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Timeline: Koch Brothers' 50 Years in the Tar Sands

The Koch brothers built their first fortune on the particularly dirty form of oil mined in Alberta's tar sands, and they remain deeply invested there.

Jul 15, 2014

The Koch brothers built their first fortune on the particularly dirty form of oil mined in Alberta's tar sands, where they have been major players for 50 years, and remain deeply invested.

The key moment came in 1969, when Charles Koch secured full ownership of a heavy oil refinery in Minnesota. Almost forty years later he called the acquisition "one of the most significant events in the evolution of our company."

Below is an interactive timeline that tells the story of the Kochs' 50 years in the tar sands. It updates an in-depth story InsideClimate News published in 2012.

The Koch Brothers v. Tom Steyer: Whose Carbon Footprint Is Bigger?

The Koch brothers built their first fortune on the particularly dirty form of oil mined in Alberta's tar sands, and they remain deeply invested there.

By David Sassoon and Zahra Hirji

Jul 15, 2014

The libertarian conservative Koch brothers and the progressive liberal Tom Steyer are in a billionaire's showdown in the current election cycle, spending heavily in Congressional races across the country on their favorite candidates.

In an odd twist, the counterpunching last week was over culpability for carbon pollution.

The Koch brothers got to watch Steyer take an uppercut from an unexpected source—the New York Times. The paper took aim at Steyer—climate champion and Keystone XL pipeline foe—for having profited handsomely in the not-too-distant past from financing coal plants.

It was a bitter irony for Steyer's climate activist supporters that he emerged from the ring bruised as a carbon polluter. They blamed the Times for delivering the Kochs' sucker punch.

Tom Steyer/Credit: Fortune Brainstorm Green 2013Tom Steyer/Credit: Fortune Brainstorm Green 2013A blog called Powerline with ties to Charles and David, the activists said, was the source of the Times story, and they faulted the paper for doing a hit piece on a man who has repented his history with coal and has since made tackling climate change his life's goal.

Steyer's turnaround took moral courage, they argued, and asked: What about the Koch brothers? What is their history with global warming emissions?

America's Oil Consumption Is Rising, Not Falling, Outpacing China's

For the first time in 14 years, the nation's increase in crude oil consumption in 2013 was higher than China's, new figures show.

Jul 14, 2014

U.S. oil demand reversed course in dramatic fashion in 2013, as the nation's growth in crude consumption outpaced perennial leader China for the first time since 1999, according to oil company BP's annual compendium of world energy statistics.

The U.S. increase follows two years of declines, and dampens hopes that the world's largest oil guzzler was permanently reining in its appetite for crude. The nation's oil use rose by 400,000 barrels per day to a daily draw of 18.9 million barrels; China's oil consumption grew by 390,000 barrels a day, to 10.8 million barrels a day, according to the BP figures released last month.

"Are these data points a harbinger of things to come or just an aberration?" asked Christof Rühl, group chief economist at BP. "Too early to tell is the appropriate response."

Brazilian State Blazes Path To Sustainability in Amazonia

After sparking a movement against slash-and-burn agriculture and a murder, the State of Acre is selling a new vision of sustainability in the Amazon.

Jul 14, 2014

Jeff Tollefson has been reporting from the Brazilian Amazon for eight weeks and exploring Brazil's efforts to protect the world's largest rainforestand the earth's climate. This is his final blog post. Read the full travelogue here

The queen of the forest stands strong. Blood was shed, but there she is, buttressed by tall and narrow root walls that extend outward in six directions, mirroring her canopy some 100 feet above. In between is a sun-speckled chamber of moist air abuzz with the sound of crickets and other forest denizens. 

"They killed a lot of people," says Antonio "Duda" Teixeira Mendes, generating a hollow boom as he thumps his fist on one of the samaúma tree's roots. "But for me, it was worth the fight."

"They" are the ranchers who began moving into the state of Acre ("pronounced AH-kray") in the 1970s, bringing a slash-and-burn agriculture to a remote region of the western Amazon that had previously sustained itself, if barely and often unjustly, on the harvesting of rubber and other forest resources. In the 1980s, the old rubber tapper families, many with roots in a bygone rubber era that dates back to the turn of the 20th century, began to stand up for their rights and resist the ranchers who sought to clear them, and the trees, away.

One of the people who was killed in the ensuing struggle was Duda's cousin Chico Mendes. Before his death in 1988, by gunshot outside his home in the town of Xapuri, Chico Mendes had garnered international recognition—and an invitation to testify before the U.S. Congress—for his leadership in the fight to preserve this particular patch of forest. Local rancher Darly Alves da Silva and his son Darci Alves were sentenced to prison for the murder.



To Relieve Drought in California, Strong El Nino Is Needed

Fifteen percent of historic El Niños would have been wet enough to lift California out of its current drought.

Jul 10, 2014

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration on Thursday said again that El Niño, a warming of temperatures in the Pacific, is 80 percent likely to strike this winter—though how intense it could get is still unclear.

That uncertainty leaves a critical question unanswered: Could El Niño bring to America the same heavy rainfall this year that it has in the past?

Nowhere is the need for an answer more acute than in California, where extreme drought covers 80 percent of the state and water supplies have dwindled to one-fifth of normal levels. This year is likely to be the driest in state history.

"El Niño would be the one way that we could...really breathe a sigh of relief and say, 'Okay good, this winter should alleviate this drought,'" said Mike Dettinger, a California-based research hydrologist at the U.S. Geological Survey and research associate at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography. "People are watching it with real interest."

Two exceptionally strong El Niños—one in 1982-83 and one in 1997-98—caused torrential rains in California.

But on average, El Niños have brought heavier-than-normal precipitation to California and the Southwest only a third of the time. And instead of delivering drought relief, weak El Niños can deliver drought.

Methane May Leak From 40% of Gas Wells in Parts of Pennsylvania

Study published in PNAS is based on inspection records of 41,000 wells drilled between 2000 and 2012.

Jul 10, 2014

People who live among the fracking fields of Pennsylvania should expect considerable leaking of methane from natural gas wells into the groundwater and atmosphere, according to new research by a professor who has been a consistent critic of the boom in hydraulic fracturing.

A research team led by Anthony Ingraffea of Cornell University reached this conclusion after examining state inspection records of more than 41,000 wells drilled from 2000 through 2012 throughout  Pennsylvania.

Because of flaws detected by inspectors in the concrete or casing of the wells, up to 40 percent of the oil and gas wells in some parts of the state may end up leaking methane, they reported in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.



Global Warming Interactive: How Hot Will Your City Get?

Type in your town in the box below and find out what summer could feel like if climate change continues unabated.

Jul 10, 2014

If Americans think record-breaking summer heat in recent years has been brutal, just wait several decades.

That's the message of a new project from Climate Central, a nonprofit climate news and research organization based in New Jersey.

According to the research, U.S. cities could be up to 12 degrees Fahrenheit hotter than they are today by 2100. St. Paul, Minnesota could feel like Dallas, Texas. Las Vegas could feel like places in Saudi Arabia, with average temperatures of 111 degrees Fahrenheit. Phoenix could feel like Kuwait City, one of the hottest cities in the world, with average temperatures of 114 degrees Fahrenheit.

The scientists' findings are summed up in the report, "1,001 Blistering Future Summers," which includes an interactive tool (below) that allows users to look up projected June-August temperatures in their communities by century's end. 



Texas Sheriff Wants Criminal Charges Filed in Fracking Pollution Case

Hauling company that dumped toxic drilling waste over eight miles of road and never told authorities faces formal enforcement action.

Jul 9, 2014

A Texas waste hauling company that is already facing civil charges for a March accident that spread toxic drilling waste along a rural road could also be facing criminal charges.

Karnes County Sheriff Dwayne Villanueva said he will ask county prosecutors to file a criminal complaint against On Point Services LLC after the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) and the Texas Railroad Commission close their civil cases against the company.  

"We are prepared to ask the district attorney's office to review the case for action," Villanueva said. "There are two different levels of enforcement here: the civil by the state and the criminal by the county."

Ambition Is Key to 2015 Global Climate Accord, but the Lift Is Heavy

Three new studies show that much greater ambition on tackling climate change is needed to reach a climate treaty that staves off disaster.

Jul 8, 2014

The word is "ambition," and it's being voiced this summer with extra urgency by those who worry that the world's leaders won't soon commit themselves to measures strong enough to combat climate change.

In September, heads of state are to gather at a United Nations climate summit to cheer each other on. In December in Peru negotiators are supposed to produce a draft treaty binding the world to decades of steep cuts in greenhouse gas emissions. And early next year each country is expected to spell out just how deeply it will cut its own global warming pollution. The hope is to have a deal done in Paris by the end of 2015.

It's a daunting timetable. But the way to keep on pace, experts warn, is not to lighten the load.



In Rare Effort, Ohio Scientist to Test Water Before Fracking Soars

Baseline tests offer a template for other fracking communities worried about how drilling might contaminate groundwater supplies.

Jul 8, 2014

As the shale gas boom was making its way into Ohio in 2012, University of Cincinnati scientist Amy Townsend-Small began testing private water wells in Carroll County, the epicenter of the Utica Shale. Her project, which includes samples of more than 100 wells, is one of the few sustained efforts in the nation to evaluate drinking water quality before, during and after gas drilling.

Although it will likely be another year before Townsend-Small releases the results, her work offers a template for other communities worried about how drilling, fracking and producing unconventional natural gas might contaminate groundwater supplies.

Most residents test their water only after they suspect it has been polluted; few have the resources or foresight to conduct baseline testing prior to the drilling.