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.
At this point, climate change is so politicized that it's difficult for the general public to sort out what scientists really know—and don't know—about it. Penned by Kerry Emanuel, an atmospheric sciences professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, this latest edition of What We Know About Climate Change is the most comprehensive, readable, BS-free rundown on the topic that you're likely to find. It's short enough to read in a day, apolitical enough to appeal to both your Fox-obsessed wingnut uncle and your dreadlocked freegan older sister in Brooklyn, and just detailed enough to provide a reload of fresh intellectual ammunition to help you engage others on the topic.
An estuary where the Columbia River meets the sea, just downriver from the planned terminal.
Last week Beijing saw its infamous smog thicken to unprecedented levels, driven largely by emissions from coal-fired power plants across China. In recent years coal from US mines has stoked more and more of these plants, in effect offshoring the health impacts of burning coal. This year, much of the US coal industry's focus will be on pushing an unfolding campaign that seeks to dramatically ramp up the amount of coal we ship overseas.
Morrow County, Oregon, is a quintessientially green pocket of the Pacific Northwest. It's capped by the Columbia River, which winds past the hipsters in Portland en route to the sea, often carrying schools of the salmon that have long been an economic staple for locals. But Morrow County could soon become a backdrop for the transformation of the US coal industry, if a planned loading zone for massive shipments of coal—harvested in the Powder River Basin in Montana and Wyoming, and packed into Asia-bound cargo ships—gets final approval.
Right now, local, state, and federal lawmakers are hammering out the details in what is unfolding as one of the biggest climate fights of 2013.
Chart by Tim McDonnell
The Port of Morrow, where coal would be transferred from inland trains onto outbound river barges in the small town of Boardman, is just one of five proposed new coal export terminals now under consideration in Oregon and Washington. If built, the terminals could more than double the amount of coal the US ships overseas, most of it bound for insatiable markets in China, India, South Korea, and a suite of other Asian nations.
Building the new West Coast terminals could be a matter of life or death for US coal.
It's the next giant leap forward for the US coal industry, which has in recent years turned increasingly to the East as domestic demand dwindles and Obama-era clean air regulations make it next to impossible to build new coal-burning facilities at home. But Big Coal's ability to sell its wares overseas is increasingly bottlenecked by maxed-out export facilities, most of which are on the Atlantic-facing East Coast, anyway, better situated for shipments to Hamburg than Hong Kong. So, says Brookings Institute energy analyst Charles Ebinger, building the new West Coast terminals could be a matter of life or death for US coal.
"There's a lot of coal in the domestic market that can't be utilized," Ebinger says. "The Asian market is the fastest-growing coal market in the world. If we wish to continue to export coal [these terminals] are very important... whatever volume of coal we could export would find a market."
When it comes to America's energy future, it seems like all we ever hear about these days is natural gas. To hear the deafening outcry over fracking, to see the flares of North Dakota's drilling boom twinkling in space, you'd think we'd gone ahead and set every other type of power production to low simmer on the backburner. Turns out, it just ain't so. The latest update from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, an independent government agency that regulates interstate electricity trading, reveals that in 2012 wind was the fastest-growing energy source, adding a full seven percent more megawatts than natural gas. Dig it:
Ontario's coal-fired Lambton Generating Station is scheduled to close this year.
Ontario, Canada's most populous province, will become the first jurisdiction in North America to boot coal completely out of its energy mix, the province's Minister of Energy, Chris Bentley, announced last week. By the end of 2013, Ontario will shutter 17 of its 19 coal-fired power plants, leaving less than one percent of the province's energy mix provided by coal, and close the last two next year, a decision Bentley says was fueled by concern about global climate change and local health.
The phase-out has been coming down the pipeline since 2003, and it's already paying off: Canada's Pembina Institute found that greenhouse emissions from Ontario's energy sector fell by 30 million tons in the last decade.
The move is made somewhat easier by the fact that Ontario was never a major coal addict to begin with: In 2011, less than three percent of its total power generation came from coal; that same year in the US, the share was 42 percent. And part of what has tended to make coal so intractible in the US—thousands of jobs on the line—is a non-issue for Ontario, which never had its own coal mining industry, importing most of its supply from the US, Bentley said. The province, although a net electricity exporter, also imports a little of its power from adjacent US states and Canadian provinces; a spokesperson for Ontario's Independent Electricity System Operator said they had no way to know whether any of the imported power came from coal-fired plants.
Ramping down coal over the last several years has given Bentley time to shore up other energy resources to fill the supply gap, including a booming wind industry—which more than tripled in the last five years—and, like in the US, a growing dependency on natural gas.
Down here south of the border, although our appetite for coal is waning, industry lobbyists and GOP pols from states like West Virginia are raising hell, and we're still pretty far from zero. And even though the US has its own unique challenges in confronting coal compared to Ontario, Bentley says he learned one thing from his experience cutting it out that can apply to his US counterparts: "There are far more people who are supportive than the critics would like you to believe."
Alan Baum has to shout into the phone for me to hear him over the cacophony of the Detroit Auto Show, which opened Monday. Around him, thousands of journalists swarm from one new car to the next, lights flash, DJs spin, and the cream of the world's automotive crop glistens. "A lot of show and not a lot of substance," Baum, an industry analyst, jokes.
Just to look around at the "performance" cars on display here, from hulking pickups to lightning-fast sports cars, you might not be able to tell that this is the first major car show in Detroit since the introduction last fall of President Obama's new fuel efficiency standards, which will require all cars and light-duty trucks to operate at 54.5 miles per gallon by 2025, nearly doubling current requirements. The administration predicts that this move will save Americans nearly $2 trillion at the pump. The cars below— featured this week in Detroit—are already taking steps in that direction.
2014 Corvette Stingray:
Courtesy General Motors
Let's be honest: no one is buying one of these for the great gas mileage. It's more like the car you fantasize about at fourteen and later take a soul-sucking job on Wall Street just to afford. But the simple fact that the Stingray, one of the gas-guzzling belles of the Detroit ball, takes even one step in a green direction is a sign of how deep the efficiency paradigm has penetrated the auto industry, says industry analyst Don Anair. Ironically, high-tech fuel-management equipment in the engine actually adds weight to a car that has traditionally tried to shave pounds wherever possible for the sake of speed and aerodynamics.
While it's true that the Detroit show has its of share super-green cars (like the futuristic Tesla Model X and a marked-down version of the classic Nissan Leaf), Baum says the real progress is on prioritizing fuel efficiency on updates to familiar models that used to be all about style or power. Fuel efficiency standards and record-high gas prices be damned, in Detroit the floor is still packed with muscle-bound models, but a recent analysis by Baum's firm found that from 2009 to 2013 the number of popular vehicles with improved fuel efficiency more than doubled, from 28 to 61, of which only a third are tiny subcompacts.
Volkswagen has taken an all-of-the-above approach to greening its fleet, Baum says, rolling out everything from plug-in electrics to hybrids to diesel (which is more efficient than normal gasoline). The CrossBlue might look like it was designed expressly to ferry hoardes of middle-schoolers to soccer practice, but it's more a concept car than one you'll soon find at the local dealership. It combines hybrid technology with diesel power, and reflects a growing US market for diesel engines: Jeep also introduced a new diesel Grand Cherokee.
"Automakers are supportive of fuel efficiency requirements because that's what consumers want anyway," Baum says, adding that as major manufacturers like Ford invest more heavily in highly efficient vehicles, they acquire a perverse fear of falling gas prices, which would diminish the economic incentive for consumers to spend more on an efficient car.
Still, history shows that car manufacturers need a regulatory boost to keep pushing on the fuel efficiency front, says Don Anair, an analyst with the Union of Concerned Scientists. After Congress passed the first federal fuel economy standards in 1975, efficiency innovation stagnated until 2007, when new legislation upped the ante. In 2010, the Obama administration set higher standards for the immediate future, and finally last fall set the historic long-term goals that automakers are now striving to reach; already, over the last few years emissions from cars have dropped. "The effect of the standards is to raise the overall effort," Anair says.
2014 Mercedes E-Class:
If you’re buying one of these, saving a few bucks at the gas station probably isn’t a major concern for you. Still, some of the same green technology that gained fame in the by-contrast proletarian Prius has made its way into luxury vehicles like this one as well: a hybrid engine that turns off while idling, a feature I always found a bit spooky but which Anair says is increasingly common.