Tim McDonnell

Tim McDonnell

Climate Desk Associate Producer

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.

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How the Feds Are Ripping You Off To Benefit Big Coal

| Tue Feb. 4, 2014 3:41 PM PST

Federal coffers are missing out on what could be billions of dollars in lost revenue due to shoddy accounting work by the office that handles leases for coal mines on public land, according to a report made public today by the investigative arm of Congress.

The Government Accountability Office was asked by Senator Ed Markey (D-Mass.), a stalwart climate hawk, to look into whether the Interior Department's Bureau of Land Management routinely sells leases to coal mining companies for far less than their market value. Investigators found that BLM agents in Wyoming (by far the country's largest coal producer) set prices based on coal's historic value, but, in contradiction of the department's own rules, fail to take into account how much it will likely be worth in the future. Similar problems were found in other coal-producing states. As a result, the GAO report claims, many leases were sold far beneath their true market value, depriving taxpayers of additional royalties (which, as it stands, come to about $1 billion per year) that are normally skimmed from the mines' profits.

"As a net result, the public is getting screwed," said Tom Kenworthy, an energy analyst at the Center for American Progress who has kept tabs on Interior's longstanding problems with coal lease valuation.

"As a net result, the public is getting screwed."

That the leases are selling for less than they're worth seems clear; what's less obvious is exactly how much money is at stake, since the values were never properly set in the first place (the GAO report doesn't specify a number). A 2012 analysis of federal lease records by former New York State Deputy Comptroller Tom Sanzillo for the independent Institute for Energy Economics found that undervalued coal leases cost the Treasury $28.9 billion in lost revenue since 1983, or almost $1 billion every year. Meanwhile, analysis by Senator Markey's office put the figure at $200 million, although a spokesperson would not specify the time period to which that applied, as the underlying data are considered proprietary to the Interior Department, he said.

Since 1990, the federal government has leased 107 parcels of public land for coal mining; these parcels typically account for 25-40 percent of the roughly one billion tons of coal produced annually nationwide. That adds up to a massive carbon footprint: Fossil fuels produced on public land create roughly a billion metric tons of greenhouse gas pollution every year, about as much as 285 coal plants.

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Only Obama Can Block the Keystone Pipeline Now

| Fri Jan. 31, 2014 2:04 PM PST
Activists protest the Keystone XL pipeline outside the White House.

The decision on whether or not to allow construction of the Keystone XL pipeline, which would transport crude oil from the Canadian tar sands to the Gulf of Mexico, has always been President Obama's to make. But the environmental stakes are so high—leading climate scientist James Hansen is fond of referring to the pipeline as "game over for the climate" because it would promote the extraction of one of the dirtiest kinds of oil—that a decision has been delayed for the last few years as the State Department carries out a review of the project's likely environmental impact.

That wait ended today, as State released its Final Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement. The report says the annual carbon emissions from producing, refining, and burning the oil the pipeline would move (830,000 barrels per day) would add up to 147-168 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent per year. (By contrast, the typical coal-fired power plant produces 3.5 million metric tons of CO2 annually.) That sounds like a lot, but the report comes with an important caveat:

Approval or denial of any one crude oil transport project, including the proposed Project, is unlikely to significantly impact the rate of extraction in the oil sands or the demand for heavy crude oil at refineries in the United States.

In other words, according to the report, those emissions are likely to happen whether the president approves Keystone XL or not. That's an important distinction, given that President Obama has already said that in order to gain approval, the pipeline must not increase carbon emissions. But there are other ways to move oil: For example, the report mentions that "rail will likely be able to accommodate new production if pipelines are delayed or not constructed." Rail transit is already underway; yesterday an ExxonMobil exec said the company had begun to use trains to pack oil out of the tar sands (despite their pretty awful safety record). But if the oil is going to be extracted (and the emissions emitted) one way or another, the case for blocking the pipeline per se becomes less clear.

There's still one more important document yet to be released by State: an investigation by the department's internal Inspector General into a potential conflict of interest by a contractor who helped produce the report, Environmental Resources Management. As Mother Jones first reported, State Department officials took steps to conceal that some ERM employees had ties to companies that would profit from the pipeline's construction. Last December, Congressman Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz) led a coalition of House members who asked the president to delay release of the environmental impact statement until after the Inspector General's report is released, which is not expected for several more weeks.

Obama Just Doubled Down on His Climate Plan—Here's What Else He Could Do

| Tue Jan. 28, 2014 9:51 AM PST

Updated 1/28/14, 10:30 pm ET: Reminding lawmakers that the debate over climate science is "settled," President Obama used his State of the Union address tonight to reiterate his administration's commitment to adopting stringent new regulations on greenhouse gas emissions from coal-fired power plants and tougher fuel efficiency rules for heavy trucks.

But Obama also doubled down on his controversial "all-of-the-above" energy strategy. He touted the role that natural gas extraction has played in reducing US carbon emissions while also saying he would work with the fracking industry to adopt stronger environmental protections.

But even with an obstinate and unproductive Congress, these aren't the only policy options available to the president; last week, the Center for the New Energy Economy at Colorado State University released a report co-authored by former Colorado governor Bill Ritter that details 200 climate actions Obama could take without Congress.

Earlier today, we outlined a few ideas:

1. Continue the crackdown on coal pollution: This month the Environmental Protection Agency released a new draft of rules that would strictly curtail emissions of carbon dioxide from new coal-fired power plants; a second set of rules that would apply to existing plants is expected later this year. Slashing greenhouse gas emissions from power plants, which account for roughly a third of country's total GHG emissions, is a major pillar of the president's climate platform, even though a lengthy review process and probable legal challenges from the coal industry mean the rules aren't likely to take effect before the end of his term. But in the absence of a national price on carbon or other legislation, regulations like this are the most significant way the president can promote a transition away from our dirtiest power sources. 

2. Fix fracking: Today, regulations for natural gas drilling companies are mainly applied by states, but the president has an opportunity to influence the industry's practices when it shows up to drill on federal land. The Colorado State report calls on the Bureau of Land Management to apply stringent rules for fracking on public land, like full disclosure of what's in the fracking chemical cocktail, zero tolerance for methane leaks from wells and pipes (a major, unregulated source of highly potent greenhouse gases), and more efficienct water-use practices. The president also needs to set a more concrete timeline for how long fracking, often described as a "bridge" fuel between coal and renewables, will continue to be a major source of domestic energy, said Bill Becker, the report's co-author and executive director of the Presidential Climate Action Project.

"We recognize that natural gas is a logical transition fuel," Becker added. "But we think that should be happening a lot faster than it's happening now."

Somehow, Becker said, the president needs to reconcile his "all of the above" energy plan with his stated goals for reducing greenhouse gas emissions 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020; working with the fracking industry to cut methane leaks is a great place to start.

No, Climate Change Is Not Waking Bears From Hibernation

| Thu Jan. 23, 2014 11:33 AM PST
A black bear hunkers down near a pile of garbage in Sacramento last fall.

Last week, a rogue black bear made a cameo appearance for skiers at the Heavenly Mountain Resort near Lake Tahoe. The month before, a 260-pound male bear had to be put down by wildlife officials after breaking into several cars and a home in the same area. The spate of run-ins comes as California's brutal drought lingers on, with snowpack in the Sierra Nevada at a fifth of its normal level, leading several news outlets to suggest that balmy conditions have led bears here to awaken prematurely from their annual winter slumber.

That's a nice hypothesis, but according to the California Department Fish and Wildlife, there's nothing to it. Five to 15 percent of the Tahoe area's 300 black bears stay awake every winter, said CDFW biologist Jason Holley, and "we don't have any evidence to support that there's any more this winter." In fact, Holley said, the last few months of 2013 saw fewer bear complaints than average.

SF Chron front page
The front page of a recent San Francisco Chronicle. There's no evidence that more bears are awake this year than in an average year, officials said. Clara Jeffery/Mother Jones

So why all the hullabaloo? Holley's guess is that the drought cut down supplies of the bears' natural food sources—mainly grass, berries, and insects, although they'll eat just about anything—forcing those that are normally awake anyway to wander further afield, i.e., onto your ski slope or into your backyard. Not that the bears mind much.

"They are very adaptive and very mobile, so they will usually be able to take care of their daily needs in a drought situation," Holley said. "But then they're coming down to the lake to drink a lot, coming down for food. If the drought persists, it greatly increases the odds of a negative interaction with people."

What motivates some bears to stay awake while others hibernate is still somewhat of a mystery to scientists, according to Roger Baldwin, a wildlife specialist at the University of California-Davis who has conducted extensive research on bear behavior. When small mammals (a squirrel, say) hibernate, their heart rate and body temperature drop radically, toeing death's doorstep without actually stepping over, and stay that way for several months. Black bears, on the other hand, are much less extreme: They crank down their metabolism, heart rate, and body temperature just enough to get seriously lazy, but are still with it enough to be "perfectly capable of taking a swipe at you if you crawl into the den with them," Baldwin said, so rousting them is neither uncommon nor difficult.

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