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Claire Thompson's Posts


Seattle picks its next mayor — but will the Emerald City get greener?

chris tarnawski

Seattle is already known as one of the nation’s greenest cities (in more ways than one). Local political controversies brew left of center, and environmental inclinations are practically a prerequisite for running for office. If no candidate poses a fundamental threat to the city’s signature sustainability, how much is really at stake in today’s mayoral race?

Incumbent Mayor Mike McGinn was a relative unknown when he ran four years ago -- the lawyer, Sierra Club leader, and avid bike commuter had never held political office, but he pushed a pro-transit, grassroots agenda to defeat then-incumbent Greg Nickels, who had an impressive enviro record of his own. Nickels was notorious for being difficult to work with, and McGinn’s reputation has followed the same course -- his thorny leadership style has become his most well-known weakness.

Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn
Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn.

But McGinn didn’t disappoint when it came to upholding Seattle’s reputation as an international leader on urban climate and sustainability issues. He’s made his opposition to coal-export terminals loud and clear and brought together a coalition -- the Leadership Alliance Against Coal -- of other regional business and political leaders who feel the same way. He called for the city to divest its pension funds from fossil fuels. And, true to his original bike-boosting image, McGinn has continued to expand Seattle’s cycle infrastructure. The mayor committed funds to the city’s bike master plan and has overseen the installation of protected bike lanes on major routes. He also called for a Seattle-only ballot measure to raise funds for the expansion of light rail to keep transit dollars from getting held up at the county and state level by suburban politicians reluctant to fund anything that might benefit Seattle’s unwashed carless masses.

What will happen to McGinn’s impressive green agenda if his challenger, State Sen. Ed Murray, triumphs, as the polls suggest is likely?

Read more: Cities, Politics


Coal shoulder: BLM sells controversial coal mining lease, but no one’s buying

Wyoming has enough coal trains for now.
Kimon Berlin
Wyoming has enough coal trains for now.

Today the Bureau of Land Management in Wyoming held a sale for the lease of 148 million tons of coal on public land in the Powder River Basin -- and received not  a single bid, a first for the BLM in the state.

The sale was the first of two that the BLM had planned in the area over the next month, which combined would pave the way for the extraction of 316 million tons of Powder River Basin coal. Cloud Peak Energy had asked the BLM back in 2006 to open the site of today’s lease to mining, presumably to expand on its adjacent Cloud Peak mine. But today, the energy company decided it wouldn’t bid, and no one else stepped up (federal coal leases frequently see only one bidder). Here’s Cloud Peak CEO Colin Marshall in the company’s press release:

We carefully evaluated the estimated economics of this LBA [lease by application] in light of current market conditions and the uncertainty caused by the current political and regulatory environment towards coal and coal-powered generation and ultimately decided it was prudent not to bid at this time. … [W]e believe a significant portion of the BLM’s estimated mineable tons would not be recoverable by us if we were to be the winning bidder in the BLM’s competitive process. In combination with prevailing 8400 Btu market prices and projected costs of mining the remaining coal, we were unable to construct an economic bid for this tract at this time.

In other words, coal in this country is getting more difficult and costly to mine, domestic demand is falling, and Obama has directed EPA to crack down on emissions from coal-fired power plants. Even the coal industry’s hail-mary plan to stay profitable by pushing exports to Asia faces setbacks. We agree with Cloud Peak that starting up a whole new coal-mining operation is probably not prudent at this point.


By 2050, flooding could cost the world’s coastal cities over $60 billion a year

Hurricane Sandy was a wake-up call for New York City, one of the 20 cities expected to see the most damages from flooding.
Oliver Rich
Hurricane Sandy was a wake-up call for New York City, one of the 20 cities expected to see the most damages from flooding.

In 2005, flooding caused $6 billion worth of damage globally. By 2050, we could be hit with 10 times that much in losses -- and that’s only if the world’s biggest coastal cities make significant investments to mitigate risk. If we do nothing, costs could soar to $1 trillion.

These sobering statistics come from a new study in Nature Climate Change which identifies the 20 coastal metropolises that stand to lose the most when (not if) major flooding occurs in the future. Sea-level rise, subsidence (the land sinking), and increasingly strong storms -- all related to climate change -- increase the risk of flooding. But much of the growing price tag of future flood losses is thanks to the growing numbers of people crowding along the world’s coasts.

Read more: Cities, Climate & Energy


Tesla Model S rocks safety tests, gets highest possible score

Tesla Model S
The Tesla Model S: sexy and safe.

First the Tesla Model S got the highest score of any car Consumer Reports had ever reviewed, blowing testers away with its “innovation,” “world-class performance,” and “impressive attention to detail.” Now, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has awarded the car its highest rating possible, a five out of five in every category. (Note to luxury sports-car enthusiasts: Grist does not condone reckless driving no matter how high a car’s safety rating or how low its emissions.)

According to Tesla, “approximately one percent of all cars tested by the federal government achieve 5 stars across the board.” More from the company's press release:

Of all vehicles tested, including every major make and model approved for sale in the United States, the Model S set a new record for the lowest likelihood of injury to occupants. While the Model S is a sedan, it also exceeded the safety score of all SUVs and minivans. This score takes into account the probability of injury from front, side, rear and rollover accidents.

The Model S achieved such a high score in large part because it's an electric vehicle. The front of the car has only trunk space where a gasoline engine block would normally be, so it has a much longer “crumple zone” -- the part of the car that absorbs impact in a head-on collision. And the battery pack’s location beneath the floor gives the car a low center of gravity that substantially lowers its rollover risk.


Fracking frenzy slows as oil and gas assets plummet in price

Not pumping as much as predicted.
Yes, we know this isn't a fracking pump, but it's way prettier.

You know that domestic oil-and-gas boom that’s been sweeping the country for the past few years, turning places like Williston, N.D., into Sin City? Well, the party’s winding down -- or maybe it was never that ragin’ in the first place. Oil and gas shale assets, possibly overvalued to begin with, are plunging in price thanks to an oversaturated market and wells whose production hasn’t always lived up to expectations.

Bloomberg Businessweek reports:

The deal-making slump, which may last for years, threatens to slow oil and gas production growth as companies that built up debt during the rush for shale acreage can’t depend on asset sales to fund drilling programs. The decline has pushed acquisitions of North American energy assets in the first-half of the year to the lowest since 2004. …

North American oil and gas deals, including shale assets, plunged 52 percent to $26 billion in the first six months from $54 billion in the year-ago period, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. During the drilling frenzy of 2009 through 2012, energy companies spent more than $461 billion buying North American oil and gas properties, the data show.


Your iPhone uses more electricity than your fridge

So much power at the tips of our fingers.
So much power at our fingertips.

The global digital economy, also known as the ICT system (information-communications-technologies), sucks up as much electricity today as it took to illuminate the entire planet in 1985. The average iPhone requires more power per year than the average refrigerator. It’s like you’re walking around all day with a fridge’s worth of electricity in your pocket (but no hummus!).

This info comes from a report [PDF] by Mark Mills, CEO of the Digital Power Group, sponsored by the National Mining Association and the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity. So part of the report’s point is that coal keeps the iPhones on. But instead of inspiring gratitude for coal and all the blessings it bestows on us, knowing the source of all that juice just makes the digital economy’s ginormous energy footprint of even greater concern.

As Bryan Walsh points out in Time, the ICT system’s power hunger only stands to keep growing as our devices become ever more powerful and ubiquitous.


The White House goes solar — again makes the case for solar panels on the White House in 2010. makes the case for solar panels on the White House in 2010.

Nearly three years after the Obama administration promised to install solar panels on the White House roof, the plan is finally moving ahead. A White House official confirmed today that installment of American-made solar panels has begun. Bill McKibben, whose climate-action group led the original push to get the panels up, called the news “better late than never.”

In October 2010, then-Energy Secretary Steven Chu announced that by the end of spring 2011, “there will be solar panels that convert sunlight into electricity and a solar hot water heater on the roof of the White House.” The failure of those features to materialize provoked criticism from environmentalists, who saw it as symbolic of Obama’s larger lack of follow-through on sustainability goals.

Jimmy Carter with the original White House solar panels.
Jimmy Carter with the original White House solar panels.

The recent campaign for a solar-powered White House wasn’t an original idea. Way back in 1979 -- before global warming became a household phrase -- President Jimmy Carter installed solar panels that graced the White House roof until 1986, when President Ronald Reagan had them removed (ugh). The Washington Post reports:

In 1979, Carter had predicted the solar water heater and panels on the White House grounds will "either be a curiosity, a museum piece, an example of a road not taken, or it can be just a small part of one of the greatest and most exciting adventures ever undertaken by the American people.”

For awhile, it was the lack of those panels that symbolized the road not taken. Climate activists hoped their reappearance would point the way back.


A win-Winco situation: Grocery chain treats employees well and has low prices

Alisha Vargas

There are eight WinCo grocery stores within 100 miles of where I live. So how had I not heard about the Boise, Idaho-based chain until now? Next time I find myself in need of groceries in Kent, Wash., I’ll be sure to swing by the chain that’s making headlines as “Walmart’s worst nightmare.”

Why should Walmart be wary of this company that’s virtually unknown to shoppers outside the seven states in which it operates (and apparently to some inside those states as well)? Because WinCo, employee-owned since 1985, has figured out how to keep prices low -- like lower-than-Walmart low -- while still managing to not screw over its employees. Anyone who works at least 24 hours a week gets full health benefits, and WinCo puts an amount equivalent to 20 percent of employees’ salaries into a pension plan. The store claims that more than 400 “front-line” workers -- cashiers, clerks, and others working on the floor instead of behind closed office doors -- have pensions worth at least $1 million. Maybe that’s why, according to the company, the average hourly worker stays for more than eight years.

How does WinCo do it? What is the magic formula that Walmart and McDonald’s can’t seem to grasp? Well, for one thing, WinCo is privately held, and thus free from the obligation to put shareholder profits before all else. “It keeps a low profile and rarely engages in self-promotion,” according to the Idaho Statesman. How quaint and modest!


A royal(ty) scam: How oil and gas companies shortchange landowners

Steven Jenkins

Discovering you live over an oil or gas deposit, in theory, presents you with a nice retirement plan. Lease the drilling rights to an energy company and you could be looking at thousands of dollars a month in royalties for as long as the fuel lasts. In fact, one of the arguments for expanded domestic drilling holds that those royalties will boost rural economies by putting extra cash in the pockets of local landowners, and funnel extra revenue to the federal government, as around 30 percent of drilling in the U.S. takes place on federal land.

It sounds like a sweet deal, so of course there must be a catch. Those royalties, it turns out, rarely end up being as high as expected, thanks to oil companies’ manipulation of the opaque formulas dictating how much drilling income the landowner ultimately sees. That's according to an investigation by ProPublica:

In many cases, lawyers and auditors who specialize in production accounting tell ProPublica energy companies are using complex accounting and business arrangements to skim profits off the sale of resources and increase the expenses charged to landowners.


Electric roads could make plugging in your EV a thing of the past

Alas, in real life, you can't actually tell it's electric.
Alas, in real life, you can't actually tell it's electric.

One major barrier to bringing electric vehicles to the masses is range anxiety -- not the fear that you left the stove on at home, but the fear that your EV will run out of juice before you can get to the next charging station. But creative solutions are in the works. This week, South Korea debuted the world’s first electric road, 15 miles of city streets with underground cables that charge EVs parked or driving above -- no plug-in stations necessary.

In the city of Gumi, two commuter buses will be the first to test the program, and the city plans to add 10 more over the next two years. Known as Online Electric Vehicles or OLEVs, the buses have batteries about one-third the size of the typical electric car battery.