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September 30, 2004

Water Meters, North and South

British Columbia often comes off smelling like roses in the Cascadia Scorecard – energy consumption, sprawl, lifespan, etc.

But the province lags far behind the Northwest states in the most basic step toward water conservation in homes and other buildings: charging by the gallon. The last figure I saw for British Columbia had more than 80 percent of residents paying for their water at a fixed rate. Most BC buildings don’t even have water meters where they draw water from public mains.

In the Northwest states, unmetered water is a rarity, found almost exclusively in remote rural areas or in places where people draw on their own wells.

Another thing about BC is that it often copies California’s environmental steps—clean car rules, air quality rules, etc. Yesterday, California mandated that cities charge their residents for water based on the quantity used, as the Sacramento Bee reports. Perhaps BC will emulate the Golden State again.

The California move is directly good for Cascadia in one other way: some small share of Sacramento’s water flows from the Trinity River, in northwestern California and southern Cascadia.

Posted by Alan Durning | Permalink | Comments (0)

September 29, 2004

Flame Retardants in Northwesterners

Today, we released the latest results of our pollution indicator, which monitors various toxic pollutants in human bodies by sampling breast milk.

We found flame retardants in the bodies of northwesterners at 20 to 40 times the levels evident in Japan and Europe.

Read the press release here and find links to the full study and troves of supporting information.

If you're interested in the wave of media attention the study is drawing, wait a day or two and check here. (We haven't posted today's coverage yet; we're too busy working with the media to provide good coverage.)

Posted by Northwest Environment Watch | Permalink | Comments (0)

September 28, 2004

Peaking Curiosity

I've been looking for a reason to write about this for some time, but this excellent Eugene Register Guard editorial has forced my hand.

The recent runup in petroleum prices has put a new spotlight on an old controversy--whether the world is running short of oil. The battle lines of the debate are clearly drawn. One side--consisting primarily of old-guard petroleum geologists and a few maverick oil industry insiders--thinks that we are fast approaching a peak in global oil production, after which oil supplies will inevitably and inexorably fall. They point out that global oil discoveries peaked long ago, in the 1960s, and that oil companies now discover only one barrel of oil for every four that are pumped out of the ground. Walter Youngquist, a respected former professor of geology at the University of Oregon, is among those predicting a near-term peak.

M. King Hubbert
This "pessimist" view does have a proven track record. In 1956, oil geologist M. King Hubbert predicted that U.S. oil production would peak once about half of the county's oil had been pumped out of the ground -- an event which he thought would happen by 1970. Some oil industry execs scoffed, but he was right: U.S. production has never since been as high as it was in 1970, even with the opening of Alaska's North Slope.

The other side of the debate--consisting primarily of energy economists, oil industry analysts and some younger geologists--believes that a peak is so far off in the future that to worry about it now is folly. Oil may run scarce in a generation or so, but there's no compelling reason to panic now. Rapid advances in technology make it possible to tap oil fields far under the ocean, and underground imaging is now so sophisticated that even small oilfields can be targeted and tapped cost-effectively. Plus, they say, there's still lots of exploration left to be done in oil-rich regions of the world, including Iran and Iraq. And even if conventional oil supplies run thin, there's always "unconventional oils" such as tar sands and oil shale that can, for the right price, be tapped.

The recent price runups, these "optimists" believe, are a symptom not of geological limits, but of a surge in demand from the developing world (China and India), coupled with political unrest in oil producing nations (Venezuela, Russia, Iraq, and Nigeria, and even in Saudi Arabia).

Both sides of the debate make good arguments, and there's no real way to tell who's right. What the pessimists -- the ones who see an imminent oil peak -- have going against them is that there have been predictions of the end of oil almost since the first oil wells were drilled. Every few years, it seems, some well-meaning but misguided soul claims that the end of the oil age is just around the corner. They've been wrong every time. And they'll continue to be wrong, every time.

Until the one day they're right.

The implications of peak oil for the Northwest should be obvious enough. We produce almost no oil (only a little in the northeast corner of British Columbia), but our transportation systems are completely dependent on the stuff. What's worse, we've built our cities and communities in such a way that the automobile is not merely a convenience but, for many of us, a necessity. In sprawling suburbs, goods, services, and jobs are simply out of reach without cars. If you can't drive, you're stranded. And between our houses and our cars, we have many billions of dollars of capital invested in the status quo of inexpensive oil.

So the prospect of a world in which oil production is falling, even as demand is rising, isn't comforting. It would entail more global unrest, and substantial economic pain for Northwesterners. But a world in which oil supplies -- and the attendant greenhouse gas emissions -- are effectively unlimited is no less ominous.

This is a debate in which I want both sides to be wrong. But we can't have it both ways -- and as a region, we'll need to prepare for either eventuallity.

Posted by ClarkWD | Permalink | Comments (0)

The Driving Man

This is one California trend that I'm not excited to see extended to the Northwest: Gov. Schwarzenegger just signed into law a bill to open up carpool lanes to hybrid cars.

We've written about this before, but it's probably worth repeating: though undoubtedly well-intentioned, this measure probably wouldn't save any energy.

The measure is obviously designed to boost sales of hybrid cars. But hybrids don't really need the help -- Toyota's Prius hybrids are already flying off the car lots as fast as they can be built. Moreover, opening up the carpool lanes to hybrids increases highway capacity, and adding more cars to the road--even efficient ones--means more gas consumption. The measure probably won't even do much, if anything, to ease congestion, because most of the "extra" lane space will soon be snapped up by other drivers.

Finally, if implemented in the Northwest, the law could actually undermine one of the main benefits of HOV lanes: providing a relatively free-flowing corridor for transit buses and vanpools, which really do reduce congestion. A full bus might carry 40 or more riders. If all of those riders switched to driving alone to work, they'd clog one highway lane for almost a minute and a half. So a fall in bus ridership caused by clogged HOV lanes would mean that everyone on the road would lose out.

Opening HOVs to hybrids might sound like a nifty way to give hybrids a boost, but let's not rush into it ourselves, OK?

Posted by ClarkWD | Permalink | Comments (0)

September 27, 2004

Feeling Congested

This piece by John Tierney in the New York Times Magazine is wrong in many ways, so it's probably important to point out what's right about it.

To summarize the article (we read, so you don't have to!): Cars are great, high-tech roads are cool, people who don't like new roads are condescending nanny-statists who oppose consumer choice, public transit is too expensive, and the only real solutions to traffic congestion and transportation financing are 1) to tax gasoline and 2) start charging people to use the highway--and to raise the tolls when the roads are congested.

Stripping out the inaccuracies, and the sneering--particularly about the "elitism" of smart growth advocates--the nut of the article is basically right. Cars are darned useful inventions; gas is underpriced; and congestion pricing really would be an effective way to reduce congestion.

The Puget Sound Regional Council is already experimenting with congestion pricing, outfitting a number of cars around the region with high-tech gadgets that track how and when people drive. The experiment pays people money if they drive less than they're budgeted for--a reverse simulation of what it would be like to pay to drive. I'm eagerly awaiting the results--and suspect that congestion pricing, if implemented fairly, could ease rush hour.

Now, Tierney apparently believes that tolling highways would simultaneously ease congestion and pay for new highways, which would further ease congestion. Regardless of its (doubtful) merits, his vision--an upward spiral of highway building and ever-rising mobility--seems implausible. A Washington State Department of Transportation study found that tolling the entire network of major highways in the Puget Sound region could raise between $250 million and $450 million dollars per year. That's almost enough to finance the reconstruction of the Alaskan Way Viaduct, SR-520, and I-5 over the next 30 years--enough to keep the old highways from falling apart, but not nearly enough to pay for new ones.

That said, the article has its merits. But it's not often that I simultaneous agree with someone and want to tell him off, too.

(Post updated to fix broken link)

Posted by ClarkWD | Permalink | Comments (0)

Barreling Ahead

Oil prices surged to a new record today, briefly topping $50 a barrel.

Now, there's nothing inherently significant about crossing the $50 threshold -- it may have a minor psychological significance to people who follow oil markets closely, but that importance is more symbolic than substantive. Still, I'm sure that this "event" will get coverage in tomorrow's newspapers.

There are 2 things that today's petroleum news brings to mind. The first is how vulnerable we've made our local economies to international unrest. It seems that any oil supply disturbance, anywhere in the globe, sends prices up. Today, it was unrest in Nigeria, coupled with the delayed effects of hurrican Ivan. Tomorrow, who knows? But because there's no shortage of calamity in the oil-producing regions of the world, the one thing that's sure to be in good supply is uncertainty. And that uncertainty raises the price of oil -- sucking money out of the Northwest economy. After all, we don't make much oil here in the Pacific Northwest, so we have to export money out of our region in order to import our petroleum.

But the second thing worth noting about the oil price runup is just how bad futures markets can be at predicting future prices. Take a look at this graph of the price of oil futures contracts for December delivery:

For people who aren't as obsessed as I am about energy markets, here's what it means: For years, professional commodity traders were betting that oil would cost under $25 a barrel this December. In 1999 (well before this graph starts) the bet was for $16/barrel today. Even the start of the Iraq war made little impact on oil prices. But now, as December approaches, the predicted price is $49. (That's going to make a bunch of people who bought oil contracts in 1999 very happy, and a bunch of people who sold them pretty upset.)

This is just one of many reminders that futures markets represent a guess -- and that even people whose livelihoods depend on it can't predict the future. Which is why I never make predictions, especially about something as volatile as energy prices. On the other hand -- that's quite an upward trend on that graph, wouldn't you say?

Posted by ClarkWD | Permalink | Comments (0)

California, Here We Come? II

California did its part, adopting new vehicle emission standards for greenhouse gases, as the Post Intelligencer reported.

Now it’s Cascadia’s turn (as we discussed here).

Posted by Alan Durning | Permalink | Comments (0)

And Still They Disappear

As the Oregonian and the Post Intelligencer report today, spotted owls--the canaries in the old growth--are still disappearing.

The old, obvious threat of clearcut logging--the first horseman of the owl apocalypse--is no longer the main problem. That’s because it has largely stopped in their habitat in the Northwest states, as shown in this figure.Forestfig2_1

Instead, the other three horsemen are endangering the birds: exotic species (such as the barred owl), unnaturally severe wildfires, and new diseases (such as West Nile Virus).

This dynamic is a perfect encapsulation of Cascadian trends generally: simpler problems are giving way to more subtle, interconnected, and systemic ones. Exotic species, new diseases, and worsened fires are all connected to the long history of human action in the Northwest, to climate change, and to our increasingly globalized economy.

The morals of the story: First, err on the side of conservation, because we haven’t begun to understand the complexities of nature. Second, focus on systemic solutions--innovations that solve many problems at once.

Posted by Alan Durning | Permalink | Comments (0)

Four More Years! Four More Years!

No, really.

A new study, mentioned in today's Seattle Times, found that sprawl is really bad for your health. To wit:

The study, which analyzed data on more than 8,600 Americans in 38 metropolitan areas, found that rates of arthritis, asthma, headaches and other complaints increased with the degree of sprawl. Living in the least sprawling areas, compared with living in the most, was like adding about four years to people's lives, the study found. (Emphasis added.)

The researchers said that sedentary lifestyles promoted by auto-dependent communities were at least partially to blame for shortened lifespans.

Winston Churchill was once reported to have said: "We shape our buildings and thereafter they shape us." I guess the same thing is true for our neighborhoods.

Posted by ClarkWD | Permalink | Comments (0)

Why the Presidency Matters

In a time of political gridlock, no political leader can implement terribly much of his or her agenda. But in certain positions, such as that of the US president, even a little bit of the agenda amounts to a lot.

The Seattle Times is running a thorough and impressive series on the Bush Administration’s environmental record. Today’s installment concerns the administration’s approach to the US Endangered Species Act.

Two comments:

First, the administration has been able to make dramatic changes in policy without consulting Congress, demonstrating just how much the presidency still matters even when it’s mostly checked by opponents in Congress.

Second, the administration has made these changes, which almost all weaken environmental protections, through stealth. Typically, it hides substantive changes in procedural reforms. Viewed from a broad perspective, this tactic is a testament to the depth and breadth of environmental sentiment in the United States.

Posted by Alan Durning | Permalink | Comments (0)