Friday, April 20, 2012


I drive an EV (electric vehicle); actually, I like to call mine an UEV (urban electric vehicle) because I dare not take it on the freeway - and it wouldn't get me very far if I did. 

I've always wondered about the reality of my UEV actually being better environmentally than a fuel efficient gasoline powered automobile, like my wife's Mini Cooper Clubman that gets probably in the upper 20's to lower-mid 30's mpg (depending on the kind of driving). There are certainly important questions about the cradle-to-grave environmental footprint of a small vehicle that runs on 6 car batteries and was made in China. In fact, maybe I don't really want to know! 

But the Union of Concerned Scientists, of which I am a member, has recently published an interesting study: State of Charge: Electric Vehicles’ Global Warming Emissions and Fuel-Cost Savings Across the United States. The article examines the emissions associated with producing the electricity used to charge an EV for every region in the USA. The Executive Summary is the place to start if you want to learn more.  Here is a graphic from the UCS report:

As seen on the map, there are good, better and best regions to own, and charge, an EV. The "good" regions are those where electricity is typically generated by burning coal, and in those areas, an EV has associated emissions similar to those of a gasoline-powered car getting 31-40mpg. In other words, you would be greener if you drove a vehicle that got 40-50mpg or higher than driving an EV. 

Well, it's not exactly that simple, but if this piques your interest, read the article. 

Happy green driving! 

And btw - feel free to cruise around on the Union of Concerned Scientists web site, also. 

Thursday, April 19, 2012


There are presently a number of proposals in the works to export coal and liquified natural gas (LNG) from the United States to overseas markets. Some of these export facilities are proposed for the lower Columbia River on both the Oregon and Washington sides.  It was only a few years ago that there were at least 3 proposed facilities in Oregon to import LNG; however, the development of new natural gas sources in Canada using the technique of fracking (fracturing shale rock formations deep underground to release gas) has resulted in an abundant supply of cheap natural gas. The demand for natural gas in places like Japan and China makes exporting it from here a lucrative endeavor.

While there is plenty of opposition to building LNG plants here (whether for export or import), the prospect of shipping coal from lower Columbia River ports is really getting a lot of opposition and media play. The reasons given for opposing coal export are primarily environmental concerns and disruptions of local traffic and communities caused by mile-long trains from the coal fields of Montana to lower river ports. One of the primary stated environmental concerns is that we are trying to reduce the burning of coal to produce electricity in the USA in order to combat global climate change, so why would we export it so it can be burned in China? This seems to be the over-arching reason for opposing coal exports. Other reasons include the potential effects of coal dust from open train cars on human health and fish and wildlife, and issues of environmental justice.

But I wonder if this is as simple as some want it to appear. I'm not taking sides on this one yet because I think the topic needs a lot of thought first. So for the sake of discussion, let me lay out a few reasons why we might want to export coal.

1. China's growing economy demands greater production of electricity to power the existing and future factories where domestic and export goods are made. Keep in mind that the US demand for computer and other home electronics, sport shoes and many other commodities is a main driver for Chinese industrial expansion. The Chinese government is trying to reduce the carbon footprint of it's industrial base, and one way to do this is to import relatively clean (i.e. low-sulfur, high BTU) coal from the Montana coal fields and reduce the use of their domestic dirty coal. We need to do the math on this to determine if the carbon footprint of mining and shipping coal from the USA to China is a net reduction in greenhouse gas emissions when compared to the life-cycle of the Chinese using their own coal.

2.  In the present economic environment, increased mining and exporting of coal from the US will create jobs and stimulate some local economies.

3. Alternative methods of shipping and handling coal, in covered barges for example, could reduce the potential for harmful environmental and human health impacts, traffic disruptions, and other impacts to communities along rail lines.

For each of the above reasons, and many others, there are opposing arguments.

I'm always interested in why some topics get a lot of play in the public arena while others remain off the public radar. Exporting coal is a hot topic right now, but let me present another similar topic that I'm sure most of us have never considered: the global impact of exporting animal feed from the USA.

Below is a table that shows containerized cargo exports (and imports) from the lower Columbia River ports. The number one containerized export is hay and animal feed, representing 32% of containerized exports and weighing in at 615,400 metric tons (1 metric ton = 2,205 pounds) annually (I'm not sure what year is represented in these data).


This really surprised me. But so what? Well, an article in the NY Times (2008) examined the real cost of growing animals for food, which is increasingly done in factory-type operations.

Global demand for meat has multiplied in recent years, encouraged by growing affluence and nourished by the proliferation of huge, confined animal feeding operations. These assembly-line meat factories consume enormous amounts of energy, pollute water supplies, generate significant greenhouse gases and require ever-increasing amounts of corn, soy and other grains, a dependency that has led to the destruction of vast swaths of the world’s tropical rain forests.

The author cites estimates that about 30% of the ice-free land on this planet is involved in meat production, and this generates almost 1/5th of the world's greenhouse gases - more than transportation sources. US agriculture, which is increasingly dominated by growing livestock feed, is estimated by the USEPA to be responsible for about 3/4 of the water quality problems in our rivers and streams.

The social and environmental justice impacts are also high due not only to the environmental impacts cited above, but by the demand and high price for corn and soy for growing meat that makes it less available as food for people, particularly in developing nations.

Shall I continue? No, I think it best for you to read the article yourself. My point is that I have never heard anyone opposing the export of hay and animal feed from the lower Columbia River ports, even though these exports directly support livestock operations overseas that have very real and very high environmental, human health and social justice impacts.

As you can tell, I like to examine all facets of a topic before leaping to a conclusion. Perhaps this is a result of my years spent as an ecological consultant, during which I worked on a large variety of projects, even one of the LNG terminals on the lower Columbia River (as part of the team hired by the company proposing to build the facility). Doing the research needed to plan a development, or even to write an ordinance to protect natural resources (I've done a lot of those, also) requires looking at a lot of alternatives, including not doing the project at all, and then making a reasoned selection of the best alternative. The selected alternative is not necessary the one that every side wants - but it rarely can be.

So, as you chew your steak, chop or chicken leg tonight, think about the above - maybe you'll start eating coal instead!

Monday, April 09, 2012


The Oregonian has endorsed Charlie Hales for the next Portland Mayor, and I strongly disagree. The Oregonian endorsement is based on specific qualities of their candidate: "a mayor who's ready to lead...experience on the Portland City Council...a record of accomplishment on jobs, transportation, parks and public safety...leadership."  This sounds all too familiar, like this Oregonian endorsement of another former City Council member: "City Commissioner Sam Adams has delivered on his promises to businesses, bicyclists and other Portlanders. He has the drive, political savvy and vision to be mayor" (2008). 

The mistake made by the Oregonian is to choose a candidate based on a stereotype of what qualities the right candidate should have. Leadership, accomplishments and experience are certainly admirable qualities, but are these the only things a good mayor needs? I think not, as history has shown. Each of the three mayoral candidates has her/his own unique set of experiences, accomplishments and leadership qualities. Choosing between them on this basis doesn't get us very far. The Oregonian would have us only elect someone who has already served on the City Council; this is a very limiting proposition.

Portland is a good city aspiring to be a great city. There are certain things that hold us back, some of them inherent in our specific form of government, some based in the different visions of people in city management positions, and others based in the agendas of the multitude of interests and groups that make up our citizenry. What can a mayor do with this mix to move Portland forward? What qualities need a mayor have to change our direction on those pathways that need a new direction? I have seen the qualities needed in Eileen Brady.

Paul Hawken, the businessman, author and sustainability guru who spoke at an Eileen Brady for Mayor event, used the term "reimagine" when discussing how to effect change in our society. That word stuck with me, and the following day I realized that it is the perfect word for articulating a major quality Eileen has, the ability to reimagine. Eileen's experience, accomplishments and leadership are forged from her ability to bring people together to not merely solve a problem, but to reimagine an issue in a way that avoids problems rather than having to solve them because they can't be avoided. 

As a business owner in Portland for the past few decades, I've experienced first hand the multitude of issues one often hears from our business community when it comes to doing business here. As a consultant to both the public and private sectors, including contracts with the City, I've seen these issues from all sides. Portland does a lot right, but it also does a lot wrong, and this holds us back in many ways. Eileen Brady talks about the issues that she sees not only holding us back as a city, but, more importantly, holding us back as individuals who are the moving parts of the city. She voices concerns about the future, based on her view of the pathways leading forward from the place we are now. This is not a message of doom and gloom; this is a message of hope based on her firm belief that working together, we Portlanders can steer a course to a vibrant and thriving future. 

The Oregonian endorsed Charlie Hales because his set of experiences, accomplishments and leadership as a City Council member resulted in his knowledge of where the levers of city government are and which ones need to be pulled in order to keep the City that Works machinery working. That's fine, if what we want is yet another political lever-puller. 

I endorse Eileen Brady for Portland Mayor because she understands that moving Portland forward from these troubled times into a better future for everyone simply cannot be accomplished by keeping the old machinery running. We need a leader of a different kind, one who can help us reimagine the City of Portland as a great city, a city that works for everyone because we all make it work together.