King Coal’s tragic puppet show, part 5: “Forget the economics, the study was delayed!”

August 21, 2013

It wasn’t finished.

That’s why Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn had not, until yesterday, released the results of an economic study on coal train impacts in Seattle.

for Pete's sake

for Pete’s sake

But King Coal jerked the puppet strings, and the story turned into a petty political horse-race game, instead of a good public airing of the real economic issues.  Now that the study’s out, we can focus on what it actually says….and what it doesn’t.  As usual, Sightline’s Eric de Place has got the goods on this.

Even with a very limited scope, the study finds significant net economic harm, including declining property values, increased congestion, and adverse impacts on public health.  The study leaves out a great many impacts, including the difficult-to-quantify hit to our civic brand — the competitive edge we’ve honed from our high quality of life, clean energy, and innovative culture.

(A New York Times story this week trivialized this as an “image” problem.  We should take exception:  building a great, healthy place to live where environmental quality and economic vitality go hand in hand isn’t just our label; it’s our contents, our identity — the “sustainable prosperity” that the Seattle Chamber of Commerce touts as the foundation of its economic vision.)

It also mentions but does not quantify the impact of increased emissions of carbon pollution.  Let’s take a stab at that:

The only specific economic modeling done to quantify the impact of Powder River Basin coal export on total carbon emissions found that, for every 140 million tons of coal exported, net consumption would increase by approximately 98 million tons.  The Gateway proposal north of Bellingham would ship up to 48 million tons annually, so of that 98 MT increase, about 33 MT would be shipped through Seattle.  When burned, that much PRB coal would produce roughly 60 million tons of CO2.    The EPAs current estimate of the social cost of CO2 (using the 2020 value and a 3% discount rate) is about $46/ton.  So the annual climate impact bill would run north of $2.7 B,b,billion.

Of course, that cost would fall on everyone, globally, not just Seattleites.  Should we prorate it for Seattle’s share of the global population?  No. On account of the Golden Rule.

But hey, there are economic benefits too!  Take the $5-6 million that the Gateway project developer says would flow largely to Seattle-based firms for legal and public relations work (and nevermind that they’ve already spent at least that much, and that it flows whether the project is permitted or not.)  Think of the cornucopia of good things in store for Seattle when they drop that money:

– Some of our best communications professionals will be gainfully employed spinning the heroic yarns that will be required to persuade the Emerald City that hauling coal is good for us.  Turning the story about the economic study into a gotcha game on Mayor McGinn is a prime example of the kind of diversions, evasions, and general shenanigans we can expect.

– Brilliant local minds will bring home more bacon by denying the climate consequences of coal export, feeding the ecosystem of climate denial and making it ever-more-difficult to step up to our responsibility for solutions.

– Our legal eagles will be well fed, protecting King Coal’s profits by arguing for the narrowest possible scope of environmental review, and ensuring that under no circumstances will climate impacts be considered.

Yes, all of that counts as economic benefit in the study.

Rev. Kathleen Patton of Longview, quoting Mark 8:36, poses this economic question about coal export “…What does it profit a man to gain the whole world, and forfeit his soul?”

As you might expect, this impact was beyond the scope of the study.