Saturday, March 13, 2010

March 16, 2010 - Issue of the Week

The Conflict Between Reality and Wishful Thinking

**** Warning - Recently someone referred to me as a "policy wonk." I took this as a complement even though I am not sure it was meant that way. The following is a long, wonkish post, because in reality most of our problems are not simple and can not be explained in sound bites. But for those of you who are not wonks here is the Twitter version:
We are running out of oil. Soon this will force us to address large increases in costs and associated economic and social disruptions. Can county government think ahead of the curve to lessen these impacts here in Whatcom County?
The full version

On Tuesday morning at 9:30 the County's Natural Resource Committee will be treated to the sobering news that we are running out of oil and we better start planning differently if we don't want to find ourselves in a world of hurt. Later in the day we will consider whether we should continue to move forward with planning to allow as many people as possible move to far flung parts of the County ensuring the need for more driving, more expensive roads projects and services to remote areas. It will be fascinating to see how the different Council members try to make these conflicting ideas jibe in their policy decisions.

We will start the day off with a special presentation from the Energy Resource Scarcity/ Peak Oil (ERSPO) Task Force. This is a group that was formed jointly by the County and City of Bellingham and they spent well over a year drafting a report meant to change the way we think about our future. As the report states:
“Our current economic, social and political institutions expect that reliable, abundant energy supplies will be readily available to meet continued demand. Whatcom County residents and businesses depend on oil and natural gas for their economic welfare and many of their most critical activities, including transportation, food supply, water delivery, health care and electricity. It is too rarely acknowledged that global oil and natural gas reserves are finite and that sufficient substitutes are unlikely to be widely available in the near future.

Most reports and studies on peak oil and energy resource scarcity convey a strong sense of urgency in planning for a future with dramatically reduced petroleum supplies.

The era of relatively plentiful and inexpensive oil will soon be over, and the sooner the community acknowledges and addresses this reality, the more secure our future will be.”
While sobering, the report is also well written, well documented, and provides a blueprint for acting locally to lessen the impacts of the coming energy constrictions and associated price increases. It is clear we need to start thinking about transportation, our economy, farming, and basic services differently if we are going to avoid major upheavals during this transition. You can download a copy of the entire report here. The main question isn't whether this is the truth, or even when it will happen, but whether government can rethink years of planning assumptions that energy is pretty much free and transportation is cheap. To quote a well known green alarmist:
“One thing is clear, the era of easy oil is over. What we all do next will determine how well we meet the energy needs of the entire world in this next century and beyond”
David O'Reilly, Chairman and CEO, Chevron
None of this should come as a great surprise to anyone who has been paying attention, but in a community that loves to love its refineries it can be hard to accept. We certainly have all seen the price of gas increase dramatically in the past few years as access to cheap and easy oil decreases. Just this week a story out of Alaska states:
“Less and less oil is flowing through that engineering masterpiece that is the trans-Alaska oil pipeline, built in the 1970s to link the North Slope's liquid gold with insatiable markets.

And at some point in the near future -- maybe as soon as 2014 -- flow is expected to dwindle enough to cause potentially major operational issues.

Flow, or throughput, peaked in 1988 at 2.1 million barrels per day from the Slope to Valdez. That rate has dropped to about 680,000 barrels per day, and is expected to continue sliding five and half percent per year, based on numbers provided to Alyeska by producers and the state Department of Revenue.” Full story here
This translates to a problem for our local refineries that are fed primarily by Alaska. Locally Trans Mountain pipeline has expanded their capacity to deliver crude oil from British Columbia and the tar sands of Alberta to Whatcom and Skagit Counties, but that won't make up the difference and that oil is much more costly to produce. Enbridge, the current majority owner of the Olympic Pipeline, is floating a variety of schemes to move tar sands oil from Alberta to the coast of British Columbia where it would be loaded on tankers. That oil could head to Cherry Point, but currently all the discussion seems to indicate that the Asian markets are willing to pay more, and these are private companies who are trying to maximize their profits.

Putting aside the tremendous economic and environmental problems associated with milking oil from the tar sands in Alberta it would also appear that while we were living high off the Alaska oil hog other parts of the country snuck in and stole the rights to that Alberta oil before we even thought about wanting it. The first indication of this was when our local BP refinery lost out on a major expansion to handle such oil to another BP refinery in the Midwest. Now there are thousands of miles of very large new pipelines being built from Alberta to the Midwest and Gulf Coast.

But what does all that have to do with the County Council you ask? Well you must have noticed that we all worship the taxes and jobs the local refineries provide this community. Just last month the majority of the Council went nearly apoplectic when the state legislature discussed placing a pass through tax on our refineries. The cries of “it will cost jobs”, “It will undermine our tax base,” and my personal favorite “they will move the refineries to Indonesia” was heard throughout the courthouse with much gnashing of teeth. Some on the Council have even threatened to pull out of the Washington State Association of Counties over the whole thing. How will these same councilors react to the even more threatening message in this report that oil is dwindling. Will they refuse to believe it, blame environmentalists for too many regulations, hope to be out of office before it manifests itself, or look for a way to transition these valuable jobs to other forms of energy production?

At this same meeting we will also be discussing and voting on various land use proposals, some of which will allow hundreds of people to live in areas far from urban services. One of the recommendations in the ERSPO report is:
“Foster land use patterns and transportation systems that will make it easier for people to shift trips from autos and trucks to other types of transport.”
How will the Council incorporate this information into land use decisions. Will they continue to push for developments such as Semiahmoo 2 that will put hundreds of people in an area far from where they work and shop. What about spending vast amounts of money on road infrastructure for such developments if indeed the use, or at least the size of cars is going to change dramatically in the next decade.

Right now the County is planning to spend nearly $6 million on one short section of Lincoln Road (between Birch Bay and Blaine) to increase safety since people in the area have complained for years that the current road is too narrow (like roads all over the county) for today's large vehicles and they often are driving travel travelers on this road. If ERSPO is correct it would seem large vehicles and travel trailers will soon be a thing of the past, so should this money be spent to accommodate these soon to be dinosaurs?

This same stretch of Lincoln Road it is claimed is needed to allow people from this area to get to I-5 faster because most of them are still working in Bellingham or Vancouver - 25+ miles away. In light of ERSPO would we be better off using the $6 million trying to create other forms of transportation? Should we be trying to make it clear to people that living in a place where you need to use 2 gallons of oil each day to get to your job is not a very good choice for yourself or for society? To play it safe (and be fiscally conservative) in a time of uncertainty should we tell the people of the area that the best safety option at this time is for them to just slow down a little bit and plan more time to get to their far off jobs and errands?

These of course are the types of questions (and they are just the tip of the iceberg) that local politicians hate, because to be addressed they require a shift in what we have all come to think of as our normal business and lifestyles. While we may all acknowledge that change happens, none of us really like it very much and government in particular seems to do whatever is possible to avoid it.

So will local county government embrace ERSPO and change the way it plans, or do what government often does and emulate the ostrich?

One final thought that shows how backwards our county government efforts are in light of ERSPO. I recently received my tax bill from the County. It shows that I owe the County $223.95 for the current expense fund that basically goes to pay for law enforcement, courts, public health, water quality - the basic necessities. It also shows that I owe $308.49 for County Roads. Why in the world am I being taxed 30% more for roads than for the basic necessities?

The ERSPO presentation will start at 9:30 AM on Tuesday in the Council Chambers. Hope to see you there.

-------------UPDATE AFTER PRESENTATION-----------------

Should come as no real surprise that the Ostriches are in the majority on the County Council.


  1. Thank you, Carl, for this post. So glad to know that a Task Force is working on research for the future of Whatcom Co. with the Climate Change and all its repercussions. Keep up the good work. You maybe a "wonk" (whatever that means!) but it is all for the good of the people of Whatcom Co. We need strong leadership in this survival awareness mode.
    Thanks is a mild word for the work you are doing for us!

  2. But I thought you were a big evil liberal who is out to do nothing more than raise taxes on us hard working folk? What are you doing complaining about road taxes?
    *drinks more Kool-Aid*

  3. Carl, The Peak Oil Task Force recently presented it's report to the Everson City Council. As we went through this 60-page document, and their power point presentation, I couldn't help but ask where is the "Jobs Task Force"? If we put half the effort that went into the Peak Oil Task Force into helping job creation efforts (instead of the far-flung mish-mash of efforts we have going on now), I would hope we could get more folks back to work. The best thing for mitigating oil usage is better employment, in my opinion, so we have revenue to address peak oil issues as well as other issues. Without jobs, we are nothing... Just my two cents. Cheers, Andy Rowlson

  4. Hi Andy,

    Thanks for the comments. One point of clarification. I don't think that if we spent "half the effort that went into the Peak Oil Task Force" we would generate many jobs, because the POTF was pretty much a totally volunteer effort. I think only one City of Bellingham staff person provided only a small amount of support time. On the other hand the "mish-mash of efforts" I guess you are referring to includes the Northwest Economic Council and the Center for Economic Vitality (formerly the Small Business Development Center) both of which get a good deal of money and support from local government entities. Are those the programs you think need more focus?

    I think the overarching message from the ERSPO report is that we need to consider future changes in energy availability in almost all of our planning, including job growth and location. For instance if we put land use policies in place that will encourage more people to live in Everson, then we better also focus job growth in that area instead of expecting people to be able to afford to drive to Bellingham to work. We also would need to focus our effort on jobs that are not dependent on oil, or help those businesses transition to another form of energy for their own use and for their inventories.

    While jobs are certainly important, I am a firm believer that government ought to be able to do more than one thing at a time, and be able to look at short term as well as long term policies together. 25 jobs created in Everson next week would be fantastic, but if those jobs will disappear in 5 or 10 years because of lack of foresight now we are just setting ourselves up for another crisis.

    My two cents worth.

  5. Hi Carl,

    Yes, I'm thinking of the economic development efforts of the Northwest Economic Council , the Center for Economic Vitality (formerly the Small Business Development Center), the Port of Bellingham and the Bellingham/Whatcom Chamber. I'm not sure they are as coordinated and effective as they could be.

    Frankly, they should be absolutely front and center right now, doing everything possible on job creation.

    Interestingly, the Port's program for job development at the Cities is basically mothballed right now. Amazing. During the worst downturn in 25 years, their job creation effort for small cities is not currently functioning. Seriously. It hasn't been working since the Small Business Development Center lost the contract from the Port.

    I have visions of a "summit" to discuss these different organizations, and coordinate their efforts as much as possible. This is their time to shine.

    About government doing more than one thing at at time, couldn't agree with ya more. Hopefully, elected officials (State, County, and City) would be very interested in a meeting to discuss whatever we could do to help with job creation.


  6. Considering that we are facing "peak everything" in this finite world and we are blissfully using up the earth's resources at breakneck speed, it's good to see at least a start at looking at this. We will face this crisis whether we prepare or not. There is a great group of people in our community who are hard at work on this now and planning a "great unleashing" in April.

    I hope we will get real serious, real soon, so we can come together as a community to face the descent from the fossil fuel orgy.
    thanks Carl