Events: Sightline on Fossil Fuel Exports: Bainbridge Island and Vancouver, WA

Free public lectures on the Northwest's changing energy economy.
This post is 26 in the series: The Northwest's Pipeline on Rails

Next week, I’ll be doing two public speaking engagements on The Thin Green Line—the notion that the Northwest is uniquely positioned to thwart large-scale fossil fuel exports.

Bainbridge Island

Vancouver, WA

  • When: Thursday, April 10, 12-1:15 pm and again from 1:25-2:40 pm
  • Where: WSU Vancouver, Dengerink Administration Building, Room 110
  • Tickets: For this talk, I’ll spend more time on the climate change implications of the various coal, oil, and gas shipment proposals that are underway in the Northwest. This event is also free and open to the public. More details from the event’s organizers here.
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What the Northwest Can Learn from Louisiana

Despite obvious ongoing pollution, coal handlers want to expand.
This post is part of the research project: Northwest Coal Exports

I returned from a recent visit to the southern tip of Louisiana with a newfound appreciation for how important it is to prevent coal exports in the Northwest. The two Mississippi River coal facilities there—United Bulk Terminals and Kinder Morgan—are filthy, and plainly degrading nearby communities. Worse yet, another coal terminal, called RAM, is seeking permission to develop along the same stretch of the river.

Now comes news from the New Orleans Times-Picayune that local environmental groups are bringing a lawsuit against United Bulk on the grounds that it has repeatedly violated the US Clean Water Act. Click on that link and you’ll find glaring photographic evidence of coal and coal dust spilling into the Mississippi from the coal-loading equipment.

Here’s a photo I took of a snowy egret in a ditch near the United Bulk Terminals site. The water it’s standing in is literally black with coal contamination.

Egret in coal polluted ditch by Eric de Place

Egret in coal polluted ditch by Eric de Place

Predictably, the coal terminal operators complain that they’re somehow being treated unfairly. They claim to have spent tens of millions of dollars on modernizing the facility. But in some ways, their protestations are all the more damning because they demonstrate simply that coal terminals are almost always nasty and polluting neighbors.

It’s exactly what Sightline has found when examining coal dust complaints at terminals in Alaska, northern British Columbia, southern BC, Louisiana, South Carolina, Virginia, Australia, India, and South Africa. It’s the same story everywhere. Read more »


Will Oregon Cook Up a Carbon Tax?

An illustrated taster's guide.
This post is 2 in the series: Cashing in Our Carbon

The BC recipe for carbon pricing looks something like this: Take a carbon tax and mix it with corporate and personal income tax reductions; keep it simple; slowly shift the tax burden from income to carbon pollution over time.

Is Oregon the next place this dish will show up on the menu? Governor Kitzhaber is running for re-election on a platform that prominently includes tax reform. “It’s got to be on the agenda,” he told state business and labor leaders, “and it’s my intention to put it squarely on the table.” Kitzhaber has not yet committed to proposing a carbon tax, but he’s considering it.

Last year, the legislature in Salem passed a study bill specifically focused on “the feasibility of imposing [a fee or tax on greenhouse gas emissions] as a new revenue option that would augment or replace portions of existing revenues.”

The study itself will not be completed until November, but the state has awarded the contract to Northwest Economic Research Center (NERC), headed by Portland State University economics department chair Tom Potiowsky, who previously spent a decade as the Oregon state economist. NERC has already conducted a preliminary report on carbon pricing in Oregon.

The key takeaway from that report was that environmental tax reform can benefit the economy and reduce emissions. “The report shows that putting a price on carbon in Oregon can result in reductions in harmful emissions and have positive impacts on the economy,” it says. Elsewhere, it notes, “[A] BC-style carbon tax and shift could generate a significant amount of revenue and reduce tax distortions while creating new jobs and reducing carbon emissions. The specifics of the tax shift program are key to ensure equitable distribution of costs and benefits, as well as preserve the strength of the price signal.”

Here are some targets to keep an eye on as the state moves forward: Read more »


Recent Coal Export Trends: Q4 2013

Exports slightly down on the West Coast and nationally.
This post is 13 in the series: Coal Export Trend Reports

Late last week, the US Department of Energy released new figures in its quarterly coal export report. Here’s what happened up through the end of the year, 2013:

Original Sightline Institute graphic, available under our Free Use Policy

Original Sightline Institute graphic, available under our Free Use Policy

Nationally, coal exports were down nearly 3 percent in the final quarter of 2013.

Overall in 2013, the US exported almost 118 million tons of coal. It was unquestionably a lot by historical standards, but even so it represented a 7 percent decline from the record export levels of 2012.

The Western Customs Region, center stage in the ferocious debate over expansion capacity, is currently only a minor player in the national coal exports scene. The West Coast exported roughly 2.2 million tons in the fourth quarter of 2013, about 5 percent less than the previous quarter. Just so, total export figures for 2013 also registered about 5 percent lower than they did in 2012. Read more »

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A New Measure of Food Deserts, Part 2

In King County, at least, proximity to a grocery store may not matter.

Clark’s post last week on a new WalkScore tool that maps which homes are within a five-minute walk to a grocery store reminded me of the always interesting findings from the University of Washington’s Center for Public Health Nutrition, where researchers have lately been looking at whether proximity to a grocery store actually influences people’s diet and health.

What they’re finding, at least in King County, is that it doesn’t matter much. How close you live to a grocery store here has no correlation with how obese you are or even how many fruits and vegetables you eat. What does matter, the researchers found, is where you choose to shop for food.

That’s because in a place where most people have access to a car, only a third of people actually shop at the grocery store that is closest to their house. And two kinds of people are more likely to travel right past their “neighborhood” store: People looking to shop at lower-priced chains like Safeway and people willing to pay a premium for fancy cheeses and organic spreads at high-priced stores like PCC and Metropolitan Market. Read more »

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Weekend Reading 3/28/14

Mudslide heartbreak, organic urbanism lessons from India, and more.
This post is 147 in the series: Weekend Reading


I’ve had a hard time keeping it together while I’ve read the Seattle Times coverage of the Oso mudslide this week, mostly because of the horrific human toll but also because its reporters have covered the story so well from end to end. They’ve conveyed the mindblowing scale of the disaster with narrativesgraphics, and coverage of the epic and heartbreaking search for survivors. But the staff has set itself apart by ferreting out the land use decisions that systemically and catastrophically failed to keep people safe. (Hereherehere,  here, and here). It’s the kind of public service reporting that people seem to automatically expect from a hometown paper on a big story, but it’s by no means assured as fewer people feel obligated to pay for meaningful newsgathering. Fortunately, the people who are still at the paper are damn good at what they do.

Also, parents everywhere can rejoice that someone finally said this.


Jocelyn Zuckerman’s gripping exposé “Plowed Under” in the March/April American Prospect shows how bad policy prints out on the landscape. High row-crop prices, partly elevated by President George Bush’s 2007 mandates to boost ethanol in US motor fuels and partly boosted by the Mad Hatter incentives of American farm policy, have unleashed a giant wave of plowing on the Northern Plains. Native grasslands and wetlands—including the stunning, bird-rich prairie potholes—are shrinking at a pace unseen in decades. Grassland species are dwindling, pollinators are disappearing, and by the end of the article, you’ll see how it all starts in the money-corrupted Congress. Read more »

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A New Measure of Food Deserts

Seattle and Portland trail Vancouver in car-free access to healthy food.

The concept of a “food desert“—a place where residents have little access to healthy, affordable food—can seem somewhat alien to the well-off. If you’ve got your own car, living close to a grocery store just doesn’t matter much: you can always drive a bit and stock up with a big load of groceries! But if you don’t have a car, fresh, healthy food is often simply out of reach. Taking a cab to the store is expensive; walking or transit can take too much time, or simply be too much of a hassle. So for many car-free folks living in food deserts, the only real options are processed foods from convenience stores, or else fast food meals—typically, the sort of inexpensive, energy-dense, nutrient-poor foods that contribute to North America’s obesity epidemic.

But even though there’s an emerging understanding that food deserts are a significant public health concern, there’s little academic consensus on how to define and identify them…which can make it hard for policymakers to even find food deserts, let alone decide what sorts of policies might help fight them.

Enter Walk Score. They’ve constructed a new tool that offers basic maps of food deserts: places where residents can’t get to a full-service grocery store within a 5 minute walk. The tool could make a huge contribution to the healthy food movement, since it gives everyone—policymakers, activists, and ordinary citizens alike—a simple measure and a starting point for a discussion about food access.

Just as important, Walk Score’s tools introduce a bit of healthy competition into the food desert discussion.  Take a look, for example, at the three largest cities in the Pacific Northwest.

Cascadia big city food deserts


Read more »


Traffic on the Viaduct: Falling, But Maybe Not So Fast

SDOT has backed away from numbers showing that traffic has collapsed.

Oy. A few weeks back I wrote about new data from the Seattle Department of Transportation showing that traffic on the Alaskan Way Viaduct had plummeted. But now, SDOT is backing away from their numbers:

In 2012, due to the ongoing construction of the South Atlantic Street overpass, we were not able to collect valid data for the SR 99 on- and off-ramps located near the stadiums. As a result, SDOT was not able to calculate our own number for 2012 volumes on the Alaskan Way Viaduct.

Instead, a volume from a Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) counter on SR 99 south of the stadium ramps was used…These changes in the data should have been noted on the 2012 Traffic Flow Map, but were not.

This means that our chart, which showed a collapse in traffic volumes on the Viaduct, was based on data that SDOT no longer supports—which suggests that it could well be wrong.

However, that’s not the end of the story. WSDOT just released its 2013 Annual Traffic Report, with a consistent time series for SR-99 just north of the West Seattle Bridge. And that time series still shows a sizable drop in SR-99 traffic: Read more »


My Sixth Extinction Facepalm

An open letter to Elizabeth Kolbert.

Dear Ms. Kolbert:

Your new book The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History is equal parts masterful and perplexing.

It’s a tour de force through the byways of species biology, full of fascinating scientists studying charismatic creatures that are passing or have passed into extinction. But your narration is weirdly dissociative—detached to the point that it might be diagnosable under DSM 5. You document the unfathomable holocaust of species we are unleashing on our planet with your usual New Yorker-caliber prose, but you seem unwilling to embrace and articulate the sheer scale of the tragedy you have detailed—or say aloud the moral implications of your reporting.

Writing about climate change in the 1980s turned your New Yorker predecessor Bill McKibben into a force of nature for climate action. That progression, I understand. Read more »


Ride-For-Hire Roundup

Lawsuits and initiatives and crashes, oh my!
This post is 10 in the series: Crimp Your Ride

Update: Lyft, Uber, Sidecar, and their supporters announced on Friday (3/28) that they will launch their own referendum to overturn the Seattle City Council ordinance that capped ride-for-hire drivers and required the parent companies to comply with a host of other regulations. If Seattle Citizens to Repeal Ordinance 124441 gathers enough signatures, the ordinance will be suspended from taking effect until a citywide vote. 

If you thought the City of Seattle was going to have the last word with new regulations for ride-for-hire companies like Uber, Lyft, and Sidecar, ha! Since the city vote less than two weeks ago, entrenched parties (plus entirely new ones) have taken the fight to the courts and the voters. Here’s a quick roundup of what’s happened:

The Lawsuit

The Western Washington Taxicab Operators Association, a coalition of owners and drivers, yesterday filed suit against Uber in King County Superior Court. Geekwire fleshes out their arguments here, but the lawsuit basically claims Uber has been offering competitive services illegally and operating outside city of Seattle and King County rules on ride-for-hire operations.

It asks for damages “in amount equal to the lost fares and tips due to defendant Uber’s unlawful dispatch operation,” though it does not specify an amount. The suit also makes a dig at Uber, arguing the company: Read more »

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