Weekend Reading 4/17/15

Rewilding our language of landscape, the cost of gun violence, a podcast for the foodie, and more.
This post is 199 in the series: Weekend Reading


“We increasingly make do with an impoverished language for landscape. A place literacy is leaving us,” writes Robert Macfarlane in a sumptuous essay in the Guardian on the multitudinous words he’s gathered from across the United Kingdom for features of nature. His project is writerly, of course, but it’s also subversive. By fastening words to visible nature, he hopes to re-particularize our perceptions of landscapes and, from that, know them, love them, and protect them better. My favorite word is “ammil”: the glittering lacquer of ice that coats every twig and blade of grass when a freeze follows a thaw. Just knowing the word for it refills me with wonder for the few times I’ve witnessed it.

In Unlocking Home, I spilled a lot of ink over the discriminatory, exclusionary nature of occupancy limits in housing: they are, pure and simple, a way to keep out people short on money. Well, the impulse is as strong as ever in Bellevue, Washington, where neo-rooming houses are being legislated out of existence in single-family neighborhoods close to a major college. CityLab explains.

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Three Things to Know About CarbonWA’s Revenue-Neutral Carbon Tax

Washington’s relief pitcher is ready to put a revenue-neutral carbon tax on the 2016 ballot.
This post is 41 in the series: Cashing In Our Carbon

Washington House Democrats recently threw a ball by failing to include badly needed carbon revenue in their proposed budget. There may still be time to get carbon revenue back on the table, but a relief pitcher is warming up, just in case. In March, CarbonWA, a grassroots group, filed ballot language with the Secretary of State, and now supporters are out gathering signatures and raising money to put it on the 2016 ballot.

CarbonWA’s Initiative 732 is modeled after British Columbia’s successful carbon tax: it would tax pollution and use all the revenue to cut other state taxes. The CarbonWA tax would start at $15 per ton, rise to $25 per ton in year two, and then slowly and steadily increase by inflation plus 3.5 percent each year. The roughly $1.7 billion in annual revenue would:

  • Reduce the state sales tax from 6.5 percent to 5.5 percent.
  • Eliminate the business and occupation (B&O) tax for manufacturers.
  • Fund the Working Families Rebate to provide up to $1,500 a year for 400,000 low-income working households.

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Listen In: Oregon’s Proposed Polluters-Pay Bills

Two radio interviews on Oregon’s proposed carbon pricing bills sum up the facts.
This post is 40 in the series: Cashing In Our Carbon

No time to sit down and read our Cashing In Our Carbon series? That’s okay! I recently gave some radio interviews to help make sense of the carbon pricing bills wending their way through the Oregon legislature. So if you’re curious, maybe you can squeeze in a listen.

The recent Oregon legislative hearing about carbon pricing sparked interest in the possibilities. I spoke with Jefferson Smith on XRAy.fm with Oregon Climate’s Executive Director Camila Thorndike last week about a proposed polluters-pay-plus-dividend bill. (I wrote about the bill here).

Then on April 10, KBOO’s Jenka Soderberg asked me about the Climate Stability and Justice Act—start at 3:55—another bill that would create a framework for Oregon to meet its climate goals. (I wrote about it here).

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Seattle Voters, meet Democracy Vouchers

How Seattle’s public campaign funding program will work.
This post is 17 in the series: What Democracy Looks Like

Last time, I described the Honest Elections Seattle Initiative’s tough new rules for preventing corruption and giving ordinary voters a louder voice in local elections. This time, I begin to detail how Democracy Vouchers, the most innovative part of the initiative, work by explaining them from a voter’s perspective. Next time, I’ll do the same from a candidate’s perspective.

Democracy Vouchers are simplicity itself for voters. In January of a municipal election year, if you’re registered to vote in Seattle, you’ll get an envelope in the mail from the Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission (SEEC). It may look like the ballot envelopes you’re used to getting from King County Elections. Inside will be an instruction sheet and four $25 Democracy Vouchers with your name on them. Read more »

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Coal, Oil, and Gas Spent $2 Million on Oregon Politics in 2014

A look at the fossil fuel industry's methods of buying influence.
This post is 63 in the series: The Northwest's Pipeline on Rails

The last few months have been a wild ride in Oregon politics. Governor Kitzhaber, the state’s only Governor to serve four terms, resigned amid allegations of ethical violations. Then, over vociferous opposition from the oil industry, the state legislature almost immediately lifted a sunset provision on the state’s first clean fuels standard, one of the first bills signed by newly inaugurated Governor Kate Brown.

Many observers now believe that Oregon’s lopsided Democratic majority is positioned to ramp up renewable electricity standards and perhaps even enact a price on carbon emissions in the next legislative session. These are meaningful changes to law that would have a tremendous impact on the state’s pollution levels for decades to come by reducing fossil fuel consumption.

Needless to say, these reforms are not well liked by the coal, oil, and gas industries that benefit from business as usual. In an attempt to tip the scales in their favor, they injected nearly $2 million—$1,972,783, to be precise—into Oregon’s political system in the most recent election cycle. This money came from the usual oil suspects like Shell, Tesoro, and Chevron as well as related organizations like the Western States Petroleum Association. A hefty portion also came from major movers of fossil fuels, including railroads like BNSF and Union Pacific, and Global Partners, which owns of the oil terminal at Port Westward. Read more »

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Myths and Facts about Capping Climate Change Pollution

You’ve heard some unsubstantiated rumors. Here are the facts.
This post is 39 in the series: Cashing In Our Carbon

Author’s note: Some folks in the Oregon legislature have been fretting about falsehoods lately. I wrote this up to help inform a hearing on climate bills in Salem on April 14th.

Oregonians are already paying for climate change, through damaged shellfish, lost snowpack, and increased wildfires. Climate models predict that, without urgent action, the Oregon drought could morph into something like the California mega-drought. It’s time to act. Don’t let false rumors—often circulated by entrenched fossil fuel interests tying to protect their profits—trip Oregon up on the path to clean energy. Get the facts.

MYTH: “Making polluters pay will wreck the economy.”

FACT: Portland State University’s modeling shows that holding polluters accountable and reinvesting the money in schools and roads will grow jobs and wages, particularly in rural Oregon.

It isn’t just economic modeling; years of real real-world experience show that economies survive and thrive when polluters pay. Nine northeast states, British Columbia, California, and Quebec have all been making polluters pay for years, and their economies have kept pace with other parts of the United States and Canada where polluters still spew for free. California has been growing jobs faster than other states. Europe has cut pollution for ten years while growing GDP. Here’s the evidence: Read more »

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Failure to Report

A pattern of secrecy by major oil train hauler puts public at risk.
This post is 62 in the series: The Northwest's Pipeline on Rails

The first commuters were just beginning to trickle over the Magnolia Bridge near downtown Seattle as the short summer night was warming to gray. Probably none of them realized just how narrowly they escaped disaster that morning.

Below them, a BNSF locomotive pulling 97 tank cars—each laden with at least 27,000 gallons of crude oil from the Bakken formation of North Dakota—came to a halt under the Magnolia Bridge in Seattle. Three cars had derailed. It was July 24th of 2014.

The time was 1:50 AM.

What happened next—or more precisely, what didn’t happen—has come to define what appears to be a pattern of secrecy and poor communication by BNSF, troubling habits that put lives in the Northwest at risk. For example, three years earlier when a BNSF hazardous substance train derailed on a Puget Sound beach near Tacoma, the railroad was unresponsive to emergency officials for nearly four hours. Even then, communication lines were so poor that the railroad’s subsequent actions put the first responding firefighters directly into harm’s way for no purpose. Read more »


Weekend Reading 4/10/15

Dolly Parton and oil trains, mycologist superstar in Seattle, and more.
This post is 198 in the series: Weekend Reading
Original illustration by Nina Montenegro of ghosttide.com.


The 12-step method for combating addiction is demonstrably inferior to other treatment strategies, according to this article in Atlantic Monthly.

I don’t always like the Economist, but this tirade against sprawl-generating, wealth-concentrating, fossil-fuel-wasting restrictions on urbanism is spot on, from its diagnosis of the causes of the housing affordability crunch to its call for land-value taxation. Read more »

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Oregon has a climate law implementation question. HB 3470 has an answer.

The Climate Stability & Justice Act would empower Oregon to meet its existing climate goals.
This post is 38 in the series: Cashing In Our Carbon

Most parents are familiar with the slight panic of not knowing if you really have a way to enforce a rule you made for your kids. You’ve been clear that it is not OK to chew gum at the dinner table, but now what? Reach in his mouth and pull the gum out? Carry him to his room? Stop dinner until he complies?

Oregon is facing a similar dilemma: the Beaver state has had climate change pollution goals in law for eight years, but doesn’t have a mechanism to meet the legal pollution limits. Oregon House Bill 3470—the Climate Stability & Justice Act of 2015—would create the framework to fairly and cost-effectively phase out fossil fuels. Here’s why HB 3470 is the bill Oregon has been waiting for:

It commits Oregon to meet its existing, scientifically-based, climate pollution limits.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)—an international scientific body collecting and reviewing the work of thousands of scientists—has determined that if we want to avoid 2 degrees Celsius of warming this century, we must cut global greenhouse gas pollution 41 to 72 percent below 2010 levels by 2050. Wealthier countries that emit more must cut more to stay within our global means. Oregon could do its part by attaining its current goal of reaching 75 percent below 1990 levels by 2050.

HB 3470 would make binding Oregon’s existing science-based limits of 10 percent below 1990 levels by 2020 and 75 percent below 1990 levels by 2050. The bill requires the Environmental Quality Commission to develop an action plan for ensuring the state does not exceed its statewide emission limits.

It could create a solid cap on pollution.

Oregon is already doing a lot to cut pollution and help transition to clean energy. But no policy measure can substitute for setting a solid cap on the greenhouse gas emissions that are allowed into the atmosphere; it’s our firm guarantee that we will meet pollution targets.* A cap on pollution works kind of like musical chairs, where chairs are pollution permits and the players are tons of greenhouse gas pollution. Oregon decides how many tons of pollution (players) to allow each year and only creates that many permits (chairs). The largest emitters—about 70 coal plants, oil refineries, and large manufacturers—must buy permits in quarterly state auctions. Each year, the number of permits (chairs) dwindles, meaning fewer tons of pollution (players) are allowed. Energy companies will improve the efficiency of their operations and switch to clean fuels so they can keep delivering energy, but with fewer tons of pollution attached. Investment dollars will flow away from fossil fuels and towards clean energy solutions. Oregonians will stop sending millions of dollars to out-of-state fossil fuel companies, and instead put their money to work on clean solutions and jobs right here.

HB 3470 requires Oregon to meet its existing climate goals. The Environmental Quality Commission’s action plan may include regulations and market-based compliance mechanisms, such as an enforceable safety cap.

The cap covers all major greenhouse gases.

Carbon dioxide (CO2) is the Justin Timberlake of greenhouse gases, but its old ‘N Synch band mates—methane, nitrous oxide, hydroflourocarbons, perflourocarbons and sulfur hexafluoride—deserve some recognition. In the first two decades after it is released, methane will induce 85 times as much warming as the same amount of CO2. Nitrous oxides are 268 times as potent as CO2 over 20 years. To actually cap pollution, an Oregon law needs to cover not just the heartthrob, but the whole band.

HB 3470 covers the warming potential of all six greenhouse gases.

The cap covers all major sectors of the economy.

Eighty five percent of Oregon’s emissions come from four major sectors: transportation, electricity, industrial sources, and natural gas.

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

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

By covering those four sectors, a cap can ensure Oregon hits its statewide pollution goals. Exempting one or more of these major sources would break the safety cap and Oregon wouldn’t be able to control its pollution. British Columbia, California and Quebec all limit pollution from all major sectors. But the northeast states only capped electricity emissions, so 78 percent of those states’ pollution is still leaking out, uncapped.

HB 3470 covers significant greenhouse gas emitters in every sector. The bill leaves it up to the Environmental Quality Commission to specify how big a polluter must be in order to be “significant,” but most other jurisdictions use a threshold of 25,000 million metric tons (MMT) of carbon dioxide equivalent per year, meaning that only very large power plants, refineries, and factories are regulated. A 25,000 MMT threshold would mean only around 70 large facilities in Oregon would be regulated—small businesses, and even big business that don’t sell or burn fossil fuels, would not have to purchase permits.

It strives for equity.

Low-income residents and communities of color are disproportionately impacted by climate change. They are hardest hit by air pollution and by economic disruption, and they have the fewest options for responding. Any attempt to address climate change in a fair and equitable manner must help these communities thrive.

HB 3470 strives for equity by:

  1. Appointing an environmental justice advisory committee to assist in developing the state’s action plan.
  2. Directing “public and private investment toward benefitting disadvantaged communities and providing opportunities for beneficial participation by small business, schools, affordable housing associations, and other community-based institutions.”
  3. Ensuring that programs to cut pollution “do not disproportionately impact low-income communities.”

It gets the best bang for the buck.

We urgently need to curb climate change, but that doesn’t mean we should haphazardly throw money at the problem. The most important way to avoid gold-plated pollution reduction programs is to use a cost-effective market-based mechanism, such as a cap enforced with permits. If polluters have to pay for every ton of pollution they release, they will think carefully about how to eliminate as many tons as possible by investing in efficiency retrofits and switching to cleaner fuels. Letting businesses make their own decisions about how to squeeze pollution out of their operations will result in lower-cost results than putting a public agency in charge of micro-managing business operations across the state. In addition to using a cap-and-permit system, a bill can also call out cost-effectiveness as a criterion for evaluating reduction options.

HB 3470 requires the Environmental Quality Commission to consider “market-based compliance mechanisms” and to maximize “cost-effective reductions.”

It coordinates local, state, regional and national efforts.

Local governments are taking bold climate action, Oregon is already taking action on climate on various fronts, regional fuel and power markets would benefit from a systematic western regional approach to climate, and the EPA’s Clean Power Plan encourages regional coordination to meet national climate pollution reduction goals.

HB 3470 encourages all levels of coordination. Importantly, the bill doesn’t make Oregon reinvent the wheel. California has been successfully operating a cap-and-trade program for years. In 2014, Quebec joined the California cap, and now Ontario, Canada is considering joining. Oregon could benefit from joining California’s existing program, including saving itself a lot of administrative headache.

By maximizing existing climate efforts within and outside the state, HB 3470 would most effectively leverage Oregon’s efforts.

It course-corrects.

Other cap-and-trade programs have realized a few years in that they need to make some changes: better emissions data becomes available, or other circumstances changed. Without a built-in course-correction mechanism, it can be hard to revise when necessary.

A lot could change between now and 2050. HB 3470 builds in resiliency by setting new interim goals every five years. If circumstances change or new information arises, the Climate Stability & Justice Act will adapt.

Oregon could meet its climate goals with HB 3470.

Oregon’s got climate goals. HB 3470 creates a framework for fairly and cost-effectively meeting those goals.


* A self-adjusting tax that automatically changes to keep pollution reductions on target. From a policy perspective, a cap on pollution and a tax on pollution can have the same effect, but from a legal and logistical perspective, a tax in Oregon faces bigger barriers: it must win votes from three-fifths of legislators, and Oregon’s Constitution specifies that money from vehicle fuels can only be used for highway purposes.

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Introducing: The Honest Elections Seattle Initiative

A plan to give ordinary voters an equal voice in money-soaked politics.
This post is 16 in the series: What Democracy Looks Like

A coalition last week filed citizens’ Initiative 122 in Seattle that assembles into a single package some of the toughest corruption prevention and clean-election laws found anywhere in the United States. It also adds one startlingly original feature: a campaign funding system called Democracy Vouchers, which gives every voter $100 of coupons to hand over to the candidates of their choice. The idea is so simple and revolutionary it might just start changing politics across Cascadia and beyond. If the coalition can gather about 30,000 signatures, which seems likely, the measure will appear on ballots in November. It stands a good chance of passing.

What’s in the initiative?

Honest Elections Seattle closes the revolving door: City elected officials and their top aides may not lobby their former colleagues for three years after leaving office.

Honest Elections Seattle tightens the cap on big money, lowering the limits per contributor down to $500. That’s among the lowest limits in the United States. Read more »