The Thin Green Line Is Stopping Coal and Oil in Their Tracks

Northwest communities have won key battles. Can they win the war?
This post is part of the research project: Northwest Coal & Oil Exports

“Everybody outside the Northwest thinks that’s where energy projects go to die.”Tweet this

“Everybody outside the Northwest thinks that’s where energy projects go to die.” That’s the reputation our region has earned as an increasing number of proposed coal and oil export projects have encountered ferocious opposition. It’s what the backer of a proposed oil refinery in Longview, Washington, told reporters earlier this year after his company’s stealth proposal was outed by environmental groups.

The Cascadia region has proven to be extraordinarily challenging for those who would turn it into a major carbon energy export hub—so much so that Sightline has taken to calling it the Thin Green Line.

Since 2012, a staggering number of schemes have proposed to move large volumes of carbon-intense fuels through Oregon, Washington, and British Columbia to Asian markets. A recent Sightline analysis shows that proposed and newly permitted energy projects in the region would amount to the carbon equivalent of more than five Keystone XL Pipelines.

But in big ways and small—from Coos Bay, Oregon, to Prince Rupert, British Columbia—the Thin Green Line has held fast. Big energy projects have faced delays, uncertainty, mounting costs…and then failure. A review of these projects makes clear just how successful the region has been in denying permission to dirty energy companies as it stays true to its heritage as a center of clean energy, sustainability, and forward thinking. Read more »


Beware Whatcom District Voting

Whatcom anti-coal advocates should support the power of the people, not gerrymandering.
This post is 2 in the series: Don't Let Coal Gerrymander Your Elections

Whatcom County, Washington, is a battleground in Cascadia’s fight to hold the Thin Green Line against fossil fuels. The fight against the Gateway Pacific coal export terminal also provides a window into how democracy is broken in North America—and how we can fix it.

“The fight against the Gateway Pacific coal export terminal also provides a window into how democracy is broken in North America—and how we can fix it.”

November’s ballot will offer Whatcom voters two options for changing their voting system: one that will make their Council far less representative of county voters, and one that will make it slightly more so. Voters will not have the option to approve proportional representation—a voting system that would guarantee the Council accurately mirrors the people.

The first option—I’ll call it the three-district option—would keep the current county district boundaries but switch from at-large elections to district voting for six out of seven seats. The second, five-district option would keep the county’s current voting system—district primaries and countywide voting in the general election—but would create five new districts in place of the current three.  A switch to district voting with the three-district option could have profound implications for Whatcom and for coal exports, possibly enabling pro-coal conservatives to consistently win four out of seven council seats and give the green light to a huge new coal export terminal. But Whatcom’s choice offers larger lessons for voters across Cascadia about the risks of district-only voting. Read more »


Weekend Reading 8/7/15

The only way to fix our education system, how big money derails democracy, and more.
This post is 214 in the series: Weekend Reading


Rent control, like parking quotas, is as politically enticing as it is economically unattractive.


You hear a lot of talk about how to fix our education system, in particular, how to provide the same basic standards of quality and learning opportunities to African American kids that most white kids get in today’s public schools. And you mostly hear about failed attempts. But as Nikole Hannah-Jones explains in the latest episode of This American Life, The Problem We All Live With, there’s something nobody tries anymore, despite a slew of evidence that it is the one thing that actually works: desegregation. She chronicles an accidental desegregation program in the school district from which Michael Brown had graduated—against so many brutal, unconscionable odds—just three weeks before he was shot and killed by police in Ferguson. I found the data and stories in this account to be utterly chilling and eye-opening. Everybody should listen to it.

And, speaking of systems that are broken, New Yorker’s Amy Davidson gives us a snapshot of democracy totally derailed by big money (in case you needed any extra evidence that we sorely, sorely need election reform in this country). We know this is how it works, but still it’s just unfathomable to me: Read more »

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Video: Spokane Coal and Oil

Your 101 course on coal exports and oil trains.
This post is part of the research project: Northwest Coal & Oil Exports

Earlier this summer, Eric de Place, Sightline Institute policy director, spoke at an oil trains and coal exports forum in Spokane, Washington—a region facing an especially severe onslaught of rail traffic. Thanks to Dancing Crow Media, here is the entirety of the forum. Enjoy the video, and share it with a friend unfamiliar with the topic. This is a great place to start—your very own 101 course on coal exports and oil trains.

Don’t miss these highlights:

  • At 8:02, Eric discusses how carbon pollution from all of the planned fossil fuel projects in the Northwest would burn the carbon equivalent of five Keystone XL Pipelines.
  • Then, at 17:30, he shows a photo timeline of oil train derailments—at least 10 in the last two years.
  • And at 21:39, Eric digs into why we can’t trust BNSF management and their emergency response plan.

COIL (coal & oil) Forum held @ Gonzaga Law Library, June 23rd, 2015 - Full version from Dancing Crow Media on Vimeo.

Featuring Eric DePlace from the Sightline Institute, Spokane City Council President Ben Stuckart, Twa-le Abrahamson-Swan from the Spokane Tribe, Jen Wallis from the ARU and Jace Bylenga from the Sierra Club.

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Where Do Pollution, Poverty, and Race Come Together?

How can we make sure that when polluters pay, money goes to the Washington communities that need it most?
This post is 43 in the series: Cashing In Our Carbon

If Washington finally stops giving fossil fuel polluters a free pass and starts making them pay for their pollution, the state will have some money to spend. Nothing makes friends like money to spend, so legislators will undoubtedly hear all about how schools, highway builders, and others would like to spend the money.

Yet some people in Washington will have a particularly strong claim to that revenue. They’ve already paid a high price for pollution in terms of their health, access to opportunities, and overall quality of life. Members of these communities often have darker skin and lower incomes than other neighborhoods. More pollution, more people of color, and less money add up to a need for investments to help these communities thrive.

But first we have to find them.

That might sound silly—it’s not like these communities are hiding. Community organizations know exactly where people are suffering. Or for a more scientific approach, we could look at census and pollution data and pinpoint the communities with more pollution, more poverty, and more people of color than other parts of the state.

Actually, we need to do both. Read more »

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Dear Mr. Mayor

What I wish you'd said.
This post is part of the research project: Making Sustainability Legal

On Wednesday, Seattle Mayor Ed Murray announced he would not pursue the recommendation of his housing affordability committee (HALA), on which I served, to allow greater flexibility of housing types in single-family neighborhoods, such as cottage clusters, mini-duplexes, rowhouses, and stacked flats within existing rules on setbacks and building height and size. I sent the mayor a letter yesterday, expressing my disappointment in this decision, which I fear will begin to unravel the grand bargain of more housing/more affordability that HALA hammered out over ten months—and which I hope will form a bold new model for all of Cascadia’s cities.

In the letter, I acknowledged the intense and politically damaging outcry from some residents of single-family neighborhoods and agreed that he needed to respond.

Here are parts of the letter:

Dear Mr. Mayor:

…Here’s what I wish you had said yesterday in your statement. Read more »


Weekend Reading 7/31/15

BC's First Nations against Big Oil, Portland vs Shell, HALA-baloo, and more.
This post is 213 in the series: Weekend Reading


If you want to understand what is happening right now in Seattle’s housing controversy—the HALA-baloo—read this article carefully. What the Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda committee has done is to offer a plan that would lead the city out of the trap it is falling into and which San Francisco is already deeply ensnared in. (Vancouver, BC, too is ensnared, though the trap is not identical.) HALA sketched a fragile, new political coalition, too. The old, anti-development political coalition that has long united the far left with the city’s neighborhood preservationists is now pushing back hard. Seattle can and must engage in a long and thorough debate about exactly how to embrace growth and bend it toward inclusion—exactly what rules should be implemented for building what, where—but if we continue to err on the side of impeding housing, we will become San Francisco: a place only for millionaires and subsidiaries.


Ah, Margaret Atwood. I love you, but your science fiction writing and your this-sounds-like-science-fiction-but-it-is-real! writing about climate change terrifies me and makes me think maybe I should buy some guns. No, I’m not going to buy guns. But maybe I should… and dog food. Read more »

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Why Big Coal Likes Gerrymandered Districts

A switch to district-only voting would be a win for coal in Whatcom County.
This post is 1 in the series: Don't Let Coal Gerrymander Your Elections

Coal companies want to build the biggest coal export terminal in North America just north of Bellingham, Washington. The Gateway Pacific Terminal at Cherry Point would send more than 48 million tons of coal a year to Asia. Most Washington voters oppose exporting coal through the Evergreen state, so the moneyed interests that would profit from the coal terminal have enlisted conservative politicians in Whatcom County in a crusade to ensure that coal wins, whether voters like it or not. Here are coal interests’ strategies to circumvent voters in Whatcom County.

Coal Strategy #1: Buy the Whatcom County Council Election

In 2013, coal interests spent more than $170,000 through the SaveWhatcom PAC and Whatcom First PAC to try to elect candidates who would give coal the green light. (The Public Disclosure Commission fined the two pro-coal PACs $4,500 for illegally funneling money through the Republican Party and failing to report their contributions in a timely manner.) In addition to donating to the PAC, SSA Marine, a Seattle company that would build the coal terminal, is funding an ongoing campaign in support of the project. But clean energy proponents out-spent coal in this round: Washington Conservation Voters, bolstered by $275,000 from the NextGen Climate Action Super PAC, spent $330,000 on county campaigns. Anti-coal terminal candidates swept the election, winning all four of the Council races. Coal interests lost the battle, so they switched tactics. Read more »


Picture Perfect Energy Efficiency

Your cheat sheet to effective energy efficiency imagery.
This post is part of the research project: Flashcards

Words matter—I’d say, a lot. But that doesn’t mean we should treat visuals as an afterthought. Far from it. As Resource Media reminds us, the right images can have a mighty powerful emotional impact.

We should aim to combine compelling messaging and images.

With that in mind, those same smart Resource Media folks did some testing to pick out what kinds of visuals capitalize on the widespread enthusiasm Americans have for energy efficiency to boost support for bigger picture policy initiatives.

The opportunity: The good news is that people across the political spectrum support energy efficiency. They know what it is, believe it is a good thing, and want to be a part of it. Indeed, most people relate personally to insulation and thermostats in a way that they can’t to wind turbines or solar panels (and efficiency isn’t as politically polarizing as those symbols of renewable energy have become.)

The challenge: People view energy efficiency as a personal responsibility, not the job of government or regulations. Read more »

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Sightline on Shell’s Presence in Oregon

Listen to a conversation on the Northwest's role in Arctic drilling.
This post is part of the research project: Northwest Coal & Oil Exports

For those following the controversy of Shell’s Arctic drilling program, here’s a look at the role of Northwest ports—first Seattle, now Portland—in hosting the oil drilling fleet vessels: a 45-minute interview on KBOO, a community radio station based in Portland. Host Barbara Bernstein, Sightline research fellow Nick Abraham (who is also the editor of Oil Check NW), and I explored some of the dimensions of Arctic drilling, Shell’s track record, and Northwest cities’ role in the whole endeavor.

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

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