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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New York State Just Banned Fracking

| Wed Dec. 17, 2014 2:01 PM EST
Anti-fracking activists at a rally in New York in October 2012.

After years of wrangling between environmentalists, lawmakers, and fossil fuel companies, New York's top public health administrator said he would ban fracking in the state, citing health risks.

From the New York Times:

The Cuomo administration announced Wednesday that it would ban hydraulic fracturing in New York State, ending years of uncertainty by concluding that the controversial method of extracting gas from deep underground could contaminate the state’s air and water and pose inestimable public-health risks.

"I cannot support high volume hydraulic fracturing in the great state of New York," said Howard Zucker, the acting commissioner of health.

That conclusion was delivered publicly during a year-end cabinet meeting called by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo in Albany…The state has had a de facto ban on the procedure for more than five years, predating Mr. Cuomo's first term. The decision also came as oil and gas prices continued to fall in many places around the country, in part because of surging American oil production, as fracking boosted output.

New York is the second state to ban fracking, after Vermont did so in 2012. That move was largely symbolic, since Vermont has no natural gas to speak of. New York, by contrast, would have been a prize for the fracking industry, thanks to its massive share of the Marcellus shale formation.

"This is the first state ban with real significance," said Kate Sinding, a senior attorney in New York for the Natural Resources Defense Council. "My head is still spinning, because this is beyond anything we expected."

The fracking battle in New York isn't quite over yet, Sinding said. Now the attention of activists will turn toward proposed infrastructure projects in the state—like a gas storage facility by Lake Seneca and an export facility on Long Island—that would handle natural gas from fracking projects in neighboring states like Pennsylvania.

This post has been updated.

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These Are the Cutest Animal Videos of 2014, According to the World's Leading Science Journal

| Tue Dec. 16, 2014 12:08 PM EST

Nature is one of the world's flagship peer-reviewed scientific journals, a venue for some of our best new ideas about the world. Sometimes, those ideas are about animals that also happen to be outrageously, unconscionably cute. I'm talking baby-penguins-and-pomeranians-and-monkeys-cute. This morning the ingenious folks in Nature's video department rounded them all up into one face-melting video.

Here's how to put a YouTube video on endless loop. You're welcome.

The Fracking Boom Could End Way Sooner Than Obama Thinks

| Wed Dec. 3, 2014 2:00 PM EST
A natural gas rig outside Fort Worth, Texas.

President Obama is fond of touting America's vast trove of natural gas—and the energy (read: economic growth) it can provide—as a reason to support fracking. "Our 100-year supply of natural gas is a big factor in drawing jobs back to our shores," he told a gathering at Northwestern University in October.

You can hear that same optimism about US natural gas production from Democrats, Republicans, and of course, the industry itself. The conviction that America can fuel its economy by churning out massive amounts of natural gas for decades has become a core assumption of national energy policy. But what if it's wrong?

Those rosy predictions are based on official forecasts produced by the Energy Information Administration, an independent federal agency that compiles data on America's energy supply and demand. This spring, EIA chief Adam Sieminski told a Senate hearing that he was confident natural gas production would grow 56 percent between 2012 and 2040. But the results of a series of studies at the University of Texas, reported today in an article in the journal Nature, cast serious doubt about the accuracy of EIA's forecasts.

The UT team conducted its own analysis of natural gas production at all four of the US's major shale gas formations (the Marcellus, Haynesville, Fayetteville, and Barnett), which together account for two-thirds of America's natural gas output. Then, they extrapolated production into the future based on predicted market forces (the future price of gas relative to other fuels) and known geology. Their analysis suggests that gas production will peak in 2020, 20 years earlier than the EIA predicts. What's more, the UT researchers project that by 2030, gas production levels will be only half of EIA's prediction.

The difference in opinion stems from a difference in the scale of the analyses. The UT team's grid for each shale play studied was at least 20 times finer than EIA's, according to Nature:

Resolution matters because each play has sweet spots that yield a lot of gas, and large areas where wells are less productive. Companies try to target the sweet spots first, so wells drilled in the future may be less productive than current ones. The EIA's model so far has assumed that future wells will be at least as productive as past wells in the same county. But this approach, [UT-Austin petroleum engineer Ted] Patzek argues, "leads to results that are way too optimistic".

Why do these numbers matter? The federal government, states, and the private sector all base their energy investments—research and development, infrastructure construction, etc.—on forecasts of where our energy will come from in the future. If natural gas really is super-abundant, there may be less urgency to invest in renewables like solar and wind to replace coal plants as they age or are regulated out of existence. But if there's less recoverable natural gas than we think, we'll need to change our strategy to avoid coming up short on power 20 years down the line. At the same time, there are international repercussions: Many countries are taking cues from the United States on how to develop their own natural gas resources, so what happens here will shape those plans as well. And a series of massive natural gas export facilities are already being proposed across the US to ship our gas overseas; what will happen to global markets if those run dry prematurely?

Because they rely on informed guesses about future market conditions, these forecasts can never be bulletproof, and the UT study doesn't close the book on how much natural gas the US really has in store. But it's an important reminder that we should treat politicians' promises about fossil fuel wealth with skepticism.

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