November 30, 2004
Pass the Sardines
Research published in the journal Ecology Letters and summarized by Cornelia Dean in the New York Times posits a fascinating link between sardine populations in the ocean and climate change in the atmosphere.
. . . when sardines are plentiful they gobble up ocean phytoplankton, tiny plants that appear in vast numbers when ocean currents produce upwellings of deep water.
But when sardines are scarce [because of overfishing, for example], the phytoplankton survive uneaten, only to sink to the bottom, decompose and produce methane and hydrogen sulfide gas that rise to the surface in giant clouds.
Hydrogen sulfide smells like rotten eggs, can poison fish and strips oxygen from water as it moves to the surface, producing anoxic "dead zones."
That's bad enough, but methane is arguably worse, at least for world climate. Pound for pound methane traps 21 times as much heat as carbon dioxide, the most common greenhouse gas.
And later, the Cascadia connection:
Other areas where sardines were once abundant, like waters off Northern California, may eventually see similar phenomena if sardines are not restored, Dr. Bakun said, although more research must be done to determine if that is likely.
Sardine populations, depleted off Northern California, do periodically bloom there still, and sometimes even surge in the Pacific off central Cascadia.
This study is an example of what Barry Commoner long ago labeled, in his classic book The Closing Circle, as the first law of ecology: “everything is related to everything else.” It’s also an example of a corollary of that law: curing one ill afflicting ecosystems (in this case, overfishing) often helps cure other ills, too. One good deed begets another.
November 29, 2004
More Profits, Less Energy
A host of studies, along with years of Cascadian experience, show that the most promising—and environmentally sound—new “source” of energy is energy efficiency. But investments in efficiency are often beyond the reach, knowledge, or time horizon of residential consumers and businesses. Only the deep pockets that finance the energy infrastructure—especially electric and natural gas utilities—can seize the full potential of efficiency.
Some Northwest utilities, such as Seattle City Light, are aggressive in helping their customers save energy. But other utilities hold back, in part because they know that more-efficient consumers will buy less energy, possibly trimming company profits.
As Amory Lovins and his colleagues report in their recent book Winning the Oil Endgame natural gas and electricity commissions in most states regulate “in a way that rewards utilities for selling more energy and penalizes them for cutting customers’ bills.”
One conceptually elegant way to address this problem, long advocated by Ralph Cavanagh of the Natural Resources Defense Council, is to “decouple” utilities’ profits from their sales. Utilities aren’t like other companies. Their profits are dictated by state utility regulators, based on complicated formulas. “Decoupling” means writing those formulas to yield larger utility profits for every unit of energy they help their customers save.
Oregon has implemented decoupling on a trial basis for NW Natural, a natural gas utility, and the idea is moving forward in other Cascadia jurisdictions.
In the case of NW Natural, decoupling works like this: At the beginning of a financial period, the state’s utility commission authorizes a target “rate of return” on NW Natural’s capital investments. Each month, if the utility sells less energy than expected because of conservation (that is, not simply because of a slow economy or warm weather), then rates increase slightly to reach the target level for revenues. If sales are higher than expected, because of a lack of conservation, then rates and profits diminish.
Decoupling puts the heat of the bottom-line on NW Natural’s efficiency efforts. It also has the effect of reducing uncertainties to the utility and their customers. Customer bills vary less than without decoupling. This decoupling experiment is set to expire in September 2005, and the program will be evaluated for effectiveness before it continues.
The concept is moving ahead in other jurisdictions, as well. The Washington state utility commission held a day-long workshop on the topic last month (unfortunately, there’s no information about it available online), with positive comments from both utilities and non-profit participants such as the Northwest Energy Coalition. The Idaho utility commission is considering holding its own decoupling workshop.
Decoupling’s potential is large, because it finally brings into alignment the interests of consumers (who want to buy less energy to get the same or better energy services) and the interests of producers (who want to make more profit with less risk).
This post prepared by NEW researcher John Abbotts
November 24, 2004
On the eve of the United States' annual celebration of gluttony, some comforting news is trickling out of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: being overweight may not be as bad for your health as had previously been reported.
It's become common wisdom that obesity kills about 400,000 Americans each year, almost as many tobacco. That figure is based on a study published by CDC researchers a few years ago. But an outcry by skeptical scientists and anti-tobacco advocates led to a re-analysis of the data. The verdict: CDC is admitting it made an error, and is working on developing a new way of estimating deaths from obesity. But by some independent estimates, CDC overstated those risks by a factor of 4.
Which means, of course, that being obese or overweight is still bad for your health. Even at the lower figure, obesity kills more than twice as many people each year as do automobile accidents. And obesity rates are still at all-time highs, and appear to be rising, especially among young people.
But at a minimum, the news will make me a little less apprehensive as I tuck into seconds tomorrow.
November 23, 2004
Tax Waste, Not Wages
What do England and Cascadia have in common, besides the weather in November? People who like to talk about tax shifting!
Seriously, yesterday, the Rt Reverend James Jones, the bishop of Liverpool, editorialized in the Guardian for shifting taxes away from productive labor and toward natural resource extraction. He argued that this would not only create "more of a discipline on our use of original material," but also encourage more creative, productive use of labor to generate the highest value per unit of natural resource - effectively inverting the current labor-to-resource ratio. Translation: more good jobs and less waste.
The basic gist is to align tax policy to get more of what we want, and less of what we don't want. Bumper sticker version: Tax waste, not wages!
It's one of our favorite topics at NEW. Politically, Jones argues that shifting taxes from labor to resource extraction might "suit all three major political parties. Conservatives would welcome the rewarding of enterprise, Liberal Democrats would value the lessening impact on the environment, and Labour would see it as a means of sharing goods more fairly." Hmmm...more similarities...a pattern...emerging.
TomPaine.com also contributed a recent plug for tax shifting. If you know of any other tax shifting discussions or initiatives, let us know. Even better, anyone up for writing an op-ed?
November 19, 2004
Lessons from "Lessons from Measure 37"
Watching reactions to passage of Measures 37—and my original post here (Lessons from Measure 37) —it seems the issue isn’t whether the glass if half-full or half-empty. It’s whether the glass has been shattered, never to hold water again.
Former Oregon Congressman Les AuCoin writes for High Country News' Writers on the Range: “When Oregonians passed Measure 37 by a lopsided margin of 60 percent to 40 percent, they signaled that they had become a different people….they changed the ethos of a state that had for 30 years celebrated open spaces, greenways and livable communities over development.”
One response to my post took it to task as presenting a dangerous “veneer of reasonableness” that ignores the reality that “the sky is falling.” Further, “People who care about the most minimally responsible land use and environmental regulation really shouldn't spout this kind of nonsense to make themselves sound moderate. Oregon's land use laws aren't (well, weren't) draconian….”
So, the sky is falling. Land use in Oregon has been repealed. And the answer is to shout louder, invoke the ghost of Tom McCall more vividly and passionately.
Before I am excommunicated totally from the environmental community, let me once more say that I do believe the consequences of Measure can be severe. I do believe its passage is a dark day for Oregon. My difference is with those who believe the right response is to dig the trenches deeper and refight the battle we just lost.
What is happening on the ground rather than in the ether of the Internet is interesting and a bit more encouraging. Governor Kulongoski has forthrightly declared his opposition to waiving land use regulations, saying government should follow the path of compensation instead. In contrast to former Congressman Les AuCoin, he has declared the view that Oregonians voted for “fairness” in the land use system but in no way did they vote to repeal it.
Cities and counties have begun exploring local implementation ordinances that might reach both toward “fairness” and narrowing the worst of the potential consequences of Measure 37, as discussed by the League of Oregon Cities and covered in the Bend Bulletin.
True, these are tentative and probably inadequate steps. But they have one important quality about them: they treat the decision at the polls as legitimate while attempting to implement the decision without overreaching on either side. For those who want to continue to argue that the voters’ decision was in fact illegitimate, a fraud perpetrated on a gullible electorate by clever ballot-title writers—tell it to the voters.
I do agree with one point that is consistent through all the responses to my first post: it is essential that the media now cover the unfolding implementation of Measure 37 like a blanket. Governments responding to claims for compensation or waivers must act in daylight. The media must present a continuing saga of how it is working out. Who is filing for what? What are the effects of all these filings? And, is this what voters really wanted?
Only by this sort of coverage will the public be positioned to consider fixes to Measure 37. But, it has to be honest. It has to be real. It is to be enduring. The public will not buy stories of potential harm. And, importantly, they won’t buy any stories if they conclude that the intent is to undo Measure 37 completely.
This puts governments and supporters of Oregon’s land use system in a tough position: Striving for an honest implementation of Measure 37 that keeps faith with the voters on the fundamental issue of “fairness.” Seeking to mitigate the worst of the potential harm of the measure. And, all the while, playing it straight so that voters see and believe both the good-faith implementation and the dark side of Measure 37 that was obscured during the campaign.
I’m not against “shouting louder.” But it might work better if we stopped to listen first.
November 18, 2004
Cascadia's Way to Kyoto
The countdown has begun. Russia delivered its “instrument of ratification” of the Kyoto Protocol to the UN Secretary General today. So in 90 days, on February 16, Kyoto will be international law. Almost all of the world’s advanced economies—-with one conspicuous exception—-will formally begin the transition from the fossil fuel age to a clean energy future.
But don’t let the Flat Earth position of the federal government on global warming fool you. Major portions of the US, including states led by Republican and Democratic Governors, have begun to move toward climate solutions. The latest big step came today, when the Governors of the three West Coast States adopted a staff report calling for coast-wide adoption of stronger vehicle emission standards, goals, and timelines for reducing global warming pollution; and a market-based system for reducing greenhouse gases from power plants. And to the north, Canadian ministers affirmed their intent to join with California in building a bigger market for vehicles that dramatically reduce global warming pollution.
Cascadia can join the party, too. If you want to get involved with the Washington-based Clean Car campaign, email firstname.lastname@example.org at Climate Solutions and we’ll get you on the list for campaign updates and action opportunities.
The Sacramento-Ottawa Axis
Canada is standing with California on the clean-car path. California is calling for a 30 percent reduction in new-car greenhouse gas emissions per mile driven by 2016. Canada is shooting for a far-more ambitious 25 percent reduction by 2010.
The New York Times reports.
You can pick up the string of our earlier posts on this here.
Will Cascadia join?
Taxing the Extra Mile
The nominee for head of California’s DMV has, in the past, suggested a mileage-based tax on driving, as a substitute for the gas tax, as reported in the Los Angeles Times two days ago (Registration, but no subscription, required). See my op-ed on the furor that has resulted in this morning’s LAT.
November 16, 2004
Easing Gas Pains
Petroleum prices are cooling a bit: a barrel of crude has fallen $9 over the last few weeks, though at $46 per barrel, prices are still at a level that was unthinkable a few years ago. Nevertheless, the fall in crude will probably mean that gas prices will come down over the coming months, too. Which makes it an opportune time to point out that, when it comes to the cost of owning and operating your car, the cost of gas is the least of your worries.
According to AAA, gasoline
and oil changes make up just a fraction of the cost of owning and driving an automobile. Depreciation is the big expense, followed by auto insurance. Maintenance, financing fees, parking, and taxes take their toll as well. When all is said and done, gasoline accounts for less than one-eighth of the annual cost of owning a new car.
This worksheet from the City of Seattle helps you work out the figure for yourself. People who participated in a city-sponsored program that encouraged people to tally up the full cost of driving wound up driving a lot less; some even got rid of their extra cars. Which just shows you how much difference a little awareness can make.
The Traffic is Murder Out There
In case you needed another reason to avoid being stuck in traffic--the L.A. Times today reports that the tiny particulates in highway exhaust are bad for your heart.
Researchers tracked healthy male police officers in their cars, and found that "exposure to particulate matter while inside their vehicles was correlated with irregular heart rhythm, elevated blood protein levels and other blood cell changes." The effect is worst in stop-and-go traffic.
This report on the heels of another study of European heart attack victims (reported here by the New Jersey Star-Ledger) which found that the more time people spend in traffic -- whether in a car, on a bike, or on public transit -- the greater their risk of suffering a heart attack.
So add heart attacks to the list of ways that driving kills.