Event: Innovative Solutions to Money in Politics

How Oregonians can reclaim democracy.
This post is 13 in the series: What Democracy Looks Like

Money by Tracy O used under CC BY-SA 2.0

Next Thursday, join our executive director Alan Durning to discuss how unfettered money has changed the political landscape and what Oregonians can do to make sure their voices are heard.

Deb Field, executive board member of Main Street Alliance, will be joining Alan. There will be a live jazz performance by the Mel Brown B3 Organ Group after the event (note that even though the “Innovative Solutions to Money in Politics” event is free, there is a $6 cover charge for the concert).

  • When: Thursday, January 22, 2015, 6:30-8:00 PM
  • Where: Jimmy Mak’s, 221 NW 10th Ave, Portland (map)
  • Tickets: The event is free and open to the public. Please reserve your seat.
  • Host: City Club of Portland

For more information about the event, click here.

Check out the ongoing Sightline series, What Democracy Looks Like, which aims to map a path to political reform.


Fifty Years of Oil Spills in Washington’s Waters

What can the past tell us about the future?
This post is 3 in the series: The Risk of Northwest Oil Spills

Washington’s coastlines and waterways are at a threshold. Battered by a legion of insults—polluted runoff, shoreline development, carbon-induced acidification, and more—there is no guarantee that the Northwest can continue to support the vibrant natural systems it is known for. The region’s native orcas are struggling; key populations of shellfish and herring may be dying out; and even its flagship species, the salmon, are endangered in many places. And what is perhaps the biggest threat of all looms like a specter: a catastrophic oil spill.

Every day the region faces the risk of an oil spill. Though Washington officials have been more diligent in their preparations than their counterparts elsewhere, there is good reason to believe we are not prepared. In fact, a review of the record shows that our business-as-usual approach has let us down at many times and in many places.

Certainly, we are not up to the task of protecting Northwest waters from the titanic increases in oil transport planned by pipeline companies, refineries, and would-be exporters. To understand why, it helps to recall our history lessons. The fact is that Washington has already suffered numerous damaging spills.

Here are a few of the worst.

Pacific Coast (March 1964)

A tugboat towing a barge loaded with gasoline from the Ferndale refineries was making a delivery run down the outer coast to Coos Bay, Oregon when the tow line ran off its winch drum during a storm in the middle of the night. Set adrift, the 200-foot barge, which was carrying 2,352,000 gallons of gasoline, diesel, and stove oil, soon grounded on a sandbar several hundred yards offshore between Moclips and Pacific Beach, just south of the Quinault Indian Reservation.

Rough surf pounded the stranded barge and stymied the Coast Guard’s initial efforts to pull it free. It took more than five days, and the assistance of another tug dispatched from Grays Harbor, before workers were finally able to move the barge off the bar, but while they struggled 1.2 million gallons of petroleum leaked into the water. The spill fouled beaches from the Quinault Reservation south for 10 miles, killing untold numbers of seabirds. Wildlife researchers also reported massive shellfish deaths: 32,000 pounds of razor clams were killed by the spill, and officials immediately closed clam digging everywhere north of the Copalis River.

In an out-of-court settlement, the United Transportation Company eventually agreed to pay $8,000 in damages—about $61,000 in today’s dollars. Read more »


Event: Putting a Price on Carbon

Join Alan Durning for an exciting roundtable discussion on carbon pricing.
This post is 31 in the series: Cashing In Our Carbon

This Thursday, join our executive director Alan Durning to discuss carbon pricing in Washington.

This roundtable will explore several different approaches for “putting a price” on climate pollution and explore how counties and cities can directly engage on and benefit from what can seem like a complex solution. The roundtable will also showcase King County’s Department of Natural Resources and Parks Beyond Carbon Neutral Commitment through the lens of its Carbon and Energy Investment Pilot Program, a strategy that the Department implemented in 2014 to reduce the costs and environmental impacts of its energy usage and fund projects that reduce GHG emissions.


  • When: Thursday, January 15th, 12:00-1:30 PM
  • Where: Beaver Lake Lodge, Beaver Lake Park, 25101 SE 24th St, Sammamish, WA 98075 (map)
  • Tickets: Free!
  • Host: King County GreenTools & the King County-Cities Climate Collaboration
  • Brown Bag: As a lunchtime event, you are welcome to bring lunch to enjoy during the Roundtable.


  • Alan Durning, Executive Director, Sightline Institute: Carbon Tax and Cap and Trade 101
  • Jessica Finn Coven, Climate Solutions Washington State Director: Update on WA carbon pricing issues and legislation
  • Matt Kuharic, King County Department of Natural Resources and Parks (DNRP): King County DNRP’s Beyond Carbon Neutral Commitment

British Columbia implemented a carbon tax in 2008. California’s cap and trade program got going in 2013. Are these and related initiatives reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions? What have been the economic costs and benefits? How have cities been impacted? What funding has been provided for local climate and energy initiatives? And critically, recognizing that Governor Inslee recently proposed a cap and trade program for Washington, what are the latest prospects for putting a price on carbon here?

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Sightline on Kinder Morgan and Columbia River Energy Schemes

Recommended listening—and reading—on Northwest coal and oil plans.
This post is 57 in the series: The Northwest's Pipeline on Rails

If you’re following Sightline’s work on Northwest fossil fuel exports, you may enjoy listening to this radio segment I did recently on KBOO, a community radio station in Portland. The piece is around 45 minutes long, which allows time to explore many of the dimensions that we covered in our recent report, The Facts about Kinder Morgan.

Host Barbara Bernstein also took the opportunity to explore several other dimensions of fossil fuel infrastructure development in the Northwest. In particular, we talked about a recent under-the-radar proposal by a Canadian firm to export large quantities of propane from a new rail-to-vessel facility in Portland. Curiously enough, the project appears to have the support of Mayor Hales, though a public hearing on January 13 may change his mind.

In the same vein, I highly recommend reading the New York Times‘ recent treatment of energy company schemes on the Columbia River—a treatment that features Sightline’s work on the subject. Reporter Kirk Johnson highlights Vancouver, Washington’s heated debate over whether to permit the nation’s largest crude oil-by-rail terminal on a swath of downtown waterfront land.

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Weekend Reading 1/9/15

9 rules for the black birdwatcher, a climate message to one billion Catholics, and more.
This post is 186 in the series: Weekend Reading


Putting a freeway through your city to improve transportation is like putting a hole through your heart to improve circulation, I wrote years ago. See for yourself in these before-and-after slider photos of three heavily freewayed US cities.


A standing ovation for our friends down south. This week a judge struck down a state permit for a coal export terminal on the lower Mississippi. It was a big win for the locals and for advocates protecting Louisiana’s coastal marshlands, and it was a another big hit to the coal industry.

Closer to home, the city of Vancouver, Washington, could prove to be Tesoro’s Waterloo. Locals just launched a new political action committee targeting the port commissioners who have tried to approve the firm’s giant oil-by-rail terminal plans for the city.

People there are very concerned about the scheme—and rightly so—for a range of reasons. This week added one more reason to worry when oil storage tanks in North Dakota caught fire, releasing billowing clouds of black smoke and, presumably, hazardous and toxic gases. Read more »

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How Tesoro Manipulates Washington State Politics

Oil company needs Gov. Inslee's blessing but spends big opposing him.
This post is 56 in the series: The Northwest's Pipeline on Rails

The Texas oil company Tesoro has big plans for Washington. Long an operator of a refinery near Anacortes, Tesoro recently unveiled plans for the biggest oil-by-rail facility in the US on the Columbia River at Vancouver. The scheme, which has become a lightning rod in the region, has already run into severe delays and cost increases and the company is scrambling to rebrand its proposal.

In a recent interview with the local newspaper’s editorial board, Tesoro executives tried to argue that the project is consistent with Governor Inslee’s agenda.

Inslee “has every reason to say yes… “I think (the oil terminal) fits into what he wants to accomplish,” said one VP.

That’s a Texas tall tale if we’ve ever heard one. In truth, it would be hard to find any company anywhere with a record more diametrically opposed to Governor Inslee’s agenda.

The fact is that Tesoro has a well-documented track record in Washington of meddling at the ballot box, funneling money to shadowy Republican groups, and financing anticlimate campaigns. In 2010, Tesoro started bankrolling Tim Eyman initiatives to the tune of $90,000. In the last two election cycles, the firm doubled-down on its political activities in the state, spending an additional $577,673 on candidate donations, lobbying, and funding political action committees.

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

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

A review of public records shows that Tesoro delivers not only petroleum products, but also a heavy dose of dirty energy money into Evergreen State politics. To better understand how Tesoro cultivates influence in Washington State, let’s follow the money. Read more »


A Green Light for Using Rain Barrel Water on Garden Edibles

New research bolsters the case for roof runoff for irrigation—with some notes of caution.
This post is part of the research project: Stormwater Solutions: Curbing Toxic Runoff

Is it safe to use rain-barrel water collected from your roof to irrigate homegrown lettuces, strawberries, and tomatoes?

The question is so straightforward, and yet the answer has been so murky. In the past, many sources cautioned against this use of stormwater runoff, while some, including Seattle Public Utilities, suggest it’s OK with water collected from some roof types but not others.

As rain barrels proliferate and climate change squeezes summer water supplies, there’s certain to be increasing interest in using roof runoff to grow vegetables and fruits. The problem is that there has been little direct research using runoff to water edibles and checking them for contamination.

Now data from Australia, where scientists used stormwater runoff to irrigate vegetables, as well as recently released results from the Washington Department of Ecology, which analyzed the pollutants washing off roofing materials, are helping resolve the rain-barrel dilemma.

Based on these experiments and others, it appears that rain-barrel water is safe to use on edibles, particularly if you adhere to some easy-to-follow advice to reduce exposure to bacteria and other contaminants. Unfortunately, some roofing materials—namely treated wood-shake roofing—release much higher levels of pollution than other roof types and are still too suspect to allow use of the runoff on food. But tests on the stormwater dripping from asphalt shingle roofs find that it’s remarkably clean.

So what exactly do the new data say? Let’s take a look. Read more »


All I got for Christmas Was the Washington State Carbon Tax Swap Calculator

And I can’t stop playing with it!
This post is 30 in the series: Cashing In Our Carbon

Congressman Tip O’Neill famously said that “All politics is local.” Climate politics is no different. So it is with great enthusiasm that I link to the Washington State carbon tax swap calculator, a snazzy tool that allows you to evaluate how one particular carbon pricing policy—the revenue-neutral Carbon Washington tax shift—will affect your own individual household. The Carbon Washington proposal uses carbon tax revenues to reduce sales taxes and B&O business taxes. The calculator tool estimates your household’s carbon tax payments and your sales tax savings and boils it all down to a single dollar amount: an estimate of how much more or less your specific household will pay annually in state taxes with a $25 carbon tax shift. (As noted below, you can also tweak the calculator to see how Governor Inslee’s proposal will affect your household.)

Read on for a few of my observations, but the main point of this post is to encourage you to try it out yourself and post your results in the comments!

Full disclosure: I am a leader of the Carbon Washington group and helped create the calculator, with research assistance from Summer Hanson and Akua Konadu. Ultimately, however, the calculator is a project of UW computer science graduate student Justin Bare and is intended to be an impartial informational tool to allow Washington State households to evaluate the impact of a carbon tax on their household. The detailed methodology behind the calculator is available for your analysis and feedback.

Observation #1: For most households, the tax swap is pretty close to a wash.

Odds are that your household will pay a few hundred dollars a year more for fossil fuels (roughly split between transportation fuels and home energy use) and a few hundred dollars a year less for everything else. You could easily end up plus or minus $100 or $200, but results outside those bounds would be pretty unusual. (See below for a caveat about home energy use, and note one exception: low-income households with children who qualify for the federal Earned Income Tax Credit could end up ahead by a more substantial amount—about $1000—because they’d qualify for a Working Families Rebate that boosts their EITC by 25 percent.) Read more »


How Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton Made Oil Trains Less Safe

Are lives worth more than oil-by-rail industry costs?
This post is 55 in the series: The Northwest's Pipeline on Rails

Oil trains are not safe—a string of cinematic explosions has made that clear—and they’re not nearly as tightly regulated as they should be. This regulatory lapse isn’t just a one-off failure of the federal agencies charged with oversight; we’re in a jam that’s been decades in the making. Since Ronald Reagan, in fact.

When the feds released draft rules for oil trains this past July, they also published a draft Regulatory Impact Analysis (RIA). Though it’s technical and often-overlooked, the RIA is a hugely important document that weighs the benefits to the public against the costs to the private sector of new rules—rules that might require tank car upgrades, train braking improvements, safer rail routing, and speed restrictions. This cost-benefit analysis for federal rules designed to protect people and the environment has long been a tactic favored business conservatives, and it’s been the law of the land since 1982 when then-President Reagan required by executive order that federal rules pass a cost-benefit test.

In 1993, President Bill Clinton affirmed and expanded Reagan’s regulatory legacy with Executive Order 12866, so that nowadays agencies must quantify the anticipated present and future benefits and costs as accurately as possible—and then proceed with a new rule only if the benefits justify the costs. All of which may sound sensible enough, but consider this: that means the benefit of you being alive is evaluated in the same equation that measures the oil industry’s profit margin. And with exploding trains, that’s not just hyperbole. Read more »

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Weekend Reading 1/2/15

Tour the first tiny house, "Skynet Marshmallow Bumper Bots," and more.
This post is 185 in the series: Weekend Reading


The ever-hilarious Oatmeal writes an actually important analysis of self-driving cars, which also happens to be funny: “I’m ready for our army of Skynet Marshmallow Bumper Bots.”

In the Northwest, or at least in Washington, white people are whiter—and so are black people, according to a big new genetic study of African, European, and Native American ancestry. South Carolina, though? The homeland of truculent racists like Strom Thurmond is the place where self-identified white people have the most African ancestry. All in all, the study shows, whatever we may think about our race, most of us are beautiful mixtures.

“Outside there is a storm and inside there are mice”… plus other mock-inspirational quotes from Werner Herzog.

Artist Dan Miller of Portland (a childhood friend of mine) built one of the first modern tiny houses in Cascadia, and he built it by hand for less than $4,000. It’s mostly clay and dirt from the backyard where it stands. The beautiful little structure will be open for a tour on January 10—Dan’s last showing of the home before he moves on to life’s next adventure. (Description, photos, and how to RSVP here.)

One must always read Rebecca Solnit: “If I’m exhilarated this year that I’ve read more rape trial transcripts, victims’ testimonies, accounts of murders, beatings and threats and rape tweets and misogynist comments than in probably all my other years put together, it’s because violence against women is now a public issue. At last.”

Read more »

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