House passes bill to protect more than one million acres of wilderness

The U.S. House of Representatives has passed a bill that would add more than a million acres of land to the National Wilderness Preservation System. The Protecting America’s Wilderness Act would extend preservation to public land in California, Colorado, and Washington.

The bill would designate more wilderness than any other bill passed by the House in more than a decade. “We have been working on this legislation for more than 20 years,” Rep. Diana DeGette, D-Colo., and the bill’s sponsor, said. “The areas that will be protected under this bill are some of the most beautiful and pristine landscapes that our country has to offer.”

Among the public lands that would be added to the nation’s inventory of designated wilderness are:

  • 660,000 acres in 36 areas across Colorado, including  the Handies Peak, Dolores River Canyon, Little Book Cliffs, Diamond Breaks, Papoose Canyon, North Ponderosa Gorge, and South Ponderosa Gorge areas;
  • 312,500 acres in Northwest California, by means of expanding nine existing wilderness areas and creating eight new ones;
  • 30,700 acres of newly-designated wilderness in Southern California; and
  • 126,544 acres of newly-designated wilderness on Washington’s Olympic Peninsula.

H.R. 2546 would also add nearly 1,300 river miles in the three states to the National Wild and Scenic River System.

The bill was approved on a 231-183 vote. It is not expected to receive consideration in the Republican-controlled Senate this year.


Bills to permanently block oil exploration off West Coast introduced

Ocean waters near Heceta Head lighthouse in Oregon would be among those protected from fossil fuel exploration activity if a bill introduced by West Coast senators becomes law. Photo courtesy Wikimedia.

California’s senior U.S. senator has introduced a bill that would permanently block fossil fuel exploration on the outer continental shelf along the coasts of California, Oregon, and Washington.

The measure, sponsored by veteran Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., was introduced Jan. 4.

In her comments on the Senate floor on the day she introduced S.31 Feinstein highlighted the huge economic impact of coastal counties in California, explaining that they produce 80 percent of the state’s gross domestic product, and said the likely close proximity of any drilling to the beaches makes offshore energy exploration too dangerous.

“The fact is that those of us on the Pacific coast do not want any further offshore oil or gas development,” Feinstein said.

Wildlife conservation concerns are a powerful argument against energy exploration off the Pacific Coast. Among the marine animals that may be adversely affected by oil and natural gas drilling are a variety of sea birds and fish, orcas, otters, salmon, seals, sea lions, and migratory whale species (including blue whales).

Those wildlife resources have previously been harmed by oil extraction in the Pacific.

In 1969 a spill near Santa Barbara polluted the Pacific Ocean with about 3.36 million gallons of crude. That incident remains the most severe oil spill in California’s history and the third-most severe spill in American history.

The Santa Barbara oil spill killed thousands of sea birds and many dolphins, elephant seals, and sea lions. The mortality rate among small marine organisms in the inter-tidal zone was as high as 90 percent.

This graphic shows the extent of ocean and beach area impacted by the 1969 Santa Barbara oil spill. Map courtesy Wikimedia.

Despite the warning provided by the Santa Barbara oil spill, there are still 24 oil drilling platforms operating in ocean areas off the California coast.

In 1994 the Golden State’s legislature largely  precluded any future drilling leases in the six kilometer-wide band of Pacific waters under its regulatory control. The California Coastal Sanctuary Act allows leasing only if the “State Lands Commission determines that oil and gas deposits contained in tidelands are being drained by means of wells upon adjacent federal lands and leasing of the tidelands for oil or gas production is in the best interest of the State.”

The California State Senate passed a bill in 2015 that would have permanently banned all oil leases off the state’s coast. S.B. 788 was not considered by the state’s General Assembly (a body akin to the House of Representatives in most other states).

California’s State Lands Commission had stopped authorizing nearly all new leases after the Santa Barbara spill.

No fossil fuel exploration in waters of the Pacific Ocean off California’s coast subject to the federal Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act has occurred since 1981. Congress included bans on leasing off California’s coast, as well as offshore of several East Coast states, in annual appropriations bills until 2008.

U.S. Presidents also included California’s (along with Oregon’s and Washington’s) coastal waters in exclusions from leasing included in executive orders. Presidents George H.W. Bush, in June 1990, and William J. Clinton, in June 1998, imposed a ban through 2012.

President George W. Bush lifted that ban by revoking those executive orders on July 14,  2008. He also said that he would veto any bill that continued the practice of banning leases off the coast of California and several other states.

President Barack Obama’s administration has returned to the long-time practice of keeping energy exploration activities away from California’s coast. The most recent five-year leasing plan for the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management precludes any leasing off the Pacific coast of the continental U.S. between 2017-2022.

The factors weighing against energy exploration off the coasts of Oregon and Washington are largely the same as in California.

According to one 2015 report, Oregon’s rural coast region had more than 21,000 jobs directly dependent on tourism, which also generated more than $1.8 billion in economic activity in that part of the state.

As for fishing, the value of the Beaver State’s commercial onshore fisheries was more than $136 million in 2015, according to the state’s Department of Fish and Wildlife, while spending on recreational fishing in coastal counties exceeded $68 million in 2014.

Washington’s coastal economy is similarly dependent on tourism and fishing. In 2011 tourism and recreation contributed about $3.4 billion to the Evergreen State’s “ocean economy,” while fishing is responsible for at least 16,000 jobs and half of billion dollars of economic activity in Washington.

Pacific waters off the coasts of the two northwestern states have not generally been considered likely to produce significant oil resources. In 1964 the Department of Interior issued leases for 2,400 square kilometers of ocean areas off the coasts of Oregon and Washington. Oil companies drilled 13 test wells before those leases expired in 1969.

In 1977 the Department of Interior ranked Oregon and Washington as being lowest among all potential lease areas in the country for “resource potential.” That assessment was essentially confirmed by a 2009 report by Environment America and Sierra Club, which concluded that the amount of oil and natural gas off the Oregon and Washington coasts is “miniscule.”

“The planning area is estimated to contain (i.e., undiscovered economically recoverable resource) approximately 0.3 billion barrels of oil and 1.28 trillion cubic feet of natural gas at recent price estimates, representing about 0.6% of total OCS resources for both oil and gas. At recent prices and usage, the oil and natural gas economically available from the Washington/Oregon planning area could supply the nation with 15 days of oil and 20 days of natural gas with a value of $26 billion.”

Oregon and Washington have nevertheless moved to toughen their laws on offshore energy development.

In 2007 Oregon imposed a three-year moratorium on new exlporatory activity and then, in 2010, extended it for 10 more  years.

Washington law forbids marine oil exploration only in the area “extending from mean high tide seaward three miles along the Washington coast from Cape Flattery south to Cape Disappointment, nor in Grays Harbor, Willapa Bay, and the Columbia river downstream from the Longview bridge . . .”

Feinstein’s co-sponsors include all of the senators representing the three west coast states covered by her bill: Democrats Kamala Harris of California, Jeff Merkley and Ron Wyden of Oregon, and Maria Cantwell and Patty Murray of Washington.

The California senator’s effort to ban drilling off the Pacific coast is not the first attempt she has made. She has introduced similar bills in several previous Congresses. Nor is her bill the first Pacific coast state oil drilling ban to be co-sponsored by West Coast senators.

S.31 has been assigned to the Senate Energy & Natural Resources Committee for consideration. Cantwell and Wyden are members of that committee.

Similar legislation, known as the West Coast Ocean Protection Act, has been introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives by Democrat Jared Huffman of California and 13 co-sponsors. They include California Democratic Reps. John Garamendi, Derek Kilmer, Barbara Lee, Ted Lieu, Alan Lowenthal, Doris Matsui, Jimmy Panetta, Scott Peters, Jackie Speier, Eric Swalwell, and Mike Thompson, Oregon Democrats Earl Blumenauer and Peter DeFazio, and Washington Democrat Suzan DelBene.


Washington voters reject historic carbon tax proposal

Anacortes Refinery
This refinery, operated by Texas-based Tesoro Corp., is one of Washington’s major sources of greenhouse gas emissions. Image courtesy Wikimedia.

Voters in Washington state defeated last week the nation’s first proposal to enact a tax on carbon dioxide emissions.

The tax was expected to raise about $2 billion per year from levies on gasoline and fossil fuel-generated electricity. It would have assessed a $15 per metric ton levy on carbon dioxide emissions beginning in July, a rate that would have risen steadily, taking into account inflation, until it reached $100 per metric ton in 40 years.

Gasoline importers and power plant operators would have been the principal payers of the new tax.

To offset the revenues generated by the carbon emissions tax, the measure specified that Washington’s sales tax would be cut by one percent over a period of about 18 months and that a tax on businesses would be reduced by a fraction of a percent.

That provision proved to be controversial among advocates for the poor and even many environmental groups, who wanted revenue gained from the carbon tax to support programs aimed at reducing the state’s climate impact.

“The only way to combat climate change fast enough is to both cut pollution and invest in clean energy solutions like wind and solar power,” a statement released by the Alliance for Jobs and Clean Energy said. “And doing it right includes investing in communities and workers hardest hit by pollution and the transition off dirty fossil fuels.”

Not every environmental organization opposed the initiative. Audubon Washington, a coordinating entity for 25 local National Audubon Society chapters in Washington, backed it.

Gail Gatton, the organization’s executive director, said that Audubon members were mostly concerned about whether I-732 would help to combat anthropogenic climate change, not about its fiscal implications.

“That’s not our issue,” she said. “We really look at it through the lens of whether it will reduce carbon emissions. Even a small step in the right direction is something we’ll support.”

I-732 also called for a tax credit of up to $1,500 for about 460,000 low-income households.

A number of climate scientists supported the initiative. James Hansen, a former NASA climatologist now with Columbia University’s Earth Institute, wrote an editorial for the Seattle Times that urged Washington’s electorate to vote for the proposal.

“The most efficient way to phase out fossil fuels is a steadily rising carbon fee collected from fossil-fuel companies and distributed uniformly to the public,” Hansen wrote. He stressed that the initiative would lead to lower greenhouse gas emissions and improve the state’s economy:

“The public should support this “carbon fee and dividend.” Wealthy people will pay more in increased prices than they receive in the dividend. However, economic studies show that carbon fee-and-dividend spurs the economy, increases the gross national product, creates millions of jobs and rapidly reduces fossil-fuel use. Most people would come out ahead.”

Dr. Cecilia M. Bitz, a climatologist at the University of Washington, stressed that  lower carbon emissions is crucial if humanity is to keep the extent of atmospheric warming to a manageable and possibly safe amount.

“Roughly, what we have emitted today would reach about 1.5 degrees [Celsius],” she said.

Bitz explained that it will be difficult to keep the change in the planet’s average temperature below 2 degrees Celsius, a goal that underlies the Paris Agreement on climate change and which scientists have suggested is a reasonable objective, without stronger measures to encourage emission reduction.

“If we want to achieve those thresholds, we need to start reducing emissions immediately and think of ways to draw down those levels of C02 in the atmosphere,” she said.

More than four dozen scientists affiliated with the University of Washington also spoke in favor of I-732 by publishing an open letter in support of the measure.

“This revenue-neutral measure offers the most progressive change in our tax code in decades and represents a bipartisan effort that rejects ideology,” the letter argued. “While many interrelated social and environmental needs demand out attention, complex problems are best solved one step at a time.”

Bitz, who signed the letter, said that she recognizes that the measure did not address the equity concerns of some environmental advocates and organizations dedicated working to assist low income families.

“I feel the urgency was so great that I was willing to overlook deficiencies and I think strongly the way it was written was intended to reach conservative and progressive people alike by making it revenue neutral,” she said. “I think that was a strength.”

Revenue neutrality may not have been as obvious of a strength as advocates of the initiative believed, though. An analysis by the Washington Department of Revenue concluded that the measure would reduce state tax receipts by more than $670 million between fiscal years 2017-2021.

The state, which has no income tax, relies heavily on sales taxes to support government services and operations. Moreover, Washington is under a Dec. 2012 state supreme court order to increase funding for its public schools and was held in contempt in 2014 because it has failed to abide by that mandate.

Gatton said that she thinks the controversy over the measure’s revenue neutrality may have been a key factor in its defeat.

“With the complicated funding structure, and with our government under court orders about funding education and funding  mental health issues, people didn’t tend to believe it was revenue neutral,” she said. “The I-732 camp was never able to get over that perception in people’s minds even though there were a number of independent studies done that found that it was as about as revenue neutral as you’re going to get.”

On Tuesday I-732 failed when 59 percent of Evergreen  State voters  said “no”to the new carbon tax.

Bitz said that she believes that proponents of a carbon tax will re-visit the issue in the future.

“If the richest country in the world is not doing its part, how can the rest of the world justify any kind of economic hardship they may incur by adding a cost to energy?,” she said. “It’s not free.”

UPDATE, Nov. 15, 2016, 9:15 am MST: Comments of Dr. Cecilia Bitz were added.

UPDATE, Nov. 18, 2016, 9:41 am MST: Comments of Gail Gatton were added.