Talking Government? Say It Like Elizabeth Warren

Talking points from Elizabeth Warren on goverment's important role.
This post is part of the research project: Flashcards

Because the term itself has been so systematically loaded with negative connotations, talking about government can seem like tricky territory to tread. So tricky, it means that many American communicators shy away from it—even those of us who believe most deeply in the role of government in protecting our health, safety, security, environment, and economy, and upholding and safeguarding our core values and principles—freedom, opportunity, and justice for all.

This Flashcard is one in an occasional series meant to help NW communicators talk more effectively about our government, examining, in particular, how communications experts and some of government’s most outspoken natural defenders define its role.

Elizabeth Warren, US Senator from Massachusetts, has gained recognition for consistently championing government policies, regulations, and taxes, as our tools for working together to build ladders of opportunity into the middle class and to protect ourselves from corporate special interests, especially Wall Street and the too-big-to-fail banks.

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Your Hero’s New Story

Version two of the Heroes' Narrative handbook is out today.

Last year, the Communications Hub, a program of Fuse Washington, released what became a highly popular and widely used guide to effective storytelling for progressive advocates. After months of collaborative work, countless editing rounds, and a bit of design back-and-forth, they’re out with version two—and it’s a treasure trove.

The “handbook to reclaim our future” delivers a user-friendly, piece-by-piece guide to constructing a progressive cause’s own powerful story. It directs readers through the process of identifying your organization’s own values, quest, heroes, threats, and villains, so that you can more successfully engage your audience and effect the change you or your organization is working for. Then, it helps you to couch that story in a common language, using words that resonate with key audiences and that connect with a broader shared narrative of core American values. Read more »

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Illegal Play

Climbing trees, skipping stones, and making daisy chains should not be banned in Northwest parks.
Photo by Jennifer Langston

Photo by Jennifer Langston

My kid is a rule follower. She would rather cut off her leg than be in trouble, wants stories told precisely the same way every time, lives to enforce playground rules, and for most of her toddler years wanted to grow up to be a crossing guard.

This bugs a person like me. I worry that I’m not providing her with opportunities to test boundaries, develop independence, be resourceful, strike out on adventures, make questionable choices, and have the run of our neighborhood. But as a parent raising a five-year-old in a fairly urban environment, I first really need her to stop forgetting to look for cars.

In the meantime, our default is to head to one of the Northwest’s great public parks, beaches, or playgrounds. Yet my worst fears about her stunted opportunities for play were recently reinforced in this stunning accounting of things that are technically illegal for kids to do there.

Like climbing trees, catching frogs, erecting a fort, turning sticks into light sabers, digging a hole, throwing rotten apples, or making a daisy chain. Read more »


PR Firm WA2 Advocates Takes Coal Money

Tony Williams and Jeff Bjornstad paid to promote coal exports.
This post is part of the research project: Northwest Coal Exports

The time is ripe for divestment from the fossil fuel industry. Although we usually think about divestment as reallocating long-term financial holdings, it can take a much more direct form. If your business or organization objects to the outrageous harm caused by coal, you can vote with your pocketbook: you can choose not to do business with coal agents in the Northwest.

Among those agents is WA2 Advocates, a Northwest-focused public relations firm with offices in Bellevue, Portland, and Washington, DC. On its website, the company says that one of its core values is making the Northwest a wonderful place to live and work” and it prominently features their work with renewable energy projects, shellfish growers, and Puget Sound tribes.

It’s an ideal that the firm apparently thinks plays well with the public, but it is inconsistent with their work supporting large-scale coal exports on Puget Sound.

Scarcely mentioned is its work promoting Cloud Peak Energy, a major player in Northwest coal exports. Cloud Peak is the largest US coal company moving their commodity out of British Columbia ports; they have secured a 16 million ton annual option at the proposed Gateway Pacific Terminal near Bellingham; and the firm was the single largest contributor to pro-coal candidates in Whatcom County’s recent election.

According to lobbying disclosure reports, WA2 Advocates took $120,000 from Cloud Peak in 2013 (Q1, Q2, Q3, Q4). The firm’s pro-coal work is led by two lobbyists with deep political connections in the Northwest: partner and chairman of WA2 Advocates, Tony Williams, a former chief of staff to US Senator Slade Gorton, and Jeff Bjornstad, a former chief of staff to US Senator Patty Murray, as well as Congressmen Rick Larsen and Adam Smith, both of whom enjoy exemplary environmental records.

Bjornstad appears to be earning his money. On several occasions Rep. Larsen has demonstrated a troubling refusal to acknowledge basic facts about the Gateway Pacific coal export project.

The staff members of WA2 Advocates do not rely solely on their Rolodexes though. According to, a website database that tracks money in politics, the firm’s employees spread around more than $28,000 in political contributions to support US Senators and Congressional representatives from the Northwest in the first three quarters of 2013, with most of that money going to Democrats. In the two years before that, reports show that they wrote checks to federal candidates from the Northwest to the tune of nearly $70,000, with about three-quarters supporting Democrats.

Curiously, many of WA2 Advocates’ other clients stand to lose if the firm is successful in advancing Northwest coal export plans, including:

Then there are other clients who may be also troubled enough by WA2 Advocates’ role in the coal industry that they may decide to redirect their spending toward PR firms with cleaner records. In addition to those who will be directly harmed by coal exports, other clients may simply want to avoid the reputational risks that arise from doing business with the coal industry. These include:

  • CleanScapes
  • Microsoft
  • Sound Transit
  • Russell Investments
  • Whatcom Transportation Authority
  • University of Washington

It’s high time for leading Northwest firms to start divesting from WA2 Advocates. Who will lead the way?

* Update: Via Twitter, the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission says it hasn’t worked with WA2 Advocates in at least seven years.


Nick Abraham specializes in environmental communications. He lives in Seattle.

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Weekend Reading 4/18/14

Inequalities, oligarchies, requiems, and more.
This post is 150 in the series: Weekend Reading


A better way to measure inequality: focus on the 1 percenters.

“It’s time to step up to the plate,” are the final words of this promising trailer for a documentary on people taking action against climate change.

RIP Gabriel Garcia Marquez, author of the best opening line of a novel ever.


A tax week reminder: by some estimates, 45 percent of federal outlays go to the military, past and present. That figure includes current spending on the Department of Defense and veterans’ benefits, and also assumes that 80 percent of debt payments can be traced to military spending (which is debatable, but not crazy). It also strips out Social Security spending, since that’s mostly paid out of a separate account. Social Security often gets lumped in with other federal spending… which can lead to as much confusion as clarity when looking at federal spending priorities. Regardless of whether you buy into these particular calculations, it’s clear that the military remains a huge part of the federal budget. Read more »

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Washington Board Upholds Stormwater Rules

Stringent regs withstand a challenge by Puget Sound cities and counties.
This post is part of the research project: Stormwater Solutions: Curbing Toxic Runoff
Seattle rain garden during a downpour.

Seattle rain garden during a downpour. Image by Lisa Stiffler (Used with permission)

The Pollution Control Hearings Board—the legal body presiding over state environmental regulations—has upheld the stormwater permits governing Western Washington cities and counties. The decision was issued this spring by the three-person board after permittees challenged the rules.

The state Department of Ecology in August last year approved the municipal stormwater permits, which aim to clean up and control polluted runoff that fouls Puget Sound and local lakes, rivers, and streams.

The permits require cities and counties to update their development regulations so they require the use of green technologies that catch and soak rain water where it falls, instead of sluicing it across asphalt and roofs and into gutters and drains that dump it into sensitive waterways. The green solutions include permeable pavement that rain percolates through to the ground and extra-absorbent, souped-up rain gardens called “bioretention facilities.”

The permits also tackle the torrents of dirty runoff with a big-picture effort to measure its damage. The regulations require King, Pierce, Snohomish, and Clark counties to consider stormwater effects in an entire watershed, which includes all of the land that drains into a specific body of water. The goal is to make sure we’re keeping an eye on the overall effects of development on water bodies.

While some folks criticize the rules for failing to sufficiently protect existing forests and green spaces from development, they’re still pretty ambitious in their attempt to make enviro-friendly stormwater solutions the norm—and not the exception.

But faster than a rain barrel fills in a downpour, cities and counties from around the region challenged the rules as: Read more »


Gov. Inslee Hires Coal Lobbyist to Direct Policy Office

Controversial hire raises questions about coal export plans in Washington.
This post is part of the research project: Northwest Coal Exports

In a classic instance of the revolving door between government and industry, Governor Inslee has decided to hire Matt Steuerwalt as the director of his policy office effective May 1. In recent years, Steuerwalt has acted as a lead lobbyist for coal-fired power in Washington, as well as for a now-defunct coal export proposal. The news was first announced by Steuerwalt in a mass email sent last night.

The state is now wrestling with two major policy issues connected to coal: whether to permit large-scale coal export terminals and whether to phase out coal-fired electricity imported from other states. Given that Steuerwalt has recently been a paid lobbyist in support of coal in Washington, the move raises question about whether he will use his influence in the Inslee administration to advance an agenda more favorable to the coal industry.

Steuerwalt was formerly Gov. Gregoire’s top advisor on energy and climate issues, but he left the Gregoire administration to go to work for Strategies 360, a well-connected lobbying and PR shop. He then led negotiations against his former employer on behalf of TransAlta, a giant Canadian energy company that was wrangling with the Gregoire administration over plans to ramp down coal-burning at its power plant in Centralia. He also lobbied on behalf of TransAlta in both the House and Senate.

As the TransAlta negotiations were wrapping up, Steuerwalt went to work for coal again, this time as the lead lobbyist for a coal export project on Washington’s coast, as Sightline reported in late 2012. At the time, RailAmerica was proposing to export 5 million tons of coal annually from Marine Terminal 3 at the Port of Grays Harbor. After months of delay and confusion, the plan collapsed.

It’s not a foregone conclusion that Steuerwalt will serve as the coal industry’s voice in the Inslee administration. During his time with the Gregoire administration he made key contributions to a number of clean energy and carbon reduction efforts. Notably, he was an advocate for Washington’s participation in the Western Climate Initiative, a multi-state and province compact to limit and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Steuerwalt’s biography on the Strategies 360 website says:

Many of his projects involve extremely complex permitting issues involving communities, policymakers, the media and a wide range of stakeholders. He is actively engaged in regional and national policy formation, and maintains strong ties to policymakers.

According to, a website database that tracks the influence of money in politics, Steuerwalt has given thousands of dollars to election campaigns for state politicians, mostly to Democrats. Notably, he contributed $250 in support of then-Congressman Inslee in 2009-10 and another $950 in 2011-12.

Neither Steuerwalt nor the Governor’s office immediately responded to requests for comment on this story.

Update 1:10 pm: Governor Inslee’s director of media relations, Jaime Smith, emailed me with the following response:

The choice of a policy director will have no impact on the state’s role in reviewing coal export projects. The governor has a longstanding and well-known position on carbon pollution and climate change and he has directed the Department of Ecology to conduct a rigorous review of current coal projects to the full extent allowed under state law. None of that will change when Matt assumes his new role May 1.



Industry to Feds: “We Will Not Remove Any Unsafe Oil Rail Cars from Service”

What the oil industry's own numbers say about their commitment to safety.
This post is 28 in the series: The Northwest's Pipeline on Rails

“We will not remove any unsafe oil rail cars from service.” That was the upshot of oil industry testimony at a recent rail safety hearing before the US Senate.

To be fair, that isn’t a direct quote. But it is a direct consequence of the math.

Under questioning from Senators about the wisdom of continuing to use older unsafe tank cars to haul crude oil—especially the very volatile crude coming out of North Dakota—the American Petroleum Institute representative testified that tank cars built to the newer standard, called “CPC 1232″ would make up “sixty percent [of the oil tank car fleet] by the end of 2015.” It’s a good sound bite—and it certainly reinforces industry PR that everyone is busy making oil-by-rail as safe as possible—but it is also misleading. Dangerously so.

In fact, on the very same day as the Senate hearing, another oil industry representative provided a more complete picture to the US Surface Transportation Board’s (STB) rail energy transportation advisory committee.

Crude oil tank car chart

Image by US Surface Transportation Board

The oil industry presentation for the STB provided detailed information on the composition of the nation’s oil tank car fleet—the number of newer-standard tank cars alongside the total number of tank cars that were rolling at the end of 2013 and that are projected to be on the rails by 2015. A bit of simple arithmetic yields the number of legacy tank cars—the outdated and obviously unsafe ones—that the industry expects to be in service hauling crude oil.

Composition of US Crude Oil Rail Car Fleet, End 2013 to End 2015

What the oil industry is showing here, but not necessarily talking about, is that they expect a surge in shipments of volatile shale oil from North Dakota and other areas. More precisely, they believe that they will need 84 percent more tank cars by the end of 2015 to haul the coming flood of crude oil. And to accommodate all that oil, the industry expects to keep every one of the 25,806 legacy DOT-111 oil tank cars in service through at least the end of 2015. (The tank car numbers here are consistent with data the industry has provided in other documents. See for example, Table 2 in the Rail Safety Institute’s written testimony on tank car standards recently submitted to the federal government.)

In short, according to the oil industry’s own numbers, they will not retire any unsafe older crude oil rail cars in the near future. That makes for a different sound bite, doesn’t it?

The percentage of newer tank cars in the overall fleet is irrelevant until it starts to approach 100 percent because it does nothing to reduce the chances of an older tank car blowing up. Worse yet, the presence of older tank cars actually renders the newer tank cars unsafe too. According to federal investigators at the National Transportation Safety Board, the “safety benefits [are] not realized if old and new tank cars are commingled,” as they inevitably will be.

There is an alternative. Instead of exposing communities to the ongoing threat of unsafe oil trains, we could choose to ship crude only in safer new-model tank cars—even if it means leaving some of our newfound oil reserves in the ground.


Postscript. In this article we refer to the CPC 1232 standard for rail cars as better than what was on the books previously. That’s true, but even these newer tank cars are seriously flawed. The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) is not convinced that they “offer significant safety improvements.” They also still have bottom outlet valves, “which have been prone to failure in derailment accidents.” And as we pointed out, the “safety benefits [are] not realized if old and new tank cars are commingled.”


New Video: The Pacific Rim Coal Bubble

Coal prices have collapsed...leaving Northwest export projects hanging by a thread.
This post is 18 in the series: Coal Exports: Caveat Investor

Hey, kids!  Check out our new video explaining why coal exports in the Pacific Northwest have become such a huge financial risk—with many blue-chip investors abandoning the space, leaving the field to risk-hungry, high-flying international speculators.

For those of you who don’t have the patience for a 3 minute video, here’s the short version:

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Weekend Reading 4/11/14

Radioactive socks, the violence of climate change, and more.
This post is 149 in the series: Weekend Reading


If you haven’t already seen this Washington Post infographic, it’s brilliant. It’s nominally about the search for Malaysia Airlines flight 370. But the story it actually tells is just how mysterious and unknowable the deep ocean remains.

Plus, UW researchers have developed new software to show what a child will look like as he or she ages. Cool or creepy? You be the judge.

Because I am one of the 7 percent who would be affected by the city of Seattle’s proposed small lot legislation, I encourage other homeowners living on smaller lots to check out these perpsectives herehere, and here. I, incorrectly, thought new rules would only apply to teardowns and new construction, but the city is also proposing to limit heights of existing homes on small lots. How a small number of cranky neighbors managed to prevent many more middle-class homeowners (potentially) from expanding their homes to accommodate growing families or aging parents is, frankly, completely baffling. As are DPD’s supporting documents, which make it nearly impossible for an average homeowner to figure out how they might apply.

Finally, here is a sampling of the incomparable photographs made by Anja Niedringhaus, the AP photographer and my friend killed in Afghanistan last week. Anja went to war zone after war zone because she believed that people needed to see what happened there, and no one captured that reality in the same way. She will be missed, terribly.


Rebecca Solnit has again produced an essay of bracing moral clarity. It’s called, “Call Climate Change What It Is: Violence.”

Exxon says:

We are confident that none of our hydrocarbon reserves are now or will become ‘stranded’. We believe producing these assets is essential to meeting growing energy demand worldwide.

Stranded assets that mean carbon assets—coal, oil, gas still underground—would become worthless if we decided they could not be extracted and burned in the near future. Because scientists say that we need to leave most of the world’s known carbon reserves in the ground….

Exxon has decided to bet that we can’t make the corporation keep its reserves in the ground, and the company is reassuring its investors that it will continue to profit off the rapid, violent and intentional destruction of the Earth.

Almost nothing is better than Solnit. But this is. Read more »

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