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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Fracking Boom in North Dakota Is Here to Stay

| Wed May 1, 2013 1:39 PM EDT
Excess gas flares off at a well site outside Williston.

At 7:00 am local time this morning, Lonnie's Roadhouse Cafe in Willison, North Dakota, was already bustling, packed to the gills with truckers and roughnecks tanking up on coffee and omelettes for another day in that town's ongoing fracking boom.

"It's continuous, it doesn't stop," says manager Lonnie Iverson. "Busy, busy, busy."

It's become a typical scene here in the last several years, as new drilling technology has unleashed massive deposits of oil from the Bakken Shale, in the process slashing unemployment to the lowest anywhere in the nation, minting a new class of oil wealth, and generally upending what was once a backwater prairie town—turmoil Climate Desk witnessed first-hand last year (see video below). And it looks like that growth is here for the long haul: A new analysis out yesterday from the US Geological Survey doubled previous estimates of how much oil is in reserve under North Dakota, up to 7.4 billion barrels, which would make it the largest oil field in the country.

"It's good," Lonnie says. "It'll keep our people working." And eating, presumably.

The new numbers come as no surprise to the fossil fuel titans behind the boom: Back in 2011, fracking kingpin Harold Hamm said he thought the Bakken will ultimately churn out 24 billion barrels. While the new federal analysis doesn't go quite that far, it does confirm that places like Lonnie's are likely to be jam-packed for the forseeable future. The exact expiration date of the boom remains unclear: Local officials are hesitant to pin it down, and estimates made before yesterday's analysis range from 20 to 100 years, depending on technological advances, future oil prices, and the level of private investment. But the USGS report could help clear that up: Sen. John Hoeven (R-N.D.) requested the update in 2011 precisely to boost confidence in the corporations slinging up hotels, restaurants, and other services for the surging worker population.

The last time USGS took a crack at guessing what the Bakken might hold was in 2008; the upward revision since then comes mainly as a product of the learning process that happens when developers start to drill. As more wells go in and more oil comes out, geologists can refine their sense of what lies in store, said Jim Ladlee, associate director of Penn State University's Marcellus Center, which tracks the fracking revolution nationwide. 

"The technology is always evolving," he said, "there's constant change and constant evolution going on."

At the same time, the new estimate takes into account for the first time the Three Forks Formation, a nearby oil deposit that was previously—incorrectly—thought to be unproductive. It also nearly triples previous assumptions about natural gas reserves. 

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Why Do Conservatives Like to Waste Energy?

| Mon Apr. 29, 2013 3:34 PM EDT

Back in 2011, Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) declared war on energy-efficient light bulbs, calling "sustainability" the gateway into a dystopic, Big Brother-patrolled liberal hellscape. When the lights went off during Beyoncé's halftime set at the last Superbowl, conservative commentators from the Drudge Report to Michelle Malkin pointed blame (erroneously) at new power-saving measures at New Orleans' Superdome. And one recent study found that giving Republican households feedback on their power use actually encourages them to use more energy.

Why do conservatives, who should have a natural inclination toward conservation, have a beef with energy efficiency? It could be tied to the political polarization of the climate change debate.

A study out today in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences examined attitudes about energy efficiency in liberals and conservatives, and found that promoting energy-efficient products and services on the basis of their environmental benefits actually turned conservatives off from picking them. The researchers first quizzed participants on how much they value various benefits of energy efficiency, including reducing carbon emissions, reducing foreign oil dependence, and reducing how much consumers pay for energy; cutting emissions appealed to conservatives the least.

The study then presented participants with a real-world choice: With a fixed amount of money in their wallet, respondents had to "buy" either an old-school light bulb or an efficient compact florescent bulb (CFL), the same kind Bachmann railed against. Both bulbs were labeled with basic hard data on their energy use, but without a translation of that into climate pros and cons. When the bulbs cost the same, and even when the CFL cost more, conservatives and liberals were equally likely to buy the efficient bulb. But slap a message on the CFL's packaging that says "Protect the Environment," and "we saw a significant drop-off in more politically moderates and conservatives choosing that option," said study author Dena Gromet, a researcher at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School of Business.

The chart below, from the report, shows how much liberals and conservatives value each argument for efficiency: While liberals (gray) valued all three equally, conservatives (white), were significantly less moved by and most at odds with liberals over the carbon-saving argument.

Courtesy Gromet

Meet Alvin, the Climate-Change-Fighting Puppet

| Sat Apr. 27, 2013 6:00 AM EDT

Meet Alvin Sputnik, one of the few surviving humans in a world that's well beyond any scientific predictions for sea level rise. Equipped with a special diving suit, Alvin, a creation of Australian puppeteer Tim Watts, explores the depths, encounters whales, searches for missing loved one, and learns to find happiness in a post-climate-change world. Now in its fourth year of touring the world, Watts recently stopped at New York University to introduce Alvin to an audience of kids, students, and adults; upcoming shows include Philadelphia, Cleveland, and Pinchincha, Ecuador.

Charts: The Smart Money Is on Renewable Energy

| Mon Apr. 22, 2013 6:08 PM EDT

Fossil fuel cheerleaders take note: Renewable energy ain't going nowhere—and it may prove to be the better bet in the long run.

By 2030, renewables will account for 70 percent of new power supply worldwide, according to projections released today from Bloomberg New Energy Finance. Bloomberg analysts examined gas prices, carbon prices, the dwindling price of green energy technology, and overall energy demand (which, in the US at least, is on a massive decline), and found solar and wind beating fossil fuels like coal and natural gas by 2030.

The chart below shows annual installations of new power sources, in gigawatts; over time, more and more of the new energy supply being built each year comes from renewable sources (like wind turbines and solar panels), by 2030 representing $630 billion worth of investment, while new fossil fuel sources (like coal- or gas-burning power plants) become increasingly rare.

BNEF new
Courtesy BNEF

The effect of this projected growth, BNEF CEO Michael Liebreich told Climate Desk at a gathering of clean energy investors today in New York, is that damage to the climate from the electricity sector is likely to taper off even as worldwide electricity use grows. "I believe we're in a phase of change where renewables are going to take the sting out of growth in energy demand," he said.

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