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.
Happy Earth Day! Today is a day we can all band together and share our love for this beautiful planet—or at least drown our sorrows about climate change with nerdy themed cocktails. Later today, President Barack Obama will mark the occasion with a climate-focused speech in the Florida Everglades. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, a frontrunner for the GOP presidential nomination, had a different idea: Fire a big chunk of the state's environmental staff.
Fifty-seven employees of the state Department of Natural Resources began receiving formal notices this week that they might face layoff as part of Gov. Scott Walker's budget for the next two fiscal years…
The DNR's scientific staff conducts research on matters ranging from estimating the size of the state's deer herd to to studying the effects of aquatic invasive species. Work is paid for with state and federal funds…
All told, Walker's budget would cut 66 positions from the DNR. Of this, more than 25% would come from the science group. Cosh said a smaller number of employees received notices than the 66 positions in the budget because some positions targeted for cuts are vacant.
It's no secret that a signature tactic in Walker's controversial environmental record has been to degrade the DNR, which in addition to carrying out research is tasked with regulating the state's mining industries. Still, the timing of this particular announcement is striking. I guess no one marked Earth Day on Walker's calendar.
Neither Walker's office nor DNR immediately returned requests for comment.
As consolation for this depressing news, here's is a webcam of pandas at the San Diego Zoo.
Oil stains a beach in Gulf Shores, Alabama, following the Deepwater Horizon explosion in April 2010.
Today is the fifth anniversary of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig explosion in the Gulf of Mexico, an event that triggered the nation's worst-ever oil spill. The well leaked for three months and dumped over 200 million gallons of oil into the sea. The explosion itself killed eleven men; the resulting pollution killed a stupefying amount of wildlife, including 800,000 some birds. And despite billions paid out by BP in fines and restoration costs, the economic impact of the disaster remains wide-reaching and ongoing.
But possibly even more outrageous than the spill itself is how little has been done by government to prevent a similar disaster. The oil and gas industry has stayed active in Washington, and managed to fend off serious efforts to curb drilling: Congress has passed zero new laws—not one—to restrict offshore drilling or force it to be safer. The Obama administration has approved over 1,500 offshore drilling permits since the spill. And back in January the administration announced a plan to open new areas in the Atlantic and Arctic for offshore drilling. As my colleague Tim Murphy noted today, Louisiana's oversight of the oil industry is rife with ludicrous conflicts of interest that raise serious doubts about the state's ability to make drilling safer.
In other words, the wounds from BP are scarcely healed, but we're pushing deeper and deeper into offshore drilling.
In fact, well construction in the Gulf is literally pushing into deeper water, where the risks of a spill are even greater. From an AP investigation pegged to the anniversary:
A review of offshore well data by the AP shows the average ocean depth of all wells started since 2010 has increased to 1,757 feet, 40 percent deeper than the average well drilled in the five years before that...
Drillers are exploring a "golden zone" of oil and natural gas that lies roughly 20,000 feet beneath the sea floor, through a 10,000-foot thick layer of prehistoric salt...
Technology now allows engineers to see the huge reservoirs beneath the previously opaque salt, but the layer is still harder to see through than rock. And it's prone to hiding pockets of oil and gas that raise the potential for a blowout.
Drilling in the Gulf makes up less than one-fifth of US crude oil production, and an even smaller share of total oil production if you count unconventional oil from fracking. So it wouldn't be a crippling blow to our energy supply to consider putting the brakes on offshore drilling—if not forever, at least until we feel secure that we've done enough to prevent another Deepwater Horizon.
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:
A court ruled a coal company can't challenge the president's proposed pollution rules...yet.
Tim McDonnellApr. 16, 2015 3:47 PM
Update June 9, 1:45pm ET: Today a federal appeals court in Washington, DC, declined to hear the lawsuit brought by Murray Energy and a group of Republican-led states seeking to block President Barack Obama's plan to restrict climate pollution from power plants. That plan will not be finalized by the EPA until later this summer, and, as many legal experts had expected, the three-judge panel ruled that no legal challenges can be brought against it until the final plan is released.
Writing on behalf of the court, Judge Brett Kavanaugh said that while the various challengers are "champing at the bit" to contest the regulation, they would have to wait until it is formally issued.
"They want us to do something that they candidly acknowledge we have never done before: review the legality of a proposed rule," he wrote.
The decision was hailed by environmental groups and by the EPA. But the war over Obama's climate policies is far from over. Once the final plan is released, it will almost certainly face a fresh round of legal challenges that will likely make it all the way to the Supreme Court, where the outcome will be far less certain.
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."