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.
The Cuomo administration announced Wednesday that it would ban hydraulic fracturing in New York State, ending years of uncertainty by concluding that the controversial method of extracting gas from deep underground could contaminate the state’s air and water and pose inestimable public-health risks.
"I cannot support high volume hydraulic fracturing in the great state of New York," said Howard Zucker, the acting commissioner of health.
That conclusion was delivered publicly during a year-end cabinet meeting called by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo in Albany…The state has had a de facto ban on the procedure for more than five years, predating Mr. Cuomo's first term. The decision also came as oil and gas prices continued to fall in many places around the country, in part because of surging American oil production, as fracking boosted output.
New York is the second state to ban fracking, after Vermont did so in 2012. That move was largely symbolic, since Vermont has no natural gas to speak of. New York, by contrast, would have been a prize for the fracking industry, thanks to its massive share of the Marcellus shale formation.
"This is the first state ban with real significance," said Kate Sinding, a senior attorney in New York for the Natural Resources Defense Council. "My head is still spinning, because this is beyond anything we expected."
The fracking battle in New York isn't quite over yet, Sinding said. Now the attention of activists will turn toward proposed infrastructure projects in the state—like a gas storage facility by Lake Seneca and an export facility on Long Island—that would handle natural gas from fracking projects in neighboring states like Pennsylvania.
Nature is one of the world's flagship peer-reviewed scientific journals, a venue for some of our best new ideas about the world. Sometimes, those ideas are about animals that also happen to be outrageously, unconscionably cute. I'm talking baby-penguins-and-pomeranians-and-monkeys-cute. This morning the ingenious folks in Nature's video department rounded them all up into one face-melting video.
US Secretary of State John Kerry attended the UN climate talks in Lima, Peru, late last week.
Climate negotiators from nearly 200 countries are on their way home from Lima, Peru, after a series of last-minute compromises produced an agreement that, for the first time, calls on all countries to develop plans to limit their greenhouse gas emissions.
As the two weeks of global warming talks drew to a close, familiar fault lines emerged between wealthy countries—which are disproportionately responsible for causing climate change—and developing countries, which will be disproportionately impacted by it. In the end, both sides made sacrifices. Developing nations failed to convince the United States other economic powerhouses to commit cash to fund climate adaptation efforts around the world. And the US lost a battle over a one-word change that made guidelines for countries' climate commitments optional instead of mandatory. As a result, the agreement came out weaker than climate hawks had hoped for, because countries get plenty of wiggle room to potentially scale back their promises.
"I would say that whereas at the end of last week, the draft agreement was close to unambiguously positive, over the weekend it did get watered down," said Harvard environmental economist Robert Stavins. (You can read his more detailed analysis here).
So what happens now? The Lima agreement is essentially a playbook for diplomacy in the run-up to next December's major global warming talks in Paris, where countries will meet in an attempt to finalize the world's first universal climate accord. Before that can happen, there's still a whole lot of negotiating left on the table, at both the domestic and international levels.
First, every country is now supposed to come up with its plan for reducing greenhouse gas emissions, like the joint plan announced last month by the US and China. Guidelines for what those plans must include are pretty loose, but in most cases they'll lay out an emissions reduction target, a timeline for reaching it, and a series of domestic policy measures to achieve it. The Lima agreement requires that the plans be more aggressive than a "business-as-usual" scenario.
The plans can also (but aren't required to) include commitments for low-carbon economic development, pledges of financial assistance for developing countries, or really whatever else a country feels like sticking in there. Those plans are due to the UN climate committee no later than October 1.
Once every country has submitted its contribution, the UN will conduct an analysis of how far they go, collectively, toward slowing climate change. This will be like a report card grading the actual impact the Paris agreement is likely to have. Expect that by November.
At the same time, negotiators will be tinkering away on nearly 40 pages of draft text that will serve as an introduction to the patchwork of national contributions (see the "Annex" here). There are smaller meetings early in 2015—first in Bonn, Germany, and then in Geneva, Switzerland—where this will be the main task at hand. That document will be presented in May, then tweaked and (fingers crossed) finally approved in Paris.
Stay tuned over the next several months for commitments from key players like India, Russia, and Australia.
For a sobering, detailed look at the current state of affairs, take a look at the US Geological Survey's just-released data visualization tool. The most shocking thing, to me, is the year-by-year playback of reservoir levels, many of which have now dipped to less than a quarter of their capacity (screenshot below):
Climate scientists have warned for years that rising greenhouse gas concentrations will lead to more frequent and severe droughts in many parts of the world. Although it's generally very difficult to attribute any one weather event to the broader global warming trend, over the last couple of years a body of research has emerged to assess the link between man-made climate change and the current California drought. There are signs that rising temperatures (so far, 2014 is the hottest year on record both for California and globally) and long-term declines in soil moisture, both linked to greenhouse gas emissions, may have made the impact of the drought worse.
But according to new research by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, California's drought was primarily produced by a lack of precipitation driven by natural atmospheric cycles that are unrelated to man-made climate change. In other words, climate change may have worsened the impacts of the drought, but it isn't the underlying cause.
"The preponderance of evidence is that the events of the last three winters [when California gets the majority of its precipitation] were the product of natural variability," said lead author Richard Seager, a Columbia University oceanographer.
"The preponderance of evidence is that the events of the last three winters were the product of natural variability."
Over the last three years, Seager said, unpredictable atmospheric circulation patterns, combined with La Niña, formed high-pressure systems in winter over the West Coast, blocking storms from the Pacific that would have brought rain to California. The result has been the second-lowest three-year winter precipitation total since record-keeping began in 1895. But that pattern doesn't match what models predict as an outcome of climate change, said Seager. In fact, the study's models indicate that as global warming proceeds, winter precipitation in California is actually predicted to increase, thanks to an increased likelihood of low-pressure systems that allow winter storms to pass from the ocean to the mainland.
Unusually high sea-surface temperatures in parts of the Pacific over the last two years also played a minor role in producing the observed high-pressure systems, the report found. But those anomalies were scattered, which is inconsistent with the uniform, general ocean surface warming expected as an impact of climate change.
As a result, the confluence of atmospheric and ocean conditions that have recently blocked rain in California look like an exception to, rather than representative of, the expected climate change trend, Seager said.
All this doesn't mean you should dismiss the risk of future droughts: Seager stressed that additional research is needed to determine whether increased temperatures on land—leading to increased evaporation and demand on water supplies—could offset future gains in California's winter rainfall.
President Obama is fond of touting America's vast trove of natural gas—and the energy (read: economic growth) it can provide—as a reason to support fracking. "Our 100-year supply of natural gas is a big factor in drawing jobs back to our shores," he told a gathering at Northwestern University in October.
You can hear that same optimism about US natural gas production from Democrats, Republicans, and of course, the industry itself. The conviction that America can fuel its economy by churning out massive amounts of natural gas for decades has become a core assumption of national energy policy. But what if it's wrong?
Those rosy predictions are based on official forecasts produced by the Energy Information Administration, an independent federal agency that compiles data on America's energy supply and demand. This spring, EIA chief Adam Sieminski told a Senate hearing that he was confident natural gas production would grow 56 percent between 2012 and 2040. But the results of a series of studies at the University of Texas, reported today in an article in the journal Nature, cast serious doubt about the accuracy of EIA's forecasts.
The UT team conducted its own analysis of natural gas production at all four of the US's major shale gas formations (the Marcellus, Haynesville, Fayetteville, and Barnett), which together account for two-thirds of America's natural gas output. Then, they extrapolated production into the future based on predicted market forces (the future price of gas relative to other fuels) and known geology. Their analysis suggests that gas production will peak in 2020, 20 years earlier than the EIA predicts. What's more, the UT researchers project that by 2030, gas production levels will be only half of EIA's prediction.
The difference in opinion stems from a difference in the scale of the analyses. The UT team's grid for each shale play studied was at least 20 times finer than EIA's, according to Nature:
Resolution matters because each play has sweet spots that yield a lot of gas, and large areas where wells are less productive. Companies try to target the sweet spots first, so wells drilled in the future may be less productive than current ones. The EIA's model so far has assumed that future wells will be at least as productive as past wells in the same county. But this approach, [UT-Austin petroleum engineer Ted] Patzek argues, "leads to results that are way too optimistic".
Why do these numbers matter? The federal government, states, and the private sector all base their energy investments—research and development, infrastructure construction, etc.—on forecasts of where our energy will come from in the future. If natural gas really is super-abundant, there may be less urgency to invest in renewables like solar and wind to replace coal plants as they age or are regulated out of existence. But if there's less recoverable natural gas than we think, we'll need to change our strategy to avoid coming up short on power 20 years down the line. At the same time, there are international repercussions: Many countries are taking cues from the United States on how to develop their own natural gas resources, so what happens here will shape those plans as well. And a series of massive natural gas export facilities are already being proposed across the US to ship our gas overseas; what will happen to global markets if those run dry prematurely?
Because they rely on informed guesses about future market conditions, these forecasts can never be bulletproof, and the UT study doesn't close the book on how much natural gas the US really has in store. But it's an important reminder that we should treat politicians' promises about fossil fuel wealth with skepticism.