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.


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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Video: A League of Their Own

Money in politics, the Women Voters, and radio celeb Dave Ross.
This post is 12 in the series: What Democracy Looks Like

KIRO radio’s award-winning Dave Ross, members of the League of Women Voters, and yours truly grappled with the plague of money corruption in our democracy. Yep, my big Saturday night out… and you can watch. (Program starts at 8:00.)

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Can Mining and Salmon Coexist?

Bristol Bay, Pebble Mine, and the EPA’s proposal.
“This is not about Pebble Mine. This is about government overreach.”– Pete Higgins, Alaska State Representative, Fairbanks.

“I believe it to be arrogant to say fishing and mining can coexist.” – Everett Thompson, commercial fisherman and shareholder of the Bristol Bay Native Corporation.

Near Alaska’s Bristol Bay— gateway to salmon streams that produce the biggest sockeye runs in the world—a Canadian mining company, Pebble Limited Partnership, wants to build one of the world’s largest open-pit gold, copper, and molybdenum mines. It’s a proposal that is shaping up to be one of the most hotly debated resource questions that the region has seen in years, though few outside the watershed have followed the details. So here’s an overview of the controversy and what it means for the Northwest’s most iconic species.

In the spring of 2010, several Bristol Bay tribes petitioned the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to take action under the federal Clean Water Act to protect the bay’s watershed and salmon habitat from the proposed mine. Since then, the agency has been examining the Pebble Mine and what it means for the watershed.

In January 2014, EPA released a final “Assessment of Potential Mining Impacts on Salmon Ecosystems of Bristol Bay.”“The assessment is a technical resource for governments, tribes, and the public as we consider how to address the challenges of large-scale mining and ecological protection in the Bristol Bay watershed,”reported Denis McLaren, regional administrator for EPA.

In other words, the document is a scientific assessment consistent with the Clean Water Act, but it does not recommend policy or regulatory decisions.That’s not to say it’s not thorough: the assessment went through two drafts, eight public meetings, and independent peer review for technical quality by 12 scientific experts in fields ranging from mine engineering to Alaska Native cultures. It determined that Bristol Bay supports the largest sockeye salmon fishery in the world, producing nearly 50 percent of the world’s sockeye runs, averaging 37.5 million fish each year. And the assessment concluded that large-scale mining in the Bristol Bay watershed poses risks to these salmon, as well as to Alaska Native cultures.

Then, based on the report’s findings, EPA issued a proposal in July to restrict the mine from dropping into water bodies dredged or fill material from mining that would result in any of the following:

  • The loss of five or more miles of streams with documented salmon occurrence; or the loss of 19 or more miles of streams without salmon that are tributaries of salmon-bearing streams.
  • The loss of 1,100 or more acres of wetlands, lakes, and ponds that connect with salmon streams with or tributaries of those streams.
  • Streamflow alterations greater than 20 percent of daily flow in nine or more linear miles of salmon streams.

Since issuing the proposal, EPA has been accepting comments. They have been heated to say the least, ranging from “Hands off Alaska” to “Save Our Salmon.”

US Representative Don Young of Alaska responded to a Maryland congresswoman who supported EPA’s proposal by shouting, “I’ll be damned if I’m going to sit here and watch somebody from Maryland or any other state start telling me or anybody in Alaska how we should be running our state.”

But the Olympian newspaper answered with an editorial declaration that “Saving our planet is everybody’s business,” and commended Washington’s congressional delegation for opposing the Pebble Mine. Pebble Limited Partnership and the state of Alaska have filed suit against EPA.

In addition to the public meetings, EPA will meet with the local tribes for formal consultation. The Bristol Bay region is home to 31 Alaskan Native villages, whose residents depend on salmon as both a major food resource and for their economic livelihood.

The public comment period on EPA’s proposal ended in mid-September, but there are several more chapters yet to be written before we find out whether Bristol Bay’s salmon will share territory with a huge new mine. The agency will review the comments, prepare a response, issue a “recommended determination” by early 2015. After that EPA will coordinate with affected parties before issuing a “final agency determination,” which, as the name suggests, is intended to be EPA’s final action on the Tribal petition to protect the watershed and the world’s largest sockeye run. Yet the Pebble Partnership and the State of Alaska have already made clear that they plan to sue EPA over any decision that restricts mining.


John Abbotts is a former Sightline research consultant. Among his previous articles was an opinion on GM salmon and labeling.

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Weekend Reading 11/7/14

Citizen mappers help fight Ebola, cleaning up the Cloud, and more.
This post is 179 in the series: Weekend Reading


A nifty idea: you can reduce your carbon footprint, at least a wee bit, by reducing how much data you store in the cloud.  One simple option for Gmail users is to use this free service to tidy up your old email messages. I have no idea what the privacy implications are, but it’s certainly an easy way to clear a bunch of useless junk from your email archives.


A devastating portrait of our disgracefully broken mental health care system, told through the story of one family.


Citizen cartographers are helping fight the spread of ebola, just as they helped save lives in the 2010 Haiti earthquake and 2013 Philippines typhoon. Using free mapping software, people are improving maps for West Africa so that aid workers can identify locations for possible clinics and the routes by which the virus can spread. You, too, can help. Read more »

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A Missed Opportunity for Seattle’s Downtown School

'This isn't a blip. This is a need.'
This post is 13 in the series: Family-Friendly Cities
robert s donovan, flickr

robert s donovan, flickr

Update: The federal General Services Administration plans to auction off the Federal Reserve Bank building on Dec. 5, with an opening bid of $5 million.

The Seattle Public Schools Board of Directors disappointed hundreds of downtown families and residents yesterday by unanimously voting against plans to acquire the vacant Federal Reserve Bank building—at least through a federal disposition process that would let the district have it for free—and turn it into a downtown school.

It’s an enormous missed opportunity, based largely on what seems like a solvable timing conflict. The decision will almost certainly cost the district more in the long run, whether it winds up serving downtown’s growing population of children there or somewhere else. As Jon Scholes, a downtown parent and vice-president of the Downtown Seattle Association put it: “The growth and the challenge isn’t going away. This isn’t a blip. This is a need.”

Some board members expressed interest in letting the building go to public action and trying to buy it then. That way the district wouldn’t be under a federal timetable that would force it to renovate and open the elementary school before it can line up the money to do so. It’s unclear how much that would add to the downtown school’s price tag, though Scholes pegged the acquisition costs at $20 million. It’s also unclear where that money would come from. Read more »


Sustainability Between the Sheets

Seventh Generation founder & daughter let you "do what's natural."

When Meika Hollender’s dad, superstar green entrepreneur Jeffrey Hollender, first brought up the idea of founding a condom company together, Meika wasn’t quite sure what to think. But she was in business school at the time, so she did what MBAs are trained to do. She started asking questions of potential customers, meaning she talked sex and condoms with her classmates.

What she heard convinced her that her father was onto something: “Women felt left out of the conversation about condoms,” she says. “They couldn’t relate to the marketing. Paired with that, as I talked with peers and asked about condom usage it was shocking that MBA women who are smart and successful weren’t using condoms consistently when they had sex. There clearly were business opportunities around creating a brand that women want to buy and carry and use.”

In their haphazard approach to contraception, Meika’s fellow MBA students are part of a broader cultural norm. Half of pregnancies in the United States are unintended. Make that 70 percent for single women under 30. If Meika could launch a product that made even a small change in that abysmal record, she figured it would do as much for empowering young women—her passion in life—as anything else she might try. She told her dad that she was ready to go and the two of them jumped into the niche. This fall their new venture hit store shelves, a line of fair-trade, eco-friendly condoms called Sustain targeted at young women. Read more »

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Event: Buying the Ballot Box

Alan Durning talks on money in elections with the League of Women Voters.
This post is 11 in the series: What Democracy Looks Like

Your ballot is in. Most of the races have been called. The TV screen is political ad-free again. But it’s a different world out there for voters since the 2010 Citizens United decision and other massive campaign finance rule changes.

This Saturday, join in conversation with Sightline Executive Director Alan Durning and KIRO Radio’s Dave Ross in an event hosted by the League of Women Voters (LWV) of Seattle-King County, “Buying the Ballot Box: Elections, Money, and the Media Post-Citizens United.” The event is a fundraiser to support the many ways the League provides valuable, nonpartisan information to voters during election season and beyond.

  • When: Saturday, November 8, 2014, 5:30 p.m.
  • Where: Town Hall Seattle, 1119 Eighth Ave, Seattle, WA (map)
  • Refreshments: Wine & hors d’oeuvres
  • Tickets: $75, available online or by sending a check to the LWV Seattle-King County Office

Questions? Contact LWV at 206-329-4848 or [email protected].


How Fossil Fuel Money Plays in Northwest Elections

A look at industry contributions in five key races.
This post is part of the research project: Game Changers

Over the last few years, the Northwest has been embroiled in an increasingly heated debate over its participation in fossil fuel exports. Energy companies’ plans to build coal terminals, oil depots, and gas pipelines are drawing out protestors, grabbing headlines, and earning plenty of attention from elected officials.

So to get a better sense for how these companies are playing the political game, we combed through campaign contribution data published by the Center for Responsive Politics in the OpenSecrets’ online database. To our surprise, we could identify very little money coming from the coal companies with a stake in Northwest export proposals. Yet we did find that the well-heeled oil and gas industry pumps plenty of money in the coffers of the region’s candidates for federal office.

We picked five electoral contests that we believe illustrate the breadth and depth of fossil fuel money in Northwest politics. Whether in highly contentious well-publicized races or predictable landslides, fossil fuel interests can be major players.

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

Original Sightline Institute graphic, available under our Free Use Policy. fossil fuel money (Data from OpenSecrets.org.)

Here’s a closer look at how fossil fuel interests spent money on each of these races. Read more »

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Toxic Lead’s Home Demolition Loophole

Rules for kitchen remodels should apply to teardowns.
This post is 12 in the series: Family-Friendly Cities
Home Demolition, June 26 2014, Seattle's Central District

Image by Rich Feldman

Residential construction is booming again in Seattle and other Northwest cities. To make way for the new, as well as needed increases in density, hundreds of older homes are being demolished every year. However, poor demolition practices—even by “green” builders—and lax regulation are creating an unnecessary hazard from lead-based paint.

Removing older or poorly maintained homes from the housing stock can be a good thing, in the long run, to prevent childhood exposure to lead-based paint dust—a highly potent neurotoxin that study after study has shown can cause life-changing effects in children even when they’re exposed to very small amounts. But improperly handled demolitions can create shorter-term risks. If you see clouds of dust at a construction site where an older home is being torn down, you are likely seeing the spread of airborne lead dust.

No safe blood lead level in children has been identified. Even low levels of lead in blood have been shown to affect IQ, ability to pay attention, and academic achievement. And effects of lead exposure cannot be corrected.”—Centers for Disease Control, Healthy Homes and Lead Program, 2014.

A 2013 study of Chicago single-family home demolitions by David Jacobs, a leading expert on lead-based paint and housing, concludes that “large amounts of dust contaminated with lead and other heavy metals are generated from demolition of older housing.” When an excavator tears into an older home, lead that was once spread across walls, windowsills, and other surfaces in the form of paint gets pulverized into dust. And if relatively simple steps aren’t taken to control it, the contaminated dust can become airborne and settle on nearby yards, homes, sidewalks, and playgrounds.

Demolition lead dust that gets tracked into neighboring homes and finds its way into children’s bodies can increase children’s blood lead levels, especially in neighborhoods where multiple homes are being torn down. And toxic particles can travel far from demolition sites—up to 400 feet if conditions are right, according to Jacobs’ study.

Yet due to a loophole big enough to drive a backhoe through, knocking down an entire older home covered in lead-based paint in a single day doesn’t trigger any of the same health precautions as a construction crew would have to take if they remodeled the kitchen in that same house. Read more »


Recent Coal Export Trends: Q2 2014

Coal shipments down again nationally, up in the West, led by Seattle.
This post is 15 in the series: Coal Export Trend Reports

Here’s a look at the latest US Department of Energy figures in its quarterly coal export report, which take us up through the second quarter of 2014:

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

Original Sightline Institute graphic, available under our Free Use Policy. US coal exports_Q2 2014 (Data from US Energy Information Administration’s Quarterly Coal Report.)

Nationally, coal exports fell again in the second quarter of 2014.

The US exported almost 24.6 million tons of coal in the second three months of the year. It was still a lot by historical standards, but it represented the fifth straight quarterly decline and a  reduction of 35 percent from the industry’s high water mark in the second quarter of 2012.

The Western Customs Region, center stage in the ferocious debate over expansion capacity, remains a minor player in the national coal exports scene, but once more coal shipments there increased a bit. The West Coast exported a little more than 2.6 million tons, 17 percent more than the previous quarter.

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

Original Sightline Institute graphic, available under our Free Use Policy. Western coal exports_Q2 2014 (Data from US Energy Information Administration’s Quarterly Coal Report.)

The Seattle District—where the data refer solely to coal traveling north from Washington into British Columbia for onward shipment to Asia—continues to play the biggest role in western coal exports. In this region, coal exports registered an increase to 1.2 million tons.

In its second quarter investment report, Cloud Peak Energy claimed responsibility for 1.0 million tons of coal exported to Asia by way of BC’s Westshore Terminal, implying that Cloud Peak coal accounts for the vast majority of the coal moving through Seattle en route to Canada for export.

The big coal export story in the west was in California where shipments out of the Los Angeles District (from LAXT at Long Beach) and San Francisco District (from the Port of Stockton and the Levin-Richmond Terminal) fell by 12 percent and 19 percent, respectively. By contrast, coal exports from the Anchorage District (referring to the Seward Coal Loading Facility) jumped back up to more than 250,000 tons.

Please note that there are serious questions about the accuracy of the official government coal export numbers. For more about these inconsistencies, see this post.


All figures in this post are given in short tons unless otherwise noted. All of my reporting on quarterly coal export volumes can be found in the series “Coal Export Trend Reports.” All data come from the US EIA’s latest quarterly coal report, covering the entire Western Customs Region. In addition to the districts shown on the chart here, the Western Region includes the Portland, Honolulu, Nogales, and San Diego Districts. These districts have been reporting virtually no coal exports. Please note that the second chart shows Customs Districts, not individual ports; the Port of Seattle does not move coal.

Thanks to Pam MacRae for research assistance.

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