Empowerment Messages, Not Inadequacy

How to win (or lose) the 'Story Wars' (Part II).
This post is part of the research project: Flashcards

Most of the marketing we see (especially commercial advertising) is of the inadequacy variety—messages designed to create anxiety or insecurity about what we lack (beauty, youth, sex-appeal, status). Inadequacy stories rely on our most childish impulses and emotions, jealousy, greed, selfishness, vanity. They cast the product or service being touted as the hero, something people can buy that fills a hole (a hole that the story has convinced us we need to fill).

A far more powerful, memorable, and engaging type of message is what Jonah Sachs, author of Winning the Story Wars, dubs empowerment marketing, stories that emphasize not where we’re deficient, but how we can grow and find personal satisfaction.

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Zoning Part Two: Exclusionary Zoning’s End

Exclusionary zoning is the problem, not the answer.

As we pointed out yesterday, inclusionary zoning (IZ) ordinances—rules that encourage private developers to provide some housing to lower-income tenants at below-market rates—were largely a reaction against “exclusionary zoning” practices that made it hard to build low-cost housing in many municipalities. Starting in the early 1970s, hundreds of cities and towns across the United States began to adopt IZ policies. This raises a key question: how effective have these programs been in boosting the supply of affordable housing, and reversing the legacy of exclusionary zoning?

The truth is that it’s hard to tell, in part because inclusionary zoning programs come in all shapes and sizes. Some IZ programs are mandatory, while others are purely voluntary. Some offer developers incentives to provide low-cost housing, others do not. They differ in the share of new units that developers must produce; the price targets for affordable housing; the length of time that units must remain at below-market rates; and many other details.

This dizzying variety makes it difficult to analyze how IZ programs affect local housing markets. Consequently, much of the formal academic literature on IZ has relied more on theory than on empirical evidence.
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Zoning: Inclusionary v. Exclusionary

To create inclusive housing, end exclusionary zoning practices.

At last count, Seattle ranked as the fastest growing major city in America. The city’s growth has easily outpaced the projections of its decade-old Comprehensive Plan, which foresaw 47,000 new households (as well as 84,000 new jobs) between 2004 and 2024. Between 2005 and 2012 the city added 29,330 net new housing units—roughly 62 percent of its 2024 target in just 7 years.

This rapid growth has stemmed in large part from the city’s relatively robust economy. From March 2013 through March 2014, for example, King County (which includes Seattle) ranked fifth among all US counties in net job growth, trailing only the likes of Los Angeles County and Manhattan.

But the population boom has sent housing prices and rents trending upwards—creating real anxiety among many renters, and fears that Seattle’s housing market will price out residents that once could afford to live in the city.

One city councilmember has described today’s housing market as being in “crisis,” and the mayor has launched a housing affordability advisory committee aiming to make affordability recommendations by next March. (Full disclosure: Sightline Executive Director Alan Durning will serve on it.) Read more »


Weekend Reading 9/26/14

Why women get paid less than men, free-range kids, and more.
This post is 173 in the series: Weekend Reading
Original illustration by Nina Montenegro of ghosttide.com.


My favorite wrap-up of this week’s UN Climate Summit.

We put this in the Daily—about how Cascadia could become a climate refuge, attracting immigrants from harder hit locales—but have you considered this? The region’s cities all have comprehensive plans that assume certain amounts of population growth then indicate where they expect those people to live. The projections may all be way too low, and unless cities plan to accommodate climate refugees in compact, walkable urban zones, they’ll end up adding to sprawl, and compounding carbon pollution.


My husband read the Felix Salmon article about gender pay gap and came away confused about whether there is really a gender pay gap problem… so I decided to write something clearer about why women get paid less than men. It got long so I broke off two smaller pieces about choices and solutions. That was my weekend…

The Atlantic had a great issue this month. Starting with the implications of everyone living to be 100, followed closely by an argument for quitting at 75. Not euthanasia, just stopping all preventative care at that point and only accepting palliative care. The argument being that your time after that is most likely to be slow, painful, and not fulfilling. This made me think about the only all-nighter I ever pulled—I promptly decided it was a terrible idea. I let the task expand to fill the time available, didn’t get much done in the early hours of the morn, and the next day was sort of shot. Throughout law school I set myself a hard bedtime of 10pm, and I was much more productive because I knew I had to get it done. Would setting myself a life deadline of 75 make me take more advantage of the time I have?  Read more »

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Marching Forward Against Climate Change

How to make good decisions when you can't predict the future.
This post is 15 in the series: Cashing In Our Carbon

The day before the People’s Climate March, the Wall Street Journal (WSJ) published an opinion piece by Steven Koonin titled: “Climate Science is Not Settled.” The title conforms to the merchants of doubt’s strategy of sowing doubt and confusion, but it is not even an accurate summary of the article. The article actually affirms that the main things almost everybody thinks of when they hear “climate science”—whether climate change is happening and whether it is caused by people—are quite settled.

Interestingly, next to the climate article was Robert Sapolsky’s always-excellent column, which this week was about insect decision-making. Apparently, a solo ant can efficiently make easy decisions, but hard decisions are better when made with the wisdom of the ant crowd. Bees faced with an unclear decision are indecisive and may refuse to decide at all. The climate article with its muddled message about how to decide to act, the WSJ’s mismatched headline peddling confusion and indecision, and the day of marches all over the world demanding that decision-makers take immediate action on climate—the conjunction of these things made me think about how we humans decide. Sometimes our stellar ability to collect and share information seems to trip us up instead of help us move forward. But I remain hopeful that we can be better deciders, like ants, not like bees.

My hope is not unfounded: countries around the world and 10 US states have already bypassed indecision, and Oregon and Washington are poised to take action. This weekend hundreds of thousands of climate marchers around the world, including thousands in Portland and Seattle, showed the people’s growing power to overcome the merchants of doubt’s poisonous whisperings.

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Courting Families in Portland

How Portland removed barriers to family-friendly courtyard housing.
This post is 9 in the series: Family-Friendly Cities

When we moved into our house 10 years ago, no one on our street had kids. Now, there are eight on our side alone.

My daughter lurks at the bottom of our neighbors’ front stairs, hoping she can round up a gaggle of kids. But figuring out where they can physically play outside can be awkward. Some of us have small decks and front yards, but they’re high off the sidewalk and not quite childproof for younger siblings. Our narrow street gets a lot of cut-through traffic. And our back yard was laid out by someone who clearly had more interest in pruning than kids.

As I’ve said before, my holy parenting grail is finding places where your child can play happily and safely while you can keep a half eye on them AND get something social or useful done. In the earlier part of the 20th century, we used to build housing that facilitated this. It’s courtyard housing, with densely clustered homes or apartments built around common open spaces.

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Event: “The Thin Green Line” in Bellingham

A presentation and Q&A on Northwest coal, oil, and gas exports.
This post is 50 in the series: The Northwest's Pipeline on Rails
Original Sightline Institute graphic by Don Baker Design, available under our free use policy.

Original Sightline Institute graphic by Don Baker Design, available under our free use policy.

Next week, I’ll be in Bellingham at Western Washington University talking about the massive coal, oil, and gas export projects slated for sites throughout the Pacific Northwest—or, as we at Sightline have come to call our region, the Thin Green Line. It’s the place that stands between big energy companies’ inland fossil fuel stores and large Asian markets primed to burn these dirty fuels.

I’ll be hosted by the Border Policy Research Institute and Fairhaven College’s World Issues Forum. The event is free and open to the public, so bring a friend—perhaps someone who knows little about this issue—and I’ll see you there.

  • “The Thin Green Line”: Presentation and Q&A with Sightline policy director Eric de Place
  • Date & Time: Wednesday, October 1, 12-1:20 p.m.
  • Location: Fairhaven College Auditorium at Western Washington University (map)
  • Tickets: Free & open to the public
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Weekend Reading 9/19/14

PARK(ing) day is here!; Worldwide border abolishment; and more.
This post is 172 in the series: Weekend Reading


Don’t forget to visit your city’s PARK(ing) Day installations TODAY! (I’m dying to stop by Seattle Met‘s SwaPark.) Here are listings for Seattle, but I’m having trouble finding them for Portland, Vancouver, Eugene, Spokane, Olympia, Salem, Burnaby… others? If you have links, share ‘em! Better yet, if you visit one today, snap a photo and send it to me!


Three think pieces this week:

Should we aim to open all borders, worldwide? “Allowing free movement of all people across international borders could double world GDP,” argues one academic. It could also eliminate absolute poverty. Provocative. In The Atlantic and Vox.

A proposal for an overhaul of the US tax system that’s bold enough to adequately respond to climate change, economic inequality, and the need to restructure the economy away from financial speculation and toward innovation and production. The proposal includes pollution taxes, a tax on speculation, and overhauls of the main existing taxes, all from a Nobel Prize-winning economist. Read more »

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A Month of Disappointments for Coal Exporters

The bad news for the coal industry keeps rolling in.
This post is part of the research project: Northwest Coal Exports

It’s been a tumultuous month for proponents of massive coal export terminals in BC, Washington, and Oregon. In fact, there’s been so much news that it’s been hard to keep track of it all.

So here’s a synopsis of the month’s biggest stories:

  • Oregon’s denial of the Morrow Pacific coal export project has sent would-be coal exporters into a panic.

On August 18 Oregon denied a key permit for Ambre Energy’s proposed Morrow Pacific export terminal on the Columbia River. Ambre appealed the decision last Monday—and in a somewhat surprising development, the state of Wyoming joined Ambre’s appeal. Meanwhile, the US Corps of Engineers, which must also issue a permit for its project, has halted all work on its environmental assessment until the state permits are resolved.

At a minimum, Ambre faces an uphill battle filled with uncertainty and many, many months of delay…a delay that its financiers may not be willing to put up with.

Coal industry insiders have admitted that the Morrow Pacific denial is terrible news for the industry’s ambitions for Northwest exports—not just because of what it means for Morrow Pacific, but for the kind of permitting troubles the much larger export facilities in Washington may face. Said one (see p. 8 of the pdf): “What’s really frightening…is that the state of Washington has much stricter environmental laws than Oregon. Ambre’s project was expected to be easiest, and most likely to gain approval. This is the kind of thing that keeps coal producers awake at night.” [Emphasis added.]

  • Pacific Rim prices continue to tumble amid a global glut of coal.

The thing that should really be keeping them awake is the ongoing collapse of global coal prices. It’s hard to overstate how steep the declines have been, but this chart from eSignal.com gives some perspective on how steadily price expectations have fallen on the international futures markets. The market peaked back in 2011, when several Northwest coal export projects were just being launched. But prices have fallen so low now that, at today’s prices, none of these projects pencil out.

This article from Mining World summarizes how bad things are for coal exporters worldwide:

Global coal glut prompts coal miners to chant ‘cut, cut, cut’

In the face of stubbornly low coal prices and a global supply glut, struggling North American coal producers are grappling with stalled demand growth and increasingly strict environmental regulations, while simultaneously navigating congested export corridors to critical markets across the Pacific…

The global coal industry…is not in great shape at the moment…owing to the significant oversupply of coal, which was exacerbated by a slower-than-expected growth in demand, especially from China, which was weighing heavy on the industry.

Major BC coal exporter Teck is responding to the stall-out in China’s coal consumption growth by scaling back shipments to China.

And amid all of the other bad news for coal exporters came China’s announcement that it would launch a national carbon market by 2016, focused on the nation’s most coal-hungry sectors: power generation and manufacturing. Putting a price on carbon emissions in China will almost certainly crimp the nation’s demand for coal—and imports could be some of the first casualties.

  • Yet another disappointment for BC’s Ridley terminal.

The situation for the Ridley terminal in west-central BC was already looking grim earlier this year: Walter Energy announced that it was closing two BC coal mines that had shipped 3.6 million tons of coal through Ridley in 2013, and had decided to keep a third mine closed indefinitely. At roughly the same time Teck announced that it wouldn’t restart its Quintette mine, which also was slated to ship through the terminal; and Coalspur announced that it was putting its massive Vista mining project on hold.

Amid all of the production cuts, the port just announced that coal throughput in August 2014 had fallen by 56 percent compared with the previous August. The only small bright spot for the terminal came in early August, when Coal Valley announced that it would shift shipments from Westshore to Ridley.

But last week, another shoe fell for Ridley: Anglo American announced it planned to shut down its Peace River mine, which currently ships through Ridley, at the end of 2014, and would also put expansion plans at the mine on hold.

Ridley has already launched a significant expansion, based on rosy projections for robust export growth. But it looks like it should have saved its money.

  • Amid mixed news, Cloud Peak Energy saw its stock get hammered.

Cloud Peak Energy, a Powder River Basin coal mining firm that has placed major bets on coal exports, scored a minor victory in early August when it purchased about 2 million additional tons of export capacity at BC’s Westshore terminal, by buying out Coal Valley’s contract at Westshore for $37 million in cash. The company notched another small win when it offloaded its stake in the money-losing Decker mine to rival Ambre Energy, which eliminated a significant cleanup liability at the mine. Cloud Peak also had a few marginally favorable announcements about some financial restructuring.

And yet the good news was completely overshadowed by the company’s bigger problems: it was having trouble getting its coal to domestic markets. In early September the company reported both lower shipping volumes and lower earning projections for the year. The market essentially ignored the news about Cloud Peak’s exports—but the announcement of lower earnings and coal shipping volumes sent the company’s stock to its second-lowest closing ever just a few weeks after the announcement.

  • County Coal’s mystery export project shelved.

For a while now, a small Australian firm called County Coal has been talking about a coal export project at an undisclosed site in the Pacific Northwest. But they’ve now shelved the idea, saying that the $400M project “proved to be encumbered in a way that the risk and potential cost was prohibitive.” The company now says that it still has its eye on other sites; stay tuned, I suppose.

  • Port of Metro Vancouver approves Fraser Surrey Docks terminal.

In the one clear piece of encouraging news for would-be coal exporters, Vancouver’s port authority greenlighted the Fraser Surrey Docks coal export proposal. The project is now seeking an air permit from the Metro Vancouver government (even though it argues that it technically doesn’t need one). Both sides are now preparing for a legal battle in BC’s Supreme Court.

On balance, I’d say that it’s been a bloodbath for coal exporters in this part of the world. New coal terminals are facing serious regulatory hurdles, coal shipping volumes are down, coal mines are closing, international coal demand is flagging, prices have continued to fall, and existing coal exporters are calling for deep cuts, rather than more exports.

I’m sure there’s been more news than this…what did I miss?


How State Public Money Pays for Coal Exports and Oil Trains

Tracking public fund investments in fossil fuel projects.
This post is 49 in the series: The Northwest's Pipeline on Rails

Communities across Oregon and Washington are growing increasingly agitated about the risks of fossil fuel export. Proposed coal terminals generated unprecedented opposition from local residents and, more recently, dramatic increases in oil train traffic have many questioning the grave safety risks associated with a cargo so prone to explode. Yet at the very same time, the state governments of both Oregon and Washington are bankrolling coal, oil, and gas infrastructure.

In some cases, the subsidies and expenditures are known but relatively small. But in other cases, large quantities of public money fund the very same facilities so bitterly opposed by the taxpayers that the states are supposed to be investing for.

The governors of each state have voiced strong concern about—and even outright opposition to—major fossil fuel infrastructure projects. Yet, while Governors Inslee and Kitzhaber preach a sustainable future for our region, another wing of the executive branch is quietly betting public money on a vastly different vision.

The Oregon Investment Council (OIC) and the Washington State Investment Board (WSIB) oversee all public investments made for their respective states. These little-known governing bodies manage the funds that will be used for public employee pensions and retirement accounts, labor and industry insurance and care coverage, the state guaranteed college tuition program (in Washington), developmental disability programs, and the like. They invest the monies in a variety of financial instruments, a major portion of which are private equity funds.

Normally, once invested, funds are very difficult to track. But private equity funds pitch investors like the OIC and WSIB on specific portfolios of investments, highlighting not only the overarching theme of the investment package but often specific companies. While state funds are combined with other monies, investors have a much more specific idea about where their dollars are going. They can’t claim ignorance about its final destination.

In other words, it allows us to follow the money.

Washington State Investment Board

Since 2010, WSIB has invested billions (seriously, billions with a “b”) in private equity funds focused on fossil fuel investments, many of which can be directly linked to energy projects in the Northwest.

Through a $250 million investment (p.3) in Stonepeak Infrastructure Fund, WSIB funded Tidewater Transportation and Terminals in December 2012. Tidewater, a Vancouver, Washington-based firm, later signed a deal with Ambre Energy to barge coal downriver from Boardman to Port Westward, Oregon, for its proposed Morrow Pacific coal export project.

From the same fund, WSIB also invested in an oil train project, the Casper Crude to Rail facility, in October 2013. This Wyoming-based project is a major oil shipment hub moving mostly Bakken shale oil, the volatile crude involved in numerous oil train explosions. While we cannot link individual oil trains to specific rail facilities, we do know that Casper Crude to Rail serves West Coast oil refiners, including Tesoro, Shell, and Phillips 66, all of which have major oil-by-rail projects planned for the Northwest.

In 2012, WSIB invested another $250 million in Global Infrastructure Fund II, a fund targeting “midstream energy” in North America, Europe, and Australia (p.2). Although we cannot directly link WSIB dollars to specific fossil fuel projects in the Northwest, the investment firm that owns the fund, Global Infrastructure Partners, owns 50 percent of the the Ruby Pipeline, a project to  deliver gas to a pipeline hub at Malin, Oregon, from which it would be moved (p.4) to a controversial liquefaction and export site planned at Coos Bay, Oregon. [Note: In an earlier version of this article we reported that Fund II's portfolio included the Ruby Pipeline when, in fact, the Pipeline is included in the portfolio of Fund I, which WSIB has not invested in. Please see the update at the bottom of this post for more detail.]

Oregon Investment Council

In 2012, Oregon invested alongside Washington. OIC put $100 million into the same Stonepeak Infrastructure Fund that the Evergreen State funded. Through Stonepeak, the state of Oregon bankrolled the very same Northwest fossil fuel centers: Casper Crude to Rail—with its West Coast-bound oil trains—and Tidewater—with its designs on Columbia River coal barges that Governor Kitzhaber vociferously opposes.

In 2013, Global Partners acquired an oil train facility at Port Westward on the Columbia River. Bankrolling this purchase was a $70 million loan from a “lender of last resort” and longtime OIC investment partner, GSO Capital. OIC has invested hundreds of millions with GSO. Some of those funds were deployed to provide the loan to the Port Westward project (although they were likely mixed with money from other investment funds).

The site has been a lightning rod in the region, especially after it was revealed that site operators brought in five times more oil than they were legally allowed. (Rather than pare back operations at the site, Oregon authorities subsequently issued a permit allowing Global Partners to ship nearly 120,000 barrels per day, making it by far the largest operating oil-by-rail facility in the Northwest.)

And OIC continues to make major investments with another company that is focused on developing the Northwest for fossil fuel exports, Blackstone Capital. Earlier this year, Blackstone Capital sold $962 million worth of American Petroleum Tankers to Kinder Morgan (p.11). (Kinder Morgan is a huge energy company with a notoriously bad track record, including the deadliest fish kill in a decade on the Willamette River and bribing a Portland ship captain to dump contaminated potash in the Pacific Ocean.) In recent years, the firm that has hatched plans for a (now-scotched) coal export terminal on the Columbia River and a major oil pipeline expansion in British Columbia. It’s entirely possible that Oregon’s public money helped pay for the ships that Kinder Morgan would use to export North American fuel.

We have an obligation to safeguard the public monies we hold in trust for firefighters, schoolteachers, and health care providers. We must protect the value of the investments as well as the economy and natural heritage that sustains us. At a time when the Northwest is choosing whether to become a carbon export hub of global consequence or a thin green line of climate protection, the way we spend our money says a great deal about our priorities.

At the moment, it looks like we’re betting the farm on coal and oil.


Update 9/18/14: In the scrum of media coverage that followed the publication of our analysis, WSIB challenged several elements of our analysis claiming that 1) they are not part of the executive branch; 2) they have not invested “billions” in funds focused on fossil fuels; and that 3) the money that they put into Global Infrastructure Fund II did not finance Kinder Morgan’s Ruby Pipeline.

We’ll take each of these in turn.

First, and easiest, WSIB is indeed part of the executive branch. The State Treasurer, who is indisputably a member of the executive branch, has an official job description that reads: “…custodian for all state-owned investments…including $30 billion in state pension and accident insurance funds managed by the State Investment Board. The Treasurer is one of nine members of the State Investment Board.”

So although the Board itself is independent in some sense, the Treasurer is legally responsible for the investments. In fact, the Treasurer Office’s website even takes credit for the investments and the return that WSIB provides. Finally, journalistic accounts of WSIB commonly refer to WSIB as part of the executive branch. For example, the Puget Sound Business Journal characterizes the body like so: “Governed by an independent board, the investment board is nevertheless a part of the state’s executive branch.”

Second, WSIB has in fact invested billions of dollars in private equity funds focused on fossil fuel investments. Even under the extremely narrow scope of our analysis—WSIB-supported private equity funds that made fossil fuel investments specifically in Oregon or Washington in the last few years—we identified $500 million. A more complete tabulation of all fund investments past and present that focus on fossil fuels nationally and globally easily yields billions. (We will publish a partial tabulation shortly.) What’s more, in the course of trying to rebut our claims, WSIB acknowledged that $108 million of its Trust Fund is directly invested in coal, an amount that appears to be above and beyond the figures we reported.

To be clear, many of the private equity funds in question invest in an array of projects that include both fossil fuel and non-fossil fuel (and, indeed, non-energy sector) investments. WSIB’s response to reporters, however, seems to imply a myopic view of what counts as an investment in fossil fuels—only direct investments in the energy companies themselves. Our view is that counting only the direct investments is a bit like saying, “we don’t invest in cars, just roads, gas stations, and parking lots.” So Sightline’s accounting includes fossil fuel infrastructure projects—pipelines, oil train loading terminals, and the like—not just direct investments in energy companies and commodities. In summary, we stand by our claim that WSIB has put billions of state dollars into funds that were advertised to investors as focused on the fossil fuel sector or that included specific fossil fuel infrastructure projects.

Third, WSIB argues that the money it invested in Global Infrastructure Fund II did not finance Kinder Morgan’s Ruby Pipeline in southern Oregon. On this score, it looks like we made a mistake. Although we are still exploring the minutiae of the group’s investment allocations, it looks to us now as though we misinterpreted materials available on the Global Infrastructure Partners’ website and, in fact, the Ruby Pipeline was funded by Global Infrastructure Fund I, not Fund II. We have updated the article to reflect our understanding and we regret the error.

That said, WSIB is still invested with Global Infrastructure Partners, the firm that owns and manages the two Funds, and Global Infrastructure still owns 50 percent of the Ruby Pipeline. So, at the very least, WSIB is investing money with a company that owns the pipeline. Furthermore, we found plenty of coal, oil and gas assets in the Global Infrastructure portfolio that we did not list because they are not directly focused on the Northwest. For example, we did not mention East India Petroleum Limited; Access Midstream Partners, a group dedicated to natural gas operations and development; the Transitgas Pipeline ,which will link gas pipelines across Europe; Guacolda Energia’s new coal plant in Chile; Freeport LNG‘s new export facility in Texas; or CLH, a Spanish refined oil storage and transportation facility.


Thanks to Cass Martinez, a diligent and informed citizen of the Northwest who first piqued our curiosity, and to Ben Serrurier for his perspicacious finance suggestions.