December 14, 2005

Cascadia's Sword of Damocles

TsunamiOne of the wonderful things about living in Cascadia is the sense that the earth beneath our feet is very much alive. This is a land of volcanoes, hotsprings, and earthquakes--a place where geology is no distant abstraction. Even the region's name, Cascadia, is shared with a large subduction zone in the north Pacific where one continental shelf is sliding beneath another.

Yet in spite of everything, and apart from a few expensive seismic retrofits and construction projects, we Cascadians are pretty glib about our potentially catastrophic footing. But we can live in tranquil ignorance no longer: a fascinating new book blends history and geography to tell the story of a tsunami that struck Japan in 1700. The cause? A huge earthquake in Cascadia--estimated between a magnitude 8.7 and 9.2--that sent floods rippling across the Pacific. 

We're all too familiar with the horrifying effects of big earthquakes--the Southeast Asian tsunami and the recent earthquake in Pakistan. But what would happen if a similar sized quake struck again in Cascadia? And what lessons can we learn from the history of the Northwest before it was inhabited by Europeans? Well, I've just now cracked the cover but I'm about to find out. And if you're looking for a Christmas gift for a geeky naturalist type, check out The Orphan Tsunami of 1700.

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

December 13, 2005

Gas Fees: The Good, The Bad, and The Curious

I'm not sure, exactly, whether this news is promising or disappointing: the San Jose Mercury News reported last week that environmental advisers to Governor Schwarzenegger are calling for a new fee on gasoline that would help pay for incentives to reduce climate-warming emissions.

The good news here is that they're considering fees on gasoline in the first place. 

The bad news is that the proposed fees are tiny -- just 2.5 cents per gallon, which isn't enough to affect consumption more than a nominal amount.

The good news is that the fees will go to a good cause: there are a lot of inexpensive ways to reduce emissions, so the fees, as small as they are, could do a lot of good -- especially considering that California uses about 15 billion gallons of gasoline per year, so a 2.5 cent per gallon fee would raise $375 million per year. 

The bad news is that opponents are already up in arms, blasting the idea as an unnecessary new tax on gas.

Of course, there's also a curiosity here that's worth noting.  The proposed gasoline fees are similar to the "public goods charge" already levied on electricity bills.  But it seems as though the outrage about new "taxes" is largely reserved for gasoline; fees on electricity get a pass.  Which suggests that gasoline holds a special place in the American psyche -- we pay close attention to anything that can make gas prices go up, but let similar price increases in other parts of the economy slide by unnoticed. 

One possible explanation for this is that we're a car oriented culture, and that we've come to prize cheap, unlimited mobility.  I think that's only partially true.  To me, it seems that we pay so much attention to the cost of gas because it's the only commodity whose price is regularly and consistently advertised on busy streets. Day to day, most people get much more information about gas prices -- which stations have cheap gas, what the recent price trends have been -- than about anything else they buy.  The way that gas is advertised has made us super-attentive to its price. 

Which makes me wonder what the world would be like if the harmful side effects of gasoline (money shipped out of the local economy; greenhouse gas emissions; cost of foreign entanglements; etc.) were advertised as broadly as its price.

Posted by ClarkWD | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

November 29, 2005

Up With Poverty

New state-level income and poverty data just released today by the US Census Bureau. I've just begun playing with the numbers. But before I get too immersed in the spreadsheets, here's a look at how Cascadian states have fared over the last years for which data is available.

The skinny is that incomes are up, but poverty is up too. (As far as I can tell, the income figures are not adjusted for inflation, so they may not represent real gains.) Of course, these figures are just stats-based estimates, so it's wise not to draw too many conclusions.

Nevertheless, it is telling that all 5 states mimicked the national trend: rising incomes and rising poverty.

Median household incomes

2002

2003

California

$            47,323

$        48,440

Idaho

$            38,242

$        39,859

Montana

$            34,105

$        34,449

Oregon

$            41,796

$        42,593

Washington

$            46,399

$        48,185

United States

$            42,409

$        43,318

Poverty rates

2002

2003

California

13.3

13.8

Idaho

11.7

11.8

Montana

14.0

14.2

Oregon

11.3

12.0

Washington

10.3

11.0

United States

12.1

12.5

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

November 15, 2005

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

November 10, 2005

Public lands: Mine, All Mine

Mine In an ominous new development, Congress may soon authorize private "patents" of public land, a wildly outdated and abused provision of an 1872 mining law. The patents are functionally equivalent to fee-simple purchases of the land, which raises the distinct possibility that private individuals and corporations could stake mining claims--and then buy the land--in national forests, wilderness areas, and even national parks.

Mining, as it is currently practiced, is so ecologically disastrous that there are too many examples of environmental degradation to mention here. But the new Congressional legislation would actually worsen matters. Not only would it make it easy for mining corporations to snatch up public land at bargain-basement prices--and never pay royalties on their profits--but there's nothing preventing the buyer from dropping plans to mine and then re-selling the land as real estate. If mining doesn't pencil out, there's always the possibility of ski areas, amusement parks, condos...

At risk are roughly 20 million acres of public lands. Already, nearly 900 patents have been staked inside national parks and that number is almost certain to rise under the new legislation. It's hard to imagine a worse deal for the American public, not to mention our ever more fragile natural heritage that public lands safeguard.

Read the coverage in the Christian Science Monitor and the Seattle Times.

UPDATE 11/14/05: Excellent coverage of this issue in today's Seattle Post-Intelligencer.

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

October 11, 2005

Biomonitoring Bill Terminated

In California, Gov. Schwarzenegger just vetoed a bill that would have required the state to begin monitoring synthetic chemical pollutants in the bodies of California residents, and to explore the connection (if any) between such chemical "body burdens" and human health.

To me, what seems notable here is the reason the governor gave for the veto:

"While the intent of the measure is worthy...the bill will only provide a partial snapshot of chemicals present in tested participants without proper context of what the presence of (a) specific chemical means or how it interacts with other health factors.

Translation: it's better to keep flying blind than to start opening our eyes.   According to the Oakland Tribune, the governor has pretty much lifted this argument from the chemical industry's talking points -- so I'm sure it won't be the last time we hear it.

Of course, it's not quite true that we're flying blind here.  Plenty of people are doing biomonitoring, including the US Centers for Disease Control.  But those programs have pretty definite limitations -- biomonitoring studies by academics, state labs, and public interest groups tend to be one-off affairs, rather than long-term, coordinated efforts; and the CDC data provides a useful baseline for some contaminants, but doesn't look at chemical combinations or health effects.  Those are gaps the California program could have filled.  Too bad it was Terminated.

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

October 06, 2005

The Nature of Trend Watching

TaylorscheckerspotHigh gas prices may be grabbing headlines, but there's another trend worth watching: the Northwest's faltering ecosystems. Our (in)attention to ecosystem health is an example par excellence that we should measure what matters. All too often the converse is true: we let what matters be dictated by what we can measure.

Biological systems are enormously complex and are inherently dynamic. So precise up-to-the-minute trend data is usually not available. And because we can't measure and report on ecological conditions in a timely fashion that keeps pace with the demands of the 6 o'clock nightly news or the frenetic blogosphere, we often simply ignore the state of our ecosystems.

But for a change from fast news to slow news, consider today's news reports on the state of biological systems in the Northwest.

Otters_1 The Seattle Post-Intelligencer reports today that a joint study from the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD) and Friends of the San Juan Islands shows that 957 species in the Puget Sound area are at risk of extirpation. In addition to habitat loss, the principal agent of harm, the report fingers the usual suspects: "Pollution, climate change and invasions by non-native species..." (Read CBD's press release here.)

And in California, the San Francisco Chronicle reports that an attempt to expand the range of southern sea otters is now considered a failure. Members of the southern sub-species, now restricted in range to California, were unable to achieve viable population stability after being relocated to San Nicholas Island near Santa Barbara. Of the 140 otters transplanted there roughly 15 years ago, only 32 remain today.

In Oregon, the Eugene Register-Guard reports on the findings of a study by the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation. Xerces demonstrates that forest insect outbreaks, an increasingly nasty problem for Northwest forests, cannot be addressed by logging or thinning the forests. In fact, cutting may actually make the problem worse. That's germane to the awful situation for forestry in British Columbia, where the mountain pine beetle is steadily wrecking havoc on the province's interior forests. A good piece on the economic implications for BC appeared recently in The Tyee.

None of these trends changes in a meaningful way on an hourly or daily basis. Each of them takes years to develop, the aggregate of many days of slow trends compounding, but their effects are far reaching. Will Puget Sound's biodiversity continue to diminish? Are the southern sea otters long for this world? Will the Northwest's forests--and forest economies--fall victim to a plague of insects?

The answers to these questions matter, but they are not easily quantifiable and they do not fluctuate often enough to warrant regular reporting. So we tend to lose sight of their significance and even the direction of the trends.

It's not that gas prices and economic trends don't matter--they certainly do--it's that our society's obsession with new data is blurring our vision. We see only the daily headlines, not the long term slow trends that may have a greater effect on the future for our children, our place, and even ourselves.

Posted by Eric de Place | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack

September 06, 2005

Poor Reasoning

The US federal poverty line is not a good measure of real life poverty. Most researchers agree that the standard method of computing poverty is outdated, overly simplistic, and probably drastically undercounts the number of poor. (Here's a quick summary from Dan Staley; here's the longer version of the same story.) Still, despite its glaring flaws, the poverty rate remains the most widely reported gauge of how many poor people there are.

Enter a new report from the Economic Policy Institute (EPI). The report develops a more meaningful poverty rate--they call it a "basic family budget." EPI adjusts for geographic differences in prices--a huge oversight in the federal poverty calcuations--and makes realistic but frugal cost estimates for housing, food, transportation, child care, health care, other necessities, and taxes. Based on these costs, EPI calculates how much money families need to earn just to get by (assuming they don't save money, go on vacation, or even have renter's insurance). 

You can play with EPI's handy calculator to get a sense of what their basic family budget is like. A family of 2 parents and 2 children in the Seattle metro area, for instance, needs to earn $45,516 to make ends meet. On the other hand, a family of 1 parent and 1 child in rural Idaho needs just $26,988 per year.

EPI's report gives an entirely different sense of poverty--and not just because the numbers are much, much higher.

According to the Census Bureau, for example, Idaho has the lowest poverty in the three Northwest states (WA, OR, ID), with just 9.9 percent. But EPI's more detailed and accurate assessment of economic conditions, makes Idaho by far the worst with fully 37.5 percent of people living in families without enough money for a basic budget. 

So not only is Idaho's "true" poverty situation 3 to 4 times worse than federal estimate suggests, it's skewed with relation to its nearest neighbors. What's the explanation here? Does Idaho have a smaller share of very poor people (below the federal poverty line), but a larger share of people who can't really make ends meet? Or is there something else going on?

Whatever the explanation, I find the comparison troubling, partly because poverty rates are often used to allocate scarce resources.

Washington, on the other hand, has an undistinguished poverty rate for the Northwest, but boasts the smallest share of people unable to earn a basic family budget (see table below). Could this have something to do with Washington's most-generous-in-the-nation minimum wage?

Here's a fuller account of federal poverty rates compared to basic family budgets in the Northwest.

Federal poverty rate, 2004

Percent below basic family budget

Alaska

9.2

28.2

California

13.3

33.7

Idaho

9.9

37.5

Montana

14.1

40.3

Oregon

11.7

29.9

Washington

11.5

26.9

United States

12.7

28.3

Posted by Eric de Place | Permalink | Comments (12)

August 23, 2005

Obesity Grows

Obesity rates are growing in every state but Oregon, according to a new report by Trust for America's Health based on data from the CDC. (Read the Seattle Times article here.) While Oregonians can be proud of their accomplishment last year, they are not the trimmest state in the country, nor in the Northwest.

Interestingly, every Northwest state has lower rates of obesity than the national average. Montana residents are least likely to be obese; Alaskans are most likely. As Jessica pointed out recently, it's worth paying attention to obesity trends, not only because of their health consequences, but because it can absorb a lot of money.

Here's the skinny on obesity in the Northwest states...

Percent of state residents who are obese, 2004

Percent of residents who are obese, 2004

Alaska

23.5

California

21.5

Idaho

20.9

Montana

19.1

Oregon

21.0

Washington

21.7

United States

24.5

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

August 22, 2005

Smog Cops vs. Social Justice

And in other news from the remote sensing front, there was an interesting article in the LA Times last week about the South Coast Air Quality Management District's testing of an automated device that measures tailpipe emissions (free subscription required). The article explains that testing has begun for a remote sensing device that measures tailpipe emissions and photographs an offender's license plate for ticketing.

The technology has been around for some years now. And it's about time for deployment.

But it's also worrisome from a social justice perspective. The article fails to mention if the SCAQMD [we used to say "squawk mud"] program will ensure that the poor's only mode of transport is not eliminated if they cannot afford the full cost of retrofit. Sure, there are freeloaders that dilute their actions throughout society. But many of the polluting vehicles are the only cars the poor can afford in a transit-unfriendly town -- the under- or less-well employed often cannot rely on transit to get to work.

I know when I lived in Sacramento, another transit-unfriendly town, I could only take transit to a narrow range of choices. (Riding my bike 14 miles to work took, literally, one-third the time of transit, and I'm fit.) The same is true in LA. Not having a car in LA is not an option if you wish to feed your family.

There is not just one solution to reducing outstanding polluters. As Mark Hertsgaard found in Earth Odyssey, most people on the planet wish to decrease their pollution. They just can't afford to. They're too busy just trying to get by.

This new emissions device cannot be used as a blunt instrument: We must ensure it's used properly when it comes to our comparatively transit-friendly region.

Posted by Dan Staley | Permalink | Comments (1)