Honest Elections Seattle Is Legal

Citizens United and all.
This post is 23 in the series: What Democracy Looks Like

I’ve explained how Honest Elections Seattle works (for voters, candidates, and election officials) and that it’s fraud-repellent and cheap. This time, I just want to assure you that it’s legal, SCOTUS notwithstanding.

People question me, all the time, about the constitutionality of limiting big money in US politics, because since Citizens United, everyone on the continent seems to know that the Supreme Court has declared money a protected form of free speech. Almost everyone—left, right, and center—hates this idea and with it, the way private interests have corrupted Washington, DC: 96 percent of Americans believe that US democracy is far too influenced by big money. Unfortunately, 91 percent of Americans also think there’s nothing anyone can do about it.

That’s where people are mistaken.

We can do a lot about it, and the Supreme Court itself has drawn a path. SCOTUS says “thou shalt not ban private money” except in narrowly defined circumstances (basically, to prevent cash-for-votes corruption), but diluting private money with public money? That’s allowed. Read more »


Weekend Reading 5/8/15

New crude-by-rail rules, how commuting affects social mobility, a birth control comedy sketch, and more.
This post is 202 in the series: Weekend Reading


If you care about open government and transparency in Washington state, please read this excellent piece by Kim Drury. The state’s Public Disclosure Commission—easily one of the best state sunshine agencies in the country—stands to get hit hard by budget cuts this year. The expected cuts could mean laying off 17 percent of the staff, continuing to rely on aging technology, and struggling to fulfill its critically important mission of letting the public see who pays to play in Washington politics.

New crude-by-rail rules came out last week, just in time for the fifth oil train explosion this year. Toothless as the regs may be (and they are largely toothless), the CEO of the Norfolk Southern railroad complains that they could make oil-by-rail too expensive. In other words, even a very limited attempt to protect communities from incineration may be too much for the profit margins of oil companies and railroads.

Tragically—no, appallingly—the Obama administration’s approach is clearly weighted toward the industry. Over at Forest Ethics, Todd Paglia lays out a blistering case against the rules. As he points out, “That means oil trains hauling up to a million gallons of explosive crude oil in the most dangerous tank cars will keep rolling through a downtown near you FOREVER.”


Not only that, but as the Spokane Spokesman-Review points out, quite rightly, the much-ballyhooed new oil train rules will drastically limit public disclosure. They effectively shroud the industry in secrecy. And while the public watches explosion after explosion on the tracks, we’ll just have to trust that these same operators are playing by the rules.

Finally, an answer to the eternal question of what women want: the dad bod. (Right?)


The best sketch on birth control access I’ve seen in a while, courtesy of Amy Schumer. Read more »

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Oil Train Explosions: A Timeline in Pictures

Ten explosions in two years, and no end in sight.
This post is 67 in the series: The Northwest's Pipeline on Rails

At 7:15 this morning, yet another crude oil train erupted into an inferno, this time near a small town in central North Dakota. As these wildly dangerous trains continue to explode—at least 10 in the last two years—it’s become challenging to keep track of them all. So, for the record, we’ve assembled here a pictorial timeline of North America’s bomb trains.

Last week, the Obama administration adopted new regulations that will phase out many of the most hazardous tank cars over the next five to six years. The regulations also substantially reduce public oversight of train movements and industry behavior.

We will update this post as new explosions occur.

Heimdal, North Dakota: May 6, 2015

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3 Climate Messages That Win

A message triangle to engage and win on climate change and clean energy.
This post is part of the research project: Flashcards
Photo Credit: Parker Knight via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: Parker Knight via Compfight cc

Poll after poll tells us that majorities of Americans support climate and energy solutions. But neither the talking heads on TV nor our elected officials have kept pace with public opinion—or with scientific urgency.

Why? One major factor is that the fossil fuel industry is actively stalling our progress, spending millions to influence elections, lobby decision-makers, and hammer Americans with messages designed to mislead, cast doubt, distract, and polarize.

Breakthrough Strategies & Solutions (along with Sightline and a team of messaging experts) has retested and updated the powerful climate change narrative first developed in 2012 that informed high-profile climate communications from the White House and the Environmental Protection Agency to 350.org and state and local leaders across the US.

It’s a clear, compelling narrative that cuts through these coal and oil industry tactics and frames global warming and energy solutions on our terms, not theirs. (Climate blogger Joe Romm hailed it a “must-read” for climate communicators.)

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Thanks for Giving BIG!

From all of us at Sightline, a huge THANKS for making yesterday a success.
Thanks for Giving BIG!

Thanks for Giving BIG! by Sightline Institute (Not for redistribution.)

To all of the Sightline champions who helped us hit GiveBIG out of the ballpark yesterday, THANK YOU for giving and for spreading the word!

You make Sightline’s work possible, from our anti-oil train advocacy, to our carbon pricing research, to the push to take big money out of government.

Thanks to you, Sightline is able to produce helpful climate communication tips for Northwest decision makers and in-depth research for informed policy action. Your donations also help us curate a plethora of news products, keeping our region’s sustainability goings-on top of mind for local citizens and leaders. These elements add up to a substantial collective effort to make the Northwest a global model of sustainability.

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The Thin Green Line Grows Stronger

Seattle mayor's blow to Shell's Arctic plans is part of regional fight.
This post is part of the research project: Northwest Coal & Oil Exports

Important update 5/8/15: The news just keeps getting better. In a stunning reversal, Portland Mayor Charlie Hales withdrew his support for a large propane-by-rail terminal in the city. The Willamette Weekly calls it a “death sentence” for the project. As the Oregonian reported, “At some point, those of us in power have to listen to those who put us there,” Hales said in an interview. It’s a huge—and hugely surprising—win for the opposition movement to Northwest fossil fuel exports.


Yesterday at the annual Climate Solutions breakfast, Seattle Mayor Ed Murray demonstrated what the Northwest means for big fossil fuel expansion plans. Expense. Delay. And ultimately, failure.

In February, the Port of Seattle surprised everyone by rushing through a secretive lease arrangement to host Shell Oil’s Arctic drilling fleet for maintenance in preparation for a summer of drilling the Chukchi Sea bed off Alaska’s North Slope. The move earned bracing admonitions from nearly every environmental group in the state. Local activists are turning out more than a thousand people at opposition rallies, submitting more than 8,000 critical comments, and generating national media attention as they take on the most profitable industry on the planet.

On stage yesterday, the mayor revealed that he had a surprise of his own in store. He announced that the city’s planning department had found that hosting the drilling fleet would violate the Port’s existing land use permits. If the Port wants to proceed with its unpopular and environmentally destructive plans, it must apply for a new permit. In a way, the mayor was actually handing the Seattle Port Commission a huge opportunity: a second chance to do the right thing. Read more »

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Cloud Peak Posts Its Biggest Coal Export Loss Ever

Export losses weigh heavily on Cloud Peak's bottom line.
This post is 35 in the series: Coal Exports: Caveat Investor

It’s earnings season on Wall Street, and Cloud Peak Energy—one of the biggest coal producers in the Powder River Basin—just released its first-quarter results. By coal industry standards, it was good news. Stock analysts had expected the company to lose 12 cents per share for the quarter, but the company’s financial statements revealed losses of only 5 cents per share, which led to a modest rally in Cloud Peak’s otherwise disappointing stock prices.

You know things are bad for the coal industry when a multi-million dollar loss counts as a positive development.

But Cloud Peak’s financial statements also show a trend that must be troubling to the company’s investors: the firm’s coal exports to Asia are hemorrhaging red ink.

Cloud Peak Logistics - redux 050115 - 150ppi

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Six Pictures that Illustrate the Staggering Growth in Oil by Rail

Where does it come from, and where does it go?
This post is 66 in the series: The Northwest's Pipeline on Rails

Trains have come to play an increasingly large role in North American oil transport over the last several years. Now, with a recent flurry of online publications from the US Energy Information Administration, we have data that illustrate just how profound the shift has been in the United States.

Crude oil by rail shipments have skyrocketed from just over 20 million barrels in 2010 to more than 373 million barrels transported in 2014.

The growth in crude by rail has been, so far, mostly a US domestic phenomenon. The volume of crude transferred by rail from destinations and to origins within the contiguous United States has been on a steep ascent, while imports from and exports to Canada have grown more modestly. Read more »

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Charts: Honest Elections Seattle is an Incredible Bargain

Cutting Big Money’s influence in elections will cost mere budget crumbs.
This post is 22 in the series: What Democracy Looks Like

Honest Elections Seattle, the citizens’ initiative to hold elected officials accountable and give ordinary voters a stronger voice in local elections, is financed by a special property tax levy of $3 million per year.

To you or me, that may sound like a lot of money.

For a city like Seattle, though, it’s “budget dust,” in the words of Bill Finkbeiner, former Republican leader of the Washington State Senate.

Seattle’s 2015 budget is $4.8 billion. Honest Elections Seattle will increase that by 0.062 percent. On this bar chart, you need a magnifying glass to see the increment of dust.

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

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

What else costs $3 million in the Seattle budget?

  • Two months of operations at the Police Department’s South Precinct
  • A year’s worth of landscaping and tree maintenance  (see Urban Forestry)
  • One week of work on the city’s share of viaduct and seawall replacement (see Major Projects)

Read more »


VIVA Vancouver Reimagines Urban Streets

A “lighter, quicker, cheaper” approach to tapping community creativity.
This post is 24 in the series: Family-Friendly Cities

Robson Street, a major arterial in downtown Vancouver, BC, can be two very different places. On a Saturday in late summer, I found an entire block of Robson closed to cars and filled with people, some lounging on wooden benches under big yellow umbrellas. Amazing smells wafted from nearby food trucks, and a crowd gathered to watch an artist create a replica of the Mona Lisa on the pavement. The following Monday, the block had reverted to its typical configuration, with car traffic on the roadway and pedestrians crowding the sidewalks. I could make out only a hint of the artwork painted on the asphalt just two days earlier. Read more »

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