Why the Carbon Pollution Accountability Act Is a Big, Awesome Deal

This is Washington State’s moment: Make polluters pay and fund education, transportation, and equity.
This post is 28 in the series: Cashing In Our Carbon

In Washington and across the Northwest, we are already seeing devastating impacts of climate change. In Hood Canal and Puget Sound, shellfish are being destroyed by an acidifying ocean, declining snowpack threatens water supply both sides of the Cascades, and record-setting wildfires have ravaged Eastern Washington communities.

The good news is that we can do something about it. We at Sightline are always saying that a well-designed program can hold polluters accountable while transitioning the Pacific Northwest to a clean and prosperous future. Yesterday, Washington Governor Jay Inslee unveiled a package of climate policies, including the Carbon Pollution Accountability Act. So the big question: Is the Governor’s proposed program well-designed?

Here’s the one-word answer: Yes!

Seriously. It’s killer. Read more »

1 Comment

What Do Oil Train Explosions Cost?

And why cities and towns would have to pay the damages.
This post is 55 in the series: The Northwest's Pipeline on Rails

Given the nasty tendency for oil trains to explode when they derail, it’s probably worth asking what a catastrophic accident might cost. No doubt, the thousands of communities visited daily by oil trains would like to know what sort of financial risks they are exposed to. Unfortunately for these governments, the available data suggest that a reasonable worst-case-scenario explosion could do several billion dollars of damage—sums far in excess of railroad insurance coverage.

But how many billions are we talking about?

It’s a surprisingly difficult question to answer with any real precision. The widespread deployment of unit trains loaded with crude oil is such a recent phenomenon that there is not a lot of history to guide estimates of accident costs. The recent oil train accidents in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec and Lynchburg, Virginia are commonly used as guideposts, but officials are still cleaning up these accidents and assessing the damages, so the accounting remains incomplete. For a sharper picture, you have to examine other sources: things like lawsuits against railroads that have released hazardous materials; insurers’ estimates for comparable events like terrorist attacks; and estimates used by federal regulators for the cost-benefit analysis they must do in tandem with their proposed oil train rules. Read more »

1 Comment

5 Tips for Portland and Vancouver BC on Uber

Lessons from Seattle's efforts to regulate new ride service companies.
This post is 13 in the series: Crimp Your Ride

Portland and Vancouver BC officials, welcome to Seattle’s pain. With Uber launching (or threatening to launch) its app-based personal transportation service in your city, you have a real puzzle to solve.

You only have to balance all these goals: Protecting consumers, supporting green alternatives to car ownership, enforcing sensible rules, jettisoning outdated ones, not rewarding bad behavior, confronting limitations of a strangled taxi system you created, navigating tough equity questions, and taking on a company now valued at $40 billion that doesn’t give an inch without a fight.

If it makes you feel any better, Seattle spent more than a year trying to figure that out. The compromise it reached earlier this year is imperfect, and the city arguably got swept up in a popularity contest in which the prom queen has now lost some of her luster.

But you can still benefit from that effort, as well as hindsight. Since Seattle passed its new rules for “transportation network companies” (TNCs) in July, Uber (or its officials) have been sued by district attorneys in California for misleading consumers about safety practices, went on a bizarre tear about smearing journalists, was banned in New Delhi after a driver raped a passenger, apologized for sexist promotions in France, launched in Portland against the city’s express will, and has fought stricter insurance requirements. This weekend, it appalled the world by initially defending a policy that charged $100 fares to leave downtown Sidney, Australia, where a hostage crisis was unfolding (though the company quickly walked that back).

Read more »

Be the first to comment.

A Carbon Pollution Policy with All the Fixin’s

Getting creative with carbon pricing (Part 4).
This post is 27 in the series: Cashing In Our Carbon

A purely regulatory approach to cutting carbon is like Thanksgiving dinner without the turkey. But just charging polluters without any other policies is like eating turkey by itself with no cranberry sauce or stuffing to make it delicious, no mashed potatoes, green beans and yams to round out the meal, and no pie to sweeten the experience. In Oregon and Washington, we want the full dinner. Here’s how serving up a carbon price carefully paired with other policies makes for a delicious meal.

Policies can complement making polluters pay in the following ways:

  • Keep costs down by slashing carbon that a price can’t reach because of market barriers
  • Achieve other benefits—cleaning the air, developing new clean tech industries—in addition to trimming carbon pollution
  • By doing both of the above, complementary policies can pick the low-hanging fruit as well as the exotic fruit and put them all together in one reasonably priced basket.

Read more »


What is Xylene, and What Does it Mean for Puget Sound?

A chemical you've never heard of is bound for Washington's waters.
This post is 54 in the series: The Northwest's Pipeline on Rails

It’s a safe bet that most people have no idea what C6H4(CH3)2 refers to. It’s a chemical compound that is better known—when it is known at all—as xylene, a niche product of oil refining soon to go into development on the shores of Puget Sound. It’s a change that has potential implications for the health of the Salish Sea, for oil trains, and perhaps even for gasoline prices.

Because most people know so little about the product, we thought it would be useful to share a short course on it. So with that, welcome to “Xylene 101.”

What is xylene, exactly?

Let’s get some quick and dirty chemistry out of the way. (It won’t hurt.) Xylene refers to a group of three different isomers (molecules with the same chemical formula but different chemical structures): orthoxylene, metaxylene, and paraxylene, all of which are petrochemicals. In a process known as catalytic reforming, refiners distill petroleum naphtha (chemicals found in partly-refined crude oil) and then convert them into a high octane liquid hydrocarbon called reformate. Traditionally, oil refiners blend reformate with gasoline and jet fuel to increase octane levels, but it can also serve as the feedstock for chemicals like xylene. (Xylenes can also be produced by coal carbonization in the manufacture of petcoke.)

Still with us? Good.

So, what do xylenes mean for Washington? Read more »

1 Comment

Weekend Reading 12/12/14

Photos from Lima, poetry in motion, and more.
This post is 183 in the series: Weekend Reading


Need something new to read on your bus ride? Poetry on Busses is a Seattle-based community art project that features the poetry of your fellow bus riders. The project began in 1992 with the display of poems from the local community on placards above bus seats. This year, they launched an online poetry portal, so that you can browse the poetry while you ride. This year’s featured poems were selected by a group of esteemed Seattle poets, from a pool of submissions that were collected in the spring. Poetry on Busses is the third project in a series of four digital artworks, commissioned by 4Culture with Metro Transit in order to enhance the RapidRide experience. Read more about the projects here!


Courtesy of Chuck Marohn’s essay on complexity in cities, I present to you the ”High 5” interchange just outside of Dallas: a five-decker tangle of highway lanes as tall as a 12-story building. Marvel of engineering? Urban Blight? Both? You decide! Marohn takes the interchange as a quintessential example of mistaking complicated systems for complex ones. A Swiss watch is complicated but precise. A city is complex and messy. When we treat a city as a complicated system, we build massive freeways to move cars through them as quickly as possible. When we treat a city as complex system, we create interesting, versatile, interconnected spaces where people actually want to spend their time. Read more »

Be the first to comment.

The Ongoing Coal Export Collapse at BC’s Ridley Terminal

Weak coal shipments suggest that the coal terminal's capacity expansion was a waste.

Coal exports from the Ridley terminal on the north British Columbia coast are continuing their free-fall. In November, the terminal reported some of the lowest coal export volumes since the depths of the global recession in 2009.

It’s not just a one-month blip: exports at the terminal have been falling in fits and starts since late last year. Ridley’s shipments of “thermal” coal—the grade of coal burned in overseas power plants—have been weak since June, and have been stuck at zero for two consecutive months. That’s not too surprising, given that most of the mines that shipped thermal coal to Ridley have now been shut down.

For metallurgical of “met” coal, which is used to make iron and steel, Ridley shipped 263,652 metric tons in November: down 36% compared to the previous November, less than half of the 2013 average, and one of the weakest months for met coal throughput since early 2010. Read more »

Be the first to comment.

How (Not) To Talk About Politicians

Powerful reframes, giving frustration positive direciton, and using more produtive job descriptions.
This post is part of the research project: Flashcards
Original image courtesy of NBC.

Original image courtesy of NBC.

As the fine folks at Public Works remind us, how we talk about public officials matters. It’s easy to default to bad habits. We all do it. And, all too often there are reasons to be frustrated with our representatives in government. But those habits (yes, I’m talking about the slamming, badmouthing, demonizing, name calling, grumbling…) trigger deeply entrenched, negative frames about government.

We have a lot of work to do reminding Americans that government is our best tool for getting important work done together as communities. Research commissioned by Public Works has shown that what comes to mind when Americans think about government is politics and politicians rather than the actual work of government. When we think of politicians, we think of bickering, corruption by corporate money, and self-interest.

You can see why it’s counterproductive to join in the politician bashing. In the end, it not only further erodes faith in government, it ignores the good work of all the upstanding electeds AND sets ridiculously low expectations for those whose job it is to represent us.

Read more »


How Portland’s Neighborhood Greenways Evolved

And what other cities can learn from the Rose City's low-traffic, family-friendly streets.
This post is 15 in the series: Family-Friendly Cities

In my last post, I focused on Seattle’s nascent neighborhood greenway system, which aims to create a network of residential streets that elevates the needs of kids, cyclists, parents pushing strollers, elderly shoppers with carts, pet walkers, and other foot-powered travelers.

To get a sense of how that works, we only need look to the city that Seattle stole many of its ideas from: Portland. It’s been building some version of greenways since the 1980s. There, they evolved from traffic-calming projects to bike boulevards to what the city now calls neighborhood greenways.

In their most modern incarnation, family-friendly greenways elevate the needs of pedestrians and cyclists by making it difficult for cars to mindlessly speed through residential neighborhoods—usually through some combination of lower speed limits, speed humps, intersection art, other calming techniques, or traffic diverters that force vehicles off the greenway.

They also aim to reduce the chances that a walker or cyclist will be hit by a car. Typically, the city installs stop signs that force drivers to stop at minor intersections before crossing the greenway. A range of improvements—from signage to refuge islands to activated traffic signals—are installed to help pedestrians and bikers safely cross major intersections.

That formula wasn’t locked in overnight, though. It took years for Portland to learn how to build great greenways. Here are a few of the key takeaways: Read more »


Event: Carbon Pricing Options for Oregon

Join us to learn what carbon pricing would mean for Oregon.
This post is 26 in the series: Cashing In Our Carbon

Pilsen and Pollution by Senor Codo used under CC BY-SA 2.0 (Used with Creative Commons)

Carbon Tax vs. Cap and Trade? Can Oregon make polluters pay and grow jobs? How will low-income communities be affected? Where should the revenue go?

This Monday, join our senior researcher Kristin Eberhard to talk about carbon pricing options for Oregon. A wonderful panel of speakers will lay out smart climate policy solutions towards reducing Oregon’s carbon pollution. Oregon has an opportunity to be a critical leader on carbon pricing and to create an effective model for other states to follow.

Joining Kristin will be Jeff Renfro, senior economist at Portland State University’s Northwest Economic Research Center (NERC); Jenny Liu, assistant director at NERC; and Julia Olson, executive director and chief legal counsel of Our Children’s Trust. There will be a Q&A following the panelists’ remarks, so fire away those pending questions you have had about carbon pricing!

  • When: Monday, December 15, 2014, 6 p.m.
  • Where: University of Oregon, Willamette Hall Room 100 (map)
  • Tickets: The event is free and open to the public, no pre-registration required.
  • Host: 350 Eugene

For more information about the event, click here.

Read about Oregon’s new carbon tax report here.

Be the first to comment.