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.
Well, folks, it wasn't such a great night on the climate action front. It looks like the millions of dollars that environmental philanthropist Tom Steyer invested in the midterms didn't buy much other than a fledgling political infrastructure to sock away for 2016. With Republicans now in control of the Senate, we're likely to see a bill to push through the Keystone XL pipeline coming down the pike soon. And Mitch McConnell, probably the coal industry's biggest booster, retained his seat.
In fact, McConnell and his climate-denying colleague James Inhofe of Oklahoma—the likely chair of the Senate's Environment and Public Works committee—won a lot of new friends on Capitol Hill last night. It probably won't surprise you to learn that most of the Senate's newly elected Republicans are big boosters of fossil fuels and don't agree with the mainstream scientific consensus on global warming. Here's an overview of their statements on climate change, ranging from a few who seem to at least partly accept to science to those who flat-out reject it.
Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska): In September, Sullivan, a former Alaska attorney general, said "the jury's out" on whether climate change is man-made. (Actually, the jury came in, for the umpteenth time, just this week.) He repeated that position last month, when he said the role human-caused greenhouse gases play in global warming is "a question scientists are still debating," adding that "we shouldn't lock up America's resources and kill tens of thousands of good jobs by continuing to pursue the President's anti-energy policies."
Cory Gardner (R-Colo.): Gardner is shifty on the issue. In a debate last month, he wouldn't give a straight yes-or-no answer on whether mankind has contributed to global warming. "I believe that the climate is changing, I disagree to the extent that it's been in the news," that humans are responsible, he said. Yet at the same time, he admitted that "pollution contributes" to climate change. Gardner doesn't seem interested in cleaning up that pollution: Last year he said the Obama administration is waging "a war on the kind of energy we use every day—fossil fuels… because they want to tell us how we live our lives."
David Perdue (R-Ga.): "In science, there's an active debate going on" about whether climate change is real, Perdue told Slate this year, adding that if there are climate-related impacts to Georgia's coast, some smart person will figure out how to deal with them. Perdue has also slammed the Obama administration for waging a "war on coal" and has called the EPA's new carbon emission rules "shortsighted."
Joni Ernst (R-Iowa): Ernst is another rider on the "I don't know" bandwagon. "I don't know the science behind climate change," she told an audience in September. She also hedged the question beautifully in a May interview with The Hill: "I haven't seen proven proof that it is entirely man-made." But she supports recycling!
Bill Cassidy/Mary Landrieu (La.): This race is going to a runoff. Landrieu, the incumbent Democrat, has never been much of a climate hawk—she recently said humans do contribute to observed climate change but criticized Obama for "singling out" the oil industry for regulation. But at least she's better on global warming than Cassidy, her Republican challenger, who flatly denies that climate change exists. He said last month that "global temperatures have not risen in 15 years."
Steve Daines (R-Mont.): Daines is a harsh critic of Obama's energy and climate policies, which he said "threaten nearly 5,000 Montana jobs and would cause Montana's electricity prices to skyrocket." While in the House, he signed a pledge that he will "oppose any legislation relating to climate change that includes a net increase in government revenue." He believes global warming, to the extent that it exists, is probably caused by solar cycles.
Thom Tillis (R-N.C.): During a North Carolina Republican primary debate, all four candidates laughed out loud when asked if they believed climate change is a "fact." Ha! Ha! Then they all said, "No." Later, Tillis expanded on that position, arguing in a debate with his Democratic rival, Sen. Kay Hagan, that "the point is the liberal agenda, the Obama agenda, the Kay Hagan agenda, is trying to use [climate change] as a Trojan horse for their energy policy."
Ben Sasse (R-Neb.): Sasse hasn't said much about climate science, but he supports building the Keystone XL pipeline and opening up more federal land for oil and gas drilling. He also wants to "encourage the production of coal."
Mike Rounds (R-S.D.): Rounds appears to accept at least some of the science on climate change. As governor of South Dakota, Rounds said that "there are a number of different causes that we recognize, and the scientists recognize, are the cause of global warming," and that humans are "absolutely" one of those. He fervently supports the Keystone pipeline.
Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.): In a debate last month, Capito said, "I don't necessarily think the climate's changing, no." Then she clarified that her opinion might change with the weather: "Yes it's changing, it changes all the time, we heard it raining out there," she said. "I'm sure humans are contributing to it." I have no idea what that is supposed to mean. Capito is also a founding member of the Congressional Coal Caucus.
The Fort Berthold Indian Reservation, on the shores of Lake Sakakawea in the northwest part of the state, is home to roughly half of the 14,000 members of the Three Affiliated Tribes of Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara Nation. The community sits atop roughly one-third of an immense treasure-trove: The Bakken Shale, the oil formation that is home to North Dakota's ongoing fracking boom. Tomorrow, MHA Nation members will head to the polls to elect a new chairman—the tribal administration's chief executive. Out of about 8,000 eligible voters, 3,500 are expected to turn up tomorrow, according to a spokesperson for the Tribal Election Board.
Both men vying for the position say they plan to crack down on the oil rush that has brought their nation a complex mix of wealth, environmental degradation, and corruption allegations. Normally, a chairmanship election on a Native American reservation would draw little interest outside the reservation's borders. But with so much oil development at stake, Fort Berthold is a different story.
Here's a sense of the scale of Fort Berthold's petroleum power, from the Bismarck Tribune:
The reservation has 25 rigs drilling, 1,300 oil wells and produces 333,000 barrels of oil per day. About $25 million in oil tax revenue flows to the tribal treasury each month and the tribes' annual budget has swelled from a modest $20 million annually to $520 million.
That heap of cash is administered by a tribal council, which is headed by the tribes' current chairman, Tex Hall. A former oil-field services company executive, Hall was elected in 2010, just as the oil rush was getting underway. Fewer than half of the tribes' members own mineral rights they can lease to drilling companies, according to Sebastian Braun, head of the Indian Studies department at the University of North Dakota. Since many residents don't benefit directly from the fracking boom, they depend on the tribal administration to spend the money wisely and to help the residents cope with rising housing and grocery costs and the other ancillary impacts of oil development.
Instead, Braun said, "people felt the money was spent in ways they didn't understand"—for example, on a helicopter to ferry VIPs to the reservation and a cruise ship for Lake Sakakawea—while the main town has only one stoplight for the increasingly heavy stream of truck traffic. And a report this August commissioned by the tribal council made various allegations about Hall's financial dealings with oil and gas companies. In September, Hall denied those allegations and, in a statement reported by the Bismarck Tribune, dismissed the report as a "smear campaign." Hall did not respond to Climate Desk's request for comment.
The snow forecast from today through the weekend. This data represents a worst-case scenario; there's a 95 percent change there will be less snow than this. National Weather Service
Happy Halloween! Hope you have a good costume lined up that isn't this horrible "sexy Ebola nurse" one. Anyway, this year the weather seems pretty determined to mess with your trick-or-treating plans: We've already seen pumpkin prices spike thanks to the ongoing drought in California. And now it seems that a snowstorm is headed for the Midwest and East Coast. But fear not: It's unlikely that the goblins and witches in NYC, DC, and other eastern cities will get hit too hard tomorrow night.
The map above is the most recent snow accumulation forecast from the National Weather Service, a prediction of how many inches of snow are expected to fall between today and Sunday. It looks worse than it probably will be; this is the 95th-percentile estimate, meaning snowfall is 95 percent likely to be less severe than what is shown here. AccuWeather has a good map showing the trajectory of snowfall over the weekend, as it moves from the Appalachians on Friday up to Maine by Sunday. And the Weather Channel has a useful daily breakdown here. The upshot is that Midwesterners should plan to bundle up, and Mainers could have snow by the end of the weekend, but East Coasters don't need to worry too much about snow-proofing their Halloween costumes.
That said, even without snow it could still be cold and blustery, as our friend Eric Holthaus at Slate points out. The NASA satellite imagery below depicts the Nor'easter currently straddling the eastern seaboard, which the latest NOAA forecast says will bring "much colder weather" and possibly some showers by Saturday. So whatever ridiculous "sexy" costume you decide to wear tomorrow, probably pack a sweater.
After the Deepwater Horizon oil drilling platform exploded in June 2010, killing 11 workers and sending roughly five million barrels of oil gushing into the Gulf of Mexico, much of the media coverage featured sludge-covered seabirds, empty shrimp baskets, and other environmental impacts. But for Doug Brown, the catastrophe was even more immediate. He was the rig's chief engineer, standing in the control room when a deafening blast sent him flying and turned his workplace into a fiery, oil-soaked hell.
Brown, the rig's chief engineer, breaks into tears as he recalls the "incoherent screamings of pain...I saw men completely lose control."
In The Great Invisible, a documentary about the blowout and its aftermath that premieres today in Los Angeles and New York, Brown breaks into tears as he recalls the "incoherent screamings of pain" of his coworkers: "I saw men completely lose control."
This virtually untold side of the Deepwater Horizon story emergesfrom a melange of archival footage (including home videos shot onboard the rig) and original interviews with rig workers and family members of men who died in the disaster. They speak of pride at working on one of the world's most advanced drilling rigs, terror at the explosion, and the post-traumatic stress and guilt that still haunt them.
Above all, they tell of their betrayal by Transocean, the rig's owner, and BP, its operator—companies to which they gave their best years, and which they now blame for systematically walking back basic precautions in the months preceding the explosion. The film is equally critical of the federal government, which has resumed selling offshore drilling leases while offering no new rig-safety regulations.
The Great Invisible also paints a vivid portrait of life in the bayou fishing communities where filmmaker Margaret Brown (no relation to Doug) grew up—communities still reeling four years after the spill. I spoke with Brown about producing a film that is as much an exploration of America's love-hate relationship with the oil industry as it is a critique of a few miscreant companies—and about how she encouraged her emotionally scarred central characters to speak out for the first time.
Climate Desk: You grew up in southern Alabama. How did your own background affect your filmmaking approach?
Margaret Brown: That's pretty much why I made the film. My dad was sending me pictures of his house with the orange oil booms they put out during the spill. It was weird to see your home surrounded by the booms. It was really emotional. And then I started talking to people in the area, and everyone was super depressed. It's not like a hurricane where people know how to respond. In a hurricane, there's a drill if you grow up down there. With this, nobody knew what to do. There was a lot of uncertainty and depression. And that was what I responded to.
Filmmaker Margaret Brown
When we first went down there, there were so many cameras on the beach for like two or three months. And then it went away. I was curious about what would happen when all the other cameras left—when that image went off the news of the plume of oil leaking. The minute that was gone, all the reporters were gone. I stayed four years. I was curious what it would be like to make a film about something everyone knows about. How do you make that novel and fresh?
The film changed. It started with me wanting me to make something about where I grew up, and turned into something about the larger question of how Americans relate to petroleum. I wanted to see if I could make something personal, but also where people can watch it and understand a little more about what happens when we fill up our car. Hopefully people would have the same kind of thought process that I did, learning about how deeply entrenched the government is, how it makes so much money off offshore leases—which is probably a big answer to why things aren't changing.
CD: Which of your initial assumptions were challenged or changed as you made the film?
MB: I think just the scope of what we talk about when we talk about oil production in the Gulf of Mexico. And after watching all the grandstanding in Congress, I really did think something might change in terms of safety regulations. Maybe that's naïve. But this is the first major oil spill where something hasn't changed. It made me a little more cynical.
But I think it's a timely moment. People are realizing [climate change] is real in a way they didn't 10 years ago. I think the film is part of the conversation, but it's not the answer. I think people see it in a really simple way, like it's either "Boycott BP!" or "Drill baby drill!" There's no real understanding of the huge expanse in between, and that's frustrating to me. We are all connected to what BP is giving us.
The spill happened, and then nothing happened. I hope the film can address why nothing happened, and I think a lot of that is Congress. But also that, the minute it got off the news, people stopped thinking about. It seemed like, "Okay, they capped it. It's gone." But actually, there are no new safety regulations. It's not gone.
Doug Brown was chief engineer on the Deepwater Horizon when the rig exploded in 2010. Courtesy Margaret Brown
CD: How did you get the workers and their families to open up?
MB: That was the hardest part, actually, those interviews. [Rig hand] Stephen Stone and Doug Brown were absolutely the hardest people to get to agree to be in the film. I think that was mainly because of the PTSD they'd suffered from the accident, and they and their wives weren't sure if being in the film would be better or worse for them. I think they're still not sure. We still talk about it. But I think mainly the consensus has been that it's been cathartic and positive to share their story. Those stories of how their lives have changed, and how they haven't gotten paid, and what happens when you witness this—the guilt and the troubling feelings, the suicidal feelings. It's some of the scariest stuff there is. They were super brave to be in the movie, because in that industry I think people sort of follow the leader, and those guys decided to speak out and be whistle blowers.
"It was really hard to get them to open up...I think they thought at first that I was a spy from Transocean."
Doug had tried to kill himself, and it was really hard to get them to open up. I spent hours with his, Meccah, on the phone talking, and crying sometimes, because I think they thought at first that I was a spy from Transocean. They had such a level of mistrust and being messed around with by those companies that they didn't believe that I was an independent filmmaker. So I went from being a spy to someone you would talk to. They felt that Doug had been so loyal to that company, and was so proud of his job. To go from that to feeling like—I mean, Doug struggles with a lot of guilt for something that he had little to no control over. And it's interesting to me who feels guilt in this film—and who should feel guilty.
The workers are proud of what they're doing. There's a sense of bringing oil to the American people and providing energy. If you just look at it from the left, and how bad BP is, you're going to miss a lot of what's really going on.
A shell stained by oil from the 2010 Deepwater Horizon spill.
We all saw the images of oil-coated birds and shorelines in the wake of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon spill. These were the most visible impacts of the catastrophe, but much of the oil that gushed from the busted Macondo wellhead 5,000 feet underwater never made it to the surface. Of the estimated 5 million barrels that spilled, approximately 2 million stayed trapped in the deep ocean. And up to 31 percent of that oil is now lying on the ocean floor, according to a new study.
Based on an analysis of sea-floor sediment samples collected from the the Gulf of Mexico, geochemists at the University of California-Santa Barbara were able to offer the first clues about the final resting place of hundreds of thousands of barrels of oil. Their results were published today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
The data, which was gathered as part of the ongoing federal damage assessment, shows "a smokingly clear signal, like a bulls-eye" around the Macondo well, said lead author David Valentine.
When oil first began to shoot out of the broken well, some 2 million barrels' worth broke up into microscopic droplets before reaching the surface and became suspended in the deep ocean, Valentine said. His goal was to discover the fate of that oil, beyond the reach of any cleanup efforts, four years after the spill. The researchers combed through the sediment samples for traces of hopane, a chemical compound found in crude oil that doesn't break down over time. Hopane was also used as a indicator of oil distribution following the Exxon-Valdez spill in 1989.
To test whether traces of hopane originated from the Macondo blowout—rather than from a natural seep or some other well—Valentine scrutinized both where they appeared in individual sediment cores and how concentrations changed at varying distances from the well. Both indicators strongly implicate the Macondo well, the study found. Close to the well, hopane concentrations were very high in the top half-inch of sediment, a sign that the chemical had been deposited recently and in great volumes. Even more telling was the spacial distribution: Within 25 miles of the well, hopane concentrations were 10 times higher than outside that boundary, Valentine said. A further clue was the distinctive splatter pattern in which hopane concentrations were found, which matched the pattern that would be expected from oil leaking from a well.
Add it all up, the study finds, and between 4 and 31 percent of the oil that originally was suspended in the deep ocean (roughly 80,000 to 620,000 barrels) has now come to rest on the ocean floor. The remainder, Valentine said, is still unaccounted for: It could still be suspended in the water column; it could have risen to the surface; it could have been eaten by bacteria, etc.