May 31, 2005
Apropos of nothing: blogger Kevin Drum at The Washington Monthly has a well-written, informative, and balanced set of posts of the so-called "Peak Oil" theory -- the idea that, while the world may not be running out of oil, exactly, we may be fairly close to the practical limit of how much oil can be squeezed out of the ground in any given year. After the peak, goes the theory, oil production gradually declines, no matter how high the price might go.
(By the way, oil production in the United States peaked in 1970. Even with new production in Alaska and the Gulf of Mexico, and billions of dollars invested in oil production since then, the US still produces about a third less oil per year than it did at the peak. The Peak Oil theory is basically the hypothesis that the entire world is about to do the same thing that the US did in 1970 -- reach a physical maximum of production, after which oil supplies gradually and continually decline.)
I've posted on the topic before, and have nothing new to add. But I think it's definitely something worth familiarizing yourself with -- at a minimum, to put the recent rash of media stories on the subject in context. The Washington Monthly series is a pretty good place to start.
The Good News
A refreshing and optimistic op-ed by KC Golden, policy director of Climate Solutions. Golden points out that 2005 is turning out to be a banner year for Washington--a year that includes both a turning away from energy-dependence and several encouraging steps toward a smarter and more efficient energy-economy that benefits everyone.
In a time when partisanship seems all the rage, Golden's point about ending our addiction to fossil fuels is right on the money:
We cannot rise to this challenge if we stay stuck in the well-worn ruts of political identity -- east vs. west; left vs. right; Republican vs. Democrat; environment vs. economy. We're going to miss the boat if the only story we've got is "us versus them."
It's a familiar story, this battle among special interests. But it's useless. It enriches political consultants and it spices up talk radio, but it gets us nowhere and we can't afford to go nowhere. We've got a fossil fuel age to end and a new, clean energy economy to build. We need a much richer, more constructive story -- a story that multiplies, not divides.
I'm always late with this sort of thing, but last Friday's New York Times had some interesting data on rising housing prices in US Metropolitan areas.
Three things stand out to me as worth noting. First, even though runaway home prices are a hot topic at party conversations, the gains in greater Portland and greater Seattle aren't too far from the national average. Across the US, housing prices have grown by 7.7% per year since 2000. Seattle homes have grown a little faster than that (8.2% per year), but Portland homes a little slower (6.6% per year). Neither are near the extremes.
Second, the cost of rent hasn't mirrored the house price trends: Portland rents have remained roughly flat since 2000, while Seattle rents have dropped by about .4% per year. So on average, owning a home has gotten far more expensive, but the cost of housing per se has not. (Of course, these numbers are averages -- so I'm sure there are some places where rents have increased beyond peoples' means to pay.)
And finally, there's this: I keep hearing claims that Portland's (and to a lesser extent Seattle's) growth management laws are leading to rapid escalation in housing prices. That may be so for certain kinds of housing: houses with really big lawns tend to be more expensive in places where the supply of developable land is limited. But Portland's overall housing price appreciation over the past 5 years has been very modest -- prices have risen at about the same pace as in El Paso, TX, and just a little faster than in New Orleans, Houston, and Atlanta; but they've gone up less than half as quickly as in Oakland, Tampa, Baltimore, Boston, San Diego, Las Vegas, Newark NJ, and so on, and on. And this in spite of the fact that some fugitives from the red-hot California real estate markets have moved northward (sometimes with some cash in hand) to try to take advantage of Portland's relatively low-cost housing.
Of course, Portland's lower-than-average appreciation in housing prices may be a result of a tepid economy following the dot-com crash; Oregon's unemployment rates were the highest in the country in 2003, for example. But it certainly should make one think twice when you see claims that Portland's housing policies are making housing prices go through the roof. So if you see someone make that claim, make sure you check what years they're using; it's easy to cherry-pick the data, to find a few years or places that support whatever political theory someone holds dear.
May 27, 2005
For the third time, a judge tossed out the federal government's plan to protect salmon on the Columbia River system. Apparently, the ruling was largely because the plan ignored the impacts of dams. The Seattle Times summarized the scale of the problem this way:
The Bush administration then issued a plan to spend $6 billion over 10 years to tinker with the operations of the dams, but would still allow up to 51 percent of the young spring chinook to die while migrating downstream from the Snake River, and up to 92 percent of the young fall chinook migrating down the river. And — in a dramatic shift from his predecessor — Bush said removing the old Snake River dams was out of the question, even if all else failed.
Remember, both spring and fall Snake River chinook are listed as "threatened" under the federal Endangered Species Act. Can allowing 92 percent mortality of fall Chinook really be a serious attempt at restoring the run?
The judicial answer being "no," the ruling was a victory for salmon advocates. But the legal battle will undoubtedly drag on for years longer.
One thing that's fishy, however, is how often parties on both sides of the debate refer to recent salmon counts as "proof" that salmon populations are either surging or about the collapse. Salmon numbers naturally fluctuate wildly from year to year. It's the long-term trends that are important; and, incidentally, it's the long-term trends for salmon that are really alarming.
Here's what I mean. On a year to year basis, the average change in Snake River Chinook is a whopping 82 percent. That is, in a typical year (and there aren't many "typical years"), the number of returning salmon is 82 percent higher or lower than the previous year. The chart below shows returning spring and summer Snake River Chinook numbers from 1960 to 2003 (the blue line shows the real annual numbers, the yellow line shows my calculation of 5 year rolling averages). Data courtesy of www.streamnet.org.
May 26, 2005
Portlanders Move to Kyoto
Cool article documenting Portland's progress toward meeting Kyoto Protocol standards. Portland was the nation's first local government to adopt a plan addressing global warming. To date, it has cut the city's emissions to sub-1990 levels, though it has not yet reached the 7 percent reductions that Kyoto calls for the US to make by 2012.
In other climate progress, Seattle mayor Nickel's initiative to bring US cities into Kyoto-compliance has garnered a total of 151 cities in 37 states. The most recent big city to join: Atlanta.
(Warning: In the following post, Eric completely loses his sense of humor.)
Am I annoyed by the Seattle Weekly's cheeky issue: "50 Ways To Celebrate Global Warming"?
Global warming is fun to celebrate, but do you know what's really worth celebrating? Bankrupt farmers, forest fires, and salmon going belly-up.
What a funny theme the Weekly editors picked! But it's not as funny as global extinctions on an unprecedented scale. Now that's funny! And the only thing funnier than extinction is disease, famine, flooding, and desertification afflicting the world's poorest people. OMG, that is downright hilarious!
In fairness, the article itself consists of a pretty innocuous list of summertime activities. And there are even a few planet-friendly ideas, like not watering your lawn. But the issue's theme is just plain stupid.
But wait: it gets even more stupid. The latest Weekly also includes two articles on the effects of this summer's drought--one on water conservation and one on parched salmon--but utterly fails to mention that there may be a connection to, uh, that global warming thing they're celebrating.
Scientists are quick to point out that the low-snowpack and resultant drought closely mimic their predictions for the coming decades. In fact, local climate researchers are calling the low snowpack, "a warning shot across the bow."
It's sad that the Weekly's irony-laden theme failed to inform their reporting--they could have taken an incisive look at what global warming really means for Seattle.
And here's something else odd. The issue is subtitled, "how to make the most of your ozone-free summer." This is a strange kicker because ozone depletion isn't the same as the greenhouse effect or global warming. It's related in some fairly complicated ways but, if anything, ozone depletion actually cools the planet. But, hey, you know, it's all so darn funny that there's no reason to bother understanding global warming.
UPDATE: I did a bit of re-writing and re-organizing here. I think my self-righteous indignation was an impediment to clarity in the first draft. Clarity added, self-righteous indignation intact.
Drought it Out
I haven't had much to say about the drought recently because, well, there hasn't been much new to report. It's still pretty dry out there -- as this map (courtesy of USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service) of Northwest snowpack conditions shows:
In Western Washington, some stream and river flows are near record lows. This is obviously troubling for salmon, as this Seattle Weekly article describes. There is a bit of good news, though: even though the year's snowpack is actually smaller than it was preceding the drought-ridden summer of 2001, improved water conservation has lessened the risk of supply shocks for the city of Seattle's water supply:
Another big difference from 2001 is that water consumption is much lower... According to Seattle Public Utilities, 400,000 more people are living in the metropolitan area, but water usage is back to what it was in the early 1970s.
For agriculture, the news is grimmer; it looks like we can expect the costly and heated controversy between fish, farmers, and tribes in the Klamath Basin in southwestern Oregon and northern California to intensify as the summer wears on.
This is truly bad news: a new study (reported in Environmental Science and Technology, here) has found the highest levels of PBDEs--flame retardants that are added to furniture and fabrics--ever recorded in people. A 34-year old man had 9,000 parts of PBDE per billion in his fat; and a 23 year old woman had over 4,000.
In our study of Northwest moms, the highest PBDElevel we found was 321 parts per billion. Another PBDE study had a high level that was just over 1,000 parts per billion. But 4,000 and 9,000 are pretty much unheard of.
And just by way of comparison -- in Northern Europe and Japan, you might find highs in the low teens, or perhaps even lower. (In case you're curious, the reason our levels are so high is that the vast majority of the particularly dangerous penta-PBDEs--the ones that are most readily absorbed by people--have been used in North America, particularly in the furniture industry.)
Just as significantly, half of the people in the study were more contaminated by PBDEs than by PCBs -- which are class of now-banned flame retardants that have been among the dominant persistent pollutants in human bodies since at least the 1970s. PCB levels have been declining since then, albeit slowly, while PBDE levels have been rising for several decades. Now, the lines have crossed -- and in North America at least, PBDEs appear to be the dominant organohalogen pollutant in people's bodies.
Now, I'm especially disappointed by this news because I had harbored a hope that PBDE contamination trends had started to level out a bit. Of course, there haven't been all that many studies in the US, but from what I'd been able to see, levels in 2003 or so seemed comparable to levels from the late 1990s. But this study--which in addition to having the two very highly contaminated individuals, also had the highest median and mean levels of any study to date--makes me believe that we may not have topped out yet.
The problem, you see, is that there's tons of PBDEs still in people's homes -- in furniture, carpet pads, and the like -- that are going to serve as reservoirs for contamination for decades. From ES&T:
Although two of the PBDE formulations that are known to result in human exposure, Penta and Octa, were banned in Europe last year and discontinued in the United States this year, the researchers interviewed for this article say that it will take years, perhaps even decades, for these actions to be reflected in decreasing human body burdens. This is partly because people tend to keep potential sources of the Penta and Octa formulations, such as furniture and mattresses, for extended periods.
Sobering news indeed -- and, perhaps, reason to consider ramping up efforts to get PBDEs out of people's homes.
May 25, 2005
Have It Your Weight
A look at the fast food industry--an important contributor to the emerging obesity epidemic--courtesy of MSNBC and Newsweek. The skinny (or not so skinny, as the case may be) is that fast food chains like Burger King are getting back to fundamentals: greasy, fat-laden food. Forget about low-fat sandwiches; BK's new strategy revolves around items like the Enormous Omellete Sandwich that tips the scales at 760 calories.
As it turns out "hard core" fast food consumers make up only 18 percent of the general US population, but represent 49 percent of the sales for fast food outlets. The target demographic? Men, 18- to 34-years-old, who don't much like their jobs. BK can safely play to its (ever-expanding) base with increasingly unhealthy menu items, because they can count on industry giant McDonald's taking the flak from what BK's CEO dubs "the nutrition Nazis."
May 24, 2005
Despite the federal government's obstinate refusal to increase vehicle fuel efficiency, consumers are increasingly setting their own standards higher. Hybrids are rocketing off car lots, according to Polk, an auto industry research firm. US sales of hybrids in 2004 outpaced the previous year's sales by 81 percent. Not surprisingly, California led the surge, with as many new hybrid registrations, 25,021, as the next seven states combined.
The Northwest, however, can still pride itself on strong hybrid sales. Washington consumers were 3rd; Oregonians were 11th. (And on a per capita basis, Washington and Oregon would have performed even better: Washington is the 15th most populous state; Oregon is the 27th.) By the same token, the Seattle metro region was the 5th biggest buyer of hybrids; the Portland metro area was 11th. Polk did not provide data for hybrid sales in Canada.
The Toyota Prius still dominates the market, accounting for nearly 2/3 of all hybrid sales.