Sightline Sues Obama Administration over Crude Oil Exports and Illegal Secrecy

Moving forward on our unanswered FOIA request from February.
This post is part of the research project: Northwest Coal & Oil Exports

If the oil industry gets its way, the US will soon begin exporting tankers full of American crude to overseas markets. Although such shipments are for the most part illegal today, the Obama Administration is quietly changing the rules to favor oil exporters.

To shed some light on the government’s behavior, the environmental law firm Earthjustice filed a formal Freedom of Information Act request in February on Sightline’s behalf, but it was greeted only by stony silence. So today, Sightline Institute, represented again by Earthjustice, is suing the federal government. We are asking the Courts to force the Obama Administration to do what it was legally required to by March 11: release information about its secretive deals with oil exporters to the public.

The federal government’s behavior is worrisome not only because of its plain disregard for public disclosure laws, but also because it violates longstanding laws that govern the oil industry. In fact, for nearly four decades, the US government has tightly restricted exports of domestic crude oil. The oil export “ban,” as it is commonly known, has been a prominent feature of the national energy landscape since the 1975 Energy Policy and Conservation Act—but the oil industry has it squarely in its crosshairs.

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South Korea to Boost Its Coal Tax

Major importer makes life even more difficult for US coal exporters.
This post is 39 in the series: Coal Exports: Caveat Investor

If you follow Northwest coal export issues, you’ve probably heard that China’s demand for coal is sinking fast. Overall coal consumption in China fell a whopping 8 percent the first four months of 2015—an astonishing decline for an economy that’s growing as quickly as China’s. But imports really took it on the chin, with China’s customs department reporting that the country’s ports handled 38 percent less coal from January through May than in the same months of the prior year. China’s import decline has kept Pacific Rim coal prices in the doldrums, and completely deflated market expectations for ready profits from the international coal trade.

But what’s less well known is that China isn’t the only country that’s posing a challenge to coal exports. South Korea, which is the destination for much of the US coal shipped across the Pacific, is seeing many of the same trends.

According to the IHS McCloskey Coal Report, demand from Korean coal-fired power plants was slacker than expected over the winter and spring months. Even more troubling for would-be coal exporters, South Korean power companies recently axed plans for four new coal plants, and delayed several more. Industry analysts suspect that additional delays may be in the offing. Meanwhile, the country recently unveiled an energy plan that would reduce coal’s share in the nation’s energy mix from 37 percent, where it is today, down to 27 percent by 2029. Read more »

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Weekend Reading 6/26/15

What's the Hyperloop?; the top highest paid NW CEOS; and deadly oil fields.
This post is 209 in the series: Weekend Reading


Two of may favorite things recently came together: Tim Urban of WaitButWhy and Elon Musk, of, you know, the future of humanity. Tim has now written about Musk, and Tesla (warning, this article is seriously a small book), solar energy, and hyperloop. HYPERLOOP!

A moment for Hyperloop vs. High Speed Rail… CA plans to build a train that:

  • If it is finished as projected in 2029 (because large projects like this always finish on time), will be slower than trains other countries built years ago
  • If it finishes on budget (because …) it will still be more expensive than flying
  • It will be orders of magnitude more dangerous than flying
  • Will not save much energy relative to flying and could possibly require more energy per person than driving

Why? Why aim for inferiority? Why not aim for this?


Last Saturday, the Seattle Times looked at top CEO pay across the Northwest. They forgot to note one specific trait that all ten of these multi-million-dollar-a-year folks share. Fear not—one of my favorite blogs, Seattlish, helped ’em out.
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Weekend Reading 6/19/15

The Mariners' "BNSF Blast" ad, Australian aboriginals oppose coal, and more.
This post is 208 in the series: Weekend Reading


I found this story both sad and familiar: Australian aboriginal communities are opposing a massive coal mine development that they consider a threat to their way of life, so they sent representatives trekking all the way to New York to discourage international financiers from backing the project.  To me, it sounds eerily similar to what’s going on in our part of the world, where Native American tribes are facing coal mine and port terminal developments that will affect their cultures and livelihoods—and have petitioned Wall Street financiers to stop the flow of money that keeps these projects alive.


“Can we fix the climate like it’s a leaky faucet? Should we? Discuss.” That’s the premise of a couple of upcoming “Think & Drink” events hosted by Humanities Washington. KUOW environment reporter Ashley Ahearn will moderate a discussion between Lauren Hartzell Nichols, environmental specialist and professor of philosophy, and Thomas Ackerman, professor of atmospheric sciences at the University of Washington. Catch the convo over beers June 23 at Naked City Brewery or June 30 at the Royal Room. Timing and additional details are available on Humanities Washington’s website.


Oil Check NW on one of the more curious features of watching a Mariner’s home game: the “BNSF Blast” ad that plays on the diamond vision whenever the M’s hit a homer. Given that you could probably stand on the upper decks of the stadium and hit a passing oil train with a rock, it’s actually a little disturbing.

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Listen In: Oregon’s Path to Making Polluters Pay

A radio interview covers both climate change and democracy.
This post is part of the research project: Putting a Price on Carbon

Last week, the Oregon Legislature held an informational hearing on two climate pollution pricing bills (a cap-and-dividend bill and a limit pollution bill) …now what? Also, how does Sightline’s work on carbon pricing relate to our work on democracy reform? Jefferson Smith of’s “Thank You, Democracy” helps make the connections.

Listen here. Read more »


Hate Gridlocked Legislatures?

Don’t blame politicians. Blame our voting system.
This post is 30 in the series: What Democracy Looks Like

It’s tempting to blame politicians. If only Obama were warmer, he might be able to win over Republicans. If only Doug Ericksen weren’t captured by fossil fuel money, he would find a way for Washington state to take action on climate change.

But gridlock is now the norm in Washington, DC, and it may be spreading to state legislatures. The problem is not that we keep electing representatives who stink at compromising. Rather, our voting system fosters gridlock. The apples (politicians) are fine when they go in; the barrel itself (winner-take-all voting) makes them rot.

I have explained that winner-take-all voting creates unrepresentative government that gives short shrift to women, racial minorities, and third-parties, while also encouraging negative campaigns and voter apathy. Proportional representation voting elects women, racial minorities, and political minorities in numbers proportional to their strength in the populace, and it generates civil campaigns and engaged voters. In this article, I show that winner-take-all voting produces gridlocked legislatures, but multi-winner ranked-choice voting creates more effective legislatures.

Problem: Legislatures are partisan, polarized, and gridlocked

In the United States, the Democratic and Republican parties are pulling away from each other ideologically. In 10 years, Democrats have moved seven points to the left, and Republicans have moved 22 points to the right. They are leaving a chasm in the middle. Only four percent of the members of the US House are moderate. Only six percent are crossover representatives: Republicans in a Democratic-leaning district or vice versa. Read more »


Events: Oil Trains in Spokane, WA, and Sandpoint, ID

What the onslaught of coal and oil trains means for area residents.
This post is 67 in the series: The Northwest's Pipeline on Rails

Next week, I’ll be keynoting a pair community events in the Inland Northwest on oil trains and coal exports—a region facing an especially severe onslaught of rail traffic. Tuesday evening, I’ll join The Lands Council and other partners at Gonzaga University in Spokane, Washington. Wednesday night, I’ll be with the Idaho Conservation League and Lake Pend Oreille Waterkeeper at the Heartwood Center in Sandpoint, Idaho. Both events are free and open to the public, so if you live in the area, I hope you’ll join us and even bring along friends or family unfamiliar with the topic. Read more »

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An Explainer: Coal Mine Cleanup and “Self-Bonds”

Why cleanup liabilities are pummeling coal stocks.
This post is 38 in the series: Coal Exports: Caveat Investor

In case you missed the news, coal industry stock prices took yet another tumble on Friday, with all four of the largest US coal companies—Arch Coal, Alpha Natural Resources, Cloud Peak Energy, and Peabody Energy—closing at all-time lows. A Bloomberg analysis attributed the fall to new concerns about the financing of coal mine cleanups:

Two U.S. coal companies, Peabody Energy Corp. and Arch Coal Inc., sank to all-time lows amid concerns that they will have to pay more for insurance that covers environmental damage.

This, I’m sure, is the first time that many folks had ever read anything about coal mine cleanup, especially in the business press. So for newbies who just want an overview of the issue, have I got a treat for you: an FAQ covering the basics of the coal mine reclamation liabilities!!! (Please try to contain your excitement.)

Here goes…

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Everything Oregon Legislators Need To Know About Stopping Climate Pollution

In seven minutes of testimony.
This post is 42 in the series: Cashing In Our Carbon

Quick! You have seven minutes to tell Oregon legislators everything they need to know about stopping climate pollution. . .  GO! That was my task last week when testifying at an Oregon Senate informational hearing about two bills that would stop the free lunch for climate polluters in Oregon—see the video of my testimony below.

Senate Bill 965 is a cap-and-dividend bill that would give all the revenue back to Oregon taxpayers, and House Bill 3470 is a cap-and-delegate bill that would put the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) in charge of limiting pollution. There was a full panel of testimony, including Julia Olsen from Our Children’s Trust making a compelling case for Oregon to act on climate now, and Phil Harding from Oregon State University giving an inspiring perspective on technological innovation. I used my time to make the following points: Read more »

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The Surprising Reason You Don’t Feel Like Voting

It’s the voting system, stupid.
This post is 29 in the series: What Democracy Looks Like
“We can put the power back where it belongs: with voters.”Tweet this

Do you ever think about just not voting, and then feel bad for being lazy? Or do you wonder what is wrong with your friends who don’t exercise their right to vote? Last time, I made the case that politicians aren’t bad apples, our voting system is a bad barrel. That bad barrel also taints voters, making them more apathetic, disengaged, and suspicious that the whole system is corrupted by money. In this article, I lay out more problems and solutions: voters feel like their votes don’t matter and money has too much influence, but a better voting system can engage voters and make money matter less.


Problem: Most election results are already decided before voters get the chance to vote in the general election.

Many countries have used the “election-before-the-election” as a tool for disenfranchising voters while still going through the motions of letting them vote. In the United States after the Civil War, Southern states could no longer legally prohibit people of color from voting. Instead, Southern states used “white primaries” to ensure that only white-approved candidates would be on the ballot. People of color could vote in the general election, but the real decisions had already been made. China recently used this tool against Hong Kong. China agreed to let all Hong Kong voters choose their chief executive. From a China-approved list of candidates.

In the United States, we still have systems ensuring that a select few pre-approve all the candidates before most people vote. We have party primaries. (We also have the money primary—more on money next.) Read more »