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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WATCH: Can Pond Scum Save You From $5 Gas?

| Thu Mar. 22, 2012 6:00 AM EDT

In the spectrum of alternative fuel sources, biofuel made from algae is perhaps the most easily mocked. How could the slimy green muck that grows in your aquarium and washes up on the beach be a future cornerstone of American energy independence? So when President Obama stood before the University of Miami recently and said algae could provide up to 17 percent of our transportation fuel, we wanted to know: Is he right? Here's what we found out:

In February, President Obama announced the Department of Energy would allocate $14 million in new funding to develop transportation fuels from algae. DOE is already supporting over 30 such projects, together worth $94 million. Click through the map below to learn more about these projects.

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Introducing the New Climate Desk: Stories for a Changing World

| Thu Mar. 22, 2012 6:00 AM EDT

Climate change is one of the defining stories of our time: rising sea levels, bigger storms, peak oil, colder winters and hotter summers. That begs the questions: Why aren't we talking about it more, and what the hell are we going to do about it?

Fortunately, there is a host of scientists, politicians, educators, artists, entrepreneurs, community leaders, journalists, and others who spend every day thinking about the answers to those questions. Maybe you're one of them. Ultimately, the story of climate change is their story—your story. But the media could still do a better job of telling it.

That's where the Climate Desk comes in.

Two years ago (the hottest year on record, by the way), a group of forward-thinking news outlets (The Atlantic, Center for Investigative Reporting, Grist, Mother Jones, PBS' Need to Know, Slate, and Wired) launched an innovative journalistic collaboration to explore the impact—human, environmental, economic, political—of a changing climate. Climate Desk has been gathering pace ever since, and today we're proud to announce our revamped website and the addition of a new partner: The Guardian. It's one of the UK's oldest and most distinguished newspapers, and has a substantial digital footprint in the US. The first UK newspaper to launch a dedicated environment section, the Guardian has one the biggest and most prolific environmental coverage teams in the world.

We're here to sift through the policy, protests, and polar bears to bring you the most important climate change stories: the ones that affect you, your corner of the world, the changes in your own backyard.

Check out our latest video, Pond Scum to the Rescue, to understand how algae might battle political derision to become a vital fuel source. Your Town Is Fracked shows how Pennsylvania limits local control over oil and gas drilling—potentially jeopardizing residential neighborhoods, watersheds, and even school zones. Climate Desk's one-on-one with Michael Mann, reported and written by , is the climate scientist's account of attacks by entrenched interests seeking to undermine his “hockey stick” graph.

We want to hear from you. What are you concerned by, or want to know more about? Tell us and keep checking back with the Climate Desk for more from this unfolding story .

Catching Up With the Shins' James Mercer

| Mon Mar. 12, 2012 6:00 AM EDT
James Mercer

The Shins' 2007 album Wincing the Night Away got rave reviews and debuted at number 2 on the Billboard 200, spawning a yearlong tour and snagging a Grammy nomination for Best Alternative Music Album. It was a wild ride for a band that had spent nearly a decade working its way up from obscurity in Albuquerque, and front man James Mercer came away from it exhausted and ready to quit. The last thing on his mind was the next Shins project. "It was a bit of a crisis in a way," he says. "What do you do if you decide the band you've been with for the last 10 years, you just suddenly don't want to do?" So Mercer took a breather in the form of Broken Bells, an excellent collaboration with Brian Burton (a.k.a. Danger Mouse), as a way to "open up my horizons." A few years later, with a new label and rejiggered lineup, Mercer has decided to take a fresh crack at the Shins. The band's new album, Port of Morrow, out next week, takes a smoothed-out, matured approach to the Shins' characteristic electro-folk-rock. I spoke with Mercer about his favorite rock and roll singers, being raised a military brat, and why you can't get a decent American-made microphone anymore—dammit!

Mother Jones: So after the Wincing tour, you were hitting some roadblocks with the Shins?

James Mercer: Mainly I was tired of being right in the middle and everything sort of revolving around me, including the friendship dynamics-slash-bandmate dynamics and the creative aspect. It was a bit much. It had never been so big, and I had never been someone who was ever in the center of any kind of social circle. And in the midst of that, Brian Burton kind of came up with the idea of us working on a new band where he was writing in a more traditional sense. It was kind of perfect timing. I was a bit intimidated by it, but I had also recently decided to start saying "Yes" to things.

MJ: Musically, or in your life in general?

JM: Life in general.

Two Years On, Tar Sands Spill Casts Long Shadow

| Fri Mar. 9, 2012 7:00 AM EST
A cleanup crew member at the site of the Kalamazoo River spill in July 2010.

This week, as Senate Democrats narrowly defeated a renewed—and some say misguided—call to rush construction of the Keystone XL oil pipeline, residents and officials at the site of the country's largest-ever tar sands oil spill are still reeling nearly two years after the fact. A look at the fallout from that incident in Michigan reveals that a spill of diluted bitumen, the kind from Alberta's tar sands that Keystone would carry, is a far nastier beast than your typical spill of conventional crude. It also shows that cleaning it up can be just as damaging to the environment as the spill itself.

A story this week in the Canadian online magazine The Tyee outlines how, 20 months after a pipe carrying tar sands "dil-bit" burst on the Kalamazoo River near Marshall, residents and local Environmental Protection Agency officials are still struggling to clean up the river. It was the first-ever major spill of this type of heavy oil, and it blindsided EPA cleanup crews: recovering the 1.2 million gallons of oil that have been cleaned up so far has cost the pipe's owner, Enbridge Energy Partners, roughly $725 million—10 times as much, per liter, as the average spill of conventional crude. Ralph Dollhopf, who led the EPA's response to the incident, told local media that the agency had to "write the book" on dealing with a cleanup of tar sands bitumen.

The underlying issue, Natural Resources Defense Council attorney Anthony Swift told me, is that US and Canadian officials don't know just how different dil-bit is from conventional crude. With US imports of tar sands bitumen projected to shoot up to 1.5 million barrels per day by 2019 (up from 100,000 barrels in all of 2000), Swift said there remains a serious deficit in US and Canadian officials' understanding of how to manage potential spills. "The pipeline safety issue is just one of many areas where tar sands production hasn't been fully evaluated," he said. That didn't deter Alberta Premier Alison M. Redford from telling reporters she was "very optimistic" that the Keystone pipeline, which would likely be an economic windfall for her province, would be approved by the Obama administration should the president win reelection.

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