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.
A man in Sparks, Oklahoma, picks through rubble from his home following an earthquake in 2011.
Over the last few years, Oklahoma has experienced an insane uptick in earthquakes. As we reported in 2013, the count exploded from just a couple per year back in the mid-2000s to over a thousand in 2010, growing alongside a boom in the state's natural gas drilling industry.
There is now a heap of peer-reviewed research finding that Oklahoma's earthquake "swarm" is directly linked to fracking—not the gas drilling itself, but a follow-up step where brackish wastewater is re-injected into disposal wells deep underground. It's a troubling trend in an industry that thrives under notoriously lax regulations, especially when the risk to property and public safety is so obvious.
If those numbers weren't dramatic enough, here's another: This year, Oklahoma has experienced an average of two quakes per day of magnitude 3.0—enough to be felt and inflict damage to structures—or greater. That's according to a deep, comprehensive report on the subject out in this week's New Yorker.
But even freakier than the earthquakes themselves, according to the story, is the pervasive denial of science coming from state agencies like the Oklahoma Geological Survey, whose job it is to oversee the oil and gas industry:
The official position of the O.G.S. is that the Prague [Oklahoma] earthquakes were likely a natural event and that there is insufficient evidence to say that most earthquakes in Oklahoma are the result of disposal wells. That position, however, has no published research to support it, and there are at least twenty-three peer-reviewed, published papers that conclude otherwise.
The story goes on to detail super-cozy relationships between top regulators and drilling company executives; the state's ongoing and systemic habit of dismissing or ignoring the rapidly accumulating pile of evidence about the quakes; and a failure by regulators and the state legislature to take any meaningful steps to address the crisis. It's really quite damning.
As a reporter covering the fracking industry, I've found that a lot of the problems associated with the technique aren't necessarily inherent to it, and could be resolved with more pressure on companies to behave responsibly, or laws requiring them to. Better zoning regulations could keep wells out of neighborhoods. Stricter well construction standards could cut down on the leakage of methane, a potent greenhouse gas, and help ensure that gas or chemicals don't contaminate groundwater. In other words, while industry may resist them, there are ready solutions at hand to many of the most cited drawbacks. And the same could be true in the case of earthquakes: while many geologists have now found that drilling wells into deep "basement" rock can set off temblors, there still isn't a law in Oklahoma that simply requires locating disposal wells elsewhere.
Their state's lack of basic engagement on the fracking-and-earthquakes issue is, understandably, a source of great frustration to Oklahomans, including those who are otherwise totally supportive the drilling industry. They're worried not only about above-ground damage, but about how quakes might effect the state's vast network of oil pipelines and underground aquifers. It's hard to imagine the nightmare that would result if a serious earthquake ruptured these pipelines and caused a major spill. That sentiment was nicely captured in the New Yorker by a quote from the town manager of Medford, a hamlet outside the oil center of Cushing:
"We want to be a good partner for the oil companies—it's exciting for us that they're here. But if they can move the disposal well even just three miles, what a difference that would make."
Signs of human impact on the planet are everywhere. Sea levels are rising as ice at both poles melts; plastic waste clogs the ocean; urban sprawl paves over landscapes while industrial agricultural empties aquifers. Between climate change, urban development, and straight-up, old-school pollution, the Earth we inhabit now would be scarcely recognizable to our earliest ancestors 150,000 year ago.
In fact, these changes are so pronounced, and their connection to human activity so obvious, that many scientists now believe we've already ventured well past a remarkable tipping point—Homo sapiens, they argue, have now surpassed nature as the dominant force shaping the Earth's landscapes, atmosphere, and other living things. Units of deep geologic time often are defined by their dominant species: 400 million years ago fish owned the Devonian Period; 265 million years ago dinosaurs ruled the Mesozoic Era. Today, humans dominate the Anthropocene.
"It has been open season on the Anthropocene," paleogeologist Jan Zalasiewicz said.
If defining what the Anthropocene represents is straight-forward, assigning it a commencement date has proved a monumental challenge. The term was first proposed by Russian geologist Aleksei Pavlov in 1922, and since then it has occupied off-and-on the attentions of the niche group of scientists whose job it is to decide how to slice our planet's 4.5 billion-year history into manageable chunks. But in 2009, as climate change increasingly gained traction as a matter of public interest, the idea of actually making a formal designation started to appear in talks and papers. Today, if the scientific literature is any indication, the debate is fully ignited.
In fact, "it has been open season on the Anthropocene," said Jan Zalasiewicz, a University of Leicester paleogeologist who is a leading voice in the debate. Within the last month a heap of new papers have come out with competing views on whether the Anthropocene is worthy of a formal designation, and if so, when exactly it began. The latest was published in Science today.
One of the biggest differences between fracking and other kinds of industrial development is that fracking often occurs extremely close to towns and homes. That's because oil and gas wells take up far less space than open-pit coal mines and cement factories. One 2013 analysis estimated than at least 15.3 million Americans have a gas well within a mile of their home.
So you might think that data on the performance records of oil and gas companies—how often they have spills, or exceed air pollution standards, etc.—would be readily available to locals who have an immediate stake in knowing about what's going on in their backyard.
Not so, according to a new study from the Natural Resources Defense Council and the FracTracker Alliance, a nonprofit that collects data on the gas industry.
"This information is extremely hard for the public to get," says the NRDC's Amy Mall.
Thirty-six US states have active oil and gas operations. But according to the report, just three of these states have readily accessible databases that the public can use to see which drilling companies have been cited for violating environmental rules or other standards. What's more, the records that do exist paint a disturbing picture.
"There are two main issues," said NRDC senior analyst Amy Mall. "One is that this information is extremely hard for the public to get. The second is that they're violating the law a lot."
The report points out that in Ohio and Arkansas, for example, violations are not published in an online database. Texas and North Dakota, meanwhile, charge citizens for access to violation data. (A spokesperson for the North Dakota Industrial Commission clarified that records can be accessed on the department's office lobby computer for free. Otherwise, a home subscription to that database costs $175 per year, or requests can processed by the department for $25 per hour.)
In other words, fracking companies are operating in many cases with a disturbing lack of transparency.
"It's a dirty window that somebody needs to clean," Mall said.
In Colorado, West Virginia, and Pennsylvania—where public data is available—the NRDC identified hundreds of violations and alleged violations issued to dozens of companies. The citations cover everything from spills to improper drilling techniques. (Violations can also be issued for problems of lesser public concern, such as an incorrectly sited road sign at a drilling site.) The actual number of reported violations likely understates the true scope of the problem, Mall said, since in many cases the number of reported spills is higher than the number of violations issued. Mall blamed the discrepancy on inadequate and under-staffed state enforcement agencies.
This morning, hours ahead of a looming deadline, the United States released its formal submission to the United Nations in preparation for global climate talks that will take place in Paris later this year. Known as an "intended nationally determined contribution," the document gives a basic outline for what US negotiators will pony up for an accord that is meant to replace the aging Kyoto Protocol and establish a new framework for international collaboration in the fight against climate change.
The US submission offered few surprises and essentially reiterated the carbon emission reduction targets that President Barack Obama first announced in a bilateral deal with China in November: 26 to 28 percent below 2005 levels by 2025. The document then gives a rundown of Obama's climate initiatives in order to demonstrate that the US goal is attainable with policies that are already in place or are in the works. Chief among those policies is the Clean Power Plan, which sets tough new limits for carbon emissions from the electricity sector, with the aim to reduce them 30 percent by 2030.
With today's announcement, the United States joins a handful of other major polluters, including Mexico and the European Union, in formally articulating its Paris position well in advance. In a series of earlier UN meetings over the fall and winter, negotiators stressed that setting early delivery dates for these pledges was important so that countries will have time to critique each others' contributions in advance of the final summit in December. But although the deadline is today, many other key players—including China, Brazil, Russia, Japan, and India—have yet to make an announcement.
Environmental groups' immediate reactions to the US submission were mostly positive.
"The United States' proposal shows that it is ready to lead by example on the climate crisis," World Resources Institute analyst Jennifer Morgan said in a statement. "This is a serious and achievable commitment."
"Considering that two-thirds of the US federal government hasn't even signed off on the Clean Power Plan and 13 states have already pledged to fight it, our international partners should proceed with caution before entering into a binding, unattainable deal," said Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.
There was a somewhat surprising announcement this week from a country with one of the world's worst climate reputations: Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott's office declared that his government is committed to signing on to the next major international climate accord, set to be hammered out in Paris later this year.
In a statement, the PM's office said that "a strong and effective global agreement, that addresses carbon leakage and delivers environmental benefit, is in Australia’s national interest."
I have no idea what "carbon leakage" is. Presumably it's something similar to carbon dioxide emissions, which are the leading cause of global warming. (Update: Carbon leakage is "the term often used to describe the situation that may occur if, for reasons of costs related to climate policies, businesses were to transfer production to other countries which have laxer constraints on greenhouse gas emissions," according to the European Commission.) Regardless, the announcement is a welcome sign from an administration that was recently ranked as the "worst industrial country in the world" on climate action.
The Paris summit is meant to elicit strong commitments to reduce carbon pollution from all of the world's leading economies, so it's a good thing Australia is willing to play ball. The country gets 74 percent of its power from coal (that's nearly twice coal's share of US energy generation). Australia has the second-largest carbon footprint per capita of the G20 nations (following Saudi Arabia), according to US government statistics.
Whether or not Australians liked their carbon tax, new data show it absolutely worked to slash carbon emissions.
But let's not get too excited. Although Abbott hasn't yet specified exactly what kind of climate promises he'll bring to the table in Paris, there's good reason to be skeptical. Here's why: In the run-up to the talks, developed countries are keeping a close eye on each others' domestic climate policies as a guage of how serious they each are about confronting the problem. It's a process of collectively raising the bar: If major polluters like the United States show they mean business in the fight against climate change, other countries will be more inclined to follow suit. Of course, the reverse is also true—for example, the revelation that Japan is using climate-designated dollars to finance coal-fired power plants weakens the whole negotiating process. That's one reason why President Barack Obama has been so proactive about initiating major climate policies from within the White House rather than waiting for the GOP-controlled Congress to step up.
So, on that metric, how are Australia's climate policies shaping up? It looks like they're going straight down the gurgler.
Almost a year ago, Australia made a very different kind of climate announcement: It became the world's first country to repeal a price on carbon. Back in 2012, after several years of heated political debate, Australia's parliament had voted to impose a fixed tax on carbon pollution for the country's several hundred worst polluters. The basic idea—as with all carbon-pricing systems, from California to the European Union—is that putting a price on carbon emissions encourages power plants, factories, and other major sources to clean up. Most environmental economists agree that a carbon price would be the fastest way to dramatically slash emissions, and that hypothesis is supported by a number of case studies from around the world—British Columbia is a classic success story. (President Obama backed a national carbon price for the US—in the form of a cap-and-trade system—in 2009, but it was quashed in the Senate.)
In Australia, the carbon tax quickly became unpopular with most voters, who blamed it for high energy prices and the country's sluggish recovery from the 2008 global recession. Abbott rose to power in part based on his pledge to get rid of the law. In July 2014 he succeeded in repealing it.
Now, new data from the Australian Department of the Environment reveal that whether or not you liked the carbon tax, it absolutely worked to slash carbon emissions. And in the first quarter without the tax, emissions jumped for the first time since prior to the global financial crisis.
The new data quantified greenhouse gas emissions from the electricity sector (which accounts for about a third of total emissions, the largest single share) in the quarter from July to September 2014. As the chart below shows, emissions in that same quarter dropped by about 7.5 percent after the carbon tax was imposed, and jumped 4.7 percent after it was repealed:
It's especially important to note that the jump came in the context of an overall decline in electricity consumption, as Australian climate economist Frank Jotzo explained to the Sydney Morning Herald:
Frank Jotzo, an associate professor at the Australian National University's Crawford School, said electricity demand was falling in the economy, so any rise in emissions from the sector showed how supply was reverting to dirtier energy sources.
"You had a step down in the emission intensity in power stations from the carbon price—and now you have a step back up," Professor Jotzo said.
…[Jotzo] estimated fossil fuel power plants with 4.4 gigawatts of capacity were been taken offline during the carbon tax years. About one third of that total, or 1.5 gigawatts, had since been switched back on.
In other words, we have here a unique case study of what happens when a country bails on climate action. The next question will what all this will mean for the negotiations in Paris.