Sharon Kelly

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Sharon Kelly is an attorney and freelance writer based in Philadelphia. She has reported for The New York Times, The Guardian, The Nation, National Wildlife, Earth Island Journal, and a variety of other publications. Prior to beginning freelance writing, she worked as a law clerk for the ACLU of Delaware.

Washington Petrochemical Plant Subsidies Would Violate Federal ‘Double Dipping’ Rules Say Environmental Groups

Read time: 7 mins
Kalama methanol plant site

A plan to build a natural gas–fueled petrochemical plant in Kalama, Washington, ran into a new legal hurdle last week, as a coalition of environmental groups raised new objections to its construction.

The Port of Kalama methanol plant, if built on the Columbia River between Washington and Oregon, would expand North America’s capacity to export products produced by fracked shale gas wells, and is part of a $5.2 billion plan to develop methanol plants in this corner of the Pacific Northwest. It has applied for funding from a controversial Department of Energy “Advanced Fossil Energy Projects” program — an $8.5 billion fund offering taxpayer subsidies to the fossil fuel industry.

Oil Industry Set Agenda During Climate Summit Meeting with Big Greens

Read time: 9 mins
Pratima Rangarajan, CEO of OGCI Climate Investments

Last week, as climate activist Greta Thunberg addressed the United Nations Climate Action Summit, invited leaders from major environmental groups spent their day listening to the leaders of fossil fuel companies discuss how they want to respond to the climate crisis.

Depending on which room you were in, you would have heard two very different messages.

Fossil Fuel Ad Campaigns Emphasize 'Positives' After Climate Science Denial PR Lands Industry in Hot Seat

Read time: 7 mins
Oil rig at sunset over Huntington Beach, California

This story is part of Covering Climate Now, a global collaboration of more than 250 news outlets to strengthen coverage of the climate story.  

Public relations experts keep a careful eye on the multitude of ways that PR can go wrong: tracking the year’s biggest “PR blunders,” assessing flopped ads for lessons learned, and noting when to remain silent and when to circulate a particular point of view.

PR blunders have been blamed for causing stock prices to dip, powerful executives to lose jobs, and occasionally even forced public apologies from PR representatives themselves.

But it takes a special kind of PR nightmare — a particularly unusual kind in the U.S., with its broad protections for free speech — to prompt investigations by state attorneys general into whether a company’s public messaging was so misleading and harmful that it should be considered illegal.

That is the situation facing one of the world’s most powerful industries, on one of the most consequential issues of our time, climate change. The subject of these investigations isn’t the direct harm from the fossil fuel industry’s actions, it’s the ways that companies communicated about their actions, and how that misled investors or the public.

And right on cue, the fossil fuel industry's PR professionals have been stepping in to help reshape the narratives propping up their bottom lines.

Cheap Renewables Could Make 90% of Proposed Gas Power Plants — and Many Pipelines — Obsolete by 2035

Read time: 12 mins
Texas windmills

There’s one big reason that analysts say America’s electrical power should soon run on clean energy sources like wind and solar rather than fossil fuels like coal and natural gas: your power bill.

Greenpeace Shuts Down Houston Ship Channel to Protest Oil Exports as Democratic Candidates Arrive in Texas for Debate

Read time: 4 mins
Greenpeace activists hanging from the Fred Hartman Bridge over the Houston Ship Channel

Today, as Democratic presidential contenders arrive for a major debate this evening in Houston, 22 activists from Greenpeace sought to shut down what they called the country’s “largest fossil fuel thoroughfare,” the Houston Ship Channel, by rappelling from the Fred Hartman Bridge in Baytown, Texas.

Greenpeace said the rappellers plan to stay in place for 24 hours, through tonight’s Democratic debates.

Democratic Presidential Candidates Face 7 Hours of Tough Questions on Climate Change, From Fracking to Fossil Fuels

Read time: 10 mins

CNN’s Wolf Blitzer kicked off a seven-hour long town hall on climate change with an unambiguous message of urgency on climate change.

This unprecedented town hall is dedicated to the climate crisis,” he said, “an issue many voters say needs aggressive action and some scientists say that action needs to happen now.”

Many of the candidates offered multi-trillion dollar plans to address the crisis — as economists warn that the price of failing to act could be $69 trillion worldwide by the end of the century and U.S. firms forecast roughly $1 trillion in climate-related hits to their bottom lines over the next five years.

But the highlight of the evening wasn’t the economics nor was it the candidates. It was the questions — a mix of queries from CNN reporters, video-taped messages, and those attending the town hall in person. The questions were often nuanced and detailed — and drew on understandings shaped by both personal experience and professional expertise.

Pipeline Permit Scandal Highlights Confusion Amid Push to Build Plastics Plants

Read time: 9 mins
Shell Cracker Plant

For the past 42 years, the Beaver County Conservation District in western Pennsylvania has hosted their Maple Syrup Festival, an annual all-you-can-eat pancake breakfast featuring syrup made from maple trees in a park in Beaver Falls.

It’s a huge event in this county, population 164,742; organizers expected up to 40,000 attendees at last year’s festival, which included a Civil War re-enactment, pony rides, and craft demonstrations like bobbin lace making.

But with the arrival of Shell and its $6 billion plastics manufacturing plant, currently under construction in Beaver County, the conservation district assumed more serious responsibilities than throwing a maple syrup festival — including permitting the fossil fuel pipelines feeding the massive plastics complex.

Christopher Leonard's New Book Puts an Ever-Expanding 'Kochland' on the Map

Read time: 8 mins
Kochland book cover over Pine Bend refinery

Christopher Leonard’s new book, Kochland: The Secret History of Koch Industries and Corporate Power in America, begins, appropriately enough, with an FBI agent, who is investigating criminal activity by the company, standing in a field with a pair of binoculars, trying to catch a glimpse of the daily operations of a company that prizes secrecy.

Koch Industries was under investigation for theft of oil from the Osage and other Indigenous nations. Walking into the company's office building involved passing through security checkpoints, Leonard explains, so numerous that one investigator later told Leonard that it “reminded him of traveling to CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia.”

Through exhaustive reporting and extraordinary interviews with past and current company executives, including some turned whistleblower, Kochland offers readers a view far larger than can be seen through binocular lenses, walking readers past those layers of security checkpoints and into the inner workings of an institution that has for decades tirelessly built itself into practically all American lives, while largely evading accountability or transparency.

Fracking and Shale Drilling Caused Spike in Climate-Warming Methane Pollution, Says New Study

Read time: 8 mins
Flaring in Permian Basin Shale with sunflowers

Climate-changing pollution reached unprecedented levels in 2018. That's both judged against the last 60 years of modern measurements and against 800,000 years of data culled from ice cores, according to the U.S. government’s State of the Climate report, which was published this week with the American Meteorological Society.

That pollution creates a greenhouse effect that is over 42 percent stronger than it was in 1990, the report added.

And while carbon dioxide hit a new level last year, it isn't the only climate-changing gas that’s on the rise globally. Pollution of the powerful but short-lived greenhouse gas methane also climbed in 2018, showing an increase “higher than the average growth rate over the past decade,” the report adds.

A new Cornell University study published today in the scientific journal Biogeosciences helps to explain what sparked the surge in those methane concentrations, both here in the U.S. and around the world.

One big culprit: shale drilling and fracking.

Documents Shine New Light on Koch Brothers’ Early Efforts to Abolish the Department of Energy

Read time: 8 mins
David Koch and Ed Clark

A scheme to abolish the Department of Energy (DOE) helped spur a failed 1980 Libertarian Party presidential bid — and in the process laid the groundwork for Charles and David Koch's powerful network of influence — as documents from a newly published archive show.

The documents in the new KochDocs.org archive include a relatively little-noticed column penned by fossil fuel industrialist Charles Koch for the Libertarian Review in August 1977, in which Charles, who had served as a member of President Carter’s energy task force in 1976, argued against Carter’s energy policy, writing that the “only ‘certainty’ to be associated with governmental planning is that it will not work, will tend to produce results opposite to those intended, and will doom any substantial private long-range planning in energy development.”

Within three years, the Energy Department had been established by federal law — and its abolishment had become a central plank of the Libertarian Party’s 1980 presidential campaign, which featured Ed Clark as its presidential candidate and Koch IndustriesDavid Koch as his running-mate. 

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