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.
The Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded in the Gulf of Mexico five years ago today, killing 11 men and sending nearly 5 million barrels of oil into the sea. After the well was finally plugged, the national media went home, but the story is still very much unfolding everywhere from federal courtrooms to Louisiana backyards.
Let's have a look back at the nation's worst-ever oil spill, by the numbers:
This morning, several of the nation's top environmental lawyers gathered at the US Court of Appeals in Washington, DC, for the first round of arguments in a pair of lawsuits challenging the cornerstone of President Barack Obama's climate plan.
One of the suits was brought by coal company Murray Energy, the other by a group of a dozen states (all with Republican governors, and all either large producers or consumers of coal); they both contend that the Environmental Protection Agency doesn't have the authority to set tough new standards for carbon dioxide emissions from existing power plants. The rules, first proposed last summer, are designed to cut the nation's carbon footprint 30 percent by 2030 compared to 2005 levels. The question before the court today was whether the lawsuits can go forward.
The EPA's opponents "are trying to derail a train that's still in the station."
We probably won't know the judges' decision for a month or more. As my colleague Kevin Drum pointed out, it's conceivable they could rule against the EPA. All three judges on the panel were appointed by Republican presidents (two by George W. Bush, and one by his dad), and at least two of them have a history of anti-environmental rulings. One of the judges, Brett Kavanaugh, filed a dissent on a separate case in 2012 arguing that greenhouse gases shouldn't be regulated as air pollutants.
Still, many experts believe that it's unlikely the judges will decide to hear the case—at least not yet. That's because the climate rules won't actually be finalized until later this year. According to Reuters, one of the W-appointed judges, Thomas Griffith, said in court this morning that he and his colleagues "could guess what the final rule looks like, but we're not usually in the business of guessing."
For as long as the Clean Air Act has been on the books (half a century and counting), there have been attempts by polluting industries to tear it apart. Every time the Obama administration puts forward new regulations based on it (for mercury emissions, for example, and carbon emissions from new power plants), lawsuits start to pile up as soon as the draft language is out of the gate. But courts have never, not once, taken up a challenge to any EPA rule before it was made final.
If they did, "it would create enormous mischief," said Richard Revesz, a leading environmental law scholar who has testified to Congress in support of the proposed rule and was in the courtroom this morning. "It would double the amount of litigation on every proposed rule."
That's because the final rule is almost certain to look quite different from what's on the table now. The EPA is currently sifting through more than 4 million public comments on the rule, submitted by everyone from corporations and governors to environmentalists and your Grandpa Joe, and trying to amend the final rule accordingly. Once that rule is made public, it is inevitably going to face another round of legal challenges from the very same cast of characters. So it really doesn't make sense for the court to listen to arguments about regulatory language that's virtually guaranteed to change.
Once lawsuits on the final rule do get taken up, there are likely to be some really interesting debates. The meaning of some of the key Clean Air Act language being employed by the EPA is hotly contested, thanks in part to an apparent clerical error that led to potentially competing versions of the same passage both being signed into law. And there are constitutional issues at stake as well, such as whether the federal government has the right to tell states how to manage their energy supply (if past is any precedent, Revesz has repeatedly said, they do; that's kind of the whole point of the Clean Air Act).
But for now, there's a pretty good chance today's hearing was just a warm-up round for a much more serious fight yet to come. At this point, says Sierra Club chief counsel Joanne Spalding, the EPA's opponents "are trying to derail a train that's still in the station."
Republicans blame Obama's regulations, but the free market is crushing coal too.
Coal, the No. 1 cause of climate change, is dying. Last year saw a record number of coal plant retirements in the United States, and a study last week from Duke University found that since 2008, the coal industry shed nearly 50,000 jobs, while natural gas and renewable energy added four times that number. Even China, which produces and consumes more coal than the rest of the world put together, is expected to hit peak coal use within a decade, in order to meet its promise to President Barack Obama to reduce its carbon emissions starting in 2030.
According to Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), this is all the fault of President Barack Obama's "war on coal"—specifically the administration's new limits for carbon dioxide emissions from power plants, which probably will force many power companies to burn less coal. If there is a war, McConnell has long been the field marshal of the defending army. His latest maneuver came last month when he called on state lawmakers to simply ignore the administration's new rules, in order to resist Obama's "attack on the middle class."
For coal, there is no resurgence on the horizon.
His logic, apparently, is that if Kentucky can stave off Obama long enough, the coal industry still has a glorious future ahead. That logic is fundamentally flawed. While Obama's tenure will probably speed up the country's transition to cleaner energy, the scales had already tipped against coal long before he took office. Kentucky's coal production peaked in 1990, and coal industry employment peaked all the way back in the 1920s. The scales won't tip back after he leaves. The "war on coal" narrative isn't simply misleading, it also distracts from the very real problem of how to prepare coal mining communities and energy consumers (i.e., everyone) for an approaching future in which coal is demoted to a bit role after a century at center stage.
That's the conclusion of a sweeping new account of the coal industry, Coal Wars, authored by leading energy analyst Richard Martin. The book dives deep into a simple truth: As long as we're still burning coal for the majority of our energy, all the solar panels, electric cars, and vegetarian diets in the world won't do a thing to stop global warming. Saving the planet starts with getting off coal.
The good news, Martin reports, is that transition is already underway, regardless of stonewalling by congressional Republicans, and with or without Obama's new regulations. Martin documents evidence of coal's decline from the mountain villages of Kentucky to the open pit mines of Wyoming, and from lavish industry parties in Shanghai to boardrooms in Germany. Everywhere he looks, market forces (for instance, natural gas made cheap by the fracking boom), technological advances, and environmental laws are conspiring to favor cleaner forms of energy over coal. At the same time, Martin writes, more and more financial institutions and private investors are starting to factor climate change into their investment decisions, which "would be a death blow that no EPA regulation could equal."
Even if you think climate change is a hoax, basic economics are already driving the coal industry to contract.
Whether the transition will happen fast enough to limit the damage of climate change is a different story. China still gets nearly three-quarters of its energy from coal. The United States, while substantially reducing its own coal consumption in recent years, still has huge amounts of coal, especially in the West, that can be profitably mined and shipped overseas. Many billions of dollars have been sunk into mines, power plants, shipping terminals, and other infrastructure that can't simply be shut down overnight, especially when all that stuff forms the backbone of a basic commodity like electricity.
Still, for coal, there is no resurgence on the horizon. "There's no question which way the curve is headed, and it is down," Martin tells Climate Desk.
Much less clear than the fate of coal is what will happen in the countless communities, from the American Southeast to northern China, that have long depended on coal to put food on the table. Martin has managed to locate dozens of compelling personal narratives that show the human face of a debate that is too often reduced—by environmentalists as much as by the coal industry—to numbers and yawn-inducing energy wonkery. These include the head of a small coal mining company in Kentucky who was forced to sell off the business he inherited from his father and lay off workers who were also friends and neighbors. The manager of a coal town coffee shop in Colorado is also facing closure. In China, self-contained cities are built around coal mines, but young people there are unable to get work and have no other employment opportunities.
The environmental imperative to get off coal is obvious, and even if you think climate change is a hoax, basic economics are already driving the coal industry to contract. But so far, according to Martin, the United States has done a terrible job of helping coal industry workers and their families find life after coal.
There are many guilty parties here, including coal barons like Don Blankenship (who is currently facing charges in federal court for flagrant safety violations) and profit-hungry utility company execs who are keen to squash competition from solar and wind energy. But Martin saves his most damning critiques for leaders like McConnell who are hung up on pointless political squabbling rather than finding innovative ways to revitalize former coal economies.
"The presence of the coal industry has kept these communities in a state of dependence, and not allowed them to develop a real economy beyond coal," Martin says. "Whether we pine for the days of these jobs or not, they're not coming back. We have to get beyond this state of dependency."
When the Florida state Legislature opened its 2007 session, Speaker Marco Rubio, a Miami Republican, took the stage to lay out his priorities for the year. Near the top of his list was a focus on clean energy.
"Global warming, dependence on foreign sources of fuel, and capitalism have come together to create opportunities for us that were unimaginable just a few short years ago," he said, in a video recording unearthed by BuzzFeed. Rubio predicted that legal caps on greenhouse gas emissions were inevitable, and he argued that Florida should prepare to become "an international model of energy efficiency and independence" and the "Silicon Valley" of clean energy.
How the 2016 contenders will deal with climate change
Several years later, as a junior senator offering his party's rebuttal to President Barack Obama's 2013 State of the Union address, Rubio was singing a different tune. Solar and wind energy "should be a part of our energy portfolio," he said, but the United States should focus its efforts on extracting coal, oil, and natural gas "instead of wasting more money on so-called clean-energy companies like Solyndra." (Solyndra was a solar power company in California that failed spectacularly in 2011 after receiving a $500 million grant from the Obama administration. Republicans seized on it as a textbook case of the president's foolhardy energy agenda, but in reality the company was just badly managed.)
Rubio's comments since then have been more consistent: He argues that government policies to limit emissions are pointless in the face of rising pollution from developing countries. And, he says, such policies are certain to be "devastating" to the US economy.
He also rejects the notion that scientists are in agreement about the role humans have played in causing global warming. "I do not believe that human activity is causing these dramatic changes to our climate the way these scientists are portraying it," he told ABC News last May.
On Monday, Rubio is expected to announce his candidacy for president. Check out the video above for a look back at his thoughts on climate change.
The climate change language police just struck again.
Last month it was in Florida, where former staffers with the state's Department of Environmental Protection alleged that senior officials, under the direction of Gov. Rick Scott (R), had instituted an unwritten ban on using the phrases "climate change" and "global warming." Scott denied the claim.
This week's incident is much less ambiguous. Yesterday, the three-person commission that oversees a public land trust in Wisconsin voted 2-1 to block the trust's dozen public employees "from engaging in global warming or climate change work while on BCPL time."
In proposing and voting on the ban, the commission "spent 19 minutes and 29 seconds talking about talking about climate change," according to Bloomberg:
The move to ban an issue leaves staff at the Board of Commissioners of Public Lands in the unusual position of not being able to speak about how climate change might affect lands it oversees…
The Midwest warmed about 1.5F on average from 1895 to 2012. Pine, maple, birch, spruce, fir, aspen, and beech forests, which are common in the region, are likely to decline as the century progresses, according to the latest US National Climate Assessment.
The ban was proposed by newly elected State Treasurer Matt Adamczyk, a Republican who ran on the unusual campaign promise to swiftly eliminate his own job. At a public meeting on Tuesday, according to Bloomberg, Adamczyk said he was disturbed to learn that the agency's director, Tia Nelson, had spent some time co-chairing a global warming task force in 2007-08 at the request of former governor Jim Doyle (D). Dealing with climate issues—even responding to emails on the subject—isn't in the agency's wheelhouse, he said. Adamczyk didn't immediately return our request for comment.
Adamczyk was joined in voting for the ban by State Attorney General Brad Schimel (R), also newly-elected. Schimel is handling Gov. Scott Walker's lawsuit against the Environmental Protection Agency over President Barack Obama's new climate regulations. The ban was opposed by the commission's third member, Secretary of State Bob La Follette, a Democrat.