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Tim McDonnell's Posts


The smart money is on renewable energy

Fossil fuel cheerleaders take note: Renewable energy ain't going nowhere -- and it may prove to be the better bet in the long run.

By 2030, renewables will account for 70 percent of new power supply worldwide, according to projections released Monday from Bloomberg New Energy Finance. Bloomberg analysts examined gas prices, carbon prices, the dwindling price of green energy technology, and overall energy demand (which, in the U.S. at least, is on a massive decline), and found solar and wind beating fossil fuels like coal and natural gas by 2030.

The chart below shows annual installations of new power sources, in gigawatts; over time, more and more of the new energy supply being built each year comes from renewable sources (like wind turbines and solar panels), by 2030 representing $630 billion worth of investment, while new fossil fuel sources (like coal- or gas-burning power plants) become increasingly rare.



GOP goes hunting for EPA emails about turducken

email keyboard

Earlier this month, when a burst pipe spilled thousands of gallons of heavy oil into an Arkansas suburb, the message from the White House went something like: “Everybody chill, the EPA has it under control.” But reporters on the scene found the cleanup orchestrated by the same company, ExxonMobil, that allowed the spill, and heard only crickets when they asked the EPA about its involvement.

Turns out, on some of the nation’s most pressing environmental health issues, the EPA’s transparency record isn’t exactly crystal-clear.

So with a vote on President Obama’s new pick to head the EPA, Gina McCarthy, coming up as soon as next week, it perhaps isn’t a surprise that congressional scrutiny of her nomination has centered more on the agency’s secret-keeping habits than on its environmental enforcement goals. At a hearing last Thursday before the Senate’s Environment and Public Works Committee, McCarthy got grilled on EPA’s transparency record by Republican members, led by Louisiana’s David Vitter. On Tuesday, the committee’s Republicans sent a memo demanding details on her plans to open up the agency’s inner workings.

But for all their zeal, Vitter and his GOP colleagues (including climate change denier-in-chief James Inhofe [R-Okla.]) might be barking up the wrong tree: A major thrust of their complaint against McCarthy, a feisty Bostonian currently overseeing EPA’s air quality division, hinges on the use of email aliases by top EPA officials and the possibility that they’ve used personal email accounts for official business, an issue currently under investigation by the EPA inspector general.

Outgoing EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson and Bush-era EPA head Christie Whitman both created official email addresses under fake names (Jackson’s was “Richard Windsor,” after a pet dog), apparently to circumvent a chronic deluge of spam. McCarthy says she doesn’t have an alias email and told the Senate committee she found only one instance of using her personal email for work -- which didn’t stop Vitter, in the memo, from demanding a full audit of her personal emails.

And while the use of unofficial email addresses beyond the reach of federal public records laws clearly raises the specter of important information being kept in the dark, few in the transparency or environmental journalism communities think it should be the focus of complaints about the agency’s openness.

“The concerns over fake emails are totally bogus,” says Joe Davis, a veteran environmental journalist and a member of the Society of Environmental Journalists’ freedom of information taskforce. “This wasn’t some made-up thing by Lisa Jackson to fool us all. They’re simply efforts to politically damage McCarthy and Lisa Jackson and EPA by people with an anti-regulatory agenda.”

Indeed, a review of a cache of “secret” emails from Jackson uncovered such pressing matters as whether “turducken” is a real thing (it is), and lyrics for a Santa-themed jingle about coal-ash regulation.


‘Messy’ U.S. climate policy is kinda working

Somehow, things are coming together for U.S. climate progress.
Somehow, things are coming together for U.S. climate progress.

A national climate change plan is nowhere in sight from Congress, and last week the Obama administration pushed back a deadline to crack down on power plant emissions. But despite those -- and many other -- familiar setbacks, a new report has found that the U.S. is nonetheless inching ahead on climate action.

Yesterday the Climate Policy Initiative released a sweeping overview [PDF] of climate change policies across the globe. It paints a picture of the U.S. that climate hawks might find distressingly, if familiarly, chaotic: A tangle of federal subsidies, differing state-level clean energy mandates, and a host of natural resources, from wind to coal to natural gas, scrambling for political favor.

“What makes the U.S. unique is that we have no overall climate strategy where all these policies fit,” said David Nelson, a CPI researcher and lead author of the report, which describes the thicket of state and federal climate policies as “messy but useful,” in that it lacks clarity and direction but can, with luck, produce results.

The surprising thing, Nelson said, is that while the U.S.’s approach to dealing with climate change lacks the focus of, say, the E.U.’s carbon trading market, it must be doing something right: Carbon dioxide emissions have fallen 13 percent in the last seven years, and yesterday the EPA announced that greenhouse gas emissions fell 1.6 percent from 2010 to 2011.


Obama biofuel budget spills few details, still attacked by House GOP

Bob Goodlatte's dream for America.
Bob Goodlatte's dream for America.

Enviros hoping for details on President Obama's promised biofuel push got a few answers yesterday in the president's new budget, which still left some questions as to how the administration plans to pay for expensive new biofuels research. The budget [PDF] indicates the Interior Department may charge the fossil fuel industry more to drill on public lands, a plan that already had Republicans bristling when the president hinted at it last month.

In mid-March, in a speech at Illinois' Argonne National Lab, Obama pitched an Energy Security Trust, which would collect $2 billion in additional revenues by 2020 from oil and gas companies that drill on federal land, and invest the funds in R&D for cutting-edge biofuels and clean vehicles. According to the Interior Department, these royalties totaled roughly $7.9 billion in FY 2012.

The speech left unclear the question of how an additional $2 billion in royalties could be raised without either raising royalty rates -- a non-starter for the fossil fuel industry -- or allowing more drilling on more public lands. A White House spokesperson was quick to rule out expanded drilling in Alaska, but left the possibility elsewhere. A Climate Desk calculation reviewed by MIT-based energy blogger Jesse Jenkins found that to raise an additional $2 billion in royalties through expanded drilling alone, oil and gas development on public land would need to increase by 1.5 percent and 7.2 percent, respectively, by 2020.

"You certainly don't gain anything by promoting clean energy that ends up promoting the production of more dirty energy sources," Natural Resources Defense Council policy analyst Bob Deans told Climate Desk last month.

Deans had hoped that today's budget would clear things up. While the proposal doesn't mention the Energy Security Trust by name, it calls for unspecified adjustments to royalty rates that The Hill reports would be redirected from the general treasury toward the trust. An Interior Department spokesperson said that annual oil and gas income to the government is projected to rise by $2.8 billion by 2023, but was unsure whether this money would come from new public land drilling or solely via increased royalties.

The budget also carves out $2.3 billion for the Energy Department's Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, which oversees R&D on advanced biofuels (as well as solar, wind, and other clean energy research), but doesn't specify how much of that would go toward biofuels specifically, or whether these funds are in addition to the $2 billion for the Energy Security Trust. A White House spokesperson did not return repeated calls for comment.

If Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) has his way, it could be a moot point: Goodlatte introduced a bill yesterday that would bar biofuels from comprising more than 10 percent of the nation's gasoline supply.


Frackers lose $1.5 billion yearly thanks to leaky pipes


Of all the many and varied consequences of fracking (water contamination, injured workers, earthquakes, the list goes on) one of the least understood is so-called “fugitive” methane emissions. Methane is the primary ingredient of natural gas, and it escapes into the atmosphere at every stage of production: at wells, in processing plants, and in pipes on its way to your house. According to a new study [PDF], it could become one of the worst climate impacts of the fracking boom -- and yet, it’s one of the easiest to tackle right away. Best of all, fixing the leaks is good for the bottom line.

According to the World Resources Institute, natural gas producers allow $1.5 billion worth of methane to escape from their operations every year. That might sound like small change to an industry that drilled up some $66.5 billion worth of natural gas in 2012 alone, but it’s a big deal for the climate: While methane only makes up 10 percent of greenhouse gas emissions (20 percent of which comes from cow farts), it packs a global warming punch 20 times stronger than carbon dioxide.

Click to embiggen.
World Resources Institute
Click to embiggen.

“Those leaks are everywhere,” said WRI analyst James Bradbury, so fixing them would be “super low-hanging fruit.”

The problem, he says, is that right now those emissions aren’t directly regulated by the EPA. In President Obama’s first term, the EPA set new requirements for capturing other types of pollutants that escape from fracked wells, using technology that also, incidentally, limits methane. But without a cap on methane itself, WRI finds, the potent gas is free to escape at incredible rates, principally from leaky pipelines. The scale of the problem is hard to overstate: The Energy Department found [PDF] that leaking methane could ultimately make natural gas -- which purports to be a “clean” fossil fuel -- even more damaging than coal, and an earlier WRI study found that fixing methane leaks would be the single biggest step the U.S. could take toward meeting its long-term greenhouse gas reduction goals.


The drought is drying up all our ethanol


Bill Pracht has bad memories of last summer. “The drought was so bad here that the corn was just decimated,” he recalls of the farm country around Garnett, Kan., where he oversees East Kansas Agri-Energy, an ethanol plant. “Many fields were zero.”

In August, corn prices hit their highest level ever, driven mainly by the severe drought that crippled America’s corn belt. By October, Pracht could see that he was spending more on corn than he could make with ethanol, and with no relief in sight, he began to have doubts about keeping the plant open.

“We knew we’d be wasting money,” he says.

So, he pulled the plug, shuttering the plant and laying off 20 employees until conditions improve enough to make churning out what was until recently one of the nation’s fastest-growing fuel sources profitable again. And as the EPA nears a final decision on new regulations that would require oil companies to use more ethanol in their gasoline mixes, Pracht’s story illustrates a risk of increasing reliance on corn-based fuels in a warming world.

Pracht isn’t alone: Over the last year, nearly 10 percent of the nation’s ethanol plants have shut down. Annual corn yields came in almost a third lower than projected, according to the USDA, driving record-high corn prices that are likely to continue to rise into 2013, up to 19 percent higher than 2011-2012 averages. Overall, 2012 was the first year since 1996 (another drought year) in which total ethanol production decreased [PDF] (by 4.5 percent), reversing a trend of exponential growth that’s lasted almost a decade, according to the federal Energy Information Administration:


How much is a beachfront home in the Sandy-ravaged Rockaways?

257 Beach 140th Street, a modest four-bedroom house blocks from the beach in the Rockaways, Queens, is fairly unremarkable, but it put up a hell of a fight during Hurricane Sandy. While other houses just down the street were being ripped off their foundations, 257, which had been up for sale since before the storm, suffered only a little flooding in the basement. It’s otherwise unscathed, but even that damage was enough to knock a solid 10 percent off its list price (down to $799,000 from $890,000), enough to make first-time homebuyers Matthew and Jenny Daly take a closer look.

“There are more opportunities because of everything that’s happened in the last six months,” Matthew says.

In New York City alone, Sandy racked up $3.1 billion worth of damage to homes. Many of those properties in hard-hit areas like the Rockaways and the south shore of Staten Island are still empty, awaiting repairs, government buyouts, resident squatters, or, like in the case of 257, a new owner ready to tackle a fixer-upper. Damaged homes are now on the market for as much as 60 percent off their pre-storm value, and local realtors say there’s a ready contingent of bargain-hunters waiting to pounce -- sometimes, to the detriment of sellers.


Can we 3D print our way out of climate change?

Tech optimists' crush of the decade is surely 3D printing. It has been heralded as disruptivedemocratizing, and revolutionary for its non-discriminatory ability to make almost anything: dressesguns, even houses. The process -- also known as "additive manufacturing" -- is still expensive and slow, confined to boutique objets d'art or lab-driven medical prototyping. But scaled up, and put in the hands of ordinary consumers via plummeting prices, 3D printing has the potential to slash energy and material costs. Climate Desk asks: Can 3D printing be deployed in the ongoing battle against climate change?

This story was produced as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.


Climate change could mean seven times as many Katrinas

Oh, just this, seven more times.

Batten down the hatches, East Coasters: A new study argues that for every 1 degree C (1.8 degrees F) of global warming, the U.S. Atlantic seaboard could see up to seven times as many Katrina-sized hurricanes.

That’s the conclusion of Aslak Grinsted, a climatologist at Copenhagen’s Niels Bohr Institute, who led an effort to match East Coast storm surge records from the last 90 years with global temperatures. His results, published today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, suggest that the strongest hurricanes are likely to become more commonplace with only half the level of warming currently projected by scientists.

“There is a sensitivity to warming, and it is surprisingly large,” Grinsted said.

The study compiled storm surge measurements from tide gauges at six locations on the East and Gulf coasts, filtering out the effects of seasonal cycles, daily tides, and overall sea-level rise to isolate the impact of storms. Next, these records were stacked against both global temperatures and a series of other climatic factors, like natural water temperature cycles and regional rainfall. The result? Global temperatures turned out to be one of the best predictors for hurricane activity. Using computer models, Grinsted found that a 1-degree-C rise in global temperatures could multiply extreme hurricane frequency by two to seven times.

Read more: Climate & Energy


Could Waxman’s new bill offer fresh hope for a carbon tax?

Rep. Waxman speaks at the Feb. 17 rally against the Keystone XL pipeline in Washington, D.C.
Charlie Kaijo
Henry Waxman speaks at the Feb. 17 rally against the Keystone XL pipeline in Washington, D.C.

It’s been a few years now since Reps. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) and Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) led an ambitious but doomed charge to get a carbon-pricing bill through Congress.

But in the wake of President Obama’s climate-centric State of the Union and inaugural addresses, a growing number of Democratic lawmakers are grinding out bills that would make polluters pay for their greenhouse gas emissions. Last month, Sens. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) announced plans to introduce a bill this spring to place a $20-per-ton tax on CO2, a move they argue could raise $1.2 trillion over the next decade. And today, Waxman, along with Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.), and Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii), hopped on the bandwagon with their own draft carbon-pricing scheme. Waxman’s legislation hasn’t been formally introduced into Congress, but is open for public feedback until April 12.

The two bills both aim to confront climate change by harnessing the power of the free market, a spokesperson for Waxman said, but offer different mechanisms for doing so. The Waxman bill would target power plants, for example, while the Boxer bill would focus on “upstream” emitters like coal mines and oil refineries. But both bills are likely to undergo tweaks before being officially introduced.