Analysis: Portland Not Complying with Kyoto, Despite State Claims to the Contrary

Published February 1, 2006

In June 2005, Portland, Oregon’s Office of Sustainable Development (OSD) released a report announcing 2004 emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2) in Multnomah County (MC) were lower than emissions in 1990. This is the same benchmark for CO2 reduction sought in the Kyoto Protocol, and according to the report’s authors, is an achievement “likely unequalled in any other major U.S. city.”

Jane Lubchenco, a professor at Oregon State University and co-chair of Governor Ted Kulongoski’s (D) Advisory Group on Global Warming, upped the ante a few days later by proclaiming to The Oregonian, “I know of no other city in the world [emphasis added] that has lowered greenhouse emissions at this level.”

This caught the attention of New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, who published an article on July 3, 2005 exalting Portland as “America’s environmental laboratory” for having “achieved stunning reductions in carbon emissions while booming economically.” Kristof concluded by implying that if President George W. Bush read Portland’s Global Warming Progress Report, his decision on how to deal with global warming would be a “no-brainer.”

CO2 Cuts Never Occurred

Portland’s claim of painlessly reducing carbon dioxide has been repeated over and over by journalists, bloggers, and even some scientists, without any attempt to verify the accuracy of the OSD’s report. In fact, actual carbon emissions have been well above the level claimed by Portland. Moreover, any regulatory program imposed by the government to lower emissions to pre-1990 levels is going to be costly to consumers, something elected officials apparently don’t understand.

As it turns out, “no-brainer” was an ironically apt description of the analytical effort most commentators had put into reviewing the Portland CO2 report, because the big reductions in CO2 never actually occurred.

The OSD admitted this in response to inquiries from the Cascade Policy Institute. In response to a series of data requests regarding the report, Michael Armstrong of the OSD stated, “You’ll note that the total emissions for 2004 in the ‘Time Series Report’ differ from that in the Progress Report. In assembling the materials for your request, I noticed an error in one of the inputs to the Clean Air and Climate Protection Software, which has been corrected in the print outs enclosed.”

This error underestimated the 2004 CO2 emissions by 74,561 tons, just enough to put the reading below 1990 levels. Moreover, there are serious methodological flaws in the report, all of which suggest CO2 emissions have actually been growing in Portland, as they have been in most other major cities.

Transportation Data Flawed

For example, the city claims a decrease in transportation-related CO2 emissions since 1990. This is critical, since the transportation sector is the largest single source of CO2 emissions, both nationally and locally. To reach this conclusion, the OSD estimated transportation emissions primarily on the basis of gasoline sales in MC, even though page 46 of the software manual used to estimate local emissions explicitly advised researchers not to do so.

Since 1990, MC gasoline sales have increased by less than 1 percent, despite a huge increase in the number of vehicles registered in the county. The OSD used these fuel sales as a proxy for vehicle miles traveled and concluded that CO2 emissions from automobiles in MC have not increased much over this time period. However, as the software manual warns, “these records do not take into consideration fuel purchased outside the community and consumed within the community boundaries (e.g., if a portion of the population crosses jurisdictional lines to take advantage of cheaper gas prices).”

High Prices Skew Stats

All of the relevant data indicate that is exactly what is taking place. In fact, there is reason to believe that since 1990 there has been a significant increase in the percentage of MC drivers purchasing their gas elsewhere.

For example, in neighboring Washington County (WC), gasoline sales have risen 37 percent since 1990. It’s reasonable to assume some of these WC gasoline customers venture into MC on a regular basis, especially since roughly 12 percent of MC workers live in WC. This equates to more than 52,600 commuters each weekday traveling from WC to MC. In 1990, there were only 49,201 such commuters.

Also, the number of automobiles crossing the I-5 and I-205 bridges from Vancouver, Washington, just north of Portland, to MC on a daily basis has increased by 50 percent since 1990. In 2003, the average price of a gallon of gasoline was 10 cents cheaper in Vancouver than it was in Portland, which suggests many MC commuters would prefer to buy their gas in Washington state.

In total, the number of commuters traveling in and out of MC on a daily basis increased by 21 percent between 1990 and 2000. Why would these new commuters purchase their gas in MC, where prices are higher and all sales are subjected to a MC tax of three cents on the gallon?

Trends Refute Emissions Claims

Other related trends also cast doubt on the alleged drop in MC emissions. For instance, the total number of motor vehicles registered in MC rose from 493,693 in 1990 to 715,872 in 2004, a 45 percent increase. While motor vehicles were also becoming more efficient during this time, which somewhat minimizes the emissions effect of this increase, fuel economy for passenger vehicles rose only 9.4 percent nationally.

Also, the Oregon Department of Transportation estimates total travel on state-owned highways within MC during the 1990-2004 period increased from 2.70 million vehicle miles traveled (VMT) annually, to 2.99 million VMT, an 11 percent increase.

Metro has estimated total VMT for both the Portland-Vancouver region and the Portland-only region, and neither trend supports OSD’s conclusion. Between 1990 and 2003, daily VMT for the Portland-Vancouver region increased by 45 percent. For the Portland-only region (technically, parts of Multnomah, Washington, and Clackamas counties), the total increase in daily VMT was 38 percent.

In terms of per-person daily VMT, there was actually a larger increase on the Oregon side of the Columbia River (where three light rail lines have been built) than for the region as a whole. Between 1990 and 2003, per-person daily VMT for the Portland-Vancouver region rose by 3.2 percent, while it rose by 3.7 percent in the Portland area alone. Clearly, relying on MC fuel sales records has caused the OSD to underestimate this increase in driving.

Despite the fact that the OSD ultimately admitted committing a serious math error, and despite the obvious methodological flaws of the report, the Web site for the sustainability program still claims Portland has reduced CO2 emissions to below-1990 levels. Portland officials should publicly retract the report and stop relying on MC fuel sales for estimating local CO2 emissions.

Richard Page is a research associate with Cascade Policy Institute. John A. Charles Jr. ([email protected]) is president of the Institute. This article was first published in the Fall 2005 Cascade Update and is reprinted with permission.