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James West and Tim McDonnell's Posts


Drought, floods, and one giant storm: The year in climate insanity [VIDEO]

2012, the hottest year on record in the U.S., has been a wild year for Climate Desk. We’ve scoped out coal-guzzling data centers; traipsed across New York City’s solar-paneled rooftops; stepped through the ashes of Colorado’s record-breaking wildfire season; mingled with drought-striken cattle; been awed by the North Dakota fracking boom; cruised down the shrinking Mississippi River; strained to hear through the climate silence; seen communities pick through debris left by Superstorm Sandy, and more.

Along the way, we’ve depended on you to share stories and insights about this warming world, what we see as the most important issue of our time. A big thank you to all our readers, and we can’t wait to give you a front-row seat to whatever 2013 has in store. To be continued …

Read more: Climate & Energy


My grandma, the fracking matriarch

This summer, James West and I hopped in our mud-caked rental sedan and followed the oil tankers out of Williston, N.D. On my notepad was a scribbled address, a spot deep in the North Dakota prairie, just off the shores of serpentine Lake Sakakawea, 20 miles from the nearest town. As we drove oil rigs cropped up in every direction, each indistinguishable from the last. But somewhere out there was the one we were after: the one with my name on it.

James West
The author, somewhere near his treasure trove.

In the most recent issue of Mother Jones, we reported on the explosive growth happening in North Dakota as a result of fracking. The drilling technique has unlocked massive deposits of oil from the Bakken Shale, which translate directly to massive deposits of cash for everyone from truck drivers to rig operators to local strippers to the Big Oil kingpins of Houston and Oklahoma City. And in the interest of full journalistic disclosure, I think it’s about time I came clean: A few of those dirty fracked dollars are in my family’s greasy little pocket.

Read more: Climate & Energy


Sandy-battered neighborhood gives thanks for solar [VIDEO]

Since Hurricane Sandy, the historic Belle Harbor Yacht Club in the Rockaways -- one of New York City's hardest-hit neighborhoods -- has become an indispensable hub for supplies, volunteers, and a much-needed round of drinks. Three weeks after the storm, the oft-maligned Long Island Power Authority still hasn't reconnected this building, not to mention its neighbors, back to the grid, leaving locals to face the prospect of a cold, dark Thanksgiving.

But outside, the sun is shining, and three local solar power companies have seen an opportunity to bridge the gap left open by the electric utility. The yacht club, among several area buildings, is now plugged into a portable solar power generator, which frees volunteers from the endless gas lines that plague those dependent on traditional generators and leaves them ready to dish out hot plates of turkey and stuffing to the beleaguered community.

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


Oil and gas workers fracked by on-the-job injuries

On a cloudy spring morning, Ethan Ritter sat behind the wheel of a dump truck, lost in the maze of oil rigs northeast of Williston, N.D. Ritter, then 21, was hauling a load of gravel for his brother, who was doing road construction. He made a full stop at the tracks; there were no boom gates, only a crossing sign. His CB radio was off and all was quiet. Ritter looked both ways, then eased on the gas and headed into the crossing.

Next thing he knew, a Burlington Northern Santa Fe engine was shoving his truck down the track sideways at more than 40 miles an hour. “It was crazier than any roller coaster you can find, I’ll tell you that!” he recalls. “All I know is I got hit by the train. And that I was still kicking.”

In the past four years, the intersection -- the only access point to a handful of oil wells -- has seen four train-truck accidents, one of them fatal. Nationwide, collisions of trains and motor vehicles have dropped by 32 percent since 2006, but in North Dakota they’re up 67 percent.

Fracking relies on trucks. In its lifetime, a single well requires some 1,500 trips by semis, tankers, and pickups -- oil out; water, sand, and chemicals in. This is especially true in places like the Bakken Shale, where pipelines are scarce. On Williston’s crumbling roads, mud-caked semis jostle for space like massive bumper cars. Rush-hour backups can stretch for miles.

Vehicle accidents are the top danger to oil and gas workers, who are killed on the job at a rate nearly eight times the national average, according to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. As the number of rigs increases, fatalities increase in tandem.

Read more: Climate & Energy


Weary New Jersey residents face another ordeal: Voting [VIDEO]

Hurricane Sandy took away a lot of things: power, homes, even lives. For residents of Moonachie, N.J., a small town just across the Hudson River from New York City, the storm took a stab at their basic right to vote. After severe flooding here, much of the town remains without power, which led local election officials to decide over the weekend to close all the polling places and redirect residents to consolidated locations nearby.

It's the same story all across the state: Some 300 polling places shut down or moved, according to the governor's office, creating a logistical nightmare for election planners and a headache for voters (for what it's worth, Gov. Chris Christie (R) announced plans to allow votes to be emailed or faxed in). And while New Jersey, a solidly blue state, has never seen less than 70 percent turnout for a presidential election, residents here say until the lights come back on, casting a vote is the furthest thing from their minds.


Breezy Point, Queens, reels from hurricane-caused inferno [VIDEO]

"I think we all can agree we're seeing complete and utter devastation," Brendan Gallagher says, standing in front of the charred remains of his childhood home.

Just a short drive from New York City's famous Rockaway beaches, Breezy Point, Queens, is a quaint seaside hamlet where many cops and firefighters come to retire. It's a place known for charming historic bungalows and sweeping ocean views, but on Monday night, it quickly became the setting for some of Hurricane Sandy's most terrifying damage.

Read more: Climate & Energy


Can Big Wind wake from its recurring nightmare?

Michael Lemmon

Jacob Susman is frustrated again. Sitting in the bright green conference room of his company’s trendy industrial office, overshadowed by the Brooklyn Bridge, he’s a clean-cut poster child for the “green economy”: Since 2007, Susman’s OwnEnergy, which installs wind turbines, has grown to be one of the nation’s most prominent wind installers. But he’s plagued by a recurring nightmare: “Every few years the industry has to drop everything for six or nine months and focus exclusively on having the credit passed.”

He’s talking about the Production Tax Credit, the federal subsidy for renewable energy that gives a 2.2-cent-per-kilowatt-hour break to wind energy producers. Those pennies add up to about $1 billion per year, no chump change for the burgeoning industry. Proponents of wind energy say since its inception in 1992, the PTC has been a crucial driving force behind the industry’s rapid growth; critics of the PTC (including the fossil-fuel funded American Energy Alliance) say the industry has had ample time to take off its training wheels (never mind that fossil fuel subsidies historically run about 13 times higher than renewables).

The subsidy has become a touchstone issue in the presidential campaign for windy swing states like Iowa and Colorado: Mitt Romney has referred to the PTC as a “stimulus boondoggle” and vowed to kill it, while Obama has promised to give the credit his support.


What’s inside your iPhone 5? [VIDEO]

The iPhone has become one of the developed world’s most ubiquitous consumer products; the new iPhone 5 sold more than 5 million units in its first week. But the vast majority of iPhone users have no clue what goes into the guts of their coveted toy. That’s no accident, since the phone’s internal design and chemical content are closely guarded trade secrets and Apple deliberately makes it difficult for consumers to open up the device.

Enter Kyle Wiens, whose company, iFixit, aims to help users penetrate their gadgets’ dark secrets, from how much toxic mercury they contain to how to change the damn battery. Last week, Climate Desk found shelter from a torrential rainstorm near one of New York City’s Apple stores and watched Wiens go to work (see video above). Today, iFixit released the results of its chemical analysis of the iPhone 5 and a suite of other popular cellphones, conducted by the environmental nonprofit Ecology Center.

First the good news: The iPhone 5 is leagues ahead of its more toxic predecessors -- especially the 2G.


Carpe climate: House Dems seize extreme summer to attack GOP

Rep. Ed Markey addresses a Union of Concerned Scientists symposium. (Photo by Tim McDonnell.)

In these first days of autumn, temperatures are finally starting to break after the country's third-hottest summer on record. But meanwhile, most of the country is still locked in terrible drought, rebuilding after wildfires, or drying out after Hurricane Issac. And after endless calls from scientists and signs that the public is shifting on climate change in response to extreme weather, climate-minded Democrats are seeing an opportunity to lampoon House Republicans as climate skeptics in the runup to November's general election.

Reps. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) and Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), the legislators behind Congress' first (and failed) big stab at carbon pricing legislation, yesterday released a study that lays out the case for why global warming is a predictor of more severe and frequent weather disasters. A press release for the study slammed Republicans as responding to extreme weather by taking steps to "deny science and block action," indicating that House Democrats have embraced climate change as wedge issue.

"We wanted to show that [Mitt] Romney is an extremist when it comes to extreme weather," Markey told reporters after addressing a Union of Concerned Scientists symposium in Washington, D.C., on the need to improve public access to government research.

There's little that's groundbreaking in the study, which is built largely around preexisting data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. But after this summer's freakish weather, and with one presidential candidate for whom climate change is a punchline, Markey said he is seeking to gain an acknowledgement in Congress that the weather we now see as extreme is likely to become normal.


Shocker: Fox News misleads audience on climate change

Photo by Ario.

Brace yourself for some shocking news: A new study on Friday found that the two major publications of Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation greatly mislead their audiences about climate change. The Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) combed six months of Fox News broadcasting and a year's worth of Wall Street Journal editorial pages for mentions of the science of "climate change" and "global warming," then compared each claim to "mainstream scientific understanding" of the topic at hand. Here's what they found:

Data from UCS.

"Everywhere I go, what I hear quoted back to me as scientific fact is often wrong," said Brenda Ekwurzel, a UCS staff scientist who presented the study to an audience gathered to discuss the state of climate communication with TIME environment editor Bryan Walsh and Harvard oceanographer James McCarthy. "That, to me, is so discouraging."

What's especially creepy about the study is how low the bar is for what constitutes "accurate." From the study:

Citations deemed to be misleading questioned either the reality of climate change or the fact that recent climate change is largely due human activities, or they advanced other arguments that dismissed established climate science.

In other words, this is quantitative proof that the climate change debate in America is still mired in bickering over whether the problem even exists or not.

Read more: Climate & Energy