Tim McDonnell

Tim McDonnell

Climate Desk Associate Producer

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.

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We Have Some Really Good News About How America Uses Energy

| Wed Feb. 4, 2015 12:57 PM EST

When you read headlines about how Congress is rife with climate change deniers and willing to vote in favor of a massive oil pipeline that could increase greenhouse gas emissions, it's easy to get discouraged about the direction the US is headed on global warming. But when you look at some of the hard numbers about how Americans are getting their energy, there's actually a lot to be excited about.

This morning Bloomberg New Energy Finance released a fat report on the state of US energy, and it's chock-full of kickass facts and figures that reveal real, tangible progress on reversing the habits that cause climate change. Here are just a few of the most salient bits:

The US is getting way more efficient. It used to be that electricity demand rose and fell roughly in line with economic productivity. That's no longer the case: Thanks to massive gains in energy efficiency in everything from home appliances to factory lines, energy demand is now less tied to economic growth than ever before. In fact, since 2007, electricity demand hasn't grown at all, the report finds. Zero. Another way to say that is that the US is becoming more "energy productive," meaning the US is using fewer units of energy for every unit of GDP. Energy productivity has increased 54 percent since 1990:


Since energy makes up about 83 percent of America's total carbon footprint, those gains in efficiency (along with big shakeups in where our energy comes from, which I'll get to shortly) have helped drive total carbon emissions down 9.2 percent from their 2007 all-time peak:


Coal is getting the boot. Coal used to provide half or more of the country's electricity. Now, that number is down to 39 percent, thanks largely to increasing reliance on natural gas made plentiful and cheap by the fracking boom. Both production and consumption of natural gas were at all-time highs in 2014:


Renewable energy is blowing up. Natural gas isn't the only big winner: Renewables are skyrocketing too. Solar and wind production have more than tripled since 2008. The share of all renewable energy sources combined (including large hydropower dams) in the US energy mix has nearly doubled since 2008, from 8 percent to 13 percent. This chart shows how much new capacity of each energy source was added in each year; the grey is natural gas and the light blue is renewables:


As we've reported before, solar is going gangbusters; the bars below show how much rooftop solar was added each year, and the red line represents the cumulative total:


Behind that trend is an ongoing freefall in the cost of solar panels. This chart shows how the more solar that gets installed, the cheaper each unit of it becomes, thanks to technology improvements and breakneck production at Chinese factories. The two lines are for different types of modules, but the important thing is that they're both headed downhill:


Cars are cleaner, and we're using them less. Gasoline consumption is down 8.6 percent from 2005, which the report attributes to "increasing vehicle efficiency prompted by federal policy, increasing consumer preference for less thirsty vehicles, changing driving patterns (declining number of vehicles on the road, declining miles per vehicle), and increasing biofuel blending." The relative climate benefits of biofuels are still being hotly debated, but the rest of those trends are pretty objectively awesome. The trend for electric vehicles is less impressive. Although the number of public electric vehicle charging stations has exploded 470 percent since 2011, sales are pretty ho-hum. The report blames low oil prices:


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EPA: Low Oil Prices Will Make Keystone XL A Climate Nightmare

| Tue Feb. 3, 2015 5:28 PM EST

Earlier today the Environmental Protection Agency released a letter that one of its top officials sent yesterday to the State Department, weighing in on the debate over the Keystone XL pipeline. The letter is part of a last round of comments from federal agencies before the Obama administration makes a final decision about whether to approve the pipeline, and environmentalists had hoped that it would spell out the threat the project could pose to the climate.

They weren't disappointed. The EPA letter argues that the recent drop in oil prices means that Keystone XL could come with a major carbon footprint. This is an argument environmentalists like Bill McKibben have been pushing for years. And it's a big deal—President Barack Obama has said that the pipeline will be approved only if it won't increase overall greenhouse gas emissions.

Here's the logic: A pipeline is the cheapest way to move oil; trucks and trains are much more expensive. Canadian tar sands oil is especially expensive to produce. When the price of oil is high, it makes economic sense to export it with trucks and trains. This is the line of reasoning the State Dept. has used to argue that approving the pipeline won't contribute to climate change: The oil is going to get burned with or without Keystone XL, because producers will just send it out some other way. Republicans in Congress have cited that same State Dept. analysis as evidence that Keystone XL isn't the climate-killing monster environmentalists make it out to be.

But when the price of oil is so low, that calculus gets turned upside down. According to State's own analysis, the economic rationale for using trucks and trains starts to erode once the price of oil dips much below $75 per barrel. Right now, oil is hovering around $50 a barrel. So if prices stay low and the if the pipeline isn't built, that oil might actually stay buried—where many climate scientists have said it needs to stay if we're to avoid disastrous levels of global warming.

You can read the full EPA letter below. Here's the key line:

"At sustained oil prices within this range, construction of the pipeline is projected to change the economics of oil sands development and result in increased oil sands production, and the accompanying greenhouse gas emissions, over what would otherwise occur."

Some energy analysts disagree, arguing that oil prices would have to drop much further than current levels to have an impact on tar sands production. And even though there's reason to think oil could be cheap for a while, energy companies don't tend to make big expensive decisions about where and how to drill based on short-term market trends. So there's still room for debate on the EPA's take here.

The EPA letter is likely to become a centerpiece of the pipeline debate as Congress continues to wrangle over the issue. (A bill to approve the pipeline passed the Senate last week, and next week the House is expected to take it up once again. President Obama has promised to veto the bill.) But the more important thing to watch is whether it changes any minds in the Obama administration, which is nearing a final decision on whether the pipeline will be built.

We Have Some Good News For You About the Koala That Was Burned in the Fire

| Fri Jan. 30, 2015 5:09 PM EST
Jeremy the koala in rehab after burning his paws. He was released back to the wild today.

After a series of devastating bushfires ripped through Australia earlier this month, volunteers across the world quickly came to the rescue with custom-knitted mittens for the burned paws of koalas (way too many volunteers, it turns out). The poster koala that sparked the movement was Jeremy, whose heart-rending hospital room portrait quickly went viral.

Good news! Jeremy is fully recovered and back in the wild. From the BBC:

He has since made a complete recovery, says Aaron Machado, who operates the clinic that treated the animal... "The only thing he has to do now is get used to not having any more room service," Mr Machado told the BBC.

Here's to koalas everywhere!

The Senate Just Approved Keystone XL

| Thu Jan. 29, 2015 4:10 PM EST
Senators Lisa Murkowski, Mitch McConnell, and John Hoeven convening earlier today.

The Senate has been a very busy bunch of beavers over the last month. After just a week of being in session, they had already taken more votes than they did in all of 2014. It's all thanks to the Keystone XL pipeline, which has been the primary topic of floor debate for the last three weeks.

Almost immediately after the new Congress got started, the House passed a bill to approve construction of the pipeline. As new Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) had promised, the Senate then took up its own Keystone bill, which President Barack Obama promptly promised to veto. (The president has long maintained that he wants the pipeline to be approved—or not—through the normal State Department process, which is the usual protocol for cross-border infrastructure projects.) Democrats and Republicans alike have sought to load up the Keystone bill with a staggering number of amendments, ranging from an agreement that climate change is "not a hoax" to removing the lesser prairie-chicken from the endangered species list. As of this morning, only five had passed.

Over the last few days, McConnell and Energy and Natural Resources Committee Chair Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) have urged their peers to wrap up and take a final vote on the bill, with leading Democrats and environmentalists responding that Republicans were trying to "aggressively" shut down debate.

This afternoon it finally happened, and the Senate bill passed 62-36. According to Politico, House leaders have yet to decide whether to take a straight vote on the Senate bill or send it to a conference committee to resolve the differences between the two versions. Either way, the bill faces an assured veto once it reaches the Oval Office. And unless more Democrats change their tune soon, there is not enough support in the Congress to override the veto.

What's next for the embattled pipeline? Earlier this month, the Nebraska State Supreme Court ruled in favor of Keystone XL's proposed route, a ruling the White House had said was the last piece of the puzzle needed before the Obama administration makes a final decision. So now, once again, the ball is back in the president's court.

Via the State Department, the proposed route of the Keystone XL pipeline, shown in yellow.
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