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.
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.
Germany is in the midst of a fierce battle against climate change and is making an aggressive push to get at least 80 percent of its power from renewable sources by 2050. But with nearly half its power still drawn from some of the world's dirtiest coal, there are plenty of bumps in the road ahead. One of the biggest is how to store renewable energy when the wind isn't blowing and the sun isn't shining, a problem that has tormented clean-energy advocates around the globe.
One engineer thinks he's found the solution—half a mile underground.
Most of Germany's coal is a low-grade form called lignite, which is dug out of sprawling open-pit mines and fed into carbon-spewing power stations. Lignite is dirtier than the hard coal more commonly found in the United States in places like Wyoming and West Virginia. Germany has its own hard coal, too—Steinkohle, in local parlance—but costs for the deep-shaft mines needed to get at it run so high that the industry has historically relied heavily on federal subsidies. Those are set to expire in 2018, and when they do, they'll take Germany's three remaining hard-coal mines with them.
Holzweiler, Germany, just escaped impending death.
A tidy village of stone houses clustered around an aging cathedral, it's only 40 minutes up the Autobahn from the modernist bustle of Cologne, the country's fourth-largest city. The drive winds past farms spiked with towering wind turbines, standard-bearers of Germany's nationwide green energy overhaul. But Holzweiler's quiet sidewalks are also precariously close to one of Europe's largest open-pit coal mines.
When I visited last fall, residents of Holzweiler and a cluster of neighboring villages had been living on borrowed time. The villages were in the way of the expanding mine, and locals had been told by the government that within a matter of years their homes would be bulldozed to get at the coal—the world's dirtiest kind, known as lignite—buried underneath.
Gisela Irving, a 78-year-old Holzweiler resident, keeps a small garden and a few chickens here that she raises with the help of a big, shaggy mutt named Butch. Gisela told me the region's threatened destruction was hard to reconcile with its bucolic present.
Gisela Irving lives in Holzweiler, Germany, which was just spared from being swallowed by a coal mine. Tim McDonnell
"It's a peaceful world," Gisela said, stooping to pluck a green pepper. "I very often say it's a little bit of a paradise."
Paradise peters out just a few blocks from this yard, where the cobblestone street turns to mud and the houses—many already vacated—yield to prairie. Since the early 1980s, Gisela has watched the coal mine—called Garzweiler after the first town cleared away to make room for it—inch closer to her door. In her yard, we could hear the low, not-so-distant churning of massive digging machines.
Gisela and her neighbors had spent years pleading with the regional government to block the machines' steady march; yellow ribbons adorned the gates of many houses here, signs of solidarity against the encroaching mine. In December, Germany's top court ruled that Garzweiler was important enough to the national power system for the company operating it, RWE, to proceed with plans to pay for the demolition and relocation of these towns. Last month, the government decided to spare Holzweiler, but nearby towns haven't been so lucky.
Germany's struggle with lignite mining is taking place behind the scenes of its green energy revolution, known here as the Energiewende. If Germany—which bills itself as one of the planet's most climate-friendly nations—can't kick its coal habit, can anyone?
Outside Holzweiler is a grassy hilltop where one can see a row of massive smokestacks—power stations fired by the local coal—nestled among a dozen wind turbines.
It's a strange contrast: Over the last decade, Germany has become a world leader in creating electricity from renewable sources, like the sun and the wind, that don't spew climate-warming greenhouse gases. The government has committed to some of the world's most aggressive climate goals: By 2050, it wants to slash its greenhouse emissions by 80 to 95 percent compared to 1990 levels while getting at least 80 percent of its power from renewable sources. Renewables already provide nearly a quarter of the country's electricity, double the US rate and among the highest in Europe.
Energy policymakers in the United States are keeping a close eye on Germany, because curbing coal use is a central tenant of President Obama's climate action plan. This year the Environmental Protection Agency is pushing a twin pair of proposed regulations to limit carbon emissions from new and existing coal plants. Obama's coal strategy is more head-on than the German model, which looks more like death by a thousand solar panels, and which is proving to be a very slow death indeed.
At the edge of Garzweiler, a yellow ribbon is "a sign of solidarity for the people who are going to lose their houses," says Dirk Jansen, a local anti-coal campaigner. Tim McDonnell
Despite its progress with renewable energy, Germany is still dependent on coal for nearly half its power—a larger proportion than even the United States'. And there's little hope for that to drop anytime soon. In 2013, coal's share of the country's energy mix rose 1.5 percent over the previous year, nearly three times the growth in renewables.
The Garzweiler mine will keep operating into the 2040s, according to RWE. At 35 million metric tons each year, it unearths about a third as much coal as the US's top-producing mine. But the scale here is still overwhelming: It covers 18.5 square miles—that's half the area of Manhattan. Stand on one side, and the pit stretches all the way to the horizon. An excavator wheel as tall as a seven-story house continuously shovels out coal, which is loaded onto a 57-mile network of conveyor belts to be delivered to the nearby power plants.
"Coal will have to be displaced soon," Lutz Weischer says. "But currently we don't see that happening."
And this is no ordinary coal. Most US mines produce bituminous coal, which forms deep underground at high pressure, has a relatively high energy content, and resembles a hard, black rock. Most coal produced in Germany, on the other hand, is lignite, which forms close to the surface (hence the open-pit, rather than deep-shaft, mine) and is brownish, moist, and crumbly. Its energy content is substantially lower, meaning much more must be burned to produce the same amount of electricity. Lignite also produces 6 percent more carbon emissions per unit of energy than bituminous coal, and 80 percent more than natural gas. Add that up, and the impact is startling: Just one lignite-fired power plant produces up to 50 million metrics tons of CO2 each year, according to the European Climate Foundation. That's about as much as the state of Montana. But more importantly it's fully half the level of carbon emissions Germany aims to produce in total by mid-century.
That's why experts say that if Germany wants to meet its ambitious climate goals, phasing out coal will be the biggest challenge.
"Coal will have to be displaced soon," says Lutz Weischer, a German energy analyst with the World Resources Institute. "But currently we don't see that happening."
At the end of March, Holzweiler finally got some good news. In a compromise between the coal-industry-aligned Social Democratic Party and the climate-focused Green Party, the state government decided to limit Garzweiler's growth—a rare move for this historic seat of coal production. Holzweiler, which was first settled in Roman times, will be skirted by the mine and spared from destruction. An estimated 1,300 people won't have to relocate, and about a fifth of the mine's coal will stay buried.
The Garzweiler lignite mine will continue production into the 2040s. Tim McDonnell
But about 2,000 people in neighboring villages still face relocation, at RWE's expense, so that the company can access roughly a billion metric tons of coal.
RWE, for its part, tries to ensure that "the personal impact to these people is as low as possible," according to Thomas Birr, a senior strategist with the company. "I acknowledge the personal and emotional challenge of those people we have to relocate, and we take that into account, of course," he adds.
With many of its residents moved out, the nearby village of Immerath is already a ghost town. Gisela drove me to a street that dead-ends into the mine, a place she calls "the edge of the world." The brick houses were shuttered and crumbling, the edge of the village literally eroding away.
"I've got the impression that people from outside Germany have got the feeling that we are more or less perfect and everything is correct," she said, over the roar of excavation machines in the pit below. "It's not."
Michael Mann called the decision "a victory for science."
Michael Mann, the perenniallyembattled 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.