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.
Earlier this month, when a burst pipe spilled thousands of gallons of heavy oil into an Arkansas suburb, the message from the White House went something like: "Everybody chill, the EPA has it under control." But reporters on the scene found the cleanup orchestrated by the same company, ExxonMobil, that allowed the spill, and heard only crickets when they asked the EPA about its involvement.
Turns out, on some of the nation's most pressing environmental health issues, the EPA's transparency record isn't exactly crystal-clear.
So with a vote on President Obama's new pick to head the EPA, Gina McCarthy, coming up as soon as next week, it perhaps isn't a surprise that Congressional scrutiny of her nomination has centered more on the agency's secret-keeping habits than on its environmental enforcement goals. At a hearing last Thursday before the Senate's Environment and Public Works Committee, McCarthy got grilled on EPA's transparency record by Republican members, led by Louisiana's David Vitter. On Tuesday, the committee's Republicans sent a memo demanding details on her plans to open up the agency's inner workings.
But for all their zeal, Vitter and his GOP colleagues (including climate change denier-in-chief James Inhofe (R-Okla.)) might be barking up the wrong tree: A major thrust of their complaint against McCarthy, a feisty Bostonian currently overseeing EPA's air quality division, hinges on the use of email aliases by top EPA officials and the possibility that they've used personal email accounts for official business, an issue currently under investigation by the EPA Inspector General.
An uncovered cache of "secret" emails revealed discussion of turducken and Santa-themed coal ash jingles.
Outgoing EPA administrator Lisa Jackson and Bush-era EPA head Christie Whitman both created official email addresses under fake names (Jackson's was "Richard Windsor," after a pet dog), apparently to circumvent a chronic deluge of spam. McCarthy says she doesn't have an alias email and told the Senate committee she found only one instance of using her personal email for work—which didn't stop Vitter, in the memo, from demanding a full audit of her personal emails.
And while the use of unofficial email addresses beyond the reach of federal public records laws clearly raises the specter of important information being kept in the dark, few in the transparency or environmental journalism communities think it should be the focus of complaints about the agency's openness.
"The concerns over fake emails are totally bogus," says Joe Davis, a veteran environmental journalist and a member of the Society of Environmental Journalists' freedom of information taskforce. "This wasn't some made-up thing by Lisa Jackson to fool us all. They're simply efforts to politically damage McCarthy and Lisa Jackson and EPA by people with an anti-regulatory agenda."
Indeed, a review of a cache of "secret" emails from Jackson uncovered such pressing matters as whether "turducken" is a real thing (it is), and lyrics for a Santa-themed jingle about coal ash regulation.
State Department officials trekked to Grand Island, Nebraska today to hear statements from ranchers, geologists, construction workers, oil executives, and a colorful cast of other characters in the only public hearing on the Department's latest Environmental Impact Statement for the Keystone XL pipeline.
Speakers for and against the pipeline began lining up at 7 a.m. amid frigid cold and snow for a chance to get three minutes on the soapbox at the Heartland Events Center. There was the blustering, hoarse representative of the local Cowboy-Indian Alliance who exhorted Transcanada to "ship your toxic crap to Asia and India" instead of the US; the moody, varsity jacket-wearing teenager who recited an angst-ridden poetic diatribe against the pipeline ("The earth shudders beneath our feet / we are tectonic"); the welder with Pipeliners Local 798 who argued that moving oil through a pipeline was "greener" than using trucks or trains; and the members of a local Sioux tribe who sang prayer songs into the record.
During the three-hour afternoon session, sixty speakers stood before a weary-looking State Dept. panel and lobbed by-now-familiar arguments: jobs and the inevitability of development on one side, and water contamination and climate change on the other. Anti-pipeliners, many dressed in matching red and white t-shirts, held the clear majority, and alternated between sitting stony-faced with upheld power fists, and guffawing and booing when suit-clad oil reps and fleece-jacketed blue collar union leaders voiced their support for the project. The usual suspects from both camps were on hand: Transcanada VP Corey Goulet, and activist Jane Kleeb of Bold Nebraska, who described the mood in the room as relatively friendly considering the high, longstanding tensions between the two factions.
"Folks that have been dealing with this for four years now aren't holding back," Kleeb said, but "we had a lot of union guys say they agree with our concerns about the environment, but just want to get jobs for their guys."
"Every time citizens get an opportunity to address the government on the pipeline is good," Kleeb said. "It brings all of us together in one place."
Today's hearing was the first and last time for the public to comment in person on this EIS; written comments will still be accepted through April 22. President Obama is expected to make a final decision on the project by September.
A national climate change plan is nowhere in sight from Congress, and last week the Obama administration pushed back a deadline to crack down on power plant emissions. But despite those—and many other—familiar setbacks, a new report has found that the US is nonetheless inching ahead on climate action.
Yesterday the Climate Policy Initiative released a sweeping overview of climate change policies across the globe. It paints a picture of the US that climate hawks might find distressingly, if familiarly, chaotic: A tangle of federal subsidies, differing state-level clean energy mandates, and a host of natural resources, from wind to coal to natural gas, scrambling for political favor.
"What makes the US unique is that we have no overall climate strategy where all these policies fit," said David Nelson, a CPI researcher and lead author of the report, which describes the thicket of state and federal climate policies as "messy but useful," in that it lacks clarity and direction but can, with luck, produce results.
The surprising thing, Nelson said, is that while the US's approach to dealing with climate change lacks the focus of, say, the EU's carbon trading market, it must be doing something right: Carbon dioxide emissions have fallen 13 percent in the last seven years, and yesterday the EPA announced that greenhouse gas emissions fell 1.6 percent from 2010 to 2011.
New data released yesterday by the federal Energy Information Administration indicates that CO2 emissions could soon start climbing. But they are projected to rise much more slowly than in recent decades—and to stay below their 2007 peak—because of new policies that encourage increased vehicle efficiency, promote renewable energy, and clear the way for the extraction of more low-emissions natural gas through fracking:
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. Thebudget 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.
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.