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…

Read more »

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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 »


Weekend Reading 6/12/15

What makes an environmentalist, why polluters should pay us, and more.
This post is 207 in the series: Weekend Reading


In case you missed this in Tuesday’s Sightline Daily news picks (which you can get delivered fresh to your inbox each morning if you like!), check out this fascinating article on what makes an environmentalist. Chris Mooney writes up the top factors, which include having an “open” personality, having high levels of empathy, and—according to newly published research—spending more time with your neighbors. “The implications of the research, the authors conclude, is that we shouldn’t just be targeting people individually to get them to change their environmental or energy-related behaviors. Rather, we should be targeting their social interactions.”


Agriculture uses more than 60 percent of California’s water, and recent immigrants don’t tend to have big, irrigated lawns; swimming pools; or golf club memberships. So blaming recent immigrants for California’s drought is a bit like blaming transit riders, rather than oil companies, for climate change. But a California group is doing it anyway. Facepalm.


At Whatcom Watch, Michael Riordan crunches the numbers on coal ship “deck washing” and concludes that the terminal planned for Cherry Point would result in “90 to 100 tons of coal flushed into our waters every year.” Read more »

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Stop Doing Business with Strategies 360

Northwest firm is behind Longview Refinery, Arctic Drilling, and much more.
This post is 16 in the series: Look Who's Taking Oil & Coal Money

The fossil fuel divestment movement has scored a string of successes across the country, convincing universities, cities, and philanthropies to dump their investments in coal and oil. Now, as the Northwest stares down the barrel of five Keystone XLs’ worth of pipelines and export terminals, it’s time to turn the same sort of scrutiny on the lobbying and PR firms who do Big Oil’s dirty work locally.

Over the last few years, Sightline has shined a light on a range of firms surreptitiously pocketing dirty coal and oil money—and perhaps no group deserves a more gimlet eye than Strategies 360.

Senior staff at the firm make liberal use of a revolving door between big business and government: they rotate from top flight positions in Washington’s state capitol to working as paid advocates for coal and oil companies before heading back into key positions in Olympia. Arguably no firm in the Northwest has done as much to advance fossil fuel development. By rights, the firm should be considered an arm of the coal and oil industries, albeit one cloaked in the friendly guise of local boys.

Most recently, Sightline has learned that the firm is behind a controversial bid to site a new oil refinery on the Columbia River at Longview, Washington. Read more »


Sightline on Shell’s Presence in Seattle

Listen to a conversation on the Northwest's role in Arctic drilling.
This post is part of the research project: Northwest Coal & Oil Exports
Shell's Polar Pioneer oil rig, incoming to Seattle Port's Terminal 5.

Shell’s Polar Pioneer oil rig, incoming to Seattle Port’s Terminal 5. (Photo by a friend of Sightline, used with permission.)

For those following the increasingly hot controversy over the Port of Seattle hosting Shell’s Arctic drilling rig, I recommend this 45-minute interview I did recently on KBOO, a community radio station based in Portland. Together with Peter Goldman of the Washington Forest Law Center and host Barbara Bernstein, I explored some of the dimensions of Arctic drilling, Shell’s track record, and Seattle’s role in the whole endeavor.

As one bit of context, here is Sightline’s examination of Shell’s political spending in Washington.


Hate Negative Campaigns?

Don’t blame politicians. Blame our voting system.
This post is 28 in the series: What Democracy Looks Like
Original Sightline Institute graphic, available under our free use policy.

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

It’s tempting to think of politics in terms of personality problems: if only Obama were warmer, he might be able to break through Congressional gridlock. If only Dino Rossi weren’t such a hard-nose, he wouldn’t inspire such negative campaigns. But with wave after wave of negative campaigns, it seems the problem is not really politicians’ personalities. Maybe all politicians are not bad apples. Maybe our voting system is a bad barrel. The apples are fine when they go in; the barrel itself makes them rot.

In my last article, I explained the problems that winner-take-all voting creates: unrepresentative government that gives short shrift to women, racial minorities, and third parties, and the solution that multi-member districts and ranked-choice voting offers for generating proportional representation in which women, racial minorities, and political minorities have a voice in government proportional to their strength in the populace. In this article, I’ll show that winner-take-all voting spawns negative campaigns. But fair voting—multi-member districts with ranked-choice voting—creates more civil and engaging campaigns.

Problem: Campaigns are negative and divisive.

North Americans have a long history of outrageously negative campaigns, reaching back to 1800 when John Adams’ campaign called Thomas Jefferson a “mean-spirited low-lived fellow, the son of a half-breed Indian squaw, sired by a Virginia mulatto father” all the way to a more recent campaign in which Canada’s Conservative Party opened its home page with an animated puffin defecating on the opposition leader’s shoulder. It isn’t because North Americans are uniquely antagonistic; it is because winner-take-all elections inherently reward negativity. Read more »


Ridley’s Coal Exports: A Terminal Illness?

Dismal financial results for BC's coal export terminal.
This post is 37 in the series: Coal Exports: Caveat Investor

The Ridley coal export terminal in Northern BC, which has been suffering through a dismal year of collapsing exports in the face of weak international prices, recently published its 2014 annual report on its website.

And it’s a doozy.

Annual reports usually are written with a hint of sunny can-do optimism. They trumpet every shred of good news, present even the direst challenges as golden opportunities, and paint a vision of a bright and profitable corporate future.

But Ridley’s 2014 annual report is written differently. There’s no sunny optimism, just a litany of woes. You can’t read it without thinking that the authors are as depressed as the coal markets that are dragging down their business.

The sense of doom starts from the top.

Read more »


Weekend Reading 6/5/15

Honest Elections Seattle heads to the ballot, seals capture climate change data, and more.
This post is 206 in the series: Weekend Reading


Remember parking reform? Yeah, it’s still just about the most important—and least attended—issue of urban sustainability and affordability.

And remember when I alienated untold readers by arguing that urban greens’ biggest blind spot is their opposition to taller buildings? Yeah, it still is, as Sightline friend Erica Barnett illustrates in a distressingly true description of a mob of neighborhood density opponents commenting at a Seattle city council meeting on a modest proposal to slightly limit an otherwise overreaching antidevelopment zoning rule. Like most Cascadian cities, Seattle keeps promising ever grander climate accomplishments while drastically constraining the growth of the dense, walkable, European-style neighborhoods that are the best alternative to internal combustion. As I’ve been arguing for almost two decades.

Better news: Honest Elections Seattle—the innovative money-in-politics initiative that Sightline helped to design—is heading to the ballot, thanks to a robust signature-gathering campaign that delivered 32,000 signatures to city hall on Monday. Crosscut had the best coverage.


Everyone has implicit racial bias. The bias may be very specific (“black people have guns”) rather than general (“black people are bad”). Police officers—including and possibly even more true for minority police officers—have a “shooter bias” that associates blacks with weapons, leading to officers being quicker to shoot a black person (because they might be armed) than a white person. Seems like it might be easier to uproot a specific implicit bias; but it is still hard. However, there is one solution that is, if not exactly easy, certainly straightforward: reduce officer discretion and replace it with prescriptive guidance. Instead of saying, “hey, pull over whoever you feel looks suspicious and let your implicit bias guide your way,” tell officers “pull over only people who are doing one of these six things that we know are correlated to these crimes.” It works. When NY let officers pull over whoever they felt like, officers pulled over a lot of innocent people, especially black innocent people. When directed to six specific behavioral tells, officers pulled over only one quarter the number of people, but quadrupled their contraband finds. Whoa. Less work, more payoff, less opportunity for implicit bias to do harm, fewer innocent citizens hassled. Let’s do that. Read more »

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Feds to Investigate Coal Mine Cleanup Program

In financial trouble, Big Coal exploits a loophole to save on mine cleanup insurance.
This post is 36 in the series: Coal Exports: Caveat Investor

Big Coal’s finances are in shambles. Stock prices have tanked. Wall Street has downgraded major coal company debt to junk status. And with both domestic and international coal sales slumping, the specter of a wave of major coal industry bankruptcies looms ever nearer.

Still, state regulators have allowed the nation’s two largest coal companies by sales volume, Peabody Energy and Arch Coal, to continue qualifying for a preferential mine cleanup insurance program that’s reserved for the most financially healthy institutions.

The program is known as “self-bonding.” And as a bombshell of a Reuters investigation shows, it’s now under intense scrutiny by US mine regulators.

Here’s how self-bonding works—and how it’s become such an egregious loophole.

Under federal surface mining law, US coal companies must post bonds to guarantee that they’ll have the financial wherewithal to clean up or “reclaim” their mines. For the most part, these reclamation bonds are backed up by cash, collateral, or financial guarantees known as sureties. Even if a coal company goes belly up, the state can use those bonds to restore land ravaged by mining.

Bonding can be costly to coal companies, because it either ties up collateral that they’d rather use for some other purpose, or it forces them to purchase private surety bonds that can cost them tens of millions of dollars per year. Read more »

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