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.
Republicans blame Obama's regulations, but the free market is crushing coal too.
Coal, the No. 1 cause of climate change, is dying. Last year saw a record number of coal plant retirements in the United States, and a study last week from Duke University found that since 2008, the coal industry shed nearly 50,000 jobs, while natural gas and renewable energy added four times that number. Even China, which produces and consumes more coal than the rest of the world put together, is expected to hit peak coal use within a decade, in order to meet its promise to President Barack Obama to reduce its carbon emissions starting in 2030.
According to Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), this is all the fault of President Barack Obama's "war on coal"—specifically the administration's new limits for carbon dioxide emissions from power plants, which probably will force many power companies to burn less coal. If there is a war, McConnell has long been the field marshal of the defending army. His latest maneuver came last month when he called on state lawmakers to simply ignore the administration's new rules, in order to resist Obama's "attack on the middle class."
For coal, there is no resurgence on the horizon.
His logic, apparently, is that if Kentucky can stave off Obama long enough, the coal industry still has a glorious future ahead. That logic is fundamentally flawed. While Obama's tenure will probably speed up the country's transition to cleaner energy, the scales had already tipped against coal long before he took office. Kentucky's coal production peaked in 1990, and coal industry employment peaked all the way back in the 1920s. The scales won't tip back after he leaves. The "war on coal" narrative isn't simply misleading, it also distracts from the very real problem of how to prepare coal mining communities and energy consumers (i.e., everyone) for an approaching future in which coal is demoted to a bit role after a century at center stage.
That's the conclusion of a sweeping new account of the coal industry, Coal Wars, authored by leading energy analyst Richard Martin. The book dives deep into a simple truth: As long as we're still burning coal for the majority of our energy, all the solar panels, electric cars, and vegetarian diets in the world won't do a thing to stop global warming. Saving the planet starts with getting off coal.
The good news, Martin reports, is that transition is already underway, regardless of stonewalling by congressional Republicans, and with or without Obama's new regulations. Martin documents evidence of coal's decline from the mountain villages of Kentucky to the open pit mines of Wyoming, and from lavish industry parties in Shanghai to boardrooms in Germany. Everywhere he looks, market forces (for instance, natural gas made cheap by the fracking boom), technological advances, and environmental laws are conspiring to favor cleaner forms of energy over coal. At the same time, Martin writes, more and more financial institutions and private investors are starting to factor climate change into their investment decisions, which "would be a death blow that no EPA regulation could equal."
Even if you think climate change is a hoax, basic economics are already driving the coal industry to contract.
Whether the transition will happen fast enough to limit the damage of climate change is a different story. China still gets nearly three-quarters of its energy from coal. The United States, while substantially reducing its own coal consumption in recent years, still has huge amounts of coal, especially in the West, that can be profitably mined and shipped overseas. Many billions of dollars have been sunk into mines, power plants, shipping terminals, and other infrastructure that can't simply be shut down overnight, especially when all that stuff forms the backbone of a basic commodity like electricity.
Still, for coal, there is no resurgence on the horizon. "There's no question which way the curve is headed, and it is down," Martin tells Climate Desk.
Much less clear than the fate of coal is what will happen in the countless communities, from the American Southeast to northern China, that have long depended on coal to put food on the table. Martin has managed to locate dozens of compelling personal narratives that show the human face of a debate that is too often reduced—by environmentalists as much as by the coal industry—to numbers and yawn-inducing energy wonkery. These include the head of a small coal mining company in Kentucky who was forced to sell off the business he inherited from his father and lay off workers who were also friends and neighbors. The manager of a coal town coffee shop in Colorado is also facing closure. In China, self-contained cities are built around coal mines, but young people there are unable to get work and have no other employment opportunities.
The environmental imperative to get off coal is obvious, and even if you think climate change is a hoax, basic economics are already driving the coal industry to contract. But so far, according to Martin, the United States has done a terrible job of helping coal industry workers and their families find life after coal.
There are many guilty parties here, including coal barons like Don Blankenship (who is currently facing charges in federal court for flagrant safety violations) and profit-hungry utility company execs who are keen to squash competition from solar and wind energy. But Martin saves his most damning critiques for leaders like McConnell who are hung up on pointless political squabbling rather than finding innovative ways to revitalize former coal economies.
"The presence of the coal industry has kept these communities in a state of dependence, and not allowed them to develop a real economy beyond coal," Martin says. "Whether we pine for the days of these jobs or not, they're not coming back. We have to get beyond this state of dependency."
When the Florida state Legislature opened its 2007 session, Speaker Marco Rubio, a Miami Republican, took the stage to lay out his priorities for the year. Near the top of his list was a focus on clean energy.
"Global warming, dependence on foreign sources of fuel, and capitalism have come together to create opportunities for us that were unimaginable just a few short years ago," he said, in a video recording unearthed by BuzzFeed. Rubio predicted that legal caps on greenhouse gas emissions were inevitable, and he argued that Florida should prepare to become "an international model of energy efficiency and independence" and the "Silicon Valley" of clean energy.
How the 2016 contenders will deal with climate change
Several years later, as a junior senator offering his party's rebuttal to President Barack Obama's 2013 State of the Union address, Rubio was singing a different tune. Solar and wind energy "should be a part of our energy portfolio," he said, but the United States should focus its efforts on extracting coal, oil, and natural gas "instead of wasting more money on so-called clean-energy companies like Solyndra." (Solyndra was a solar power company in California that failed spectacularly in 2011 after receiving a $500 million grant from the Obama administration. Republicans seized on it as a textbook case of the president's foolhardy energy agenda, but in reality the company was just badly managed.)
Rubio's comments since then have been more consistent: He argues that government policies to limit emissions are pointless in the face of rising pollution from developing countries. And, he says, such policies are certain to be "devastating" to the US economy.
He also rejects the notion that scientists are in agreement about the role humans have played in causing global warming. "I do not believe that human activity is causing these dramatic changes to our climate the way these scientists are portraying it," he told ABC News last May.
On Monday, Rubio is expected to announce his candidacy for president. Check out the video above for a look back at his thoughts on climate change.
The climate change language police just struck again.
Last month it was in Florida, where former staffers with the state's Department of Environmental Protection alleged that senior officials, under the direction of Gov. Rick Scott (R), had instituted an unwritten ban on using the phrases "climate change" and "global warming." Scott denied the claim.
This week's incident is much less ambiguous. Yesterday, the three-person commission that oversees a public land trust in Wisconsin voted 2-1 to block the trust's dozen public employees "from engaging in global warming or climate change work while on BCPL time."
In proposing and voting on the ban, the commission "spent 19 minutes and 29 seconds talking about talking about climate change," according to Bloomberg:
The move to ban an issue leaves staff at the Board of Commissioners of Public Lands in the unusual position of not being able to speak about how climate change might affect lands it oversees…
The Midwest warmed about 1.5F on average from 1895 to 2012. Pine, maple, birch, spruce, fir, aspen, and beech forests, which are common in the region, are likely to decline as the century progresses, according to the latest US National Climate Assessment.
The ban was proposed by newly elected State Treasurer Matt Adamczyk, a Republican who ran on the unusual campaign promise to swiftly eliminate his own job. At a public meeting on Tuesday, according to Bloomberg, Adamczyk said he was disturbed to learn that the agency's director, Tia Nelson, had spent some time co-chairing a global warming task force in 2007-08 at the request of former governor Jim Doyle (D). Dealing with climate issues—even responding to emails on the subject—isn't in the agency's wheelhouse, he said. Adamczyk didn't immediately return our request for comment.
Adamczyk was joined in voting for the ban by State Attorney General Brad Schimel (R), also newly-elected. Schimel is handling Gov. Scott Walker's lawsuit against the Environmental Protection Agency over President Barack Obama's new climate regulations. The ban was opposed by the commission's third member, Secretary of State Bob La Follette, a Democrat.
A man in Sparks, Oklahoma, picks through rubble from his home following an earthquake in 2011.
Over the last few years, Oklahoma has experienced an insane uptick in earthquakes. As we reported in 2013, the count exploded from just a couple per year back in the mid-2000s to over a thousand in 2010, growing alongside a boom in the state's natural gas drilling industry.
There is now a heap of peer-reviewed research finding that Oklahoma's earthquake "swarm" is directly linked to fracking—not the gas drilling itself, but a follow-up step where brackish wastewater is re-injected into disposal wells deep underground. It's a troubling trend in an industry that thrives under notoriously lax regulations, especially when the risk to property and public safety is so obvious.
If those numbers weren't dramatic enough, here's another: This year, Oklahoma has experienced an average of two quakes per day of magnitude 3.0—enough to be felt and inflict damage to structures—or greater. That's according to a deep, comprehensive report on the subject out in this week's New Yorker.
But even freakier than the earthquakes themselves, according to the story, is the pervasive denial of science coming from state agencies like the Oklahoma Geological Survey, whose job it is to oversee the oil and gas industry:
The official position of the O.G.S. is that the Prague [Oklahoma] earthquakes were likely a natural event and that there is insufficient evidence to say that most earthquakes in Oklahoma are the result of disposal wells. That position, however, has no published research to support it, and there are at least twenty-three peer-reviewed, published papers that conclude otherwise.
The story goes on to detail super-cozy relationships between top regulators and drilling company executives; the state's ongoing and systemic habit of dismissing or ignoring the rapidly accumulating pile of evidence about the quakes; and a failure by regulators and the state legislature to take any meaningful steps to address the crisis. It's really quite damning.
As a reporter covering the fracking industry, I've found that a lot of the problems associated with the technique aren't necessarily inherent to it, and could be resolved with more pressure on companies to behave responsibly, or laws requiring them to. Better zoning regulations could keep wells out of neighborhoods. Stricter well construction standards could cut down on the leakage of methane, a potent greenhouse gas, and help ensure that gas or chemicals don't contaminate groundwater. In other words, while industry may resist them, there are ready solutions at hand to many of the most cited drawbacks. And the same could be true in the case of earthquakes: while many geologists have now found that drilling wells into deep "basement" rock can set off temblors, there still isn't a law in Oklahoma that simply requires locating disposal wells elsewhere.
Their state's lack of basic engagement on the fracking-and-earthquakes issue is, understandably, a source of great frustration to Oklahomans, including those who are otherwise totally supportive the drilling industry. They're worried not only about above-ground damage, but about how quakes might effect the state's vast network of oil pipelines and underground aquifers. It's hard to imagine the nightmare that would result if a serious earthquake ruptured these pipelines and caused a major spill. That sentiment was nicely captured in the New Yorker by a quote from the town manager of Medford, a hamlet outside the oil center of Cushing:
"We want to be a good partner for the oil companies—it's exciting for us that they're here. But if they can move the disposal well even just three miles, what a difference that would make."
Signs of human impact on the planet are everywhere. Sea levels are rising as ice at both poles melts; plastic waste clogs the ocean; urban sprawl paves over landscapes while industrial agricultural empties aquifers. Between climate change, urban development, and straight-up, old-school pollution, the Earth we inhabit now would be scarcely recognizable to our earliest ancestors 150,000 year ago.
In fact, these changes are so pronounced, and their connection to human activity so obvious, that many scientists now believe we've already ventured well past a remarkable tipping point—Homo sapiens, they argue, have now surpassed nature as the dominant force shaping the Earth's landscapes, atmosphere, and other living things. Units of deep geologic time often are defined by their dominant species: 400 million years ago fish owned the Devonian Period; 265 million years ago dinosaurs ruled the Mesozoic Era. Today, humans dominate the Anthropocene.
"It has been open season on the Anthropocene," paleogeologist Jan Zalasiewicz said.
If defining what the Anthropocene represents is straight-forward, assigning it a commencement date has proved a monumental challenge. The term was first proposed by Russian geologist Aleksei Pavlov in 1922, and since then it has occupied off-and-on the attentions of the niche group of scientists whose job it is to decide how to slice our planet's 4.5 billion-year history into manageable chunks. But in 2009, as climate change increasingly gained traction as a matter of public interest, the idea of actually making a formal designation started to appear in talks and papers. Today, if the scientific literature is any indication, the debate is fully ignited.
In fact, "it has been open season on the Anthropocene," said Jan Zalasiewicz, a University of Leicester paleogeologist who is a leading voice in the debate. Within the last month a heap of new papers have come out with competing views on whether the Anthropocene is worthy of a formal designation, and if so, when exactly it began. The latest was published in Science today.