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November 15, 2005

Plan B: Ignore Science, Destroy Evidence

The saga of malfeasance at the Food and Drug Administration over the emergency contraceptive Plan B just keeps getting worse, as detailed in today's New York Times. (Find earlier episodes here.)

The Government Accountability Office, a nonpartisan investigatory arm of Congress, has released its report on how FDA has handled Barr Pharmaceuticals' application to sell Plan B over the counter.

The findings are damning. Among them:

  • Well before FDA scientists had evaluated Plan B, according to GAO, four senior FDA officials were told by their superiors that Plan B would be rejected.
  • Top FDA officials intervened in agency decisionmaking, overriding the recommendations of expert review panels and agency scientists, in ways that were "very, very rare."
  • The rationale given for overruling those scientists was "unprecedented."
  • All of former agency administrator Dr. Mark B. McClellan's emails and other correspondence about Plan B were destroyed, in apparent violation of federal rules.

GAO is notoriously careful in its wording. So it wouldn't be unreasonable at this point to read into these carefully modulated terms official confirmation of our worst suspicions: the Bush Administration's appointees at the FDA ignored the science and ran roughshod over one the most respected and impartial federal agencies to placate its political base. Then it launched a cover up.

Are we getting close to the territory reserved for special prosecutors?

I make these strong charges without partisan rancor. The intensity of my indignation is fired by the knowledge that ready access to emergency contraception reduces both the abortion rate and the teen birth rate. Every month that passes without over-the-counter emergency contraception means more unwanted pregnancies. Unwanted pregnancies lead overwhelmingly to abortions, which--no matter how strongly you support the right to choose--are no one's idea of a public good. To a lesser degree, they lead to births--births of babies who tend to be poorly cared for and at great risk for all manner of ills. And these unwanted pregnancies all could have been prevented with emergency contraception.

As if that tragic waste weren't enough, there is the horrifying prospect of a thoroughly politicized FDA. Let your imagination extend this precedent from emergency contraception to all manner of other pharmaceuticals and, I suspect, you'll share my deep concern.

Posted by Alan Durning | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

All Eyes Turn To . . . Yakima

In February of this year, in Cascadia Scorecard 2005, we argued for an innovation in state utility rules called “decoupling.” The idea has since made impressive strides; and the next great advance may come in, of all places, Yakima, Washington. (More on that in a moment.)

In a nutshell, decoupling is a way to allow electric and gas utilities to prosper by helping their customers to save money. Utilities are not like other companies. Their profits are dictated by state utility regulators, based on complicated formulas. Since profits rise with sales, investments in improving efficiency can drain away profits. By decoupling sales from earnings, however, utility regulators can write Cascadia’s long-term energy efficiency into utilities’ bottom lines and turn utilities--precisely the organizations that have the requisite know-how and capital-- into vanguards of clean energy.

For example, when Puget Sound Power and Light (now Puget Sound Energy) operated under a decoupling rule from 1991 to 1996, it turned itself from a laggard to a leader in energy efficiency. In its first decoupled year, the company’s efficiency programs saved almost as much electricity as they had saved during the three previous years combined. In its second year, it boosted savings another 60 percent and single-handedly accounted for 40 percent of all electricity savings in the Northwest states—outdoing even the regionwide federal Bonneville Power Administration, at half the cost.

(You can read more of the case for decoupling in Cascadia Scorecard 2005 (pdf, Page 56) and in this post from last November.)

Clearly, the potential benefits of decoupling revenues from sales, and thereby aligning the interests of consumers with the interests of producers, are enormous. There may not be any reform in energy  policy that matters as much while being equally unknown.

What’s the latest on decoupling? Recently, I asked Ralph Cavanagh, co-director of the energy program at Natural Resources Defense Council in San Francisco (and perhaps the world’s leading expert on decoupling). He gave an encouraging rundown.

For starters, the state of California has completely decoupled rates for all its investor-owned utilities (that is, private as opposed to government-owned utilities) for both natural gas and electricity. This sweeping victory, finalized early this year, led to the launch on September 22 of what Ralph says he believes to be the most aggressive program in the history of the utility industry to help customers save energy, lower their bills, and reduce pollution emissions.

Since 2002, Oregon’s gas utility NW Natural has operated under decoupled rates on a trial basis. After a formal evaluation of the program’s effects, the Oregon Public Utility Commission simplified NW Natural’s decoupled rates in August and approved them for the next four years.

Idaho Power is preparing to bring a decoupling proposal before the Idaho Public Utilities Commission and may submit it by the end of this year.

Later this month, the Washington Utility and Transportation Commission (WUTC) will consider a proposal to decouple rates for Portland-based PacifiCorp’s Washington service area, which includes and surrounds Yakima. Decoupling would make a huge difference to PacifiCorp’s behavior. Ralph argues, in testimony prepared to support the proposal, “a reasonably aggressive five-year energy efficiency investment program in its Washington service territory would automatically inflict almost $21 million in losses on PacifiCorp’s shareholders, regardless of the cost-effectiveness of the electricity savings.” Without decoupling, PacifiCorp, like most utilities, has been halfhearted about efficiency, even if it is legally obligated to encourage it.

WUTC will hold hearings on decoupling PacifiCorp’s rates in Yakima on Thursday, December 1, at 6:00 pm, in hearing room B33 in the Yakima County Courthouse. If you live in the area and have PacifiCorp as your power company, please consider attending and speaking in favor of the NRDC proposal. Public voices can be influential at such hearings, because so few citizens take an interest and speak. (Let me know if you’re interested in speaking and we’ll provide you with background information.)

Posted by Alan Durning | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

It's Official: Orcas Are Endangered

Orca_jump This just in: the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) just announced that it will list as endangered the southern resident orcas--the whales most commonly seen in Puget Sound. The NMFS decision came as something of a surprise because the agency had first declined to protect the orcas under the law. Then, following a court order to reconsider that decision, they proposed listing the whales as "threatened," a weaker standard under the law.

Today's listing--which affirms that the orcas are indeed at risk of extinction--is nothing short of a huge victory for conservationists. Though orca populations have been on the rebound lately, there is still much cause for concern because of the daunting array of threats that they face, everything from anemic salmon runs to marine vessel traffic to toxic contamination.

The effects of the listing remain to be seen, but orca restoration will finally get the attention that it deserves. No doubt preserving the southern resident orcas will require changes to the way that we northwesterners act on our native ecology. But I suspect those changes will be good not only for the orcas--they'll be good for us too. Or as my favorite author once wrote:

Restoring [Puget] Sound is good for whales, but it is also quite clearly good for those other inhabitants of the Puget Sound region -- people. As the top predators of a diverse food web, the orcas embody the fate of the entire Sound. Their growing numbers are a promising sign that we can successfully improve ecological conditions, not only for the orcas but for us too. Cleansing the Sound of toxics and bringing back its abundance of salmon will take work but there is plenty of evidence that we can do it.

Read the NMFS press release (pdf). Media coverage here and here.

Posted by Eric de Place | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Sloth: Perhaps not a sin, but still deadly

Today's Seattle Times summarizes the findings of a long-term study of how exercise improves health:

People who engaged in moderate activity — the equivalent of walking for 30 minutes a day for five days a week — lived about 1.3 to 1.5 years longer than those who were less active. Those who took on more intense exercise — the equivalent of running half an hour a day for five days every week — extended their lives by about 3.5 to 3.7 years, the researchers found.

In other words, sloth kills, and even moderate exercise can lead to a longer, healthier life.  Which is something to keep in mind next time you're in the market for a place to live -- choosing a home where it's as convenient to walk to the store as to drive could actually save your life.

Posted by ClarkWD | Permalink | Comments (9) | TrackBack

November 14, 2005

Electrifying Transportation

Editor's note: This is one of a series of posts from guest contributor Richard Feldman, regional organizer for the Washington arm of the Apollo Alliance; and executive director of the Worker Center, the economic and workforce development division of the King County Labor Council, AFL-CIO.

Every 20 minutes outside my home in Seattle, a vehicle quietly swishes by that uses not one drop of foreign oil for fuel and emits zero greenhouse gases. What is this wondrous vehicle? It’s a King County Metro electric trolley bus, powered by electrical fuel from Seattle City Light, now the first major utility in the U.S. to achieve no “net emissions” of greenhouse gases.

Electricity for transportation? In Seattle, we take it for granted--almost to the point of not thinking about it as an alternative fuel. But electricity could play a much greater role in moving the Northwest to energy independence and reducing tailpipe pollutants. Unlike a hydrogen future, which will require massive investments in fueling infrastructure, electrical infrastructure is pervasive and in place right now.

For example, we could expand the electric bus trolley system. Or make any of the proposed bus rapid transit corridors electric. We could electrify our ports. Oregon's Climate Trust has paid for truckstop electrification; substituting electric grid power for diesel idling. RailPower is making hybrid switcher locomotives powered off a large bank of batteries (it's currently recharged by a small diesel, but in the future perhaps it could be plugged into the grid for recharging).

And on the passenger vehicle front, we could promote plug-in hybrid-electric vehicles (PHEVs) until the automakers start producing them. PHEVs are like some current hybrids but with larger batteries and the ability to re-charge conveniently, so local travel of 20 to 60 miles is electric, yet the vehicle has unlimited range. PHEVs drop gasoline consumption by 60 to 80 percent relative to conventional vehicles across all classes from compacts to full-size SUVs. (See chart below, from ET Currents.)


Felix Kramer of the nonprofit CalCars describes a PHEV as "like having a second small fuel tank that you always use first. You get to fill this one at home with electricity at an equivalent cost of under $1 a gallon. You refill from an ordinary 120-volt socket, with energy that's much cleaner, cheaper and not imported." He should know. Felix and his crew have built the world's first PHEV Prius prototype. (And they're coming to the Northwest this week. See bottom of post for details.)

Furthermore, PHEVs charged at night take advantage of idle generating capacity (forty percent of the generating capacity in the U.S. sits idle or operates at reduced load overnight). In addition, wind-generated electricity tends to increase at night. Various models by EPRI (pdf), Argonne Labs and others show that PHEVs using nighttime power would result in large reductions in emissions even with the average national grid providing power (50-60 percent coal).

Sure, batteries can be improved. But in real-world driving situations NiMH batteries used to power Toyota’s RAV 4 Electric Vehicles traveled over 100,000 miles with no appreciable degradation in battery performance or vehicle range. Improving and mass-producing PHEV batteries seems much more achievable than figuring out how to make a hydrogen fuel cell provide locomotion.

And if a PHEV is also a flexible fuel vehicle, you can get 200-400 miles per gallon of petroleum. (A flex fuel vehicle is a standard gasoline car with a stainless steel gas tank, Teflon hoses, and a computer adjustment that allows it to run a mixture of 85 percent ethanol and 15 percent gasoline as well as 100 percent gasoline. These vehicles are being manufactured now.) This is an energy-independent future that combines the development of biofuels such as cellulosic ethanol and biodiesel with the convergence of the electrical and transportation sector. It builds off of existing infrastructure and systems combined with American (and Japanese) ingenuity to guarantee our energy security. And it is a vision that is shared by a wide spectrum of supporters, from the Commissioners of the Port of Chelan County (pdf), to neo-con James Woosley to environmentalist Lester Brown.

Several cities, including Seattle, are looking at signing on to the City-of-Austin-led Plug-in National Campaign to demonstrate to automakers that a market exists for flexible fuel PHEVs.

By coincidence, Felix Kramer and Ron Gremban of CalCars will be driving their 100MPG Prius+ PHEV prototype through the Northwest this week. Today, they were at a press conference hosted by the Mayor’s Office, Seattle City Light, the Apollo Alliance and the Mayor’s Green Ribbon Taskforce on Climate Protection. At 2pm today, they’re at South Seattle Community College West Seattle Campus Auto Bldg room 134. Tomorrow, they join the leading lights of the PHEV world in Wenatchee for the Advanced Vehicle Initiative Summit.

Posted by Rich Feldman | Permalink | Comments (10) | TrackBack

November 11, 2005

Dreaming of Curitiba

Curitiba_bus3 This Bill McKibben piece on Curitiba, Brazil--which has been held up for years as an international model of people-friendly urban design--may seem like old news to those who are in planning or transportation circles. But I still found it inspiring. If Curitiba--with a per capita income of $2500 a person, 300 percent population growth since 1970, and no lush beaches or obvious tourist attractions--can make its city a model of human-scale sustainable design, why can't Northwest cities come closer to the mark?

Some of the city's accomplishments:

- A jewel of a highly integrated bus rapid transit system that's often cited as one of the best in the world, and passenger terminals have sparked local urban development and commercial activity.

- Planning policies that prioritize transit over cars, curb sprawl, and make the downtown extremely friendly to foot traffic. This includes a pedestrian mall--Brazil's first, and a 20-block area downtown where vehicular use is almost wholly prohibited.

- The result? Three-quarters of residents commute by transit (from this source); and Curitibans use 25 percent less fuel per capita than other Brazilians. And--perhaps most important--the downtown is packed with people.

- Parks that do double duty as flood control: City officials took federal flood-control money and--instead of spending on "channelizing" rivers in concrete viaducts--they developed parks with small lakes that served the same flood control purpose. In the process, Curitiba went from two square feet of green area per inhabitant to more than 150 square feet per inhabitant. 

- A housing program that helps lower-income residents build their own homes, which even gives them an hour with a city architect for design advice. And an overall emphasis on social and economic integration throughout the city.

And so on. The theme here is that Curitiba has become expert at implementing innovative and economical solutions that fix a bunch of problems at once.

When I read an article like this, I do wonder if Curitiba residents would agree with such a glowing assessment; and I'm reminded that friends of mine from Vancouver, BC, often lament their city's "most livable" reputation, which they feel makes it easier for the city ignore the many challenges that it faces. And you don't have to go far to find criticisms of Curitiba as a model for US communities (see here, for example).

Regardless, there are lessons. Several years ago, I attended a workshop on the city; the detail that sticks in my mind is the level of pride residents had in their bus system. And it wasn't just the result of good marketing. It was the fact that planners had paid as much attention to the details of the system--from how fares are collected to the look of the bus stops--as is usually paid to rail (or monorail).

Maybe the humble bus--if we give it the treatment it deserves--will serve our needs after all.

Posted by Elisa Murray | Permalink | Comments (8) | TrackBack

Don't Steal This Book

This Slate book review (found via Brad Plumer) covering the history of sprawl is so infuriatingly silly, it's hard to know where to begin.

In a nutshell:  Slate architecture critic Witold Rybczynski reviews a book by University of Illinois at Chicago professor Robert Bruegmann arguing -- quite correctly -- that suburbs have been part of urban life for millenia.  In ancient Rome, wealthy patricians escaped to exurban villas.  Just so, the walled cities of medieval Europe were surrounded by noxious industries such as slaughterhouses, as well as many of the people who worked there.  Since cities have always had low-density outskirts, Bruegmann argues, it's simply inaccurate to characterize "suburban sprawl" as entirely an invention of 20th century American car culture.

All that's fair enough -- the suburbs have always been with us, in one form or another.  And for good reasons:  some folks prefer not to live in the city, and some cities prefer to locate public nuisances outside of town.

But from this, the article (I'm not sure whether it's Rybczynski or Bruegmann who's responsible) draws conclusions about sprawl that are hard to fathom -- and even harder to square with reality.

Consider this quote:

It appears that all cities—at least all cities in the industrialized Western world—have experienced a dispersal of population from the center to a lower-density periphery. In other words, sprawl is universal.

OK.  Granted, pretty much all cities have suburbs.  To that extent, sprawl is universal.  But also, quite clearly, different cities sprawl in different ways, and to vastly different degrees.  Even within the Pacific Northwest -- an area with a comparatively uniform culture and politics -- the major cities display surprisingly different patterns of urban density, walkability, and car dependence.  To that extent, sprawl is highly malleable, and manifests itself very differently in different places; it's not universal at all.

And quite clearly, the patterns of sprawl are affected by policy differences among the cities. Vancouver promotes downtown development and compact regional centers, restricts the development of farmland at the urban fringe, and has built few lane miles of urban freeways.  Consequently, it sprawls least among all Northwest cities.  Oregon's growth management laws have limited rural sprawl in greater Portland, in a way that neighboring counties in Washington State have not.  And so on.  Clearly, policy matters -- quite a lot -- in determining the shape of cities, and how they grow over time.

Extending that sort of study to other cities in the US and the world, it's clear that there are both far more sprawling cities than those of the Pacific Northwest, and far more compact ones as well.  Some of the differences in urban design and layout have to do with geography, climate, and cultural preference; others to wealth, history, and technology.  But some, quite clearly, are related to policy choices.  Places that choose to build lots of miles of freeway through the city core, and ring roads around the periphery; that require minimum lot sizes for homes; that mandate street patterns that are branching rather than gridded; that strictly separate housing, jobs, and services; that fail to protect open space and farmland at the urban fringe; that allow taxes from central cities and inner suburbs to be used to pay for infrastracture at the urban fringe -- the places that pursue these sorts of policies tend to have more of their residents living in low-density, sprawling suburbs than places that don't.

But the book (or perhaps just the review -- I don't know who's at fault) draws the opposite conclusions:

What this iconoclastic little book demonstrates is that sprawl is not the anomalous result of American zoning laws, or mortgage interest tax deduction, or cheap gas, or subsidized highway construction, or cultural antipathy toward cities. Nor is it an aberration... Sprawl is and always has been inherent to urbanization. It is driven less by the regulations of legislators, the actions of developers, and the theories of city planners, than by the decisions of millions of individuals—Adam Smith's "invisible hand."

How's that again?  It's one thing to claim that the impulse to spread out is both common and understandable.  It's quite another to say that policies that quite clearly encourage and subsidize sprawl are irrelevant to how cities grow.  The former is defensible; the latter is laughable; and how you move from one to the other is beyond me.

I wish I were inclined to read the book to see whether Bruegmann backs up his arguments with facts, or if Slate's reviewer mischaracterizes the book.  But life's just too short.  If anyone wants to read and review the book themselves, please, by all means, enlighten me.

Posted by ClarkWD | Permalink | Comments (8) | TrackBack

Big Business Versus the Car

Traffic NYC may be leading the next wave of driving-reduction initiatives as it considers congestion pricing for parts of Manhattan. According to the NY Times:

"The idea is to charge drivers for entering the most heavily trafficked parts of Manhattan at the busiest times of the day. By creating a financial incentive to carpool or use mass transit, congestion pricing could smooth the flow of traffic, reduce delays, improve air quality and raise the speed of crawling buses."

Congestion pricing, charging variable tolls based on predicted or actual congestion, was first tried on a large scale by London, which charges drives $14 to enter the financial district during weekday work hours. (New York would probably charge between $4 and $7 per car.) In the US, San Diego, Minneapolis, and a number of other cities have toyed with the idea, but New York's would be the most aggressive and comprehensive program.

Obviously, there are a welter of environmental benefits from crimping driving--it reduces air pollution, carbon emissions, and sprawl just to name a few--but I wonder if the big lesson from the big apple is not what congestion pricing accomplishes, but who's supporting it.

In the past, environmental advocates have had only limited success in winning policy changes that diminish driving. But in NYC the champion of congestion pricing is the city's major business assocation, Partnership for New York City. I wonder if there's an object lesson here about figuring out ways for environmental advocates to leverage the huge power of the business lobby to green ends.

Posted by Eric de Place | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Taxation Without Privation

This is days old now, but the blogosphere was all a-twitter earlier in the week about this paper by economist Jayanta Sen, arguing that a stiff tax on crude oil, far from bankrupting the US economy, would actually transfer more than $100 billion a year from foreign governments to US consumers. 

Yes, consumers would pay steeper prices for gasoline. But since all of the oil tax revenue stays within the US, that money continues to stimulate the economy.  Meanwhile, we'd import less oil -- and, as a consequence, we'd export less money to pay for it.  I'll let Sen explain things:

[T]he wealth transfer savings for the United States ... should be in the range of $108 to $152 billion a year. The new tax revenues ... can be returned to the US consumers as a lump sum, thus providing the economic stimulus. The reduction in crude oil consumption ranges from 7.13% to 10.30% while providing a stimulus (defined as additional purchasing power to consumers) to the economy of $95 billion to $133 billion a year.

The title of Sen's paper:  "A Tax to Save the US $100 billion a Year and Solve Global Warming?"  Sounds like a plan to me.  Any takers?

Posted by ClarkWD | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Portland, Rethunk

Interesting stuff in today's "Rethinking Portland" issue of the Portland Tribune. The Trib explains the rationale for the special series thus:

For decades, Portland has been viewed across the nation as an icon of livability and progressiveness, a community that introduced the nation to regional planning and prevention of big city sprawl, a steward of the environment and a proponent of diverse transportation systems, including light rail.

But as we take stock of Portland today, and look forward, we are compelled to say there is much that we urgently need to improve upon.

Seems about right to me -- there's always room for improvement, no matter how good your national reputation.  Indeed (as we discussed in this book) despite Portland's reputation for preventing sprawl, it's trailing far, far behind its northern neighber, Vancouver, BC.

Two articles in the series stood out for me.  First, Jim Redden reminds us that, as assiduously as our government measures economic indicators like GDP, city officials still flying blind when it comes to understanding how middle-income Portland residents are faring.  The US Census bureau estimated that median income for a family of four in Portland was $40,783; the US Department of Housing and Urban Development estimated that it was $67,900.  Part of the difference can be explained by differing geographies; the HUD figure seems to cover the Portland suburbs, while the Census seems to cover just Portland proper.  Still, it seems odd that, given all the resources devoted to measuring aggregate economic output, Portland city officials need to convene blue ribbon panels of economists just to figure out how much the middle class earns.

Second, Todd Murphy agonizes about the decision to raise his kids in Portland, or to head to the suburbs.  Obviously, it's not an easy choice; even for someone who's spent his life in the city, there are plenty of reasons to find the suburbs an attractive place for a family. But one of Murphy's biggest concerns is safety -- particularly, that there's violent crime in a city that you just don't find in the suburbs. 

But what Murphy doesn't consider in the article is the risk of car crashes:  the risk of a fatal traffic accident is roughly proportional to the number of miles you drive.  So people who live in compact neighborhoods are generally at lower risk of dying in a car crash, whether as driver, passenger, or pedestrian, than people who live in car-dependent suburbs. I don't know about Portland in particular, but this study suggests that, when you combine the risk of dying in a car crash with the risk of being killed by a stranger, central cities tend to be safer than far-flung exurbs.

Posted by ClarkWD | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack