Years of Living Dangerously Recap: Episode 6, Winds of Change

This week, actress America Ferrera checks out renewable energy supporters and outspoken climate change critic James Taylor of the Heartland Institute. The New York Times' Mark Bittman is back for another investigation, this one on fracking and its impact on our atmosphere. This episode's theme: where goes our energy future? And who has the power to make that choice?

Stories of the Week

Against the Wind

America Ferrera heads to Kansas to see how supportive public policy has enabled the explosive growth of renewable energy in the past few years. Of course, she (and many viewers, presumably) are big fans of solar and wind. What's not to like?

Rancher Pete Ferrell lives in the home built by his great-grandfather. Thanks to the state's backing of wind power, Ferrell's wind farm is a second source of income, and a critical one after the third year of the ongoing drought continued to put other ranchers out of business. Like over half of the states in the US, Kansas has passed a renewable energy law mandating that 20 percent of its electricity must come from renewable sources by 2020. Exciting for wind and solar purveyors, not so much for Big Energy. 

And the energy industry lobby and right wing, led by the Heartland Institute's James Taylor, have come straight to Topeka to spread the word among state lawmakers that tearing down existing power plants to convert to renewables is wasteful, harmful and responding to a climate crisis that he claims isn't real. 

My favorite moment in this story: Ferrera asks Taylor how he, as a lawyer, is qualified to discredit 95 percent of climate scientists who agree that human activity has contributed to global warming. "I'm a scientist," Taylor says. "I completed some Ivy League atmospheric science courses 25 years ago." Struggling to keep a straight face, Ferrara can't quite muster a response, but her amazing eyeroll is pretty much the perfect comment.

"Is that a risk worth taking? Because the oil and gas boom is just starting." 

While getting to the bottom of Heartland's well-funded work, Ferrera learns that The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) writes - literally - more than 100 bills passed each year around the country, offered as a convenience to busy lawmakers. So the funders of ALEC exert tremendous control and power in US politics right now. We just don't know who those funders are.

Heartland received $27.4 million between 1998 - 2010 from ExxonMobil and $72 million from the Koch Brothers. All told, over $558 million has been spent between 2003 to 2010 on denying climate change and obstructing environmental policy. Despite ferocious efforts thus far, however, they and Taylor have not been able to overturn renewable energy mandates in any state.

Chasing Methane

Power plants are the biggest carbon emitters in the US. The good news is that a few companies are actually interested in making the switch to renewables, following the lead of Germany, Japan and Denmark. But the American natural gas boom of the past few years has instead been championed by everyone from President Obama to the EPA to state regulators and legislators nationwide as a safe "transition fuel" away from dirty coal-burning plants. Fracking natural gas is supposed to be the clean, affordable, US-based alternative to fossil fuels that doesn't worsen warming.

Mark Bittman reports again, sharing that he was one of the early supporters of that notion because natural gas isn't a carbon emitter. But there's been enough controversy raised over the past few years that he's curious to explore the findings of scientists who've been studying gas drilling and methane emissions. CH4 is odorless, tasteless, colorless and eighty times more powerful a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide - so it actually has the potential to do tremendous damage. The more methane that goes into the atmosphere, the weightier Earth's already heavy insulating blanket becomes.

Scientist Gaby Pettron, from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) in Colorado, studied methane emissions wafting high above the Denver-Julesberg Basin.  Beginning in 2008, Pettron and her colleagues noticed some highly unusual readings recorded at NOAA's air monitoring tower showing the area exceeded federal limits for ozone, but no one knew why. They found their answer: 4 percent of the methane produced in the nearby oil and gas fields was leaking into the air - much higher than the EPA-tolerated and industry-estimated figure of 1 percent. The industry is very curious about Pettron's results, Bittman reports, and no wonder. 

Pettron's research dovetails with that of Cornell's Anthony Ingraffea (who estimated a leak range from 3.6 percent to 7.9 percent) and Picarro, the oil and gas leak experts typically hired by industry. Picarro found a leak rate of 11 percent in the Uinta Basin in Utah. NOAA found a 17 percent leak rate in the Los Angeles Basin. The data is lining up, and many operations have blown way past that nice and allegedly safe 1 percent threshold.

Bittman concludes with a key question: "Is that a risk worth taking? Because the oil and gas boom is just starting." 

Voices from Episode 6

  • "Drought is like a piece of sand you can never get out of your eye. It is always there." - Pete Ferrell, Kansas rancher
  • "We're the Saudi Arabia of natural gas." - Tom Holton, Mayor of Fort Lupton, Colorado

Take Action and Learn More

To find out more about hydraulic fracturing, see our Fracking resources.  

To find out more about renewables, see "Renewable Energy at the Nexus".

Check out "Solar Mythbusting" to learn 7 myths about solar panels.

To do one thing about emissions this week, check out via the Years of Living Dangerously site

To discuss the series on social media, join us in conversation with @YearsofLiving on Instagram, @YEARSofLIVING on Twitter and @YearsofLiving on Facebook


Check out our previous Years of Living Dangerously recaps:


Episode 2, The End of the Woods

Episode 3, The Surge

Episode 4, Ice and Brimstone

Episode 5, True Colors

Episode 6, Winds of Change

Episode 7, Revolt, Rebuild, Renew

Episode 8, A Dangerous Future

Episode 9, Moving a Mountain