July 28, 2004
Oil Up, Gas Down?
Crude oil prices are flirting right now with $43 a barrel -- an all-time high. This may come as a bit of a surprise, since Northwest gas prices have fallen substantially over the past 2 months: in late May, gas in Washington and Oregon averaged about $2.30 per gallon, but it's below $1.96 today.
The rise in Northwest gasoline prices through late May corresponded with a runup in global crude oil prices. But oil prices fell by 15 percent from late May through mid-June, as OPEC signaled it would increase its output. At the same time West Coast refiners built up their stocks of gasoline, leading to a fall in gas prices even in the middle of summer driving season.
Then the bad news started again--most recently, the news that the Russian government may shut down production from oil giant Yukos.
So with oil prices on the rise once more, we're likely to see yet another increase in prices at the pump over the next few months. And that could provide yet another piece of evidence that a transportation system dominated by the automobile shackles our economy to distant oil wells (the Northwest produces a tiny amount of petroleum in comparison with its consumption) and to global economic forces far beyond our control. Political shenanigans in Russia (or Nigeria, or Venezuela, or anywhere in the oil producing world) now work to siphon money out of our economy. All the more reason to take steps now to wean ourselves from the sticky stuff.
Live Long and Prosper
Japan leads the world in life expectancy. According to the 2004 UN Human Development Report, a Japanese newborn could expect to live to be about 81.5, given this year's patterns of disease and death.
But Vanouver, BC isn't far behind. A new study (reported here) shows how life expectancy varies from city to city in Canada. As a group, Vancouverites live longest, with life expectancies of 81.1 years--just a few months shorter than the Japanese average. Residents of Victoria aren't far behind, with a lifespan of 80.9 years. Those two cities rank first and third, respectively, in Canada. And they also have high rates of physical activity and low rates of smoking--two factors that significantly influence lifespan.
The study confirms a well-known fact: even within a single country, life expectancy can vary significantly. (The same is true even for a single metropolitan area: see here for examples from the US Northwest.) Not surprisingly, regions with higher incomes and better educated residents tend to have longer lifespans.
Even Japan, the world's leader in life expectancy, isn't immune from substantial variations in regional health. The island of Okinawa is among Japan's leaders in life expectancy, and has an unusually large number of centenarians. And Okinawa is an exception in other ways as well: it is also Japan's poorest prefecture, which bucks the typical trend of wealthier regions within a country being healthier ones. Some researchers have suggested that Okinawa's long life expectancies can be attributed to healthy lifestyles--especially good diets and strong networks of family and friends.
That's a lesson we can all take to heart.
July 27, 2004
The Vancouver Sun covers the story:
Forest fires have exploded across the province this summer, consuming more than 10 times as much land as at this time during last year's devastating fire season.
87 new fires started Sunday because of lightning strikes.
The long-range forecast is for three weeks of hot, dry weather with little or no rain. As a result, firefighters are bracing for the worst.
Since April 1, the province has had 1,467 fires . . . . During the same time last year, 842 fires had burned.
Fires are not a bad thing for many forests. They recharge the ecosystem.
But fire seasons are growing in intensity in part because of climate change, as we've been discussing (e.g., here), and in part because of the related phenomenon of beetle infestations. (More on that in another post.)
July 23, 2004
We Spoke Too Soon...
The French government's proposal to finance a rebate on gas-sipping cars with a tax on gas-guzzling ones (discussed here) hit a roadblock yesterday: the plan was shelved after it ran into opposition from carmakers and conservative lawmakers.
That's terrible news; not only would it have reduced fossil fuel emissions, it also would have set a fantastic precedent for wider use of such "feebates" in the rest of the world, as well as for other products besides cars. So now, some other region will have to take the lead. (Paging the Northwest...)
July 22, 2004
You Don't Need a Weatherman, III
Two quotes warrant comment. First, woodland dweller Kathy Schultz says, "I don't know if [paying for forest-fire protection] should be the sole responsibility of those of us who live in the woods," she said. "It does everybody good to prevent forest fires."
Well, the soaring cost of fire protection is not for preventing forest fires. It’s for fighting them. And it’s for fighting them where there are buildings and people. Furthermore, many forests are fire-adapted; that is, regular fire keeps them healthy. A century of aggressive fire suppression (along with other pressures such as grazing) has turned them into thickets of tinder-dry trees. Mix in a wave of woodland exurbanites and you have set a time bomb. The low-cost and ecologically sensible approach is to discourage people from living in such places, to make them pay for their own fire protection, and to let fires burn elsewhere. (See our writeup on the subject, here.)
Steve Buckstein, president of the Cascade Policy Institute, a Portland-based free market think tank, said Wednesday that landowners shouldn't expect public subsidies when it comes to fighting forest fires on their land.
And if rural landowners were forced to pay the full cost of fire protection, it might help slow the development of houses in vulnerable forest interface areas, he said.
I don’t see eye-to-eye with the Cascade Policy Institute on urban planning issues, but I agree wholeheartedly on this question.
July 21, 2004
What a Difference Six Years Makes
Ken Orski, a Washington, DC-based student of transportation issues, reports some encouraging developments in the July/August edition of his Innovation Briefs. (Subscription required.)
Congestion pricing has become mainstream. Ken writes,
Six years ago, when the House and Senate conferees were negotiating the final version of TEA-21 [the US transportation funding law], the subject of tolling and transportation pricing hardly ever came up. That this time around, tolls have become an object of lobbying by so many different interests, speaks volumes about the sea change that has occurred in thinking about transportation financing. While there are some powerful voices opposing tolls on existing Interstates, there is a growing consensus within the transportation community, including public officials, that tolling represents a valuable—some would say, indispensable—supplementary source of future highway revenue.
A Green Tax Idea I Hate
Here’s a green tax proposal that strikes me as wrongheaded: taxing plastic bags at the supermarket.
1. Plastic bags are not worse than paper bags, environmentally speaking. In some ways, they’re better.
2. Taxing plastic bags will create a bookkeeping nightmare for merchants.
3. It’s somewhat random. You’d be taxed on bags you fill yourself in the bulk section but not on the bags, or sealed plastic packaging, that manufacturers put their products in. The vast majority of plastics are not used in shopping bags, so why single them out?
4. It would give environmental taxes a bad name, aggravating merchants and shoppers for extremely limited environmental benefits. Washington already taxes certain packaged foods in an attempt to control litter. But the litter tax is essentially unknown to consumers and has no real effect on their purchasing choices. Meanwhile, it’s a nuisance for grocers, many of whom do more paperwork on the litter tax than they do on the vastly larger retail sales tax. And the tax collectors hate it, too. It’s a pain to track and enforce a tax that singles out specific goods from among tens of thousands at consumer establishments.
Tax shifting works best when the environmental tax is levied far "upstream" in the economy. For example, a tax on oil at the wellhead or refinery, in proportion to its environmental costs, would not only be simple to collect (there aren’t that many wellheads or refineries), it would also send a price signal all the way through the economy. It would raise the price of petroleum feedstock used by plastic manufacturers and would, ultimately, show up in the bottom line of users of plastic bags, packaging, and all manner of other things. It would also affect the price of plastics’ competitors, such as paper, in proportion to how much oil went into making and transporting them. In essence, upstream taxes make prices tell the truth. Downstream taxes, like a plastic bag tax, just spread a litter of distortion and annoyance in the economy.
The pace of population growth in greater Seattle was slower in 2003 than in any year in the past two decades. The main reason is that net migration is at its lowest level since the early 1980s. In fact, net migration fell well below natural increase in 2003, as in 2002—a rare state of affairs since 1960. Only 5,000 more people moved into King, Kitsap, Pierce, and Snohomish counties than moved out of them in 2003, according to estimates just published by the Puget Sound Regional Council (pdf).
Natural increase—births minus deaths—has also been moderating recently, as you can (sort of) see in this (fuzzy) chart. Natural increase, the golden line on the chart, is at its lowest level since the late 1970s.
The main explanation of these trends is that fewer people migrate into the Northwest when the Northwest economy is underperforming the North American economy overall, as at present.
The more interesting story is that births are at one of their lowest levels ever, as we discussed here. The best news is that teen births are especially low.
So, while no one rejoices over high unemployment rates, the region is enjoying a welcome demographic reprieve.
July 20, 2004
Salmon farming, as is now widely practiced in British Columbia, has introduced a bevy of new threats to wild salmon survival, including disease, interbreeding, and localized pollution hotspots. It’s also ratcheted up pressure on marine food webs, with its demand for fish to feed to the penned salmon. (Salmon are predators. As Dick Manning has argued, raising them in captivity for food is like putting lions in feedlots and raising them on corn-fed beef. It’s an astoundingly wasteful food production system.)
Salmon farming is an example of what’s becoming one of the predominant sustainability challenges of our region: biological pollution. As exemplified by a Seattle PI report on July 16, nonnative Atlantic salmon escape regularly from their pens. In the long run, such spills are as worrisome as oil spills from docks and tankers or radioactive leaks at Hanford.
And the sorry litany of problems and risks that have accompanied salmon farming has not dissuaded boosters of aquaculture from setting their sights on other species. The Juneau Empire reported on July 14 that a BC judge has given the green light to a company that wants to begin farming sablefish, or black cod, in Canadian waters off the Cascadian coast. The rationale offered by the judge was a disappointing loss for the precautionary principle—the idea of looking before you leap. The precautionary principle informs the North American approach to prescription drugs, and it increasingly informs the European approach to sustainability. When the risks to human and ecosystem health are great and knowledge of effects is limited, the precautionary principle says, the burden of proof should be on whoever proposes to introduce a new product, process, or other change.
The Juneau Empire noted:
The judge based his decision on the absence of proof that farmed black cod would cause "irreversible damage," said Eric Wickham, executive director of the sablefish association. "He threw the burden of proof on us, and we think it should be on the government's side."
To the judge, the appropriate response may be "codswallop!"
July 19, 2004
The Oregonian has a surprisingly good article on national politics and public forests in the West. The hottest political topics: "healthy forests" and "the roadless rule" may matter less than we think. The crux:
All the posturing may have little to do with what really happens in Western forests. Land managers have been trying to cull flammable stands for years and will keep at it no matter who wins the election. And timber companies show little interest in cutting down roadless forests, which generally remain roadless because they have limited commercial value and are remote and difficult to reach.
Western forests have been political playthings for years. President Clinton cast a protective blanket over 58.5 million acres of roadless national forests in his final days in the White House, leaving a conservation legacy that environmentalists saw as one of their greatest victories in decades.
But the Clinton administration's own assessment found those lands in no great peril at the time. No matter what happened, it said, at most 1 percent of roadless forests were likely to be logged in the next five years, reflecting scarcely a half-percent of national timber production, and much of that would be trees already killed by fire, insects and disease.
Roadless areas matter a lot, as we noted last week. And road building continues unabated in British Columbia.
But forest practices on already-roaded land may be the area where policy changes now make the biggest difference in the Northwest states, as discussed here.