Are Climate Claims for Burning Renewable Trees a Smokescreen?

UBC’s new $34-million Biomass Research and Development Facility is cutting edge in the age-old practice of converting wood to heat and power.
But the features that make the plant clean-burning also make it hard to replicate. And like UBC's old natural-gas-fired plant, it produces greenhouse gases. 
Credit: Paul Joseph Brown/ for InvestigateWest

Nestled into a seaside forest on the University of British Columbia's lands, amid a carpet of sword ferns and salal, sits a gleaming industrial facility that’s been hailed as a significant step toward a carbon-neutral future for B.C., Canada and even the world.

The wood-gas fired plant just off Marine Drive in Vancouver, the university boasts,  “will reduce UBC’s natural gas consumption by 12 per cent and campus greenhouse gas emissions by nine per cent (5,000 tonnes), the equivalent of taking 1,000 cars off the road.”

“It’s very exciting,” said Brent Sauder, UBC’s director of strategic partnerships, who helped shape plans for the plant. “It’s not a research activity -- it’s a mission.”


15 Key Dates in the History of Biomass Energy

Canada actively participated in the international negotiations that led to the 1997 Kyoto Protocol treaty that was supposed to start turning the tide on climate change. That pact committed Canada to cut its greenhouse gas emissions 6 percent by 2012 from 1990 levels. In the nearly two decades since, climate politics in Canada and British Columbia in particular have repeatedly whiplashed.

Here are 15 key events:

Inslee weighs tenfold increase in cancer risk for fish eaters

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee at the State of the State address in January. Flickr/Jay Inslee.

How much risk of cancer from eating fish is too much? Washington Gov. Jay Inslee has privately advanced a proposal that would likely pass legal muster but that worries Indian tribes and environmentalists. It would allow a tenfold increase in allowable cancer risk under the law.

It’s either that, the governor has told a panel of his advisers, or the state will have to consider regulatory breaks for polluters that the state has not traditionally granted in the past. For example: Giving factories, municipal sewage treatment plants and others who dump pollution into waterways 20 years or perhaps even more to come into compliance with new toxic-waste limits.

Caught in crossfire between Indian tribes and business interests, Inslee stepped into the controversy last spring after his predecessor, Christine Gregoire, short-circuited plans by the state Ecology Department to make water pollution rules more protective of people who eat a lot of fish. Gregoire’s move came a day after the former governor met with a senior Boeing Co. executive who strongly objected to tighter restrictions on toxic pollution, as InvestigateWest was the first to report.


Announcing an INNovation Fund-backed Project


Today we're pleased to announce a new project that we're quite excited about.

We will be designing a new showcase for investigative journalism on the radio with Seattle NPR-affiliate KUOW. The project will kick off next month, with the first series expected later this year.

Seed money is being provided by an INNovation Fund grant. The INNovation Fund is a new initiative of the Investigative News Network and the Knight Foundation to support innovative projects in nonprofit news and public media. The first round of eight grants were announced this morning.

Thanks are also due to KUOW news director Cathy Duchamp and IW co-founder-turned-KUOW editor Carol Smith, both of whom have been brilliant and enthusiastic collaborators. We're thrilled at the opportunity to expand our partnership.

Investigative News Network: INNovation Fund Winners Announced


Despite Increasing Death Toll, Push Is On To Open More Public Roads to ATVs


For a disabled kid found abandoned on a street corner in China at age 4, Guo Biao was doing pretty well by last fall. After a decade hidden away in a Chinese orphanage, he had landed at the apple and cherry farm run by Dwayne and Sherri Bowman near Zillah, a farming community in central Washington.

Finally. A family. And also a new name: Zeke Bowman. With only a second-grade education, the teen from China was welcomed by the devout Christian family. The Bowmans helped Zeke learn English. For the first time he got a hearing aid for his deformed ear.

“He was so thrilled to be here,” Sherri Bowman said.

And then last October, Zeke climbed aboard one of the Bowmans’ four all-terrain vehicles, just as he’d done many times before at the end of a day in the orchards. He headed down a two-lane country road called Lucy Lane. For reasons the Bowmans still ponder, he rear-ended a tractor and died that evening in the hospital.

ATV tragedies like this – on roads, rather than backcountry trails where ATVs are designed to go – are widespread and have increased in recent years. The latest U.S. figures indicate that ATV crashes kill more than 700 people and injure 100,000 others every year, with nearly two-thirds of the fatal accidents occurring on public or private roads.

The accidents keep happening even though all ATVs sold in the U.S. carry a warning label stating that the vehicles are not to be driven on the road. Their high center of gravity and low-pressure tires mean they’re likely to tip over or go out of control on pavement. What’s more, the vehicles aren’t held to federal safety standards for cars and trucks, such as the requirement for seat belts, even though they can reach highway speeds.

Washington ATV Fatalities in Four Charts


Since 2003, there have been 50 ATV fatalities in Washington and at least 151 serious injuries.

Here are what they look like, in four charts.

Related Article »

By Age


By Road Type


By Posted Speed


By Helmet Use


InvestigateWest receives $200K from Knight, Ethics and Excellence in Journalism, and Bullitt Foundations


SEATTLE — InvestigateWest received a $100,000 grant from the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation and a $50,000 grant over two years from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, the Seattle nonprofit journalism studio announced on Monday. InvestigateWest also announced a new $50,000 grant from the Bullitt Foundation.

“More and more, the need for independent, public-interest journalism is being met by those with an interest and capacity to support this essential civic institution,” said InvestigateWest Executive Director Robert McClure.

“Since InvestigateWest’s founding almost five years ago we have repeatedly demonstrated how our reporting makes the Pacific Northwest a better place to live,” McClure added.

Nonprofit media is one of the fastest-growing sectors of American journalism, and it has made headlines in recent weeks. Pierre Omidyar, founder of eBay, launched First Look Media to cover the NSA, political corruption and other topics. In New York, former hedge fund manager Neil Barsky announced plans for former New York Times executive editor Bill Keller to lead a 30-person newsroom on the American criminal justice system. Both projects are influenced by ProPublica, the Pulitzer Prize-winning nonprofit founded in 2008 with money from billionaires Herbert and Marion Sandler.

“Disruptive technologies have thrown investigative reporting into a maelstrom, and we are holding our collective breath while a new business model is being born.” said Denis Hayes, president of the Bullitt Foundation. “Meanwhile, InvestigateWest has demonstrated courage, integrity, and meticulous attention to detail as it has pursued stories that would otherwise remain unreported. We are honored to be able to support its work.”

The Knight Foundation grant is part of its Local Media Initiative that aims to help nonprofit news organizations establish long-term sustainability.


Something new from InvestigateWest and QUEST


Photo courtesy of mkw87.

A quick announcement and an invitation: We recently started a project to make old news new again.

Every so often, you'll see a post from us over at QUEST, public broadcasting's award-winning series on science and sustainability. We dig into the science of our stories from over the years and look into the latest research.

Today our topic is coal tar.

Robert's first story about that gooey asphalt sealant led Washington to ban it. That was 2010 and it was the first state ban in the country. (Last year Minnesota joined Washington in passing a ban.) Yet every year about 85 million gallons of toxic waste known to promote cancer are still carefully painted across about 170 square miles of American cities and suburbs.

So please join us. We'll be over at QUEST today making some old news new.