HALA and the $100,000 Question

What kind of city does Seattle want to be?
This post is part of the research project: Making Sustainability Legal

In the last ten months, Zillow says my house in Seattle’s Ballard neighborhood has appreciated by more than $100,000. Seattle has about 135,000 houses like mine. The owners of every one of them have been getting richer daily from the city’s housing affordability crisis. One person’s affordability “housing emergency,” in other words, is another person’s cha-ching.

That’s the harsh economic and political reality that made the Seattle Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda (HALA) committee, on which I’ve served with 27 other Seattleites during these last ten months of surging home values, such a challenging undertaking: demand for housing in Seattle is white hot, property owners are making money hand over fist, and low-income families are getting squeezed out. But do the privileged in Seattle actually want housing to be more affordable? Is there any political coalition with enough power to overcome the desire among 135,000 homeowners for the next $100,000?

As of this hour, HALA is done, its report released, and the ban its members agreed to on public comment is over. So I can finally say some things publicly about HALA. For months, I wondered if I’d be publishing a detailed critique of the process and outcomes at this point: it’s been an extended hair-pull. But to my delight, HALA did better—much better—at rising to this fundamental challenge than I expected. I’m not saying I love every one of HALA’s 65 recommendations. I don’t. That’s the nature of a 28-person compromise.

The heart of the plan, however, stands a better chance of working, economically and politically, than anything I expected to emerge from our deliberations; it could prove a breakthrough in the quest for equitable, climate-friendly cities. It stands a chance of countering the self-interest of property owners. Read more »


“I Love the Change I’ve Seen in My Neighborhood in the Last Ten Years”

A homeowner on why growth and density are good things.
This post is part of the research project: Making Sustainability Legal

Given the hubbub over the draft report leaked earlier this week from Seattle’s Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda (HALA) committee—on which, full disclosure, I sit—and the coming release on Monday of the official report, Sightline thought we’d share a perspective that hasn’t received much attention in the debate.

On Monday, Sara Maxana, a homeowner in Seattle’s fast-growing Ballard neighborhood, testified before Seattle City Council. She expressed her enthusiasm and strong support for exactly the kind of growth and density that some would have us believe are the bogeyman threat to “neighborhood character.” As The Urbanist blog rightly pointed out, “The only way that makes sense is through the vacuous suggestion that Seattle’s character is dependent on suburban homes rather than diverse people, uses, and business.” Hear, hear.

Ms. Maxana’s testimony, notably coming from a self-identified “dripping in privilege” homeowner, acknowledges the benefits she derives from living in a compact, growing neighborhood—from easily walkable parks, restaurants, and shops to the increased property value of her home and the potential of her children’s own future there:

I attribute much of what I love in my neighborhood to all of its recent growth. And what I love most about that growth is that every new unit I see constructed in Ballard makes more likely that my children will be able to afford to live in their community when they grow up.

Read more »


Preview: Stuck in a Jam

A new documentary about traffic and transit in Seattle.
This post is 52 in the series: Dude, Where Are My Cars?

Several months ago, I sat down with a few earnest young filmmakers of Undrgrnd Productions, who were eager to discuss one of my own favorite topics: traffic!

Just this morning, Luv, Vijay, and Mahim emailed me the trailer for their film. As they write, “it’s about traffic and transit, but also about related issues like housing, density, the city’s exploding growth, its history, politics, and problems.” Yep—traffic conversations certainly surface all of those other topics as well. The full film will debut in August, but for now, be sure to check out the trailer:


Weekend Reading 7/10/15

The success of free birth control, oil trains contribute to racism, and more.
Original illustration by Nina Montenegro of ghosttide.com.


The remarkable success of long-acting reversible contraception in Colorado, which Sightline fellow Valerie Tarico reported on last year in her series Teen Pregnancy: Going… Going…, made the New York Times. Cascadia has nothing to lose and everything to gain from emulating Colorado.


I lived in the South for four years and came away with a hunch that we should have just let them secede. We could have avoided a bloody civil war, another 100 years of blatant racism, an additional 50+ years of slightly more subtle racism and not-too-subtle violence and social immobility. Sure, we would have had violent, racist, hierarchical neighbors to the South, but at least our federal government could have moved forward with humane policies that have instead been slowed, watered down, or blocked entirely. This article corroborated my hunch, but told me we can’t jettison the Southern states, we can only hope to slowly convert them to civilized society by sending hipsters to live in Houston and Atlanta. Sigh. Read more »

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The Proposed Longview Refinery: Understanding the Basics

What we know and what we don’t about a curious project proposal.
This post is 70 in the series: The Northwest's Pipeline on Rails

Earlier this summer, a spate of news stories tried to draw a link between Washington Governor Inslee’s office and the backers of an oil refinery proposed for the shores of the Columbia River at Longview. (The Governor’s office categorically denies supporting the project.) These stories sparked sudden interest in the proposal, which has resulted in substantial confusion for many, in part because the project itself has been shrouded in secrecy and ambiguity.

So to set the record straight, and as a resource to the public, here is Sightline’s review of what we know—and what we don’t—about the Longview Refinery.

The nickel summary

A heretofore unknown firm calling itself Riverside Refining has proposed constructing a so-called micro-refinery at the Port of Longview. According to the limited information now available from the project backers, the refinery would cost at least $800 million to build and have a production capacity of 45,000 barrels per day. According to the proponents, the refinery’s “feedstock” would be composed of one-third renewable biofuels from foreign sources brought in by tanker vessels and two-thirds shale oil delivered by rail from the Bakken formation.

There is no known timeline for the project’s permitting or construction. Read more »


Tacoma’s Ticking Time Bomb

How oil trains put residents—and their wallets—at risk.
This post is 69 in the series: The Northwest's Pipeline on Rails
“Tacoma, WA, is now the Northwest city most threatened by #oiltrains.”Tweet this

With no fanfare whatsoever, Tacoma has claimed a new, though dubious, distinction: it is now the Northwest city most threatened by oil trains.  As new research by Sightline reveals, a combined 80,000 barrels per day of crude oil—about 8 loaded trains per week—are permitted to travel on a publicly owned railway into the heart of Tacoma’s industrial area. In addition, another 15 loaded trains bound for north Puget Sound refineries can also pass through the city each week.

No other urban center in the region plays host to so much oil train capacity inside city limits.

The risks of oil trains have been made plain by the 10 catastrophic explosions that North America has seen in the last two years, to say nothing of the billion-dollar risk to the public that is virtually uninsured. The two terminals put the people of Tacoma directly in harm’s way of a fiery derailment, the likes of which have become all-too-common in the news.

Uncommonly, though, Tacoma’s local rail system is publicly owned, so unlike other places that see oil trains, the City of Destiny also bears the risk of financial catastrophe from an oil train derailment. It’s a risk so severe that even a single accident might bankrupt the city. Read more »


How Coal “Self-Bonding” Puts the Public At Risk

If a coal company goes bankrupt, we the people could pay for the mess.
This post is 40 in the series: Coal Exports: Caveat Investor

As the Wall Street Journal reported recently, creditors of coal industry giant Alpha Natural Resources just hired a team of advisers to help them “restructure” the company’s debt—financial-speak for “next stop, bankruptcy!” And as the Journal points out, questions about the company’s massive environmental liabilities have played a major role in the company’s recent financial woes:

The company, which has posted four consecutive annual losses, disclosed in May that a Wyoming environmental agency notified the company it no longer qualified for a “self-bonding” program that had freed the company from buying insurance to cover future mine cleanup costs…[Alpha’s] rapid cash burn and potential costs tied to the loss of self-bonding status pose challenges to its balance sheet.

A couple of weeks ago, I explained what self-bonding is and why it matters so much to a coal company’s financial health.

But it’s not just coal investors who should be paying attention to self-bonding. We all should. Because If a struggling coal company like Arch or Alpha goes bankrupt, the public could have to pick up the cost of cleaning up their massive coal mines.

Here’s why.

Read more »

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1 Million Barrels a Day, 100 Trains a Week

A new oil train analysis for the Northwest.
This post is 68 in the series: The Northwest's Pipeline on Rails

Sightline is re-releasing a popular report: The Northwest’s Pipeline on Rails. It’s the most comprehensive regional analysis of plans to ship crude oil by train. This update includes important new information showing far greater increases in oil train transport than previously thought. All told, the Northwest could soon be seeing more than one million barrels of crude oil by rail per day—far more than the Keystone XL Pipeline would move.

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

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

Moving large quantities of oil by rail would represent a major change for the Northwest’s energy economy, and the plans now in development put the region’s communities at risk.

Why does it matter?

  • In British Columbia, Oregon, and Washington, 15 refineries and port terminals are planning, building, or already operating oil-by-rail shipments.
  • If all of the projects were built and operated at full capacity, they would require more than 100 loaded mile-long trains per week to traverse the Northwest’s railway system. Many worry about the risk of oil spills along the region’s extensive rail network, particularly in remote locations where emergency response would be challenging.

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

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

  • Taken together, the oil-by-rail projects planned for the Northwest would be capable of delivering far more fuel than the region is capable of handling at its refineries. Ironically, two of the facilities that would handle oil by rail were originally built to supply renewable fuels, and a third proposal aims to blend crude oil with biofuel from foreign sources.
  • The projects are largely designed to transport and handle light shale oil from the Bakken oil formation in North Dakota, but the infrastructure could also be used to export heavy Canadian oil. In fact, if all of the oil-by-rail projects were built, they would be capable of moving 1,019,872 barrels per day—nearly as much as the combined capacity of the two controversial pipelines planned in British Columbia, and 23 percent more than the planned Keystone XL pipeline, all of which are designed to ship Canadian crude.
  • On the Salish Sea, five of the region’s six refineries already receive oil-by-rail shipments. A trio of projects at the Port of Grays Harbor would move oil along the Washington coast. And on the Columbia River, two facilities in Oregon are already receiving oil-by-rail shipments, while two more in Washington are seeking permits to receive loaded crude oil trains, including plans for the largest such facility anywhere in North America.

View the full report here.

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

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


Weekend Reading 7/3/15

Northwest's extreme heatwave, guns vs bikes, and a free climate justice event in Seattle.
This post is 210 in the series: Weekend Reading
Original illustration by Nina Montenegro of ghosttide.com.


Little known fact about me: my first publishing venture was not Sightline. It was an alternative newspaper I ran with a friend in junior high school. My co-publisher was Clark Cohen, who went on to have an astonishing career as an entrepreneur in aviation and aeronautics. He recently published a piece for the space-research community that has tucked within it one of the most lucid and insightful arguments for reforming Congress through ranked choice voting in multi-winner districts that I’ve seen (aside, of course, from the superb work of Sightline’s own Kristin Eberhard).

If you want to see what climate change could look like in Cascadia, just read Cliff Mass’s weather blog from this past week, such as Sunday, June 28. The temperature maps look like they came from the Persian Gulf.

In a staff discussion this week, I recounted something I read years ago: that more American households own guns than own bicycles. That appears not to be true anymore, if it ever was. Gun ownership has declined from half of households in the 1970s to 34 percent in 2012. Meanwhile, about 45 percent of American households owned bicycles in 2001, according to this paper. (Reader challenge: find more recent data and assemble time trends for both. Canada? Cascadia-specific data? I wonder which direction the bicycle trend has gone since then: up or down? What year did the lines cross, if they did?) Read more »

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South Korea to Boost Its Coal Tax

Major importer makes life even more difficult for US coal exporters.
This post is 39 in the series: Coal Exports: Caveat Investor

If you follow Northwest coal export issues, you’ve probably heard that China’s demand for coal is sinking fast. Overall coal consumption in China fell a whopping 8 percent the first four months of 2015—an astonishing decline for an economy that’s growing as quickly as China’s. But imports really took it on the chin, with China’s customs department reporting that the country’s ports handled 38 percent less coal from January through May than in the same months of the prior year. China’s import decline has kept Pacific Rim coal prices in the doldrums, and completely deflated market expectations for ready profits from the international coal trade.

But what’s less well known is that China isn’t the only country that’s posing a challenge to coal exports. South Korea, which is the destination for much of the US coal shipped across the Pacific, is seeing many of the same trends.

According to the IHS McCloskey Coal Report, demand from Korean coal-fired power plants was slacker than expected over the winter and spring months. Even more troubling for would-be coal exporters, South Korean power companies recently axed plans for four new coal plants, and delayed several more. Industry analysts suspect that additional delays may be in the offing. Meanwhile, the country recently unveiled an energy plan that would reduce coal’s share in the nation’s energy mix from 37 percent, where it is today, down to 27 percent by 2029. Read more »

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