Saturday, November 3, 2012

Coal Terminal Math Magic: The Jobs Multiplier Rears its Ugly Head Again

On the front page of the Bellingham Herald today, a Gateway Pacific Terminal press release masqueraded as news.

In fact, there was nothing new about the information in the article.  In the face of an overwhelming show of opposition to the coal terminal last weekend, at a scoping session” for the coal terminal Environmental Impact Statement, a coal terminal spokesman pulled out a poll that the coal terminal backers had commissioned back in May 2012.

The Herald had already reported on this poll back in May 2012, and the coal terminal spokespeople did not allow the newspaper to see the entire poll.  It did allow the paper to reprint one question.  This one question purportedly showed that more people support the terminal than oppose it, based on a polling of Whatcom and Skagit County residents.

The one question was a doozy.

It purported to list the benefits and the burdens of this project.  The list of burdens was far from complete; it never mentions noise or marine vessel traffic, for example. With respect to economic impacts on existing communities, the poll question states that “critics say” that train traffic could discourage redevelopment of “Bellingham’s waterfront.” 

It did not mention impacts on businesses in Burlington – impacts on business, jobs, and revenue which are outlined in this letter from Burlington’s Chamber of Commerce.  

Why would Skagit County respondents worry unduly about redevelopment of Bellingham’s waterfront?  If they knew about impacts on their own home towns, though, the responses might have been very different.

When it came to benefits, however, the pollsters really outdid themselves.

The question posed to respondents states that the project “will create more than four thousand jobs during the construction phase and more than twelve hundred permanent family-wage jobs once the facility is operational.”


The project application, submitted to Whatcom County last spring, states that the coal terminal will directly employ “up to 213 full time shift workers” at full buildout.  See page 226 of 312.  If you add in administrative staff, that’s 44 more workers, or 257 employees.  Then there will be additional BNSF employees (66), and pilots, tug operators, and other marine service workers, estimated at 107 additional workers.

So when you look at the indirect impacts of the coal terminal – and you’d better believe that the coal terminal proponents will be calling any offsite environmental impacts “indirect,” so let’s call these additional jobs “indirect” also – you get to “approximately 430 jobs.”  Getting the job count that high takes some assumptions and estimates, but OK, if we look at direct and indirect jobs, we can get to 430.

But the poll question said “more than twelve hundred permanent family wage jobs.”  Where did that come from?

If we look at the jobs that will result directly from the terminal (213), the poll question applies a multiplier of almost 6.  In this world, every direct job allegedly will result in 6 additional jobs.

OK, then.  If that’s the math, let’s apply it consistently.

  • Every time a teacher or a firefighter is fired, let’s calculate the economic loss for the additional 6 jobs that were eliminated
  • When terminal construction is completed, let’s make sure that we have a plan for the elimination of construction jobs times 6.   That will be an enormous job loss – how will we handle the end of construction plus to the loss of 6 times that number of jobs? 
  •  For every job lost in Bellingham, Burlington, Mt. Vernon and on down the line, we must be sure to multiply by 6.

Now now, somebody might say.  The coal terminal job analysis really “only” used a 4.05 employment multiplier.  That’s what the application says, on page 227 of 312.  For that ratio to work, however, you have to take into account the workers in supporting industries – not just the workers directly employed on the project site.

So, if we’re going to use a 4.05 multiplier to determine job losses in communities along the train line, we must first add in the employees that work in supporting industries and then multiply by 4.05.

If math magic can be used to overstate project benefits, the same magic must be applied to project burdens.   And all project burdens have to be brought into the calculation.

Otherwise, you get GIGO -- garbage poll question in, garbage poll results out.  And that's what is gracing the front page of the Herald today.


  1. This multiplier is for the entire region, if at all accurate. 4.05 is the highest I have ever seen proposed.

  2. I went to Friday Harbor to listen to the concerns of the people in the San Juan Islands. The overwhelming input is that they had everything to lose, and nothing to gain. Ironically, GPT people had signs about Jobs for Whatcom County. Maybe they didn't realize that they were in a different county?

    The Tourism Bureau said that they like to avoid controvery, but the environment is the economy. People that testified included nuns, elected officials, fisherman, poets, songwriters, National Park superintendent, economist, tribes, marine biologists (many), marine ship captains, students (one 5th grader), and a couple of paid GPT people that also testified in Bellingham.

    The message is spreading. The polls will be turning, if they were ever really true.

    1. It all depends on who you poll and what you ask. What if a poll covered everybody in affected communities in Washington, and the poll were more accurte and detailed than the one SSA is touting. What if the poll stated :

      "This project will send 19 mile and a half long coal trains through your town every day, preventing access to hospitals, businesses, homes, and schools; each train will blast its whistle at 110 decibels at every level crossing; and more than 400 of the world's biggest marine vessels, burning the world's dirtiest fuel (bunker fuel), will pass by your coasts every year.

      In return, as many as 213 people will be directly employed by the terminal in Whatcom County, with an extra 217 or so employed in related jobs. Whatcom County will get extra tax revenue -- enough that some Whatcom County residents will save $11/year on their school taxes. There will be additional spinoff benefits to the Whatcom County economy, so multiply those numbers by 4, or 6, or whatever number you like.

      Knowing what you know now, do you support this project?"

      Wonder what the results would be.

  3. It was kind of comical, strictly from a local perspective, to see Romney and Obana arguing over which of the two loved coal more. Of course, Mt. Vernon is already split in two by tracks, a freeway, a river and so on. Any further splitting will probably not come about as the result of a train but, rather, by a sundering of the earth we can be assured will be attributed to Bush's Fault.

    1. I already have a road in front of my house, and on that road, a neighbor drives his truck back and forth several times a day, sometimes blasting an air horn.

      So of course I shouldn't object if I had mile and a half long truck cavalcades driving past my house, multiple times a day at any time of day or night, blasting air horns and blocking my driveway for long stretches of time. Because the impacts are the same.

      Well, no. They're not.