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Philip Bump's Posts


Apocalypse or bust: How Wired’s climate optimism doesn’t add up

Good news, everyone. Wired is reporting that the world probably isn't going to end in December. The bad news is how the magazine makes that argument.

It's a clever article, this "Apocalypse Not," framing previous apocalyptic predictions about the end of the world in the context of the Four Horsemen. In lieu of famine, pestilence, war, and death, author Matt Ridley assesses the threats from chemicals, disease, people, and resources. He walks through each "horseman" in order, dispatching as best he can past theories about how they would contribute to the eradication of humanity.

In most of his examples, his point is made quickly and cleanly. There's a massive exception, however: climate change.

The fundamental problem is that Ridley's conceit makes it impossible to judge each argument entirely on its merits without hyperbole. He can't ignore climate change, given the subject of the article, but he also can't give climate change its due: He's forced to classify it as a non-apocalypse a priori and to thereby dismiss it. After all, (1) the entire article is premised on our previous errors in assessing threats, and (2) the standard to which everything is compared is the apocalypse. I mean, the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918 killed 3 percent of the world's population. But it wasn't an "Armageddon" in Ridley's formulation, an existential threat to Life As We Know It. Everything becomes an assessment on a binary scale, and one that proves his thesis before he begins: nothing before has destroyed the world; ergo, our current concerns won't either. If one had, of course, Ridley wouldn't be writing the article.

Proving that something isn't apocalyptic is not a high bar. But it leads Ridley to dismiss threats wholesale in order to defend his (easily defended) thesis.

Read more: Climate & Energy


Court: TVA at fault in massive 2008 coal-ash spill

A house surrounded by coal ash from the 2008 spill. (Photo by United Mountain Defense.)

A federal judge ruled today that the Tennessee Valley Authority is liable for the 2008 coal-ash spill that dumped thick sludge across a community in eastern Tennessee, destroying three homes. From

U.S. District Judge Thomas Varlan said in a ruling issued Thursday morning that "TVA is liable for the ultimate failure of North Dike which flowed, in part, from TVA's negligent nondiscretionary conduct." ...

The focus of the litigation is the spill that sent 5.4 million cubic yards of coal fly ash from TVA's Kingston Fossil Plant into nearby homes, farmland and the Emory River on December 22, 2008 after a storage dike failed.

The litigation involves more than 60 cases and more than 800 plaintiffs. They have sued over claims of damage to their property and their health. Judge Varlan heard three weeks of testimony in the case during September and October 2011.

"People have been harmed through the actions of TVA, in some cases irreparably," one of the plaintiffs' attorneys, Nashville-based Beth Alexander, said in a statement. "TVA did its best to avoid financial responsibility for the harm it has done, but there was no merit or justification for it to be given such extraordinary protection. TVA spent millions of dollars in legal fees fighting to be cleared of responsibility for what they did wrong instead of compensating the people whose property was damaged."


Disney’s pollution of America may also be literal

Here Disney's "Mickey the Mouse" promoting coal, back in the day.

Your metaphor of the day: the "vintage" air-conditioning system at Walt Disney Studios in Burbank, Calif., has apparently been leaking carcinogenic chromium 6 into the area's groundwater.

A consultant hired by the Environmental Protection Agency recently identified the Disney property among a list of facilities being "investigated as potential sources of chromium contamination in groundwater," according to an April 2012 report recently posted on the agency's website.

Authorities have long been aware of chromium 6 contamination in San Fernando Valley groundwater and have already identified a number of companies responsible for contamination, including aircraft manufacturer Lockheed Martin Corp. Lockheed paid $60 million to settle claims with roughly 1,300 residents in 1996 alleging that exposure to chromium 6 and other toxins at its former aircraft manufacturing plant left them with cancer and other maladies.

Authorities note that the levels discovered don't appear to pose a threat to public health, though surrounding cities use the aquifer to augment their water supplies.


Texas judge rules that TransCanada can seize land from a family farm

The miniature Eiffel Tower of Paris, Texas. (Photo by KB35.)

Julia Trigg Crawford manages a farm in northeast Texas that's been in her family since 1948. The 600-acre property sits on the Red River, near the city of Paris, famous for its replica Eiffel Tower topped with a red cowboy hat. It's like a Texas stereotype come to life.

Crawford’s property also sits directly between where TransCanada has some tar-sands oil and where it wants that oil to go. The southern section of the Keystone XL pipeline, which recently got a final approval, will cut through the northeastern part of Texas — as planned, through Crawford’s property. Crawford preferred that it not and rejected the company's buyout offer. So TransCanada instead sought to seize the property through eminent domain. As described on the Crawford family website:

They legally had the power to do this because -- and you’re not going to believe this -- they simply checked a box on a “T4” form for the Texas Railroad Commission (the body that regulates the oil and gas industry in Texas) that says ‘common carrier.’ Common carrier status carries with it the power of eminent domain -- the right to seize property. Meanwhile, the Railroad Commission openly states that they have no regulatory authority to make sure that a private company does not abuse the power of eminent domain.

The case went before Lamar County Court-at-Law judge Bill Harris. Yesterday, he handed down his ruling: TransCanada is a common carrier, and may therefore:

… enter on and condemn the land, rights-of-way, easements, and property of any person or corporation necessary for the construction, maintenance, or operation of the common carrier pipeline.


Peabody Coal signs sweetheart deal with government to expand existing mine

Coal trucks in the Powder River Basin. (Photo by KimonBerlin.)

Yesterday, Peabody Coal signed a deal with the Department of the Interior's Bureau of Land Management (BLM) to lease an additional 400 acres at its Twentymile Mine in northwest Colorado. Peabody will be paying 25 cents for each ton of coal; there are an estimated 3.2 million tons in the expanded tract.

Coal from the nearby Uinta Basin with similar characteristics (like energy yield and sodium content) sells for $35.60 per ton. Safe to assume that the Twentymile coal will sell at a similar price.

Which means that for each ton of coal Peabody sells, the company is netting $35.35. This isn't profit -- the company has to extract it, pay for machinery and miners, etc. But over the course of extracting that 3.2 million tons of coal, the company has $113,120,000 from which to eke out a profit.


BP, still working out the kinks in this ‘fuel distribution’ thing, recalls gasoline

On Monday, BP was forced to take an unusual step -- recalling unleaded gas in Indiana.

BP believes a 50,000 barrel batch of regular grade gasoline blended at BP’s Whiting, Indiana gasoline storage terminal between August 13th and 17th contained a higher than normal level of polymeric residue and this residue can cause hard starting and other drivability issues. The fuel may have been purchased by motorists patronizing BP and other retail outlets in Northwest Indiana during the past seven days.

Indeed, the fuel was purchased by BP customers -- some 7,000 of them, who bought the fuel at 200 stations in and around Chicago.


Romney’s energy plan dissected: Putting government to work for Big Oil

Mitt Romney's big energy policy proposal, which he will announce today at around 1 p.m. Eastern, was released last night. Lisa Hymas looked at the toplines shortly after it came out (summary: oil oil gas oil); here's a deeper dive.

This is the document that leaked. Note: It could change by the time Romney gives his speech. Perhaps the utility of renewable energy and leading in the green space came to Romney in a dream or something. But given how closely this paper hews to our prediction, I think it's a safe bet to take it as final.

Please note that most of this is links to news articles from the liberal media.


SEC will require oil companies to disclose payments to foreign governments

This morning the Securities and Exchange Commission voted to put into effect regulations requiring that oil and mining companies report payments to foreign governments. From The Hill (which figured its headline might garner a few extra clicks):

The rules, which were required under the 2010 Dodd-Frank financial reform law, do not appear to contain several provisions that the oil industry sought, including exemptions from the SEC filing mandate if foreign governments prohibit the disclosure.

The law forces SEC-listed oil, natural gas and mining companies to reveal payments to governments [of $100,000 or more] related to projects in their countries, such as money for production licenses, taxes, royalties and other aspects of energy and mineral projects.

It’s aimed at increasing transparency to help undo the “resource curse,” in which some impoverished countries in Africa and elsewhere are plagued by high levels of corruption and conflict alongside their energy and mineral wealth.

The aftermath of a Shell spill in Nigeria. (Photo by SU.)


U.S. sees worst West Nile outbreak in its history

Last week, we reported that Dallas would spray insecticide from low-flying planes in an effort to curb the mosquitoes that are causing the area's West Nile outbreak. The disease has prompted a state of emergency in the Texas city; 21 people in the region have died from it this year.

Seriously. How gross are these things?* (Photo by Alvesgaspar.)

Nationally, West Nile cases are at three times normal levels -- the worst outbreak ever in the U.S. since the disease appeared in 1999.

So far, 1,118 illnesses have been reported, about half of them in Texas, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In an average year, fewer than 300 cases are reported by mid-August. There have also been 41 deaths this year. …

Never before have so many illnesses been reported this early, said [Lyle] Petersen, who oversees the CDC’s mosquito-borne illness programs.

Most infections are usually reported in August and September, so it’s too early to say how bad this year will end up, CDC officials said.

Read more: Climate & Energy


Mixed blessing: U.S. power demand will stay flat for a while

Beautiful and lonely. (Photo by Nayu Kim.)

In his assessment of why the U.S. led the world in cutting CO2 emissions last month, David Roberts noted that the recession flattened demand for electricity.

A forecast out today suggests that demand will stay flat for some time to come. From FuelFix:

The nation’s power demand will grow by about 1.1 percent [a year] through 2030, Wood Mackenzie analysts projected, instead of the nearly 2 percent growth experienced during past two decades.

In other words, the level of electricity the country was expected to use by 2019 now won’t be reached until 2030, the firm forecasted.

US electricity consumption, 2000-2011U.S. electricity consumption, 2000-2011

Again, the culprit is the economy -- and the impacts won't only be felt by fossil-fuel companies.