Seattle’s Oil Pipelines

A few months ago,  everyone in government and politics came to cut the ribbon on the new oil pipeline. Even the governor running for president came. But he didn’t mention carbon pollution or climate change. No one did in the endless speeches faithfully relayed to twitter where I tried not to read but could not turn away. We even had tours of the new facility!

Why were they so overjoyed about a late, over-budget, expensive oil pipeline?!?!

I’m sorry. Did I write oil pipeline? I obviously meant “car tunnel”, but it’s all the same: an expensive, over-budget, late, infrastructure project that does nothing to reduce the half of our climate change causing emissions that comes from transportation. If it were an actual pipeline, many of those who attended the opening would not have. Many would have made pointed statements about how an oil pipeline is not consistent with Seattle’s or Washington’s environmental values. They would talk about climate change.

But “oil pipelines” are something that are built … elsewhere. It’s easy to oppose an oil pipeline that’s built elsewhere. We even lionize the Seattle activists who travel to oppose those pipelines, all while in our neighborhoods we oppose any changes that would take space away from cars.


The first time I knocked on doors for a political cause in Seattle was to stop the tunnel. At the time, talking to strangers at their door (or on the phone) was incredibly hard for me. I only went out once or twice because it was so hard and so stressful. And I went knocking on doors in West Seattle! They’d been told by many in government and the media that without the tunnel, they’d be stuck in West Seattle and traffic would forever be awful.

We know now that’s not true. It wasn’t true for the emergency closure when tunnel boring closed the viaduct unexpectedly. It wasn’t true earlier this year when neither the tunnel or viaduct were open. The tunnel opening dredged up all my emotion of fighting to stop it: how hard it is to talk to strangers, how important I thought it was that we not spend $3 billion on a boondoggle climate destroyer, how sad and disenchanted I was to see that effort wasted.

The city failed to reject a tunnel. It’s questionable what would have happened if Seattle had: probably the state would have built it anyway. So it’s here. Our new oil pipeline car tunnel is projected by WSDOT  to have 97,000 vehicles per day. Even if those cars are only driven a mile, that’s 44 tons of CO2 per day! The viaduct replacement tunnel is our commitment to pollute a lot of carbon. Before you angrily tweet or email me about electric cars, go do some research on how long people keep cars, how expensive they are and how slow private fleet turnover is – industry projections don’t even have half  of American cars being electric by 2040.


Seattle is still building or proposing to build more oil pipelines. We’re currently building a rail overpass bridge on Lander Street. While I applaud the desire to let freight and buses bypass stopped trains, the bridge is bigger than it needs to be because it was assumed that non-freight traffic would increase 0.3% per year out to 2040. A bypass bridge designed to move people and goods in a future with zero carbon emissions from traffic could have been much more narrow as it wouldn’t have allowed private cars at all. Existing alternate roads would be more than sufficient for much reduced private electric car traffic. But obviously if we assume that car traffic will just continue to increase – at least half carbon polluting even in 2040 if there are as many cars as we have now –  then we have to build the bridge to include them. Ironically, the street has been closed for a year and will be closed for another year and car traffic on alternate east-west roads in SODO don’t seem any more congested than normal (as a person walking and biking anyway having to dodge cars).

Recently, the city released the study for Magnolia bridge replacement options. It has many issues but given the top-line summary with dire congestion predicted, many folks will be agitating for an estimated $400 million “in-kind” replacement option. But of course, like with Lander Street, one assumption made is that private car trips will increase year over year. The study didn’t look at carbon emissions at all. Building a replacement bridge intended to carry car traffic is a commitment to pollute carbon for decades. It is morally an oil pipeline as much as the billion dollar car tunnel downtown or a literal pipeline in North Dakota.

We build and maintain a lot of smaller oil pipelines. I recently happened to bike the newly re-opened and re-paved Swift Ave in south Seattle. The project page told me there would be a protected bike lane:

A map of Swift/Myrtle/Othello showing roadway cross sections that include bike lanes and sidewalks on both sides.

This is what I actually encountered:

A bike lane ends in a curb forcing a merge into heavy car traffic

We repaved and rebuilt a street – probably costing a million or more – and we didn’t make it possible for people to safely use it without a carbon polluting car. It’s just a feeder in our system of local oil pipelines.

Upcoming projects continue to show our commitment to polluting. An upcoming plan for protected bike lanes for a short segment of East Union Street drops people on bikes into car traffic for a couple blocks around 23rd Ave. Intersections are the most dangerous place for all people and the current plan is to tell people on bikes to ride with cars and endanger themselves and their kiddos or to ride on the sidewalk to annoy people using the sidewalk. The reason for this gap? The city would have to remove a handful of oil pipelines. Excuse me, I mean subsidized private property storage also known as on-street car parking.

It’s also not just oil pipelines for our roads. We also build oil pipelines into housing. I’m not even talking about gas heating or cooking. I’m talking about new office and apartment buildings downtown with thousands of new car parking spaces, which assume people will chose to drive there rather than taking some of the best transit in the country. I’m looking at you Onni and your plan for the old Seattle Times building lot.


Some folks reading this will think this metaphor is overwrought or unfair. But we build bridges and roads and buildings that encourage the continued necessity for oil pipelines. We don’t see a new tunnel or preserved parking as oil pipelines because they are familiar infrastructure. Our streets are built to encourage people to chose cars over other ways of getting around and have been for a long time. Seattle isn’t special: that’s how it is for the entire country which subsidizes cars in all kinds of direct and indirect ways. We can’t change that overnight.

The least we could do is not build new infrastructure intended to last decades or more that commits us to private car transportation over the safety and future health and life of all. The least we must do is assume a lot fewer cars on the road in five or ten years. If we continue to assume tomorrow will look like today, then tomorrow will inevitably look like today. That’s why I am calling all these projects oil pipelines and not some vague wonky language about not enough future car trips reduced. Everyone agrees oil pipelines are (at the least) problematic. Until we stop building and maintaining oil pipelines, we won’t provide the space for people – all kinds of people – to chose something better.