Weekend Reading 11/21/14

How our taxes subsidize traffic congestion; and more.
This post is 181 in the series: Weekend Reading

Clark

A new report from Frontier Group and TransitCenter makes a provocative (and almost certainly true) point: federal tax policy subsidizes traffic congestion. The IRS lets employers offer their employees a tax-free parking subsidy of up to $250 per month—which, by the report’s estimate, boosts national rush-hour traffic by roughly 820,000 vehicles per day. Worse, the tax subsidy for parking focuses the benefits on upper-income Americans—the very people who need the subsidies the least.

Serena

Emily Badger has an excellent write-up of a compelling case that crosses questions of food access, gentrification, justice, and marketing that no doubt resonate in Northwest communities, too: Whole Foods is opening a store in one of Chicago’s poorest neighborhood. In Englewood, one in four adults is unemployed, one in three households lives below the poverty line, and crime rates are among the city’s highest. But Whole Foods has never closed a store, and they don’t expect the Englewood site to be the first. The conversation around the project on the ground, though, is a testy one:

After the groundbreaking over the summer, the Chicago Tribune called the Whole Foods a “socioeconomic experiment,” a phrase that made Mayor Rahm Emanuel and another local alderman, JoAnn Thompson, bristle.

“This is not an experiment. African American people are not an experiment,” Thompson says. “People need to stop thinking like that, that we cannot afford the things that people in other communities have.”

Anna

Sonny Sixkiller, the legendary Cherokee quarterback, is considered one of the University of Washington’s greatest of all time. What would happen if the former NFL player and Seattle resident, who has been outspoken about the Washington Redskins’s offensive name, bought the team himself? That’s the story told in Lummi tribe member Darrell Hillaire’s political satire, “Sonny Sixkiller Buys the Redskins.” In the play, Sixkiller keeps the name as is, but assigns new names to the players instead. Read more »

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What Happened When a Hazardous Substance Train Derailed on a Puget Sound Beach

This post is 53 in the series: The Northwest's Pipeline on Rails

If you’ve ever wondered how an oil train derailment might go down on the shores of Puget Sound, it might look a bit like the winter night derailment in 2011 that spilled sodium hydroxide on a beach at Chambers Bay south of Tacoma. It was hardly the kind of disaster that has resulted from oil trains derailing, but it still makes for a rather instructive lesson in how these things happen.

Sodium hydroxide, more commonly known as lye, is used as a chemical base in the production of pulp and paper, textiles, drain cleaners, and other products. (It’s also the major ingredient that makes lutefisk unpalatable.) It’s caustic, corrosive to metal and glass, and it can cause fairly serious burns. You want to be careful handling it but—notably unlike the volatile shale oil traveling daily on the very same rail line—it does not erupt into 300-foot-tall fireballs.

If it had been an oil train, things could have been much, much worse.

What happened is this: around 8 pm on February 26, 2011, a north-bound freight train derailed, sideswiping a south-bound train that was carrying (among other things) four loaded tank cars of sodium hydroxide in a liquid solution. One of those cars was damaged in the collision and leaked a relatively modest 50 gallons onto the beach before response crews plugged the leak.

At the time, of course, no one knew how serious the incident was–and things did not go smoothly that night. The 911 call went out at 8:02 and firefighters were responding by 8:10. At 8:31 the Pierce County Sheriff alerted the National Response Center, the agency that in turn notifies all the relevant federal and state agencies. The Department of Ecology learned of the accident at 8:52.

By contrast, BNSF, owner of the railway and operator of the train—not to mention the nation’s leading carrier of volatile Bakken shale oil—did not contact emergency management authorities until 8:56. And then things got worse. As the government responders assembled—sheriff’s deputies, fire fighters, US Coast Guard officials, oil spill clean-up experts—they were unable to get the railway to respond to their requests for information, or even to show up at the fire department’s incident command post.

By 11:00, three hours after the accident, the responders held their incident briefing to plan how to enter the site—and they still were unable to get a BNSF officials to appear. According to Ecology’s official account, “local, state, and federal responders did not know who was participating on BNSF’s response team, their level of training nor their plan of action.”

Finally, at 11:45, almost four hours after the derailment and still without a line of communication to BNSF, local fire fighters moved into the scene. Not until 11:50 did an railway representative show up and at that point responders were finally able to establish reliable communication with the railroad. But it was almost too late: just as the fire fighters were entering the scene, BNSF began moving rail cars on the site, putting them directly into harm’s way.

Local and state responders were eventually able to secure the site and clean up the material. Yet it took days to accomplish, during which time several high tides inundated the spill area. And the story wasn’t over: few days later, on March 1, a contractor for the railway spilled another 100 gallons of sodium hydroxide when the equipment operators lost control of a damaged tank car they were removing from the shoreline.

For jeopardizing incident responders, and for failing to coordinate with state agencies as required under Washington law, Ecology fined BNSF $3,000. The state also sent the railway a bill for $6,370 to cover the response and clean up costs. (By way of comparison, BNSF regularly reports quarterly earnings in the billion-dollar range.)

The Chambers Bay derailment should be seen as a cautionary tale because it all could have been much worse if the train had been loaded with 3 million gallons of Bakken shale oil, a typical quantity for the several oil trains that pass over that every same rail line several times a day. Not only might the oil explode catastrophically—as it has on at least four occasions recently—but it would almost certainly contaminate the Sound and beaches the tracks run alongside. And it’s worth noting that the incident occurred directly adjacent to the Chambers Bay Golf Course, which will be hosting the 2015 US Open and 235,000 fans.

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The Hero’s Journey: Pro tips from Star Wars

How to win (or lose) the "Story Wars" (Part III).
This post is part of the research project: Flashcards
Your job: Mentor (not hero)

Variations on a basic, familiar story have been told over and over across centuries and cultures, knitting communities together through shared values and beliefs. Joseph Campbell, scholar of religion and mythology, gave us a name for it: the hero’s journey.

The hero’s journey does indeed manifest in all kinds of stories—from creation myths and folk legends to children’s books and blockbuster movies. These are the stories we tell to shape and reinforce how we understand ourselves and our world. These stories can call us to action too, rallying people around a common purpose when things aren’t right. As Campbell put it, when you hear such a story, you respond “Aha! this is my story. This is something I always wanted to say but wasn’t able to say.”

Essentially, the hero’s journey is this: An (often reluctant) hero sees a threat to his—or her—values and what he holds dear. (Think: Luke Skywalker). His world is out of balance. He is not powerful but he is moved to action. He embarks on a quest to make things right. He takes on the villains who pose the threat. And he’s helped along the way by a mentor (think: Yoda) who gives him the tools to succeed (not just lightsaber skills, but confidence—lessons in using The Force). He does it all for the good of his community, not just for himself.

Read more »

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A Mom Rediscovers Her Bike

And begins to get what neighborhood greenways could be.
This post is 14 in the series: Family-Friendly Cities
My bike, complete with a working kickstand, 24 fully functioning gears, and a trail-a-bike hitch.

My bike, complete with a working kickstand, 24 fully functioning gears, and a trail-a-bike hitch. Image by Jennifer Langston

I haven’t used a bike to get across town in six years. I know because that’s how long it’s been since I had a baby.

It wasn’t entirely the baby’s fault—options and resources for family biking in the Northwest have exploded. But having less time, a rotting garage door (now fixed!) and an inconvenient daycare in automobile-choked Amazonia were barriers to using my bike more often.

I’m somewhere on the spectrum between the “enthused and confident” and “interested but concerned” bike user that so many cities are trying to win over. During the pre-baby year I spent in Cambridge, Mass., my bike was a main mode of transportation. Since then, I’ve bought a used Burley trailer, biked recreationally, and occasionally hauled my kid a few blocks to the grocery store or playground. But I assumed Seattle’s bike infrastructure was too unintuitive and stressful to meet my needs for getting around. From my pre-baby days, I recalled bike lanes to nowhere, frequently having to pull over to check a map, not being sure I was in the right place, thinking sharrows were a mean joke, and being thankful if you had a white stripe that separated you from oblivious drivers in cars that were moving pretty fast.

So I was genuinely surprised last week when I discovered it was relatively easy to take a mapless bike ride from my house near Woodland Park to I-5 to Puget Sound, with only a vague goal of testing the two neighborhood greenways in my neck of the woods.

Children give you an easy benchmark by which to measure how much things change. And I can unequivocally say that in the last six years, Seattle’s bike infrastructure has gotten noticeably better for someone like me. In this post, I’m going to focus on neighborhood greenways—a tool that Portland has used widely (which I’ll discuss in a future post) and that Seattle is now banking on to attract left-out bikers, create a family-friendly network of calmer streets, and make the city safer for people of all ages and abilities. Read more »

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The Washington Carbon Emissions Reduction Taskforce Report is Out

Blue ribbon panel says: let’s price carbon!
This post is 23 in the series: Cashing In Our Carbon

Twenty-one Washingtonian leaders from business, labor, public interest, and public health communities and federal, tribal, and local governments walk into a room to discuss the best way to price carbon in the Evergreen State. What comes out after several months? A unanimous report that says: we should do this. With caveats and cautions and needs for more research of course, but the bottom line is that Washington will not achieve its statutory carbon targets without a price, and Washington can design a price—whether a cap or a tax—to protect public health and the economy and make the transition to a post-carbon world.

In April, Governor Inslee established a Carbon Emissions Reduction Taskforce (CERT) to provide recommendations about the design and implementation of carbon pricing in Washington. Today, the 21-member panel—with individuals drawn from business, labor, public interest, and public health communities and federal, tribal, and governments—released its unanimous recommendations. Here is my summary and commentary on their findings.

CERT’s Findings

CERT members unanimously agreed on four findings. Stripping away the cautious consensus wording and hedging (the report says “thoughtful” 15 times in 27 pages), here is my interpretation of those findings, found more in the small print than in the bold headlines:

  1. There isn’t a meaningful difference between a cap and a tax. But if we do either one and do it well, we can inspire other jurisdictions to take action too, making it easier for everyone to go post-carbon.
  2. On the topic of doing it well, Washington needs to carefully design its price to meet the criteria discussed below.
  3. The price should work with complementary policies. In particular, the transportation sector needs an integrated approach with land-use policies, transit oriented development, and alternatives to current single occupancy vehicles such as adequate transit, zero emissions vehicles, and alternative fuel infrastructure. Washington could invest carbon revenue in clean energy and transportation options for a smooth transition to a post-carbon economy.
  4. More analysis is needed, particularly around impacts on businesses and low-income communities.

Read more »

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All the World’s Carbon Pricing Systems in One Animated Map

Plus, answers to decisionmakers' top eight questions about them.
This post is 22 in the series: Cashing In Our Carbon

Oregon and Washington leaders are contemplating turbocharging their clean energy transition by instituting carbon pricing here in the Pacific Northwest. Will a cap or tax on carbon work? Has anyone else ever done this before? Why, yes. Since you ask: Scandinavian countries have been pricing carbon for more than two decades. The European Union Emissions Trading System (EU ETS) has been pricing carbon for almost a decade. US states and Canadian provinces have been pricing for years. Today, there are 39 (1) different programs that collectively put a price on 12 percent of all the greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in the world. And when China’s national program starts in 2016, almost a quarter of global GHG pollution will carry a price tag to speed the changeover to clean energy. The animated map below shows carbon pricing programs around the world, with the size of the bubbles indicating the amount of pollution priced.

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

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

Carbon pricing programs come in many flavors: tax, cap-and-trade, or hybrids, and implemented at the level of country, region, state, or even city. (A fully sort-able table of the programs is at the bottom of this article.) The biggest program is the EU ETS, covering a little less than 2,000 million metric tons (MMT) of GHG emissions, or about 45 percent of all the emissions in the European Union. Japan’s carbon tax is the next biggest player, covering about 800 MMT, or 70 percent of Japan’s emissions. China, with several years of pilot project experience under its belt, is now committed to rolling out a cap-and-trade program in 2016 that will dwarf both the EU and Japan’s programs, probably covering about 5,000 MMT of pollution. For reference: the entire world emits about 36,000 MMT, so China’s program alone will price about 13 percent of global emissions. To get a sense of how the carbon pricing programs relate to global emissions, the map below shows the world’s biggest polluters. (You can also see countries re-sized by emissions here.) The US has a conspicuous mismatch between its large red pollution bubble and the lack of a green price bubble. President Obama, not to be outdone by the Chinese, has announced an agreement with China to cut carbon pollution. However, new Congressional leadership has vowed to move in the opposite direction by delaying and undermining federal efforts to cut pollution.

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

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

Here are a few questions about global carbon pricing programs that Pacific Northwest leaders might want answered: Read more »

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Event: Will a Carbon Tax Fly in Oregon?

Kristin Eberhard and the Corvallis League of Women Voters talk carbon cash.
This post is 21 in the series: Cashing In Our Carbon

Next Thursday, join our senior researcher Kristin Eberhard to talk about carbon pricing possibilities for Oregon. The League of Women Voters of Corvallis is hosting a public forum with a great panel of speakers to lay out some smart climate policy for the Beaver State. 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 Nancy Shurtz, professor at University of Oregon’s law school. There will be a Q&A following the panelists’ remarks, so bring a notebook and some hard questions, because this crew can definitely accommodate.

  • When: Thursday, November 20, 2014, 7 p.m.
  • Where: OSU Linus Pauling Science Center, Room 125 (map)
  • Tickets: The event is free and open to the public, no pre-registration required.
  • Host: League of Women Voters of Corvallis, Oregon

For more information, visit LWV Corvallis’s Facebook page.

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Weekend Reading 11/14/14

The junk mail-killing app; from the same program that brought you Solyndra, a $5B win for taxpayers; and more.
This post is 180 in the series: Weekend Reading

Alan

You probably don’t think you want to read a six-page account of the Washington State budget, with charts and tables and citations, and if you’re not a resident of the state, you’re probably right. But if you are resident, you’re mistaken. State Representative Ross Hunter has written a compelling and understandable article about this year’s budgetary imponderables that illuminates and makes real the Abrahamic choices facing the legislature. It’s full of concrete, understated, revealing sentences like this: “The Supreme Court says that we can’t keep mentally ill people in shackles in emergency room hallways.” Read it.

Patton Oswalt and Werner Herzog act out regulatory capture and 19 other short films that amusingly distill key economic issues. It’s We The Economy, a project of Paul Allen’s movie production company.

Know how I hate junk mail? Here’s the latest killer app (literally) for paper spam.

I like to read about brain science. It makes me feel like I’m in a fun house hall of mirrors: infinite loop. Our brains studying themselves, gazing ever deeper, still mystified but making out ever smaller replicas. Here’s one from the NYT. Read more »

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The Money Behind Northwest Coal Exports

Ambre Energy's financial backer makes money by finding a bigger sucker.
This post is 27 in the series: Coal Exports: Caveat Investor
Copyright Paul K. Anderson, used with permission

Copyright Paul K. Anderson, used with permission

If you’ve been following the Northwest coal export debate, you’ve probably heard of Ambre Energy—the struggling Australian firm that’s behind two of the three remaining coal terminal proposals in Washington and Oregon. Ambre made headlines back in August, when the state of Oregon denied a key permit for the company’s proposed Morrow Pacific coal terminal project on the Columbia River.

But even if you’ve heard of Ambre, you may not have heard of the company’s main financial backer: a tight-lipped private equity firm called Resource Capital Funds (RCF). Focused on minerals investments, RCF has a truly global reach: it’s registered in the Cayman Islands; maintains offices in Denver, New York, Toronto, and Perth, Australia; and invests in mining and minerals projects all over the world. With more than $100 million at stake with its investment in Ambre, RCF has become the chief financial backer of Northwest coal exports.

And while you might think that having the backing of a global investment firm like RCF would be a sign that Ambre is a solid company with strong financial prospects, you’d actually be mistaken. A review of the firm’s past investments shows that RCF actively seeks out risky projects with a high potential for failure.

Read more »

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Indiana Jones and the Clean Power Rule

Getting creative with carbon limits (Part 2).
This post is 20 in the series: Cashing In Our Carbon

In Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Indie finds himself on a ledge before a chasm, with no obvious way across. Ignoring the evidence of his senses, he follows a clue he’s been given, takes a leap of faith and lands on an invisible plank. The proposed US Clean Power Rule puts Oregon and Washington, along with other Western states, on a ledge, too. Oregon and Washington are on a quest to meet their own self-imposed climate targets, but the federal rule seems to lead them astray, requiring different goals and tangential negotiations that will sap their energy and make it harder for them to reach their goal. What may not be apparent is that the rule also provides a plank: adopting a regional carbon price can substitute for complicated and ineffective power-rule compliance plans and let Oregon and Washington meet their own targets. It can also carry the West to a clean energy economy.

Backstory

The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), fulfilling its duty under the federal Clean Air Act to regulate CO2 emissions, has issued a proposed Clean Power Rule that would reduce CO2 pollution from power plants nationwide 30 percent below 2005 levels by 2030. Although Republicans think even this relatively modest goal is too much, Oregon and Washington already have more ambitious climate laws on the books. If Oregon follows a smooth line to its goal to cut pollution 75 percent below 1990 levels by 2050, it will cut pollution approximately 50 percent below 2005 levels by 2030. A straight line to Washington’s goal to cut pollution 50 percent below 1990 by 2050 will cut approximately 22 percent below 2005 levels by 2030, but the electricity sector will likely make deeper cuts than the state average. Both states aim to squeeze out much more pollution by 2050.

Original Sightline Institute graphic, available under our Free Use Policy.

Original Sightline Institute graphic, available under our Free Use Policy.

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