Tim McDonnell

Tim McDonnell

Climate Desk Associate Producer

Tim McDonnell joined the Climate Desk after stints at Mother Jones and Sierra magazine, where he nurtured his interest in environmental journalism. Originally from Tucson, Tim loves tortillas and epic walks.

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Obama Biofuel Budget Spills Few Details, Still Attacked by House GOP

| Thu Apr. 11, 2013 6:00 AM EDT
Rep. Goodlatte's proposed bill would throw a wrench in Obama's clean fuel plan.

Enviros hoping for details on President Obama's promised biofuel push got a few answers yesterday in the president's new budget, which still left some questions as to how the administration plans to pay for expensive new biofuels research. The budget indicates the Interior Department may charge the fossil fuel industry more to drill on public lands, a plan that already had Republicans bristling when the president hinted at it last month. 

In mid-March, in a speech at Illinois' Argonne National Lab, Obama pitched an Energy Security Trust, which would collect $2 billion in additional revenues by 2020 from oil and gas companies that drill on federal land, and invest the funds in R&D for cutting-edge biofuels and clean vehicles. According to the Interior Department, these royalties totaled roughly $7.9 billion in FY 2012.

The speech left unclear the question of how an additional $2 billion in royalties could be raised without either raising royalty rates—a non-starter for the fossil fuel industry—or allowing more drilling on more public lands. A White House spokesman was quick to rule out expanded drilling in Alaska, but left the possibility elsewhere. A Climate Desk calculation reviewed by MIT-based energy blogger Jesse Jenkins found that to raise an additional $2 billion in royalties through expanded drilling alone, oil and gas development on public land would need to increase by 1.5 percent and 7.2 percent, respectively, by 2020.

"You certainly don't gain anything by promoting clean energy that ends up promoting the production of more dirty energy sources," NRDC policy analyst Bob Deans told Climate Desk last month.

Deans had hoped that today's budget would clear things up. While the proposal doesn't mention the Energy Security Trust by name, it calls for unspecified adjustments to royalty rates that The Hill reports would be redirected from the general treasury toward the Trust. An Interior Department spokesperson said that annual oil and gas income to the government is projected to rise by $2.8 billion by 2023, but was unsure whether this money would come from new public land drilling or solely via increased royalties.

The budget also carves out $2.3 billion for the Energy Department's Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, which oversees R&D on advanced biofuels (as well as solar, wind, and other clean energy research), but doesn't specify how much of that would go toward biofuels specifically, or whether these funds are in addition to the $2 billion for the Energy Security Trust. A White House spokesperson did not return repeated calls for comment.

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CHART: How Climate Change and Your Wine Habit Threaten Endangered Pandas

| Mon Apr. 8, 2013 1:03 PM EDT

One group that's been keeping a close eye on climate change is wine growers. Since a 2006 study predicted global warming could fry over 80 percent of the US's wine grapes, vinters have been planning new heat-resistant varietals, adopting big-data-driven water saving techniques, and mapping out what could become the new Napa Valleys of a warming world.

That last trend is the focus of a new study out today that examines how shifting wine cultivation geography could have implications for endangered species. Lee Hannah, an ecologist at Conservational International, used a suite of global climate models to plot where ideal wine conditions will migrate to as temperatures warm and precipitation patterns fluctuate.

"In a lot of these places, what's there now is good wildlife habitat," Hannah said.

Chart by Tim McDonnell

Frackers Are Losing $1.5 Billion Yearly to Leaks

| Fri Apr. 5, 2013 6:00 AM EDT

Of all the many and varied consequences of fracking (water contamination, injured workers, earthquakes, the list goes on) one of the least understood is so-called "fugitive" methane emissions. Methane is the primary ingredient of natural gas, and it escapes into the atmosphere at every stage of production: at wells, in processing plants, and in pipes on its way to your house. According to a new study, it could become one of the worst climate impacts of the fracking boom—and yet, it's one of the easiest to tackle right away. Best of all, fixing the leaks is good for the bottom line.

According to the World Resources Institute, natural gas producers allow $1.5 billion worth of methane to escape from their operations every year. That might sound like small change to an industry that drilled up some $66.5 billion worth of natural gas in 2012 alone, but it's a big deal for the climate: While methane only makes up 10 percent of greenhouse gas emissions (20 percent of which comes from cow farts), it packs a global warming punch 20 times stronger than carbon dioxide.

methane
Courtesy WRI

"Those leaks are everywhere," said WRI analyst James Bradbury, so fixing them would be "super low-hanging fruit."

The problem, he says, is that right now those emissions aren't directly regulated by the EPA. In President Obama's first term, the EPA set new requirements for capturing other types of pollutants that escape from fracked wells, using technology that also, incidentally, limits methane. But without a cap on methane itself, WRI finds, the potent gas is free to escape at incredible rates, principally from leaky pipelines. The scale of the problem is hard to overstate: The Energy Department found that leaking methane could ultimately make natural gas—which purports to be a "clean" fossil fuel—even more damaging than coal, and an earlier WRI study found that fixing methane leaks would be the single biggest step the US could take toward meeting its long-term greenhouse gas reduction goals.

The Drought Is Drying Up All Our Ethanol

| Wed Apr. 3, 2013 6:00 AM EDT

Bill Pracht has bad memories of last summer. "The drought was so bad here that the corn was just decimated," he recalls of the farm country around Garnett, Kan., where he oversees East Kansas Agri-Energy, an ethanol plant. "Many fields were zero."

In August, corn prices hit their highest level ever, driven mainly by the severe drought that crippled America's corn belt. By October, Pracht could see that he was spending more on corn than he could make with ethanol, and with no relief in sight, he began to have doubts about keeping the plant open.

"We knew we'd be wasting money," he says.

So, he pulled the plug, shuttering the plant and laying off twenty employees until conditions improve enough to make churning out what was until recently one of the nation's fastest-growing fuel sources profitable again. And as the EPA nears a final decision on new regulations that would require oil companies to use more ethanol in their gasoline mixes, Pracht's story illustrates a risk of increasing reliance on corn-based fuels in a warming world.

Pracht isn't alone: Over the last year, nearly 10 percent of the nation's ethanol plants have shut down. Annual corn yields came in almost a third lower than projected, according to the USDA, driving record-high corn prices that are likely to continue to rise into 2013, up to 19 percent higher than 2011-2012 averages. Overall, 2012 was the first year since 1996 (another drought year) in which total ethanol production decreased (by 4.5 percent), reversing a trend of exponential growth that's lasted almost a decade, according to the federal Energy Information Administration:

drought ethanol
Tim McDonnell

Watch: Alan Lomax's Treasures Land on Ebay

| Mon Apr. 1, 2013 6:00 AM EDT

If you're a fan of American roots and blues music, you owe Alan Lomax a big thank you. Lomax spent a lifetime, beginning in the 1940s, traversing the American south—not to mention England, the Caribbean, and many other places—armed with a tape recorder. His quarry: Folk music that had never been recorded before. In the course of his research, he discovered some of our most important folk musicians: Woody Guthrie, Leadbelly, and Son House, to name a few. In time, these pickers and singers would go on to inspire everyone from the Beatles to Kurt Cobain to Jack White.

For decades, Lomax worked out of a suite of offices tucked into an ugly blue warehouse behind New York City's Port Authority Bus Terminal. When he died in 2002 at the age of 87, his office became the Alan Lomax Archive, home to his vast collection of recordings, records, correspondence, and equipment. Most of his field recordings now live at the Library of Congress, but the archive still holds his personal caches. Now, the building is being sold and the archive is being forced to move across town to a smaller space. Director Don Fleming is faced with the difficult and delicate task of deciding what to keep—and what to put up for sale.

Additional production by James West

Click here for more music coverage from Mother Jones.

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