Q & A WITH ERIC DE PLACE
TWA members and others are talking to writer Sharon Babcock about enduring inspirations, life lessons, and perspectives from their experiences on the working waterfront.
This month’s feature: Eric de Place, the policy director of the Sightline Institute.
Writing in The News Tribune in recent weeks about Tacoma’s role in future fossil fuel transport, Eric de Place, the policy director of Seattle’s Sightline Institute, outlined his findings at a recent presentation at the University of Washington Tacoma.
Q: How would you describe your work?
A: I spend time thinking about the world in terms of systems and, specifically, the Pacific
Northwest region (with) its own history and dynamics and analyzing Northwest energy,
economic, and environmental policies. I come from a family—four generations worth–that
came to the region for rural resource work. My grandfather and his grandfather settled in
southern Oregon Scandinavian logging communities. I began a Ph.D. in philosophy but could not
marry it to being connected to the world. So I came to the Northwest and to this work 14 years
ago never thinking I would have any job for this long. It allows me to be able to work on pieces
of the Northwest’s future.
Q: What keeps you awake at night?
A: These are fascinating times and ones of historical consequence for the region. We have
previously had blood on the floor from disagreements about salmon and timber. This critical
time forces us to decide whether to be an exporting arm of the fossil fuel industry or to double
down on a creating a reputation for clean energy. This calls into question our future identity
and how the next generations will live. Whatever we do, it will reverberate globally. We are the
pinch point between the oil fields and Asia. The oil industry brings significant money and will
use it to ensure the former option happens. So people are squaring off again.
Q: What is your role in this tension?
A: I am not an activist by nature … I am a researcher. I consider systems and tradeoffs. The
work has dragged me into the question about oil and to sometimes serve as a voice for
offsetting fossil fuel projects. Besides the research, I do public speaking. I am not in a kayak
blocking a rig, though I know and respect those people. It is my hope that my work can assist
them, possibly serving as a corrective. I feel an obligation to be actively engaged in the
questions raised at this time, particularly around existing and potential environmental
damage—even if you take the effects on climate away from the argument. The questions are
not an academic exercise.
Q: Is this an either/or issue? Do you advocate completely moving away from fossil fuels?
A: No, it is a spectrum. Some projects we simply no longer need. Coal is a good example; it is
not economically viable. Oil trains did not exist prior to 2012. Many other fuel sources are
more complicated, requiring transitioning in an orderly fashion to something better, for example
powering marine vessels with liquefied natural gas.
Q: What about methanol?
A: We have an incomplete picture there. We need to poke hard at our assumptions about it.
There have been significant technological changes, so using the older models of thinking about it
may not apply. This needs hard scrutiny.
Q: Can partnerships or collaborations between/among industries or organizations or locales have a role in solving these issues?
A: I’ve learned that sometimes collaboration is a way of maintaining the status quo, of
protecting access, and maintaining what is not working. In my view, our region may be too
collaborative. Once you have established dysfunctional pathways, they can be difficult to
Q: What prompted your interest in including Tacoma/Pierce County in your research?
A: I have been studying oil trains since 2012. Tacoma plays a key role in the industry because of
its geography and location on Commencement Bay, so it is a part of my research. I don’t
pretend to know what local needs are and want to be sensitive to those.
Q: Have there been any watershed moments for you related to the work?
A: Yes. This past August my family and I were in Twisp on the same windy day three firemen
were unfortunately lost to the wildfires. A fire came down the hill to where my 6-year-old son
and I had been throwing a football. The local sheriff approached to instruct us to evacuate
immediately without taking any possessions. I realized later that it is the locals who take it on
the chin in these instances. Many farmers in that region are ruined, having been hit twice in two
years. On a personal level, although this was my initial time being evacuated, I understood for
the first time that due to the trends in our climate, my son may have to learn to run from
environmental disaster in his lifetime and that he may not be able to dig clams, fish, or swim in
Q: What kinds of positive changes can you imagine happening?
A: Currently we are having debates about the wrong things—seawalls, reservoirs, how large
coal terminals should be. I look forward to those involved in the critical questions getting more
comfortable exercising different muscles—those of opportunity, responsibility, and power. The
way we must deal with climate change is via the physical world, i.e., the infrastructure that
moves carbon commodities to points of possible combustion.
Q: Is the kind of change you describe happening anywhere?
A: Five hundred people turned out in Hoquiam to discuss that city’s role in oil transport. Public
opinion has shifted dramatically there. The most surprising thing to me is the effect the public
can actually have on the questions communities are currently facing about what kind of future
they want for themselves.