pose a health threat.)
The show follows cleanup workers, local doctors, and shrimpers, and suggests that four years after the spill, Corexit contamination could be nearly as big a problem as the oil itself. You can watch a short clip from tonight's show above.
Men walk past an illegal oil refinery in Nigeria, one of the countries where US companies rely on fixers to arrange deals.
When big oil companies like Exxon-Mobil and Chevron set their sights on a prime new oil reserve in Africa, Asia, or the Middle East, the first phone call they make usually isn't to the government office putting it up for sale. Instead, they ring up one of their contacts in a small, elite group of so-called "fixers," a shady cabal of a few dozen well-connected billionaires who hold the strings on the market for the world's most valuable commodity. The fixer gets a fat fee and a straightforward assignment: Do whatever you need to do to get us those oil rights.
Unlike the US, where oil rights are held by individual property owners and leased to mining companies, in most developing nations oil rights are held by the government, and getting them means having a personal relationship with the right ministers—and knowing how to grease their palms. Since the mid-1900s, oil companies have relied on fixers to do their dirty work, crisscrossing the globe with a Rolodex stacked with the calling cards of corrupt heads of state. In the end, we get cheap oil, oil companies get plausible deniability, and the leaders of some of the world's most oppressive regimes get astronomically rich.
Ken Silverstein is a veteran journalist who has spent the last several years finagling his way into the traditionally hyper-reclusive world of oil fixers, gaining unprecedented access to many key players and amassing a portfolio of outrageous tales of bribery, exploitation, and obscene wealth. His book, The Secret World of Oil, hit shelves yesterday, and I spoke to him about how US companies continue to skirt anti-bribery laws in the high-stakes pursuit of oil.
Climate Desk: The oil companies that are using fixers, these are the companies that people are familiar with—Exxon, Chevron?
Ken Silverstein: In all the big oil companies, it would be rare for them never to use fixers in their deals. The bigger firms like Exxon have a lot of power and local knowledge and may handle this sort of thing on their own. But even Exxon, for part of the negotiations, is going to rely on a fixer. One of the reasons is that it's a dicey game. It's not always flat-out bribery, although in the old days it really was. The old model was that let's say you were a company and you wanted a concession in Nigeria. Well, you'd go to Fixer A and give Fixer A, say, a million dollars, and Fixer A would go to his friends in the Nigerian government and wire half a million dollars into a few Swiss bank accounts—or just, you know, a suitcase full of cash. That was it. Fixer A kept his half million, the government officials had their half million, and the company got its oil concession. Pretty simple, pretty straightforward.
"Fixer A would go to his friends in the Nigerian government and wire half a million dollars into a few Swiss bank accounts—or just, you know, a suitcase full of cash."
Well, that's changed a lot, partly because the US and Europe have outlawed bribery. So it's gotten dicier. There's a senior Halliburton official who's currently in jail, who was implicated in a massive bribery scandal that helped Halliburton win a multimillion dollar stake in Nigeria. Typically, though, the companies want one or two degrees of separation—you're not going to have your senior vice president meeting with a government official who you need to pay off. You want an intermediary, a fixer who can handle that, who, if anything goes wrong, you can disown all knowledge of and the fixer gets dumped and blamed.
Ken Silverstein Courtesy Verso Books
CD: Is any of this legal, what the fixers are doing? It seems like it's in a strange grey area.
KS: It's illegal if you get caught. But you'd rarely be so stupid now as to wire money into an official's account, you don't do it that way. Here's a real example from what Exxon did in Equatorial Guinea, one of the world's worst dictatorships sitting on untold amounts of oil. In some places where there is no corruption, there's closed-door bidding and whoever makes the best offer wins. In a place like Equatorial Guinea that's not the way it works. It's whoever figures out how to give the president and his inner circle the most money, gets the contract. And sometimes it may be flat-out bribes, but Exxon doesn't want to do that. What did Exxon do? They wanted land to build their compound, and to develop their project. And where did they buy the land? "Well, the president owns some land and it would be perfect for us." And so they just overpaid by an enormous amount of money, and it's clearly just putting money in the president's pocket.
CD: Here, in Texas or North Dakota or wherever, you have a private landowner who owns the mineral rights and can sell them to whoever they want. But in the countries you're talking about oil is owned to start with by the government. Does that lend the process to the kind of corruption you're talking about?
"Oil companies do like dictatorial governments because there are fewer decision makers, it's easier to arrange these deals."
KS: It's a very highly politicized process to get access to that oil, so yes it absolutely does lend itself to corruption. And it also lends itself to reinforcing the power of these regimes that frequently are dictatorships. I want to cite Ed Chow, a former Chevron executive. He said: "In Texas I can convince landowners to lease me their mineral rights. They get a royalty check every month and the companies leave a small footprint on their land. What's not to love? There's no equivalent in places like Nigeria or Angola or Kazakhstan. You get the land, but you don't provide a lot of jobs, you may be destroying the environment, and most of the profit goes to international capital. The companies don't have a strong case to sell to local communities, so they come to not only accept highly centralized government, but to crave it. A strongman president can make all the necessary decisions. It's a lot easier to win support from the top than to build it from the bottom."
That's precisely the environment where fixers thrive.
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.