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 InfluenceExplorer.com, 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:

Read more »

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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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Oil Trainspotting, Part 2

What we're learning by looking for oil trains.
This post is 27 in the series: The Northwest's Pipeline on Rails

Two weeks ago, we called on northwesterners to start tracking oil train movements as they pass through local communities. It looks like people are responding to the call: our first oil trainspotting video comes from Everett, and it’s up on Facebook. It shows an empty oil train heading south and then east toward Stevens Pass, presumably returning to the Bakken oil fields.

Oil train in Southwest Washington, April 2013.

Oil train in Southwest Washington, April 2013. (Used with permission.)

Meanwhile, the good folks at the Sierra Club’s Snohomish County chapter have begun providing some systematic rigor to the exercise. They’re staffing track-side locations to count every fossil fuel train that passes by during the course of one week. You can sign up for a four-hour shift here.

Oil train in Southwest Washington, May 2013.

Oil train in Southwest Washington, May 2013. (Used with permission.)

Shortly after we published our post, The Oregonian‘s Rob Davis, who has reported extensively on oil train issues, produced a photo guide on how to tell an oil train apart from others. It’s a very useful resource for would-be “railfans,” as train-watchers call themselves.

Oil train in Southwest Washington, May 2013 (2).

Oil train in Southwest Washington, May 2013 (2). (Used with permission.)

So, have stuff you want to share?

  1. Photos: Upload them to our public Flickr pool. (Note that submissions will be monitored for relevant content.)
  2. VideoIf you get a video of an oil train in the Northwest, upload it to YouTube. Title your video “NW Oil Tank Car Watch [location], [direction of travel], [date & time].” It will help us all begin to learn more about what’s traveling through our communities.
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Users’ Guide: Climate messaging

13 guiding principles from ecoAmerica.
This post is part of the research project: Flashcards

There are lots of resources available on communicating about climate change—sometimes it seems like too many. Of course, that’s a good thing. There’s ample research and expertise to guide us and I see that it’s making for smarter, more compelling, and more effective messages about climate and energy. Still, sometimes, with all the tips and recommendations swirling around, a well-meaning climate communicator can feel a tad overwhelmed.

Happily, ecoAmerica and partners have boiled down the latest and greatest research to a manageable set of guidelines. They give us 13 messaging principles to live by, and, as I’m wont to do, I’ve distilled the list even more.

The top takeaways are nothing new, but good to keep in mind: Keep it personal and say why it matters and balance messages about the problem with hope and optimism about solutions that are ready to go, accessible, and meaningful.

Read more »


Another Look at Declining Seattle Traffic

Slow-moving trends add up to a big shift in how we get around.
This post is 46 in the series: Dude, Where Are My Cars?

Every year, the Seattle Department of Transportation tracks traffic at 19 select bridges across the city, and presents the resulting traffic count as a rough-and-ready gauge of citywide traffic trends. And based on these counts, SDOT believes that traffic across the city fell by a whopping 10 percent between 2003 and 2012:

But it gets more dramatic. The US Census Bureau says that Seattle’s population grew by 11 percent over the same period—suggesting a drop in per capita vehicle travel of more than 20 percent in a single decade.

Meanwhile, transit ridership in Seattle grew by nearly 40 percent from the early 2000s through 2012: Read more »


What Does 17% Mean?

Proposed King County bus cuts would run deep.
This post is 8 in the series: Metro Matters

King County voters are receiving ballots in the mail for the April 22 special election. Many of them have only one issue to decide: Proposition 1. Unless voters approve it, King County Metro will be forced to cut between 16 percent and 17 percent of its current bus service.

That number is a little hard to visualize. Seattle Transit Blog has done it with this map revealing how much of the region’s frequent service network would disappear. King County has crunched numbers to show how route cuts will impact highways and job centers. But for those of us who aren’t transit nerds or intimately familiar with traffic patterns, here’s another way of thinking about what a 17 percent cut really feels like:

17 Percent Metro Cuts_300 ppi

What 17% KC Metro Cuts Mean, by GoodMeasures.biz, for Sightline Institute. (Original Sightline Institute graphic, available under our Free Use Policy.)

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