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.
Environmentalists waging an ongoing fight against the Keystone XL pipeline were dealt a major setback this week when Nebraska Governor Dave Heineman signed off on the pipe's route through his state. Now all that stands between TransCanada, the company behind the pipeline, and broken ground is a signature from the State Department, the final decision about which is expected this spring.
Between now and then, the sprawling unofficial coalition of green individuals and groups that have bonded in the last two years over opposition to the pipeline is gearing up for a final push. It's certain to be an uphill battle: Yesterday a letter signed by 53 senators put renewed pressure on Obama to say yes, and other than the rare rhetorical nod to climate action there are few clues that he'll nix the project*. So the rhetoric of the next couple months could make or break the pipeline.
Opposition to the Keystone XL has tended to coalesce around two different arguments, the tools in the anti-Keystone toolbelt: The first is that the pipe could deal a deadly blow to the global climate by raising the floodgates for oil from Canada's tar sands, believed by scientists to be one of Earth's dirtiest fuel sources; the second is that the pipe could pose a slew of localized threats on its path from Alberta to the Gulf of Mexico, from potential leaks contaminating groundwater to careless work crews plowing through fragile dinosaur fossil beds. Governor Heineman's decision seems to close the book on the state-level fight and steal some thunder from the localized argument, but leading Nebraska activist Jane Kleeb says local landowners aren't ready to cede their home turf quite yet.
"Oh yeah, it's far from over. We have landowners asking us to train them in civil disobedience," Kleeb said. "These folks are not joking around. They homesteaded this land. They don't trust this company. And they don't want [the pipeline]. So they're going to do everything they can to keep it from crossing their lines."
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."