Washington Senate Endorses Socialism for Coal

Transportation bill would benefit a coal terminal and its international financiers.

First Wyoming, now Washington: the state Senate has endorsed an $85 million handout to the coal industry, in the form of a rail project whose sole identifiable beneficiary is the proposed and highly controversial Millennium Bulk Terminals coal export project in Longview, Washington.

The rail crossing project, innocuously labeled in the legislative record as the “SR 432 Longview Grade Crossing,” would build a massive vehicle overpass over a rail line near the banks of the Columbia, just south of Longview, Washington. In the map below, the rail rail line is in blue. The project would lift the entire Oregon Way and Industrial Way intersection, including the rail crossings circled in red, to let trains pass underneath.

Oregon Way rail crossing

The county projects rapid growth in train traffic at these rail crossings through 2035. But nearly three quarters of that projected growth is for the Millennium terminal. The remaining quarter would go to Barlow Point to the west of Millennium—an undeveloped site that, at present, has no known prospects for a tenant.

That means that the only known project that could boost traffic delays at Oregon Way and Industrial Way is the Millennium Bulk Terminals, a project whose principal proponent is wholly owned by a private equity fund based in the Cayman Islands.

The Washington State Senate wants to spend $85 million for the benefit of high-flying international coal investors.
That’s right, the Washington State Senate wants to spend $85 million in scarce transportation dollars, primarily for the benefit of high-flying international investors.

To make matters worse, this particular rail crossing project is just a down payment on a much larger set of transportation upgrades that the state would have to build to make Millennium viable. All told, the projects could cost more than $200 million. And the Senate is using a time-honored tactic: by finishing the last and least necessary segment first, they build the case for spending even more money to “complete” what they’ve started. (Paging the North Spokane Freeway!)

What makes the Senate’s spending priorities especially foolish is that the Millennium project might never be built. Millennium still faces massive hurdles: it doesn’t have a permit yet; the community opposition is fierce; the legal tools for stopping the project abound; and worst of all, the Pacific coal market is in the middle of a precipitous downturn. China’s sinking demand has brought international prices to multi-year lows, US coal exporters are hemorrhaging money, and a similar coal terminal project in BC is in financial freefall. So even if the project does manage to obtain a permit, it’s not clear that anyone will pony up the hundreds of millions of dollars needed to build it.

In short, the Washington Senate may have just voted to commit nearly $100 million to help international investors pursue an environmentally risky coal export project that may never actually see the light of day.

To my mind, it’s just one of a long string of irresponsible measures in the Senate transportation package…a bill so misguided that the House should simply throw it away and start over.

Hat tip and research credit to Brendan Vandenheuvel at Columbia Riverkeeper.

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Ridley’s Coal Export Collapse Continues

Major coal port expansion now a stranded asset.
This post is 32 in the series: Coal Exports: Caveat Investor

Take a look: coal exports through the Ridley terminal in northern British Columbia are in freefall:

It’s almost funny. Just a few years back, Ridley was so confident about its prospects that it undertook an ambitious plan to boost its throughput capacity from 12 million tons per year all the way up to 24 million tons per year.

At the time, the plan seemed reasonable: Asian demand seemed strong, and at least two new mine projects were slated to use Ridley’s extra capacity.

But fast forward a few years, and both new mining projects appear to be on indefinite hold…even as many of the terminal’s potential customers have shuttered their mines because of the sustained price collapse in Asian coal markets. As a result, Ridley is now on track to ship less than 6 million tons of coal this year—and possibly less than 4 million.

Instead of doubling their capacity, Ridley could have cut it in half, and they still might have room to spare.

Read more »

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Weekend Reading 3/27/15

How our language privileges men, Paris's transportation experiment, and more.
This post is 196 in the series: Weekend Reading

Anna

When you can’t see the top of the Eiffel tour through the thick, gray haze, it counts as a bad smog day in Paris. Bad enough for the City of Lights to experiment to try to reduce driving. This past Monday, only cars with odd numbered license plates, electric and hybrid vehicles, and cars with three passengers or more were allowed to drive. In addition, transit was free, Paris’s bike share fleet was free, and an hour of electric car share use was free. I’ll be looking for follow-up coverage to see how this went.

Ugh. Even in nursing, where women outnumber men 10 to 1, men make more than women.

And here’s another look at how our language and socialization privileges men. In fact, the twisted irony is that listener bias results in most people thinking that women are hogging the floor when men are actually dominating conversations. To combat the pattern, this author gives us 10 words every girl should learn. Read more »

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The Oil Spill That Could Happen Here, Part 2

A reminder of just how common—and just how serious—oil pipeline spills are.
This post is 10 in the series: The Risk of Northwest Oil Spills

Since Washington state lawmakers convened in Olympia this January and took up legislation on oil transport, the nation has seen at least one major pipeline spill when an Exxon pipe leaked 40,000 gallons of crude into the Yellowstone River. It was the second time in just a few years that the pipeline had ruptured: it spilled 63,000 gallons into the river in 2011, for which regulators fined the oil giant $1 million.

The latest incident was a timely reminder of just how common—and just how serious—oil pipeline spills are. In fact, in the last five years, there have been two other serious oil pipeline spills that did meaningful damage to the environment and local communities. Those stories are warnings for communities near existing pipelines, many of which are slated for expansion. Read more »

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Voter Suppression is Exorbitantly Expensive

Four ways supporting voting rights saves taxpayer dollars.
This post is 16 in the series: What Democracy Looks Like

There is a war going on, and Oregon is ground zero. Some states, mostly in the South and Midwest, are restricting voter rights through Voter ID laws and barriers to voter registration. But the Pacific Northwest is defending rights. In a democracy, honoring every citizen’s vote is the right thing to do. Oregon proves it is also the cost-conscious thing to do.

Oregon is a national leader in striking down the barriers to voting: the Beaver State enables citizens to register online, mails ballots to all registered voters, and now will digitally transfer eligible voters’ information from the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) to the voter rolls. But even in Oregon, every single Republican and one Democrat voted against the new motor voter law. House Republican Leader Carl Wilson of Grants Pass explained that the law would “cost a broke county $7,800 in the first year. That is money we don’t have.” Never mind that the cost of honoring Josephine County’s citizens’ right to vote adds an infinitesimal 0.0009 percent to the county’s $84 million budget.

If this war were really about how much money states and counties spend on voting, voting rights would be winning across the country. For all its efforts to empower voters, Oregon gets a real bargain on elections. Other states could too.

Original Sightline Institute graphic, available under our free use policy.

Original Sightline Institute graphic, available under our free use policy.

Honoring citizens’ right to vote by running the state and county administrations that register voters; keeping the voter rolls updated and accurate; distributing, collecting, and tallying ballots—add up the costs of all those activities and divide by the number of registered voters in Oregon, and it comes to less than $2 per registered voter per election.

Other states average around $10 per registered voter per election.

By erecting or maintaining barriers to voting, other states pay five times as much as Oregon.

Why are Oregon’s costs so much lower than the national average? Read more »

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Four Charts Show Carbon Pollution Accountability Act is Still Awesome

When polluters pay, jobs grow and Washington schools benefit.
This post is 36 in the series: Cashing In Our Carbon

As the Carbon Pollution Accountability Act, now HB 1314, wends its way through committee hearings, new economic analysis and revised revenue estimates are popping up. It’s still the same pollution-cutting, clean-energy-spurring bill you know and love, but the new numbers show it will send even more money to Washington public schools, and it will also grow jobs. Less pollution, more clean energy, better schools, and more jobs. I think that qualifies as awesome.

Less pollution means more GDP and more jobs, especially construction jobs.

Last week, the Office of Financial Management (OFM) and the Governor’s office presented findings from OFM’s new economic analysis of the Carbon Pollution Accountability Act, Washington HB 1314. The OFM economic modeling, unsurprisingly, showed results similar to Oregon’s recent modeling of a potential state carbon tax: GDP and jobs grow slightly faster in a future where Washington transitions from fossil fuels to clean energy than in a future where we continue with pollution-as-usual. The differences are small, because the pollution-limiting program would be a minuscule 0.3 percent of Washington’s gross state product of $381 billion. But GDP and jobs are a little higher with the polluters-pay than without, due to investments in schools and roads. The biggest job gains between 2016 and 2035 would be in the construction sector (see OFM graph below), since a large chunk of the pollution revenue would go to building and maintaining Washington’s roads.

Read more »

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Event: Curious About Carbon Pricing?

Learn how Oregon can make polluters pay.
This post is 35 in the series: Cashing In Our Carbon

Do you wonder what carbon pricing means and what the differences are between fees, taxes, shifts, offsets, and caps?

Next Thursday, join Sightline Institute’s senior researcher, Kristin Eberhard, along with Oregon Climate’s executive director, Camila Thorndike, to discuss what it would mean for Oregon to put a price on carbon.

  • What: Curious About Carbon Pricing?
  • Where: Friendly House, Portland, OR (map)
  • When: Thursday, April 2, 7:00 pm
  • Tickets: Free and open to the public

British Columbia implemented a carbon tax in 2008 and California’s cap and trade program began in 2013. The time is now for Oregon and Washington to start cashing in our carbon to complete a West Coast dedicated to a clean future.

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More Tolls for Tacoma Narrows

Yet traffic forecasts still assume steady growth.
This post is 51 in the series: Dude, Where Are My Cars?

The Kitsap Sun is reporting that a $1 per car toll increase on the Tacoma Narrows Bridge west of Tacoma, Washington is “close to a done deal.”

On July 1, rates will rise to $5 for Good To Go! electronic payment, $6 at the toll booths and $7 for pay-by-mail. A déjà vu will occur one year later.

WSDOT believes that if tolls on the bridge don’t rise, there’s a good chance that the state won’t have enough tolling revenue to cover the financing costs for the $728 million second span, which was opened to the public in 2007. Tolling shortfalls, in turn, could force WSDOT to dip into general transportation funds for a project that was supposed to pay for itself.

As the chart below shows, traffic across the bridge has consistently failed keep up with the forecasts. Traffic has been basically flat: despite a modest uptick in 2014, actual traffic volumes (the thick green line) are still about the same today as in 2009.

Read more »

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Weekend Reading 3/20/15

Prime-time defense of the Thin Green Line; profiling black Portland; and more.
This post is 195 in the series: Weekend Reading

Eric

Seattle city councilmember Mike O’Brien goes on MSNBC to talk about the Port’s huge mistake in agreeing to host Shell’s Arctic drilling fleet. It’s fun to watch O’Brien on the stump for the Thin Green Line: the place that just says no to climate destruction.

At Rolling Stone, Tim Dickinson has an excellent, must-read, first-rate—it’s that good—piece on what Keystone XLs looming failure means for Canada and the conservative party’s global superpower aspirations that are built on turning the country into a northern petro-state.

Serena

I enjoyed the NYT profile of Al Gore earlier this week. While everyone’s been poking fun or straight-up deriding him since “An Inconvenient Truth,” he’s been too busy to notice. Busy with what? Oh, just becoming the ultimate climate nerd, savvy green businessman, and super educator for environmental leaders around the world. That leaves him little time to give to naysayers, whom he dismisses coolly with a simple “Let them have at it.” Read more »

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Event: New Energy for a New Day

The promise of a post-carbon economy for Washington state.
This post is part of the research project: Putting a Price on Carbon

Local communities are mobilizing for the new energy economy in the Northwest and for a future that will create healthier communities, support jobs, and reduce carbon pollution.

Next week, Anna Fahey, Sightline Institute’s senior communications strategist, will join Chris Davis, Governor Inslee’s senior advisor on energy and carbon markets, and Rosalinda Guillen, executive director of Community to Community, to discuss the promise of this vision for Washington state and what it will take to get there.

  • What: New Energy for a New Day
  • Where: Lincoln Theatre, Mount Vernon, WA (map)
  • When: Wednesday, March 25, 7:00 pm
  • Tickets: Suggested $10 donation; Open to the public

Additional information about the speakers and other guests is available on the theatre’s website.

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