February 13, 2006

Pipe bombs

Another plot to cripple the Trans-Alaska Pipeline was foiled recently, reports the Philadelphia Inquirer (via Reuters). A Montana judge gets credit for apprehending the plotter, in Idaho, although Oregon and Washington are the main consumers of oil from Alaskan oil.

A year ago, we released the 2005 Cascadia Scorecard, which detailed the profound vulnerability of Cascadia's energy infrastructure (pdf), including the Trans-Alaska pipe.

The latest plot--which involved blowing up propane trucks along the pipeline, among other acts of sabotage elsewhere--doesn't seem to have been as far along as one in 1999 or one in late 2003. (Both described here (pdf), on pages 30-31.)

The larger story, of course, is that Cascadian officials have done little to secure its energy system in the past year. Pending energy security measures in Washington and Oregon may be bright spots on the horizon.

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

January 13, 2006

Prince(ss) of Tides

Since last Friday, I’m proud to announce, the venerable Cascadian news website Tidepool has been a project of NEW. Yep, we’ve completed a friendly takeover!

Since 1997, Tidepool has been highlighting the most significant news that’s shaping Cascadia. Every morning, Tidepool’s editors scan dozens of news sites and assemble the stories that will actually matter in Cascadia a few years hence—the slow news (pdf). It’s an essential service, and it’s one that thousands of Cascadians use every day.

Tidepool was seeking a new home, and its service is a natural complement for this blog and NEW’s other analyses of key trends in Cascadia. So both organizations are excited about the transfer. We think it’ll lead to big improvements all the way around—in the news digest, in the blog, and in our website.

Tidepool has long been a community asset—something kept healthy through the active support of its thousands of readers. This new phase in Tidepool’s development won’t change that fact; to the contrary, NEW will soon introduce more ways to participate in Tidepool’s evolution. If you’re not already a member of that community, please join by signing up for a free subscription.

For more information on NEW’s ownership—really, stewardship—of Tidepool, read this letter to its subscribers.

And meet the new NEW editor of Tidepool: Princess of Tides Kristin Kolb-Angelbeck.

Posted by Alan Durning | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

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

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



















United States



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













United States


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

June 06, 2005

Sinking Sea Otters

Seaotter5 Recently, sea otter populations in the Pacific Northwest have been a bright spot in otherwise troubling ecosystem assessments. A handful of sea otters reintroduced back into their historic homes in the 1970s have multiplied--to nearly 750 in Washington and an estimated 2,500 in British Columbia. Even the much-worried-over southern sea otters in California (which were, miraculously, never extirpated) has shown improvement. The California population now boasts over 2,800 animals, the highest number in at least 22 years. 

But in Alaska, home to roughly 90 percent of the world's sea otters, the picture is less rosy. Although populations in southeast Alaska appear to be relatively stable--despite some notable losses such as the Exxon Valdez oil spill--otter numbers are plummeting in southwest Alaska, along the Aleutian chain. In fact, the Center for Biological Diversity is suing the US Department of Interior to list the Aleutian sea otters under the Endangered Species Act. It's a wonder they're not already listed: they've probably suffered somewhere between 75 and 95 percent losses. (Click on the chart at right for a closer look at sea otter population trends.) Sea_otter_counts_3

There are several main theories about sea otter woes in the Aleutians, though most people agree that the proximate cause is orca predation: for reasons that are not clear, killer whales have started hunting sea otters. According to one theory, when Bering Sea whale population declined (largely because of hunting), Aleutian orcas turned to sea lions and seals for food; when those marine mammals populations diminished, then killer whales looked to sea otters. Other theories run that orcas have run out of seal and sea lion prey because of depressed fish stocks (due to over-fishing), and changes in ocean temperature that are inimical to plankton (perhaps due to global warming).

In any scenario, the sea otter declines are a worrisome indicator that something is deeply awry in the 1,200 mile sub-arctic ecosystem of the Aleutians. But until we know more about the sea otters--what's driving them toward extinction--and what's causing the behavioral shifts in orcas--we cannot know for sure how serious the problem is. But it is quite conceivable that the sinking otters are a symptom of a much deeper ecological sickness affecting the Bering Sea and the North Pacific.

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

April 15, 2005

Question of the Day

This blog now has a readership of several hundred impressive, smart, and informed people. Together, we know a tremendous amount about a lot of things. I'm hoping we can turn it into a collaborative research tool: a rudimentary "wiki." (Wikis: defined and exemplified.)

Today's New York Times has a revealing article on the gasoline additive MTBE. This chemical was a much-heralded air pollution preventer: it makes gas burn cleaner. Unfortunately, it also proved a pernicious polluter of water. It finds even tiny holes in fuel storage tanks, leaks out and quickly permeates aquifers. At just 1 part per billion, it gives water an awful taste. It's also a suspected carcinogen.

The NYT article has information on MTBE in much of the United States, but nothing on the Northwest. The question of the day is, How big an issue is MTBE in Cascadia? How many water supplies are contaminated? How badly? What are the trends? Is it getting better or worse? How many people are affected? How? What about wildlife? What are Cascadians doing about MTBE? What's the history of MTBE in the Northwest? What, specifically, is going on in each part of Cascadia: southeast Alaska, British Columbia, northwest California, Idaho, western Montana, Oregon, and Washington? What are the appropriate policy responses? What's the true cost of MTBE, counting all the clean up? Bonus points for supplying not just links to relevant information but concise summaries--and for summarizing others' comments into a single overview.

In a real wiki, everyone could edit a shared main text, with each iteration saved for future reference. Here, we'll have to do it within the constraints of typepad's comment function. Sorry. If this Question of the Day proves successful, maybe we'll launch a "real" wiki with the right software. (Speaking of which: anyone know an online wiki service where we could set up such a thing?)

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April 11, 2005

Fishy Salmon

Along with many other northwesterners, I cringed when I saw the New York Times story that Manhattan markets were selling farmed salmon labeled as wild—a practice that apparently is not unique to New York. (A consumer affairs expert referred to it as “improperly baiting customers.”)

Tests performed for The New York Times in March on salmon sold as wild by eight New York City stores, going for as much as $29 a pound, showed that the fish at six of the eight were farm raised. Farmed salmon, available year round, sells for $5 to $12 a pound in the city.

Since farmed salmon are fed artificial coloring to make them look pink, even experts have a tough time telling the difference by appearance alone.  Taste may be a different story.  But by then it’s too late. Store officials, meanwhile, had any number of excuses. My favorite is the one who said his sales clerks "must have gotten the salmon from the wrong pile in the back."

It might seem a little odd that the Times is sending reporters to investigate salmon fraud. I see it as a positive sign, testament to growing demand for information about the “secret lives” of consumer products—how they’re produced, what’s been added to them, and what the environmental and health impacts are. Farmed salmon, for example, have been shown to contain more PCBs and other toxics than wild salmon.

One recent win for consumers is a new eco-labeling law for fish, requiring that markets carry information on where certain seafood originated, and whether it was wild-caught or farm-raised. But the law only applies to full-service markets, not to fish markets. So, unfortunately, it's still up to consumers to remember that when they see “fresh, wild salmon" advertised in the store, it might just be a fish story.

Posted by Elisa Murray | Permalink | Comments (4)

March 16, 2005

Fool's Gold, II

Further to yesterday’s post, here’s a flagrant example of the spurious security argument in favor of drilling in ANWR:

"I believe our dependence on foreign oil is a direct threat to our national security," said [US Senator Ted] Stevens [of Alaska]. . . "People fail to realize that our dependence on rogue states and militant states makes us weak. This dependence on outside sources of energy leaves our country vulnerable to the whims of these rogue nations." (from Seattle Post-Intelligencer)

Yes, and Alaskan oil is just as vulnerable to their whims as oil from the Persian Gulf.

The same article quotes a teenage girl from Florida, who claims that properly inflating all US car tires would save more fuel in a year than ANWR is expected to yield ever. (Don’t quote me on that, I haven’t checked the math. But I thought it an interesting comparison. Anyone know a source?)

UPDATE: The Senate voted in favor of ANWR drilling, by a margin of 1 vote. All California, Oregon, and Washington senators opposed drilling; other Cascadian senators supported it. The New York Times reports.

Posted by Alan Durning | Permalink | Comments (2)

March 15, 2005

Alaskan Oil: Fool's Gold

Continuing a three decade old argument over drilling for oil in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR), the US Senate appears likely to make another important vote on the subject in the next 48 hours, according to US Senator John Kerry.

This issue is of interest to Cascadians because Alaska is the main source of Oregon and Washington's oil. (British Columbia runs on Albertan oil; Idaho and western Montana burn fuel from Billings, Montana.) Drilling proponents argue on the grounds of national security, but Alaskan oil is actually far less secure than you might assume. In fact, although it is drilled from American soil, it arrives in the continental United States the same way as oil from the Middle East: by ship.

And the means by which it reaches those ships is insecure: the Trans-Alaska Pipeline, a piece of infrastructure that is profoundly vulnerable to attack. We wrote, in Cascadia Scorecard 2005:

The Trans-Alaska is 800 miles long, sits elevated above the ground for more than 400 of those miles, and was long ago deemed indefensible by the Pentagon. It is aging and corroding and is near the end of its design life. It has already been sabotaged once, bombed twice, and shot more than 50 times, most recently in 2001 by a drunk with a hunting rifle. In 1999, a disgruntled Canadian ex-convict was apprehended just months before he had planned to blow up three key segments in midwinter, when repair could have taken months. He had begun assembling 14 sophisticated bombs and had pinpointed the pipeline’s weak points. Other near misses are much rumored but classified. The US Department of Homeland Security did reveal in 2004 that its late 2003 “elevated terror alert” was motivated by intelligence suggesting terrorists might attempt to ignite the fuel stockpiles at the pipeline’s Valdez terminus. The opening of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil extraction, if it happens, would redouble and extend Cascadia’s dependence on this single, insecure pipeline.

A winter pipeline attack at remote points along its length could halt oil transport from the North Slope until Spring. Some fear that the normally-heated oil might even congeal in the pipe, making the Trans-Alaska the "world's largest Chapstick." (This point, and some of what's quoted above, comes from the best in-depth analysis of the ANWR question that I’ve seen: Rocky Mountain Institute’s 2001 article in Foreign Affairs called "Fool's Gold in Alaska.")

(Washington Senator Maria Cantwell is leading opposition to drilling in the refuge. Oregon Senator Gordon Smith is among the small set of Republican senators who are bellwethers on the issue.)

Posted by Alan Durning | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack