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Here’s what fracking can do to your health

coughing-mjmaster_0
Daniel Foster | Shutterstock | Tim McDonnell

If you know one thing about fracking, it might be that the wells have been linked to explosive tap water. Of course, a tendency toward combustion isn't the biggest problem with gas-infused water; it's what could happen to you when you drink it.

Although the natural gas industry is notoriously tight-lipped about the ingredients of the chemical cocktails that get pumped down into wells, by now it's widely known that the list often includes some pretty scary, dangerous stuff, including hydrochloric acid and ethylene glycol (a.k.a. antifreeze). It's also no secret that well sites release hazardous gases like methane and benzene (a carcinogen) into the atmosphere.

So just how dangerous are fracking and other natural gas extraction processes for your health (not counting, for the sake of argument, explosions and earthquakes)? Is it true, as an activist-art campaign by Yoko Ono recently posited, that "fracking kills"?

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GOP lawmakers scramble to court Tesla

tesla cars factory
Tesla Motor Events

Electric vehicle sales in New Jersey ran out of batteries earlier this month, when the Chris Christie administration voted to ban car manufacturers from selling directly to drivers. The companies must now use third-party dealers. The ban applies to all car manufacturers, but seemed particularly aimed at Tesla, which had been in negotiations with the administration for months to sell electric cars straight from its own storefronts in the state.

The move was a win for the state's surprisingly powerful auto dealer lobby and a loss for one of the country's biggest electric car makers. But it also cemented New Jersey's place as a non-contender for the real prize: a $5 billion battery "gigafactory" that Tesla plans to begin construction on later this year. With an estimated 6,500 employees, the factory will likely become a keystone of the United State's clean energy industry and an economic boon for its host state. Now, Arizona, Texas, New Mexico, and Nevada are scrambling to get picked, and last week Republican legislators in Arizona began to try pushing their state to the top of the pile.

It's the latest sign that, at least at the state level, the clean energy industry's best friend might be the GOP. Newt Gingrich quickly pounced on Christie after the direct sales ban for "artificially" insulating car dealers, just weeks after calling for John Kerry to resign after Kerry named climate change as a principle challenge of the generation. On Tuesday, Texas Gov. Rick Perry called his state's direct sales ban "antiquated" nearly a year after a Democrat-backed bill to change the policy was killed.

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Now you can get solar panels at Best Buy

Best Buy
Mike Mozart

There was an era when putting solar panels on your roof was a time- and money-sucking hassle on par with remodeling your kitchen. But the cost of going solar has been dropping fast. The latest signal of the industry's move into the mainstream came last week, when San Mateo, Calif.-based SolarCity* announced it would begin to sell solar systems out of Best Buy, alongside big-screen TVs and digital cameras.

"There are a lot of people out there with unshaded roofs, paying high electricity bills, who just don't know this is an option for them," said Jonathan Bass, SolarCity's vice president of communications. The move into Best Buy "gives us a chance to have that conversation with more people."

The company is the biggest installer in the country's biggest solar market, California, a state that earlier this month broke its all-time solar power production record twice on two consecutive days, churning out enough electricity from solar panels to power roughly 3 million homes. Just since last summer, California's solar production has doubled, according to the California Independent System Operator, which manages the state's electric grid. There's a lot more growth where that came from, Bass said.

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These pictures of spring flowers will melt your frozen heart

Arenaria_congesta.jpg
Matt Lavin

Climate change might have had a hand in the exceptionally cold winter much of the country just suffered through, but on the upside, there's new evidence that it's sending spring in early, and giving us more time with wildflowers.

That's the conclusion of one of the most exhaustive surveys ever conducted on flowering "phenology," the term scientists use for the timing of seasonal events (such as the day the first migratory birds arrive in a given place or, in this case, the first day flowers open). The study was published today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. From 1974 to 2012, biologist David Inouye of the University of Maryland took a team to Colorado just as the winter frost was beginning to thaw, and spent the spring and summer documenting when 60 common plant species had their first, last, and peak (i.e., the most individual plants) flowering.

Read more: Climate & Energy

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Can this coal plant save the climate?

Climate Desk coal
Climate Desk

This story was written by the Guardian’s Suzanne Goldenberg. It was originally published in the Guardian and is reproduced here as part of the Climate Desk initiative. The video was produced by Climate Desk’Tim McDonnell.

The massive block of steel towers and pipes rises out of the morning fog like a sci-fi fantasy. But this coal-fired power plant could help save the climate, or at least that's the hope of the Obama administration.

The plant in Mississippi was repeatedly invoked by the Environmental Protection Agency to justify sweeping new climate change rules. When it comes online later this year, Kemper will be the first power plant in the U.S. capable of capturing and storing carbon dioxide emissions.

The EPA says the Kemper County Energy Facility offers a real-life example that it is possible to go on burning the dirtiest of fossil fuels and still make the cuts in carbon dioxide emissions needed to avoid a climate catastrophe.

But with staggering costs -- $5 billion and rising -- and pushback from industry and environmental groups who say carbon capture is an unproven technology, now even the company that built Kemper is having second thoughts about the future of "clean coal."

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Will Sochi have enough snow?

sochi ski snow
Sochi 2014 Winter Games

This episode of Inquiring Minds, a podcast hosted by neuroscientist and musician Indre Viskontas and best-selling author Chris Mooney, also features writer Maria Konnikova on the science behind why we need to sleep more and stop multitasking, as well a special guest appearance by science communicator Kiki Sanford, who helps us break down what happened in the widely watched Bill Nye vs. Ken Ham creationism debate earlier this week.

To catch future shows right when they are released, subscribe to Inquiring Minds via iTunes or RSS. We are also available on Stitcher and on Swell. You can follow the show on Twitter at @inquiringshow and like us on Facebook. Inquiring Minds was also recently singled out as one of the "Best of 2013" shows on iTunes -- you can learn more here.

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."

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 U.S. 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.

Read more: Climate & Energy

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6 things Obama can do on climate without Congress

President Barack Obama
The White House

When President Obama takes the stage this evening for his annual State of the Union address, a likely theme will be how the Oval Office can work toward its goals on everything from income inequality to the federal debt without relying on an obstinate, unproductive Congress. In his speech last year, Obama threatened to sidestep the legislative branch on actions to mitigate climate change, specifically, if Congress failed to provide its own solutions. This year, environmentalists are hoping to hear more details on what that plan could entail.

Some of the major goals of climate policy wonks, like putting a price on carbon pollution, can't happen without the help of Congress, but that doesn't mean the president's hands are completely tied; last week, the Center for the New Energy Economy at Colorado State University released a report, coauthored by former Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter, that details 200 climate actions Obama could take without Congress.

So what options does the president have? Here are a few ideas:

1. Continue the crackdown on coal pollution: This month the Environmental Protection Agency released a new draft of rules that would strictly curtail emissions of carbon dioxide from new coal-fired power plants; a second set of rules that would apply to existing plants is expected later this year. Slashing greenhouse gas emissions from power plants, which account for roughly a third of country's total GHG emissions, is a major pillar of the president's climate platform, even though a lengthy review process and probable legal challenges from the coal industry mean the rules aren't likely to take effect before the end of his term. But in the absence of a national price on carbon or other legislation, regulations like this are the most significant way the president can promote a transition away from our dirtiest power sources.

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The first lawsuit against Obama’s new coal limits just got filed

coal plant
Matt Lewis

In December 2012, a federal appeals court in Washington, D.C., dismissed a suit by the company behind a proposed new coal plant in Texas that sought to block new carbon dioxide pollution limits on power plants proposed by the EPA. The court's reasoning was that any appeal would have to wait until after the rules were finalized, not simply proposed. So last week, after the EPA published an updated version of the proposal, Clean Air Task Force legal director Ann Weeks said she doubted a new round of lawsuits would be in the offing.

But it took just a week to see the first fusillade against this major pillar of President Obama's climate strategy: Wednesday, the state of Nebraska, where coal is the largest power source, filed suit against the proposed rule.

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Scientists: Current international warming target is “disastrous”

hot earth
Shutterstock

Ever since the 2009 climate talks in Copenhagen, world leaders have agreed on 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees F) as the maximum acceptable global warming above pre-industrial levels to avert the worst impacts of climate change (today we’re at about 0.8 degrees C). But a new study, led by climatologist James Hansen of Columbia University, argues that pollution plans aimed at that target would still result in “disastrous consequences,” from rampant sea-level rise to widespread extinction.

A major goal of climate scientists since Copenhagen has been to convert the 2 degree limit into something useful for policymakers, namely, a specific total amount of carbon we can “afford” to dump into the atmosphere, mostly from burning fossil fuels in power plants (this is known as a carbon budget). This fall, the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change pegged the number at 1 trillion metric tons of carbon, or about twice what we’ve emitted since the late 19th century; if greenhouse gas emissions continue as they have for the last few decades, we’re on track to burn through the remaining budget by the mid-2040s, meaning immediately thereafter we’d have to cease emissions forever to meet the warming target.

The study, which was co-authored by Columbia economist Jeffrey Sachs and published today in the journal PLOS ONE, uses updated climate models to argue that the IPCC’s carbon budget would in fact produce warming up to twice the international limit, and that even the 2-degree limit would likely yield catastrophic impacts well into the next century. In other words, the study says, two of the IPCC’s fundamental figures are wrong.

Read more: Climate & Energy

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Explained in 90 seconds: Breaking the carbon budget

As we reported this week, some of the world's richest nations are lagging behind on their climate protection pledges. Most often, these commitments follow the formula: "We aim to reduce greenhouse gas emissions X percent below year Y levels by year Z." It seems like a straightforward proposition, but have you ever wondered where those numbers come from? The answer is a scientific concept known as the carbon budget, and like a teenager with her first credit card, we're well on our way to blowing right through it.

In the video above, Kelly Levin, a climate policy expert at the World Resources Institute, explains what our carbon budget is, how much we've already "spent," and why it matters.

Read more: Climate & Energy