Blue Marble - February 2014

New Study: Internet Trolls Are Often Machiavellian Sadists

| Fri Feb. 14, 2014 7:00 AM EST

In the past few years, the science of Internet trollology has made some strides. Last year, for instance, we learned that by hurling insults and inciting discord in online comment sections, so-called Internet "trolls" (who are frequently anonymous) have a polarizing effect on audiences, leading to politicization, rather than deeper understanding of scientific topics.

That's bad, but it's nothing compared with what a new psychology paper has to say about the personalities of so-called trolls themselves. The research, conducted by Erin Buckels of the University of Manitoba and two colleagues, sought to directly investigate whether people who engage in trolling are characterized by personality traits that fall in the so-called "Dark Tetrad": Machiavellianism (willingness to manipulate and deceive others), narcissism (egotism and self-obsession), psychopathy (the lack of remorse and empathy), and sadism (pleasure in the suffering of others).

It is hard to underplay the results: The study found correlations, sometimes quite significant, between these traits and trolling behavior. What's more, it also found a relationship between all Dark Tetrad traits (except for narcissism) and the overall time that an individual spent, per day, commenting on the Internet.

In the study, trolls were identified in a variety of ways. One was by simply asking survey participants what they "enjoyed doing most" when on online comment sites, offering five options: "debating issues that are important to you," "chatting with others," "making new friends," "trolling others," and "other." Here's how different responses about these Internet commenting preferences matched up with responses to questions designed to identify "Dark Tetrad" traits:

E.E. Buckels et al, "Trolls just want to have fun," Personality and Individual Differences, 2014.

To be sure, only 5.6 percent of survey respondents actually specified that they enjoy "trolling." By contrast, 41.3 percent of Internet users were "non-commenters," meaning they didn't like engaging online at all. So trolls are, as has often been suspected, a minority of online commenters, and an even smaller minority of overall Internet users.

The researchers conducted multiple studies, using samples from Amazon's Mechanical Turk but also of college students, to try to understand why the act of trolling seems to attract this type of personality. They even constructed their own survey instrument, which they dubbed the "Global Assessment of Internet Trolling" or GAIT, comprised of the following items:

I have sent people to shock websites for the lulz.

I like to troll people in forums or the comments section of websites.

I enjoy griefing other players in multiplayer games.

The more beautiful and pure a thing is, the more satisfying it is to corrupt.

Yes, some people actually say they agree with such statements. And again, doing so was correlated with sadism in its various forms, with psychopathy, and with Machiavellianism. Overall, the authors found that the relationship between sadism and trolling was the strongest, and that indeed, sadists appear to troll because they find it pleasurable. "Both trolls and sadists feel sadistic glee at the distress of others," they wrote. "Sadists just want to have fun...and the Internet is their playground!"

The study comes as websites, particularly at major media outlets, are increasingly weighing steps to rein in trollish behavior. Last year Popular Science did away with its comments sections completely, citing research on the deleterious effects of trolling, and YouTube also took measures to rein in trolling.

But Erin Buckles of the University of Manitoba, the study's first author, actually isn't sure that fix is a realistic one. "Because the behaviors are intrinsically motivating for sadists, comment moderators will likely have a difficult time curbing trolling with punishments (e.g., banning users)," she commented by email. "Ultimately, the allure of trolling may be too strong for sadists, who presumably have limited opportunities to express their sadistic interests in a socially-desirable manner."

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Natural Gas Is Dirtier Than We Thought—But It's Still Better Than Coal

| Thu Feb. 13, 2014 3:00 PM EST

For decades, the Environmental Protection Agency has underestimated US emissions of methane, a greenhouse gas that is 30 times more potent than carbon dioxide. That's the argument of a new analysis appearing in the Feb. 14 issue of Science, which also finds that a big factor behind the lowball estimates is the EPA's poor grasp of methane leaks from the natural gas industry.

The analysis, which examines more than 200 existing studies, is the first to take a broad view of scientific knowledge of methane emissions, and it has critical implications for the use of natural gas. Gas has been touted by its proponents as a cleaner alternative to traditional fossil fuels such as coal—President Obama hails it as a "bridge fuel" that will allow the country to transition to cleaner energy sources—since burning natural gas for energy emits far less carbon dioxide. But because methane, a main component of natural gas, is such a powerful greenhouse gas, the new evidence of narrows the gap between the climate change contributions of gas and coal.

"Our best guess is that methane emissions in this country are about 50 percent more than the EPA [estimates]," says Adam Brandt, an assistant professor of energy resources engineering at Stanford University and the lead author of the analysis. Methane emissions could plausibly be anywhere between 25 to 75 percent more than what EPA measures have shown, Brandt adds. "That amounts to something like 7 to 21 million excess tons of methane every year." Brandt and his co-authors, he says, did not have enough evidence to determine what proportion of total excess methane is released by the natural gas industry, as opposed to by other energy sectors, agriculture, or landfills.

But the study concludes that natural gas as a fuel source still contributes less to climate change than coal. "We don't believe that the evidence suggests that burning coal is better," Brandt says. "There's just not support for that." The reason is that while methane is the more damaging greenhouse gas, carbon dioxide, which coal emits in huge quantities when burned, stays in the atmosphere for a much longer period of time. Coal is a "cleaner" fuel only in the near-term—a period of 20 years or so. Brandt says that over a period of 100 years, natural gas—leaks and all—would still be a less greenhouse gas-intensive source of energy than coal.

Still, Brandt cautions, natural gas is not a long-term energy solution for keeping climate change in check. "Uncontrolled use of gas over a century or more isn't a good thing, from a climate change perspective," Brandt says. "Most climate change scenarios suggest that this can't be a solution for 100 years."

The analysis also concludes that even under the most conservative estimates of methane leaks from the gas sector, keeping diesel-powered powered vehicles, such as buses, on the road contributes smaller amounts of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere than switching to gas-powered buses.

The researchers believe that only a small percentage of methane leaked by the gas sector is coming from the controversial hydraulic fracturing—or fracking—process itself. Rather, accidental leaks that occur as the industry moves and processes natural gas likely account for the biggest proportion of these emissions. One study cited by the analysis found that less than 1 percent of individual pieces of equipment at a single natural gas plant were responsible for nearly 60 percent of its leakage. Brandt says new technology that quickly identifies these "superemitters" is the best hope for reigning in the industry's emissions.

As for why the EPA underestimates methane leaks in the gas industry, the analysis notes that the agency can only measure emission rates at wells and plants where the operators volunteered to allow the EPA on site. In one instance, the EPA asked 30 natural gas companies to allow them on site, but only six cooperated.

PHOTOS: A "Catastrophic...Crippling...Paralyzing" Ice Storm

| Wed Feb. 12, 2014 1:15 PM EST
A pedestrian battles the snow and cold wind as he crosses Wicker Street in Sanford, N.C.

An ice storm the National Weather Service has called "catastrophic...crippling...paralyzing... choose your adjective" is sweeping across states from Texas to North Carolina, knocking out power in more than 100,000 homes and businesses as it makes its way toward the Northeast. Here are some photos showing the early effects of the storm.

Car in snowstorm
A vehicle drives through the rapidly falling snow on the US 421 Bypass in Sanford, N.C. Chris Seward/Raleigh News & Observer/ZUMA
Woman in snow
LORETTA CANTRELL, 75, says '' I feel like a child again playing in the snow,'' during a walk on Popular Stump Road in Helen, Ga. Curtis Compton/Atlanta Journal-Constitution/ZUMA

More and More Americans Think Astrology Is Science

| Tue Feb. 11, 2014 7:00 AM EST

"I believe in a lot of astrology." So commented pop megastar Katy Perry in a recent GQ interview. She also said she sees everything through a "spiritual lens"…and that she believes in aliens.

According to data from the National Science Foundation's just-released 2014 Science and Engineering Indicators study, Americans are moving in Perry's direction. In particular, the NSF reports that the percentage of Americans who think astrology is "not at all scientific" declined from 62 percent in 2010 to just 55 percent in 2012 (the last year for which data is available). As a result, NSF reports that Americans are apparently less skeptical of astrology than they have been at any time since 1983.

The data on Americans' astrological beliefs are compiled by NSF but come from a variety of sources; since 2006 they have come from the General Social Survey. Over the years, the GSS and other surveys have asked Americans a recurring question: "Would you say that astrology is very scientific, sort of scientific, or not at all scientific?"

In response, a substantial minority of Americans, ranging from 31 to 45 percent depending on the year, say consider astrology either "very scientific" or "sort of scientific." That's bad enough—the NSF report compares it with China, where 92 percent of the public does not believe in horoscopes—but the new evidence suggests we are also moving in the wrong direction. Indeed, the percentage of Americans who say astrology is scientifically bunk has been declining ever since a high point for astrology skepticism in 2004, when it hit 66 percent.

The recent increase in astrological credulity was most dramatic among those with less science education and less "factual knowledge," NSF reported. In the latter group, there was a staggering 17 percentage point decline in how many people were willing to say astrology is unscientific, from 52 percent in 2010 to just 35 percent in 2012. Also apparently to blame are younger Americans, aged 18 to 24, where an actual majority considers astrology at least "sort of" scientific, and those aged 35 to 44. In 2010, 64 percent of this age group considered astrology totally bunk; in 2012, by contrast, only 51 percent did, a 13 percentage point change.

Here's a breakdown of the changes in Americans' astrology beliefs by age group:

So what's behind these data? The lead author of the report chapter in question, public opinion specialist John Besley of Michigan State University, cautions that we should probably wait for further data "to see if it's a real change" before speculating. But, he admits, the apparent increase in astrology belief "popped out to me when I saw it."

So if it turns out that Americans are indeed becoming even more devoted to astrology than they already are? As with many things in life, there's a Shakespeare quotation appropriate to the situation: "The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves."

Is Shipping Oil by Rail As Dangerous As the Keystone Pipeline?

| Tue Feb. 11, 2014 7:00 AM EST

When the State Department issued its long-awaited environmental-impact statement on the Keystone XL project earlier this month, one of its key findings was that if the controversial pipeline weren't built, oil-laden rail cars would pick up the slack. "Rail will likely be able to accommodate new production if new pipelines are delayed or not constructed," it argued. As we noted recently, that rail transit is already underway. ​According to the Association of American Railroads (AAR), crude oil traveling by rail increased from 9,500 carloads in 2008 to an estimated 400,000 in 2013. Recently, an ExxonMobil official said the company had already begun to use trains to haul oil out of the Canadian tar sands, and the company plans to move up to 100,000 barrels of oil per day from a new terminal by 2015. In other words, tar sands will be developed one way or another, according to the State Department, with or without the $5.4 billion pipeline that would eventually link Alberta to the Gulf of Mexico.

The AAR argues carrying crude by tanker car is safe, citing a statistic that 99.9977 percent of dangerous chemical shipments by rail reached their destination without incident through 2010, making it safer than other forms of transport. But as crude by rail in the United States is increasing—the AAR says shipments have shot up 443 percent since 2005—so too are the spillsAn analysis of the data from the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration shows that in the US, 7 of the worst 10 railroad oil spills of the past decade happened in the last three years. This number doesn't include the catastrophic accident in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, last July, which decimated the town and killed 47 people.

In fact, at over 1.2 million gallons spilled in total, more crude oil was spilled from trains last year than every other year since 1971 combined. The 10 worst spills together cost nearly $2 million in damages. The worst was in Aliceville, Alabama, on November 8, when nearly 750,000 gallons spilled from a 90-car train after it derailed, setting off a series of explosions. In Casselton, North Dakota, nearly a half-million gallons spilled on December 30, after a grain train derailed in front of a BNSF train filled with crude oil, igniting an inferno that forced the town to evacuate.

​The severity of the Lac-Megantic incident forced the National Transportation Safety Board, in conjunction with the Canadians (where crude by rail is also booming), to issue a 15-page document recommending increased safely measures. The report finds that "railroad accidents involving crude oil have a potential for disastrous consequences and environmental contamination equal to that of the worst on-shore pipeline accidents." Despite the urgency, the report says not enough has been done to properly equip US railways to face the increasing demands: "Although railroad accidents involving large numbers of crude oil tank cars can have similar outcomes [to pipeline spills], oil spill response planning requirements for rail transportation of oil/petroleum products are practically nonexistent compared with other modes of transportation."

North Carolina Protected Duke Energy from Pollution Complaints Before the Company's Coal Ash Disaster

| Mon Feb. 10, 2014 11:23 AM EST
A coal ash dump site in Fairbanks, Alaska.

Last year, North Carolina's top environmental regulators thwarted three separate Clean Water Act lawsuits aimed at forcing Duke Energy, the largest electricity company in the country, to clean up its toxic coal ash pits in the state. That June, the state went even further, saying it would handle environmental enforcement at every one of Duke's 31 coal ash storage ponds in the state—an act that protected the company from further federal lawsuits. Last week, one of those coal ash storage ponds ruptured, belching more than 80,000 tons of coal ash into the Dan River.

Now environmental groups and former regulators are charging that North Carolina Republican Gov. Pat McCrory, who worked for Duke for 30 years, has created an atmosphere where the penalties for polluting the environment are low.

The Associated Press reports that McCrory's Department of Environment and Natural Resources blocked three federal Clean Water Act suits in 2013 by stepping in with its own enforcement authority "at the last minute." This protected Duke from the kinds of stiff fines and penalties that can result from federal lawsuits. Instead, state regulators arranged settlements that carried miniscule financial penalties and did not require Duke to change how it stores the toxic byproducts of its coal-fired power plants. After blocking the first three suits, which were brought by the Southern Environmental Law Center, the state filed notices saying that it would handle environmental enforcement at every one of Duke's remaining North Carolina coal ash storage sites—protecting the company from Clean Water Act lawsuits linked to its coal waste once and for all.

The Dan River disaster became public on February 3—one day after Duke officials had been alerted that a pipe beneath a coal ash storage pit of nearly 30 acres had ruptured. "The company reports that up to 82,000 tons of coal ash mixed with 27 million gallons of contaminated water drained out, turning the river gray and cloudy for miles," the AP reports. "The accident ranks as the third largest such coal ash spill in the nation's history."

The AP story suggests that McCrory's settlements with Duke are part of a pattern of regulatory slackness. A former North Carolina regulator who recently left to work for an environmental advocacy group after nine years working for the state told the AP that under McCrory, who took office in early 2013, she was often instructed not to fine or cite polluters, but instead to help them reach compliance standards. The article continues:

Since his unsuccessful first campaign for governor in 2008, campaign finance reports show Duke Energy, its political action committee, executives and their immediate families have donated at least $1.1 million to McCrory's campaign and affiliated groups that spent on TV ads, mailings and events to support him.

After winning in 2012, McCrory has appointed former Duke employees like himself to key posts, including state Commerce Secretary Sharon Decker.

His appointee to oversee the state environmental department, Raleigh businessman John Skvarla, describes his agency's role as being a "partner" to those it regulates, whom he refers to as "customers."

"That is why we have been able to turn DENR from North Carolina's No. 1 obstacle of resistance into a customer-friendly juggernaut in such a short time," Skvarla wrote in a letter to the editor of the News & Observer of Raleigh, published in December. "People in the private sector pour their hearts and souls into their work; instead of crushing their dreams, they now have a state government that treats them as partners."

McCrory hit back, telling the AP that his administration is "the first in North Carolina history to take legal action against the utility regarding coal ash ponds." Duke Energy has also made large donations to Democrats, giving $10 million for the Democratic National Convention in 2012.

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Will Sochi Have Enough Snow?

| Fri Feb. 7, 2014 7:00 AM EST
American snowboarder Karly Shorr competes in the women's slopestyle snowboarding qualifying session at the 22nd Winter Olympic Games in Sochi.

The Winter Olympics kicked off yesterday in Sochi, Russia (first up: men's snowboarding). When Russian President Vladimir Putin pitched Sochi to the games' organizers back in 2007, he promised there would be "real snow"... a bold claim for a town better known as a seaside summer resort. Sure enough, this week Sochi had highs in the 50s (warmer than the Super Bowl last weekend in New Jersey) and—uh oh—no new snowfall in the town. Conditions are a bit better in the mountains where the ski events take place, and organizers insist the games are ready to speed ahead on a fresh layer of fake snow.

Low snowfall has become a chronic problem for skiers and snowboarders worldwide, which has turned many of them into vocal activists against climate change. President Obama even mentioned snow sports in his major global warming speech last summer, when he said that "mountain communities worry about what smaller snowpacks will mean for tourism."

Porter Fox
Porter Fox Courtesy Porter Fox

In some cases, global warming can lead to increased heavy precipitation of all kinds, and that includes snow, as anyone who lived through the recent polar vortex in the eastern US can attest. But the best conditions for snow sports depend on a snow cover that lasts through the winter, not simply a couple serious blizzards. Over the course of the season, high temperatures can burn through even the heaviest snowfall, and according to Porter Fox, that's already happening from the Rockies to Sochi.

Fox is a veteran skier and journalist for Powder magazine who is keeping a gloved finger on the pulse of shifting slopes. He recently published a book that details how global warming is threatening the entire business model of the ski industry. It's called Deep: The Story of Skiing and the Future of Snow. Fox joined us for today's Inquiring Minds podcast episode, and told me that climate change could soon send snow sports crashing downhill.

You can stream our interview below (it can be found at minutes 3:30-8:30) or scroll down to read a transcript:

Porter Fox: There is going to be huge change in the ski industry in the next 10 to 20 years, and there is going to be cataclysmic change in the next 50 to 70 years. In Europe, North America, around the world, really.

Climate Desk: For skiers and snowboarders, what is that actually going to look like?

Fox: Some of the big visual indicators are we've lost a million square miles of spring snowpack in the last 45 years. Some other changes, in the Northern Rockies that snowpack is down 15 to 30 percent. Specifically in the US the rate of winter warming has tripled since 1970, it seems that winters are starting to warm faster than other seasons, and even high elevation areas are warming faster, and very specifically the US West is one of half a dozen hotspots that are warming faster than the national average. Every single one of those factors is bad news for the Sierras, the Rockies, the Cascades, my favorite places to ski in.

Why Bill Nye Won the Creationism Debate Last Night

| Wed Feb. 5, 2014 12:06 PM EST

They warned Bill Nye not to do it. Not to go into the hokey museum of the America's leading Young Earth creationist, Ken Ham of Answers in Genesis, and try to reason with the guy.

Evolution defenders have long turned down such high-profile public debates, of the sort that creationists yearn for. The logic is simple: It puts creationism on an equal footing with real science; and once you've done that, the creationist has already, in effect, won.

But something funny happened on the way to disaster last night at the Creation Museum in Kentucky. Sure, creationist leader Ken Ham got the opportunity to appear before a huge audience (some 750,000 people were tuned in simultaneously at one moment in the debate; the total number of viewers is surely much higher). He got to show he was likable, and play a lot of well-produced videos featuring people with Ph.D.s or scientific training who nonetheless embrace creationism. In all likelihood, then, Ham gained some followers last night. And he definitely got some priceless advertising for his museum.

Yet it came at the cost of being trounced by Nye, who managed to show not only how downright absurd Young Earth creationist beliefs are (noting, for instance, that there is a 9,550-year-old tree in Sweden that is itself several thousand years older than Ham thinks the Earth is), but to demonstrate the extreme nature of Ham's brand of creationism. In one of the best lines of the night, Nye emphasized that "billions" of religious people around the world accept science, adding, "the exception is you, Mr. Ham."

Most of all, Nye allowed Ham to undermine himself before the audience. By in effect preaching, rather than sticking to scientific assertions, Ham demonstrated what we've always known about creationism, and what many canny anti-evolutionists have sought to conceal: It's a religious doctrine, not a scientific one. When asked what kind of evidence would change his mind in the question and answer phase of the debate, Ham basically had no answer. "The answer to that question is, I'm a Christian," said Ham. "And as a Christian, I can't prove it to you, but God has definitely shown me very clearly through his word, and shown himself in the person of Jesus Christ, the Bible is the word of God. I admit that that's where I start from."

The picture of a dogmatist, holding out against all evidence for an Earth that's somehow supposed to be only a few thousand years old, where somehow all plant life survived being inundated for months by Noah's flood, shone through.

To be sure, it wasn't all smooth sailing for Nye, who in his 30-minute presentation at the outset of the debate laid out a host of facts and scientific details (about the ages of limestone, bristlecone pine trees, air trapped in ice cores, and much else) without articulating a clear message. Early in the debate, Nye's strategy seemed to be to simply show why Ham's brand of creationism is intellectually absurd, even as Nye himself played the role of a "reasonable man" (a phrase he repeated often) who found it all just too much to swallow.

Yet this approach likely failed to touch the audience emotionally by showing, for instance, what a threat creationism is to our kids' education, and what an affront it is to the many serious religious believers around the world who don't see any need to pit science and faith against each other. Instead, Nye piled on facts. Or as the moderator, CNN's Tom Foreman, put it when Nye finished, "That's a lot to take in."

But as the evening wore on, Nye proved he was better off the cuff than when he was formally presenting. And he started to land a different sort of punch, repeatedly emphasizing the threat to US competitiveness from creationism-infused education, and Young Earth creationism's exclusionary nature. "There are billions of people around the world who are religious and accept science," Nye emphasized repeatedly. Meanwhile, Ham appeared increasingly dogmatic, simply banishing from the realm of "observational science" (as he defined it) anything that would tell us how old the Earth is, or what happened there before modern humans could directly observe it.

And then, well, there were the lions. Ham's particular theology requires him to believe that before Noah's flood, all the animals were vegetarians. "I have not spent a lot of time with lions, but I can tell they have teeth that really aren't set up for broccoli," Nye countered.

"Just because an animal has sharp teeth, it doesn't mean it's a meat eater, it means it has sharp teeth," Ham answered, unbelievably.

Brian Malow, the science comedian, had fun with this one:

In the end, the most important thing about this debate, which drew dramatic attention, is that it was thoroughly disruptive of the evolution-creationism status quo. We've been in a rut in this battle for too long, with school boards and lawmakers continuing their stealth anti-evolution attacks (rarely admitting, as Ham so plainly did, that they're driven by religion) even as scientists wring their hands about American anti-intellectualism from the safety of their college towns.

Last night, in contrast, it all hung out. We saw what Young Earth creationists really, really think. They believe in vegetarian lions and an Earth younger than its oldest-living tree. And for most Americans, there's just no way that makes any sense.

Creationist Ken Ham: Climate Change Goes Back to "the Flood of Noah's Day"

| Wed Feb. 5, 2014 2:54 AM EST

When Bill Nye the Science Guy took the stage Tuesday night at the Creation Museum in Petersburg, Kentucky, his task was to refute the idea that biblical creationism is a scientifically valid idea—one that should be taught in schools.

But as we've seen again and again, science denial is rarely limited in scope. So perhaps it shouldn't be surprising that Nye's opponent, museum head Ken Ham, doesn't just reject evolution; he's also spreading some rather unscientific ideas about global warming. Appearing on CNN after the debate, Ham informed viewers that "there's been climate change ever since the flood of Noah's day." Ham added that while the climate had warmed "a bit in the past," it's now "cooling again." (Not true.) You can watch Ham and Nye debate climate science in the clip above.

This has been something of a theme for Ham, who says in a series of online videos that this supposed "cooling trend" is "no surprise to creation scientists." According to Ham: "Western governments have invested so much in the carbon dioxide theory that they probably won't change their minds any time soon. But Scripture tells us what really happened: We live on a young Earth that has undergone radical climate changes from the global flood."

Watch:

How the Feds Are Ripping You Off To Benefit Big Coal

| Tue Feb. 4, 2014 6:41 PM EST

Federal coffers are missing out on what could be billions of dollars in lost revenue due to shoddy accounting work by the office that handles leases for coal mines on public land, according to a report made public today by the investigative arm of Congress.

The Government Accountability Office was asked by Senator Ed Markey (D-Mass.), a stalwart climate hawk, to look into whether the Interior Department's Bureau of Land Management routinely sells leases to coal mining companies for far less than their market value. Investigators found that BLM agents in Wyoming (by far the country's largest coal producer) set prices based on coal's historic value, but, in contradiction of the department's own rules, fail to take into account how much it will likely be worth in the future. Similar problems were found in other coal-producing states. As a result, the GAO report claims, many leases were sold far beneath their true market value, depriving taxpayers of additional royalties (which, as it stands, come to about $1 billion per year) that are normally skimmed from the mines' profits.

"As a net result, the public is getting screwed," said Tom Kenworthy, an energy analyst at the Center for American Progress who has kept tabs on Interior's longstanding problems with coal lease valuation.

"As a net result, the public is getting screwed."

That the leases are selling for less than they're worth seems clear; what's less obvious is exactly how much money is at stake, since the values were never properly set in the first place (the GAO report doesn't specify a number). A 2012 analysis of federal lease records by former New York State Deputy Comptroller Tom Sanzillo for the independent Institute for Energy Economics found that undervalued coal leases cost the Treasury $28.9 billion in lost revenue since 1983, or almost $1 billion every year. Meanwhile, analysis by Senator Markey's office put the figure at $200 million, although a spokesperson would not specify the time period to which that applied, as the underlying data are considered proprietary to the Interior Department, he said.

Since 1990, the federal government has leased 107 parcels of public land for coal mining; these parcels typically account for 25-40 percent of the roughly one billion tons of coal produced annually nationwide. That adds up to a massive carbon footprint: Fossil fuels produced on public land create roughly a billion metric tons of greenhouse gas pollution every year, about as much as 285 coal plants.