Mayor Hales’s Environmental Vision Lacks Grounding in Reality

Recently, Mayor Charlie Hales gave a speech welcoming out-of-town dignitaries visiting Portland as part of “World Environment Day.” Speaking before an obviously friendly audience, Mayor Hales made a number of claims that show a lack of critical thinking about environmental issues. Four in particular deserve comment.

First, the Mayor said that the city “must urge” the Oregon State Treasurer to divest of all state holdings in fossil fuel. This might be a harmless gesture if the Mayor did that with his own personal portfolio, but forcing public investment managers to sell off holdings for strictly political reasons would be a violation of their fiduciary trust to those whose funds they manage. Arbitrarily selling assets would increase transaction fees and could reduce total returns to beneficiaries by disposing of securities at discounted prices (relative to true market values).

Moreover, divesting fossil fuel assets would have no effect on any measurable environmental problem.

The Mayor also invoked the tired “Peak Oil” argument that companies managing fossil fuel assets must inevitably fail because oil, gas, and coal are finite resources. But that prediction has been wrong for over 100 years and will continue to be wrong for the foreseeable future. Indeed, at least one international energy statistical agency has predicted that the United States likely will be energy-independent by 2020 due to technological innovations in oil and gas exploration that are causing large increases in production.

Mayor Hales further warned that we must act before the “carbon bubble bursts.” While it is true that we currently have a carbon bubble, it’s not the one he is thinking of. It is a government-created buying binge in carbon offsets, renewable energy credits, and green tags. These products, which exist primarily to satisfy regulatory mandates, have no underlying assets backing them and represent one of the largest Ponzi schemes in history. When the fraud is finally exposed, holders of these worthless securities will be forced to write off billions of dollars in losses.

If the Mayor is really concerned about avoiding the subprime carbon market, he should publicly instruct his staff to quit buying renewable energy credits.

Second, Mayor Hales pledged to begin implementation of the resolution passed last year requiring 100% of city electricity from politically correct “renewable sources.” Unfortunately, the Mayor is more than a decade late to this party, and the beer is stale. Back in 2001, the City Council pledged the very same thing, to be implemented by 2010. When that deadline passed, the city had managed to reach only about seven percent of the goal.

Not only is this goal unachievable for the city, it’s not even desirable. Since large-scale hydroelectric projects and nuclear power plants are typically excluded by green power advocates as “renewable” energy sources, the only way to achieve 100% renewable energy purchasing in the short term would be through massive expenditures for utility-scale wind energy. But since wind is guaranteed to fail randomly, it must be backed up at all times by base-load sources such as hydro, natural gas, and coal. If hydro steps in when wind fails, there is no net environmental gain. It’s one renewable substituting for another. If coal and gas are used, there is a net environmental loss, since these sources must be kept running even when not needed.

The Mayor’s vision is akin to forcing a rental car company to buy a large percentage of cars that randomly stop working, and then maintaining a back-up fleet that is kept idling 24 hours a day to rescue the stranded cars on a moment’s notice. Nobody would propose such a policy for an auto fleet; and environmentally conscious politicians should not advocate it for the electricity grid, either. Wind power is an expensive nuisance to the grid and should be discouraged, not mandated.

Third, the Mayor pledged that within 10 years, the bike “will be the preferred mode of transportation for all trips under three miles in Portland.” While politicians love to make outrageous predictions―since no one can disprove them―there is nothing in the recent past that suggests bicycling will come anywhere close to meeting this forecast. Bicycling has achieved a healthy market share for commuter trips into the central city, but over a 24-hour period for the entire city, cycling is minimal. Even in the South Waterfront district, a massively subsidized high-density neighborhood with a vibrant cycling population, 79% of all daily passenger-trips to and from the district are made in motorized vehicles.

Finally, Mayor Hales pledged that over the next 20 years, the Council will identify new revenues that will allow the city to turn every street in Portland into a “Complete Street” with pervious surfaces, street trees, and sidewalks. Given that the condition of Portland streets has been declining for years and been the subject of several scathing reports by the Portland City Auditor, I’d suggest a much more humble goal for the Mayor. He should stop the pork-barreling of massive amounts of tax dollars on streetcars, light rail, and “traffic calming” projects (the primary cause of our current road system embarrassment) and begin allocating most transportation dollars to fixing and maintaining what we have.

One of the great success stories of the last century has been the steady improvement in environmental quality due to market-driven technological change. The best way Portland politicians can help continue this trend is to focus on the fundamentals of making the city a great place for entrepreneurs.

John A. Charles, Jr. is President and CEO of Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research organization.

Banning Plastic Grocery Bags: Environmental Savior or Wasteful Eco-Fad?

By Todd Myers

From Bellingham, Seattle, and Issaquah, Washington to Portland, Oregon and parts of California (most recently, Pasadena, as of July 1), cities are joining the latest environmental trend―banning plastic grocery bags. Concerned about the amount of plastic that reaches our oceans and its impact on wildlife, communities have decided that banning the bags is a simple and environmentally responsible approach.

But is it? What does the science say?

Banning the bags actually may be a net negative for the environment, yielding little environmental benefit while increasing carbon emissions and other impacts.

Advocates of the ban cite the bags’ effect on marine life and mammals. Unfortunately, their claims are often false or misleading. For example, the Shoreline city council was told “the ecological impacts of this plastic include over a million sea-birds and 100,000 marine mammals killed by either plastic ingestions or entanglement.” In fact, this assertion has nothing to do with plastic bags.

NOAA corrected the claim, saying, “We are so far unable to find a scientific reference for this figure.” The only study NOAA can find does not deal with plastic bags or even marine debris, but “active fishing gear bycatch”―in other words, fishing nets that are used at sea, not discarded plastic bags.

A Greenpeace biologist quoted in the Times of London agreed, saying, “It’s very unlikely that many animals are killed by plastic bags. The evidence shows just the opposite. We are not going to solve the problem of waste by focusing on plastic bags.”

Others claim plastic bags have created a “Pacific Garbage Patch,” twice the size of Texas. This is simply false. Oregon State University reports that the actual amount is less than one percent the size of Texas. Oceanography professor Angel White sent out a release last year saying: “There is no doubt that the amount of plastic in the world’s oceans is troubling, but this kind of exaggeration undermines the credibility of scientists.”

In addition, the Wood’s Hole Oceanographic Institute found the amount of plastic in the Atlantic Ocean hasn’t increased since the 1980s.

This doesn’t mean plastic bags have no impact. When determining the environmental costs and benefits, however, we need to be honest about the science. Indeed, there are environmental risks from banning plastic grocery bags.

The most significant risk is the increase in energy use. Plastic bags are the most energy-efficient form of grocery bag. The U.K. Environment Agency compared energy use for plastic, paper, and reusable bags. It found the “global warming potential” of plastic grocery bags is one-fourth that of paper bags and 1/173rd that of a reusable cotton bag. In other words, consumers would have to use a cotton bag 173 times, or once a week for more than three years, before it matched the energy savings of plastic bags.

Ironically, many of the cities leading the charge against plastic bags are signatories to the U.S. Conference of Mayors Climate Protection Agreement. Yet, few of these cities even attempt to assess the climate impact of switching from the least energy-intensive grocery bag to those requiring far more energy to produce.

It also should be noted that the benefit of banning plastic bags is mitigated by the fact that half of the bags are reused for other purposes, like garbage or picking up after pets. Grocery shoppers will still have to buy other bags, likely plastic, for those purposes. Those who worry about trash reaching landfills are doing little by banning plastic bags.

In the end, communities need to sincerely weigh these various environmental costs. Unfortunately, few public officials do any analysis because the political symbolism of banning the bags is powerful. It is often easier to ignore the science that indicates such bans actually may harm the environment than to make an honest effort to weigh these difficult issues.

Put simply, plastic bag bans have become more about the latest environmental fad than about environmental benefits. State and local politicians should stop trying to enact into law whatever the latest politically correct ecological trend happens to be. Instead, they should leave customers free to make environmental and conservation judgments for themselves.

Todd Myers is the environmental director at Washington Policy Center. He has more than a decade of experience in environmental policy and is the author of the book Eco-Fads: How the Rise of Trendy Environmentalism Is Harming the Environment. He is a guest contributor for Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research center.

 

An Open Letter to President Obama

Dear President Obama:

Your recognition of the importance of rural America is appreciated, but it appears shallow thus far in your presidency. The announcement of the establishment of the White House Rural Council has lofty goals, but actions speak louder than words. At this point your administration’s actions have done little to relieve the economic woes of rural communities, especially in Oregon.

The executive order establishing the Council lists 25 agencies and other federal government entities that will participate under the leadership of the Secretary of Agriculture to “better coordinate Federal programs and maximize the impacts of Federal investment to promote economic prosperity and quality of life….” My question is, whose quality of life and economic prosperity? The only mention of economic opportunity in the order pertains to “…energy development, outdoor recreation, and other conservation related activities.”

Here in Oregon, we have lived with this utopian concept of economic development for more than twenty years. If you were to ask folks who actually live in rural communities throughout Oregon, you would be informed overwhelmingly that the results of this new conservation economy are dismal at best. In fact, statistics show that the poverty rate in rural Oregon has increased from 12% in 1979 to 17.2% today.

Your administration has touted the billions of dollars that have been spent on pet projects throughout the country like broadband and renewable energy. Why not allow communities to identify projects that will best fit their needs locally? Better yet, in these financially strained times, let’s consider removing bureaucratic roadblocks to prosperity and allow the free market to determine the viability of industries, instead of the federal government investing billions of dollars picking the economic winners and losers.

Ethanol is one of the best examples of the federal government picking winners and losers. Corn growers definitely have benefited from ethanol subsidies, but livestock growers have seen the costs of their feedstuffs skyrocket.

There are also great examples of how public-private partnerships can be successful without federal government funding and bureaucracy. Just look at Powell, Wyoming, which successfully created a community based broadband network without any of the $7.2 billion being offered by the federal government to subsidize broadband development.

A critical and often forgotten factor in stimulating America’s rural economy is removing the burdensome regulations placed on communities and businesses throughout the country. Your administration has introduced a litany of rules that only continue to increase the bureaucratic burden on businesses of all sizes and has offered little to no relief or flexibility to businesses trying to meet often over-reaching regulations.

Durkee, Oregon is just one rural community caught in the cross hairs of EPA regulations. The town’s largest employer, Ash Grove Cement (116 employees), is facing possible closure despite investing $20 million in retrofits to control airborne mercury emissions. EPA has proposed new airborne emission standards for mercury that are below the natural background levels and beyond levels which technology can economically address in this area. Without an exception to the proposed rule, the business will have to shut down, eliminating a significant number of full-time family wage jobs. There are numerous other examples of egregious, overly restrictive regulations forced upon rural communities by a multitude of federal agencies which greatly diminish market opportunities for businesses.

Last, but most important to Oregon and to the stabilization of our rural economy, 53 percent of our land is owned by the federal government. The federal government has shifted its land management philosophy from sustainable active management of renewable natural resources to a passive management regimen that has cost our communities thousands of full-time living wage jobs and greatly increased the vulnerability of our forests to disease, pest infestations and devastating wildfires. The negative impacts of federal management decisions (or the lack thereof) on our renewable resources have been destructive to both the environment and rural communities.

Whether it is the livestock industry struggling to meet the impossible demands of federal grazing leases, or lumber mills trying to source enough timber to make up for the lost volume no longer coming from the federal forests — all of Oregon has been impacted. In fact, 31 out of 36 counties in Oregon receive funds from the federal welfare program for counties known as the Rural Secure Schools Act. These funds are provided to counties in a dismal attempt to offset the economic impact on county government (not individuals or businesses) due to the lack of management and bureaucratic entanglement of federal lands in Oregon. Local governments, business and citizens alike would prefer to be self-sufficient, but that is unlikely to happen unless the federal government liquidates its land holdings or begins to actively manage its natural resource assets.

While facing this recession, there is no better time for the federal government to stop frivolously spending money choosing economic winners and losers and to begin looking at how it could remove regulatory burdens that would free citizens and businesses to rethink free market opportunities and invest in their own future.

Daniel Kemmis wrote in This Sovereign Land: “…[P]eople who live and work, raise their families and build their communities, on a particular landscape cannot be and will never be persuaded by any amount of purely legal reasoning that people who have no such dependence on or knowledge of those landscapes should have an equal say in their governance.” Rural communities like Burns or Enterprise, Oregon would welcome the opportunity to host a listening session and tour for the White House Rural Council to reveal opportunities which would allow them to control their own destiny and once again flourish.

The Proper Role of Government: Banning Bags and Setting Prices?

Todd WynnCascade Commentary

The Proper Role of Government: Banning Bags and Setting Prices?
by Todd Wynn
 

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One of the most controversial debates in Oregon’s state capitol this year is banning single-use bags, Senate Bill 536. There is something more important to add to the debate than just the rhetoric from environmental activists, politicians, paper companies and grocery stores. The question of whether government has the right to ban a product and to force retailers to charge a government-created price is an important one to consider, and it has significant implications for government involvement in Oregonians’ lives.

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Intertwined: Fish Consumption and Water Quality Standards

The Oregon Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) has scheduled a series of public workshops in February regarding raising the state’s water quality standards. DEQ proposes to make Oregon’s water quality standards among the toughest in the country. The reason? DEQ argues that the more fish you eat, the more you are exposed to the cumulative effects of toxins in water, and therefore the higher the standard should be for those toxins.

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Worried About Climate Change? Promote Free Markets!

Todd Wynn
Cascade Commentary

Worried About Climate Change? Promote Free Markets!

by Todd Wynn

Every day more and more Americans are growing skeptical of the climate change doomsday claims and plans to ration energy through cap-and-trade type proposals. Despite this, many environmentalists still claim that far-reaching government intervention is needed to achieve greater energy efficiency and lower greenhouse gas emissions to reduce the threat of global warming. Although there has been no statistically significant global warming since at least 1995, the same groups often claim economic growth and lack of comprehensive environmental regulations have created a society that wastes energy and pays no regard to greenhouse gas emissions. But what if less energy use and lower greenhouse gas emissions are a byproduct of limited government and economic freedom? What if environmentalists’ goals can be reached by freer markets and prosperity? Recent Cascade Policy Institute research shows that very phenomenon.

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Klamath Restoration Agreement Makes Water Rights a Water Sport

Karla Kay Edwards
Cascade Commentary

Klamath Restoration Agreement Makes Water Rights a Water Sport

By Karla Kay Edwards

Summary: The Klamath Basin Restoration Agreement signed on February 18, 2010 will critically impact the way water rights are determined in Oregon. With so many victims of the process, the one-sided adulation by the Governors of Oregon and California, as well as others present at the signing ceremony in the state capitol rotunda, is disheartening.

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The Citizen Lawsuit Racket

Karla Kay Edwards QuickPoint!


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Throughout the Northwest, even a small timber sale is rarely completed without first being challenged by a citizen’s lawsuit filed by an environmental organization. These lawsuits, with legal fees from both sides typically paid by taxpayers, have stifled the management of our public lands. Billions of private and tax dollars are spent by private entities and government agencies to defend sound management decisions that may or may not have been tripped up by technical errors or missed deadlines.

Eric Hoffer once said, “Every great cause begins as a movement, becomes a business and then a racket.” Citizen lawsuits are the critical tool that has allowed the environmental movement to become a racket. According to research done by Budd-Falen Law Offices from 2003-2007, more than $4.7 billion were paid to environmental law firms by federal agencies using our tax dollars.

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