The Thin Green Line

The Northwest faces off against titanic coal and oil export schemes.
This post is 24 in the series: The Northwest's Pipeline on Rails

The Pacific Northwest stands squarely between the most voracious energy markets in the world and huge fossil fuel deposits in the interior of North America—Powder River Basin coal, Bakken shale oil, Alberta tar sands, and remote natural gas fields. Big energy companies plan to unearth these vast reserves of carbon-intense fuels and put them up for sale in Asia.

If they are successful, these energy firms will unleash the carbon equivalent of roughly five Keystone XL Pipelines. But to get their products to market, energy companies first have to build new terminals and pipelines to move all that fuel. They need destinations for the scores of oil and coal trains that they plan to run across the Northwest, and they need right-of-ways to lay new pipelines.

In short, they need our permission.

So it is by geographic accident that the Northwest, perhaps the greenest corner of North America, will play an outsize role in determining the planet’s climate future. Will we double-down on coal and oil use, thereby jeopardizing our chance at a stable climate? Or will we act as a thin green line, insisting that we must do better—that our economy and our children demand a cleaner future?

To illustrate the threat—and the enormous opportunity—Sightline is proud to release a new video animation by Don Baker.


Don also compiled the video’s story into a handy infographic:

The Thin Green Line, by Don Baker, for Sightline Institute

The Thin Green Line (infographic) by Don Baker (Created for Sightline Institute.)

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  1. Earl I. White says:

    I thought the “The Green Line” had brave words about stopping the transport of fossil fuels but the reality is that the battle is almost lost already. The Corp of Engineers should have been forced to do a programmatic EIS which would have looked at the cumulative impact of all the proposals to ship the fossil fuels through Washington. Now the individual proposals will be allowed without the cumulative impact. The recent UW coal air pollution clearly shows that the cumulative air pollution will exceed the EPA standards. The NTSB recently said that oil trains should not run through the center of towns and the Sightline studies clearly show the impact of fossil fuel train traffic on cities. The first permit to ship coal from Washington will empower the BLM to sell coal leases and the BLM does not exercise oversight of transportation impacts. I am a retired environmental consultant (40 yrs) and I can tell you from experience that neither the Corps or the BLM really care about the environment of the effect of energy projects on people.

    • David Crook says:

      “The recent UW coal air pollution clearly shows that the cumulative air pollution will exceed the EPA standards” No, it does not. It extrapolates,assumes and suggests. Read the report for what it says, not what you would like it to say.

      • Michael Riordan says:

        I agree, for the most part. The UW Bothell study is suggestive but not entirely conclusive. It shows that additional fine particulates beyond diesel fumes are emanating from coal trains in light winds. It’s hard to see what else these might be except for coal dust, and whatever they are, the particulates should only increase when the winds increase, especially in a direction opposite to the train’s motion. It would be helpful to have more such studies done in other sites and conditions, by other researchers using different methods.

  2. Michael Litt says:

    This is a terrific video!

  3. Eric de Place says:

    On a related note, this cartoon should be mandatory viewing.

  4. Wild Idaho Rising Tide says:

    West Coast activists disappointingly and unproductively write-off Idaho and Montana citizen concerns and resistance in their “regional” campaigns against fossil fuel exports (not to mention equipment imports, like tar sands megaloads and oil and gas production infrastructure expanding the sources of extraction, which we seem to battle in relative obscurity). Like the unbalanced emphasis on Highway 12 megaloads while the rest of the region awaits mobilization, opposing tar sands, coal, and shale oil exports will require persistent, heroic efforts by comparably unsupported, isolated inland Northwest activists asserting the collective political will – arising from passion born in wilder backyards than privileged urbanites – to protect places more vulnerable to the rampages of dirty fossil fuel corridors, but predictably neglected by the business-as-usual of conservation cartels.

    • Eric de Place says:

      I certainly don’t intend to minimize the outsize work done by activists in the interior states. You’re absolutely right that many people and organizations there are doing major heavy lifting in opposition to fossil fuels. And I don’t think it serves us to become balkanized: fossil fuel shipment create very serious problems for rural and urban areas alike.

      My with The Thin Green Line is simply to demonstrate how high the stakes are for Oregon, Washington, and BC. These are the places where the terminals will be permitted and sited, and they are also the places with political environments most likely to oppose fossil transport. That’s not a dig at Idaho or Montana — far from it — it’s just a recognition of the leverage the coastal Northwest has in this struggle.

  5. David Moore says:

    Modern humans are defined by burning huge amounts of hydrocarbons which is trashing the ecosystems. The dominant Republican position is this is fine and dandy and our only hope for balanced trade. so the only hope is to get some progressive Democrats to change current law, which almost requires BLM, EPA, Coast guard etc to allow mining and shipping of oil and coal. This will take a wrenching cultural change like the creation of the National forests

  6. David Moore says:

    Another drawback to oil exports is the rate of exploitation of resources like the Bakken shale formation in North Dakota. When this and similar formations are quickly depleted there will be less oil available to grow and ship food, build houses, make medicines etc. People should think of their children and grandchildren.

  7. Ed Averill says:

    I like the “Thin Green Line” point of view a lot. I hope it helps us concentrate on defending it. I feel that climate defenders need to see exports as equivalent to consumption.

    You have had previous maps of proposed projects, and I thought that at one point they represented more than 10x KXL. Have you been pruning the list for things we hope are dead? If all the still-proposed oil and LNG/Propane exports materialized, is the 5x still a good estimate?

    Is it all normalized to CO2 carbon?

    How are you handling methane leakage these days?

    Also, my perspective is that the intent on exports is large compared to all local energy consumption, and I’d love to have graphics that show that comparison.

    • Eric de Place says:

      Good questions, Ed.

      In an earlier version of this analysis, I said the projects were equivalent to something like 3 to 7 Keystone’s, depending on how extensively you think Keystone ultimately gets built out. For this version, I settled on the near term picture of Keystone. In other words, the change isn’t owing to the NW fossil fuel projects I tabulate, but rather to how I define “Keystone XL.”

      If you add in the proposed LNG and propane exports then the figure would get a bit higher. I have not yet included those in my accounting.

      Yes, it’s all normalized CO2 carbon. BUT I’m only counting the carbon dioxide emissions from direct combustion of the fuels under consideration. I do not count any of the carbon arising from mining/drilling, processing, transporting, refining/liquifying, etc. And I don’t count methane leakage. If one were to count these “upstream” carbon emissions the full tally would be far higher.

      I take your point about local energy consumption. I’ll bear that in mind for future versions. For reference, the state of Washington’s most recent greenhouse gas inventory lists roughly 100 mta of CO2 equivalent.

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