Strictly Business: Asking the big questions

By Aaron Corvin, Columbian port & economy reporter

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photoAaron Corvin is a business reporter at The Columbian.

It's a reflection of the Port of Vancouver's desire to do the right thing that it held a public workshop last week to discuss how to handle crude oil safely, including how to clean up potential oil spills in the Columbia River.

The discussion stemmed from a proposal by Tesoro Corporation and Savage Companies to haul up to 280,000 barrels of crude oil per day from North Dakota to the port. From there, the companies would ship the oil to refineries in Washington, California and Alaska for domestic purposes, including gasoline for cars and trucks.

Port commissioners asked thoughtful questions.

As I jotted notes, though, I wondered if anyone was going to ask another question: Is it a good idea to set up a crude oil operation at the port, one that will continue to feed our fossil-fuel addiction and that will pump more carbon dioxide into the air we breathe?

No one did. Why? My guess is that it has to do with the business model in which the port — and the rest of us, for that matter — are housed. Or, as some might see it, trapped.

That model says we ought to keep fueling our economy by fouling the planet. Yes, we've deployed good measures, from both the public and private sectors, to soften the blow of altering the environment. But the model, as it pertains to torching fossil fuels, has budged very little.

And the amount of heat-trapping carbon dioxide in the atmosphere recently passed a grim milestone: 400 parts per million. That's a level not seen in several million years.

If we continue to push past it, we'll witness seas swamping populations and increasingly extreme weather shredding places to pieces. And that's just a taste.

We're all part of human-produced global warming. But some institutions in our economic system play a much bigger, far more powerful role in it. As environmental activist Bill McKibben recently wrote: "If those of us who are trying really hard (to tread lightly on the planet) are still fully enmeshed in the fossil fuel system, it makes it even clearer that what needs to change are not individuals but precisely that system. We simply can't move fast enough, one by one, to make any real difference in how the atmosphere comes out."

So, what would a healthier environmental model look like? China's investments in wind and solar are promising advances in renewable energy. A carbon tax to encourage clean energy innovation deserves a serious examination. Cleaner-burning natural gas may work as a bridging mechanism.

Some powerful businesses and governments are waking up. The global insurer Munich Re doesn't doubt global warming. It's supporting efforts to reduce carbon emissions.

The Port of Vancouver possesses a strong green streak by supporting strong environmental processes and working to handle cargo responsibly and safely. But its purpose is to facilitate commerce, Theresa Wagner, the port's communications manager, told me. It's not to make "moral judgments about cargo."

Understood. But I would argue that the port and its commissioners need, perhaps now more than ever, to grapple with the morality of how we live and do business on this planet.

At the very least, the port — a local government driven by global market forces but overseen by public investors (also known as voters and property taxpayers) — ought to be willing to tackle a question that never got raised last week.

Asking the big question could lead to big answers.


Aaron Corvin is a Columbian business reporter. 360-735-4518, http://twitter.com/col_energy, http://columbian.com/weblogs/strictly-business, or aaron.corvin@columbian.com