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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State Dept. Investigators: No Conflict of Interest in Keystone XL Review

| Thu Feb. 27, 2014 12:23 PM EST
Construction workers piece together the southern portion of the Keystone XL pipeline in Texas.

Opponents of the Keystone XL pipeline were dealt another blow Wednesday evening with the release of a long-awaited report from the State Department's internal oversight office on a potential conflict of interest in the Department's environmental review of the project. The report found that even though employees of the contractor hired to carry out the review had previously consulted for the company pushing the pipeline, the information they provided to the Department was "not misleading."

Moreover, the report found that State Department officials had followed protocol for objectively selecting a contractor, even taking steps that are above and beyond what is officially called for. For example, a six-person panel conducted in-person interviews with each contractor applying for the job.

Last night's report, issued by the State Department Office of Inspector General (OIG), comes on the heels of the environmental review in question, which found that oil in the Canadian tar sands region would likely be exploited with or without Keystone XL. That was unwelcome news for the project's opponents, since President Obama, in his major climate change speech last summer, said his administration would approve the pipeline only if it wouldn't lead to a significant increase in carbon emissions. If rail, trucks, and other pipelines could transport the oil anyway, it's more likely the Obama administration will give a green light to the project. Last week, the editor of the prestigious journal Science (who previously served as the head of the US Geological Survey under Obama) made that argument in a surprise endorsement of the pipeline. A final decision could come this spring, but that is far from guaranteed.

The conflict-of-interest controversy dates back to November 2011, when the OIG began to investigate claims that TransCanada, the company behind Keystone XL, had improperly influenced the selection of a contractor to write an early environmental impact statement. No impropriety was found, but OIG made recommendations to improve the selection process. The next year, for a second environmental review called for by the president, State hired a new contractor: Environmental Resources Management. ERM's review was released in March 2013, and it was roundly criticized for being soft on the pipeline's potential harms, particularly downplaying the climate impact. Another major problem, as Mother Jones first reported, was that the publicly released biographies of the statement's authors, who were employees of ERM, had been redacted, concealing extensive ties to the fossil fuel industry, including work directly with TransCanada. Another OIG investigation was opened up, leading to the report released yesterday.

From the report:

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Will Sochi Have Enough Snow?

| Fri Feb. 7, 2014 6:00 AM EST
American snowboarder Karly Shorr competes in the women's slopestyle snowboarding qualifying session at the 22nd Winter Olympic Games in Sochi.

The Winter Olympics kicked off yesterday in Sochi, Russia (first up: men's snowboarding). When Russian President Vladimir Putin pitched Sochi to the games' organizers back in 2007, he promised there would be "real snow"... a bold claim for a town better known as a seaside summer resort. Sure enough, this week Sochi had highs in the 50s (warmer than the Super Bowl last weekend in New Jersey) and—uh oh—no new snowfall in the town. Conditions are a bit better in the mountains where the ski events take place, and organizers insist the games are ready to speed ahead on a fresh layer of fake snow.

Low snowfall has become a chronic problem for skiers and snowboarders worldwide, which has turned many of them into vocal activists against climate change. President Obama even mentioned snow sports in his major global warming speech last summer, when he said that "mountain communities worry about what smaller snowpacks will mean for tourism."

Porter Fox
Porter Fox Courtesy Porter Fox

In some cases, global warming can lead to increased heavy precipitation of all kinds, and that includes snow, as anyone who lived through the recent polar vortex in the eastern US can attest. But the best conditions for snow sports depend on a snow cover that lasts through the winter, not simply a couple serious blizzards. Over the course of the season, high temperatures can burn through even the heaviest snowfall, and according to Porter Fox, that's already happening from the Rockies to Sochi.

Fox is a veteran skier and journalist for Powder magazine who is keeping a gloved finger on the pulse of shifting slopes. He recently published a book that details how global warming is threatening the entire business model of the ski industry. It's called Deep: The Story of Skiing and the Future of Snow. Fox joined us for today's Inquiring Minds podcast episode, and told me that climate change could soon send snow sports crashing downhill.

You can stream our interview below (it can be found at minutes 3:30-8:30) or scroll down to read a transcript:

Porter Fox: There is going to be huge change in the ski industry in the next 10 to 20 years, and there is going to be cataclysmic change in the next 50 to 70 years. In Europe, North America, around the world, really.

Climate Desk: For skiers and snowboarders, what is that actually going to look like?

Fox: Some of the big visual indicators are we've lost a million square miles of spring snowpack in the last 45 years. Some other changes, in the Northern Rockies that snowpack is down 15 to 30 percent. Specifically in the US the rate of winter warming has tripled since 1970, it seems that winters are starting to warm faster than other seasons, and even high elevation areas are warming faster, and very specifically the US West is one of half a dozen hotspots that are warming faster than the national average. Every single one of those factors is bad news for the Sierras, the Rockies, the Cascades, my favorite places to ski in.

How the Feds Are Ripping You Off To Benefit Big Coal

| Tue Feb. 4, 2014 5:41 PM EST

Federal coffers are missing out on what could be billions of dollars in lost revenue due to shoddy accounting work by the office that handles leases for coal mines on public land, according to a report made public today by the investigative arm of Congress.

The Government Accountability Office was asked by Senator Ed Markey (D-Mass.), a stalwart climate hawk, to look into whether the Interior Department's Bureau of Land Management routinely sells leases to coal mining companies for far less than their market value. Investigators found that BLM agents in Wyoming (by far the country's largest coal producer) set prices based on coal's historic value, but, in contradiction of the department's own rules, fail to take into account how much it will likely be worth in the future. Similar problems were found in other coal-producing states. As a result, the GAO report claims, many leases were sold far beneath their true market value, depriving taxpayers of additional royalties (which, as it stands, come to about $1 billion per year) that are normally skimmed from the mines' profits.

"As a net result, the public is getting screwed," said Tom Kenworthy, an energy analyst at the Center for American Progress who has kept tabs on Interior's longstanding problems with coal lease valuation.

"As a net result, the public is getting screwed."

That the leases are selling for less than they're worth seems clear; what's less obvious is exactly how much money is at stake, since the values were never properly set in the first place (the GAO report doesn't specify a number). A 2012 analysis of federal lease records by former New York State Deputy Comptroller Tom Sanzillo for the independent Institute for Energy Economics found that undervalued coal leases cost the Treasury $28.9 billion in lost revenue since 1983, or almost $1 billion every year. Meanwhile, analysis by Senator Markey's office put the figure at $200 million, although a spokesperson would not specify the time period to which that applied, as the underlying data are considered proprietary to the Interior Department, he said.

Since 1990, the federal government has leased 107 parcels of public land for coal mining; these parcels typically account for 25-40 percent of the roughly one billion tons of coal produced annually nationwide. That adds up to a massive carbon footprint: Fossil fuels produced on public land create roughly a billion metric tons of greenhouse gas pollution every year, about as much as 285 coal plants.

Only Obama Can Block the Keystone Pipeline Now

| Fri Jan. 31, 2014 4:04 PM EST
Activists protest the Keystone XL pipeline outside the White House.

The decision on whether or not to allow construction of the Keystone XL pipeline, which would transport crude oil from the Canadian tar sands to the Gulf of Mexico, has always been President Obama's to make. But the environmental stakes are so high—leading climate scientist James Hansen is fond of referring to the pipeline as "game over for the climate" because it would promote the extraction of one of the dirtiest kinds of oil—that a decision has been delayed for the last few years as the State Department carries out a review of the project's likely environmental impact.

That wait ended today, as State released its Final Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement. The report says the annual carbon emissions from producing, refining, and burning the oil the pipeline would move (830,000 barrels per day) would add up to 147-168 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent per year. (By contrast, the typical coal-fired power plant produces 3.5 million metric tons of CO2 annually.) That sounds like a lot, but the report comes with an important caveat:

Approval or denial of any one crude oil transport project, including the proposed Project, is unlikely to significantly impact the rate of extraction in the oil sands or the demand for heavy crude oil at refineries in the United States.

In other words, according to the report, those emissions are likely to happen whether the president approves Keystone XL or not. That's an important distinction, given that President Obama has already said that in order to gain approval, the pipeline must not increase carbon emissions. But there are other ways to move oil: For example, the report mentions that "rail will likely be able to accommodate new production if pipelines are delayed or not constructed." Rail transit is already underway; yesterday an ExxonMobil exec said the company had begun to use trains to pack oil out of the tar sands (despite their pretty awful safety record). But if the oil is going to be extracted (and the emissions emitted) one way or another, the case for blocking the pipeline per se becomes less clear.

There's still one more important document yet to be released by State: an investigation by the department's internal Inspector General into a potential conflict of interest by a contractor who helped produce the report, Environmental Resources Management. As Mother Jones first reported, State Department officials took steps to conceal that some ERM employees had ties to companies that would profit from the pipeline's construction. Last December, Congressman Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz) led a coalition of House members who asked the president to delay release of the environmental impact statement until after the Inspector General's report is released, which is not expected for several more weeks.

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