Coal, Kant, and me

Steve Novick

So let me make a few things perfectly clear:

I think people have every right to be worried about the possibility of health impacts from coal dust blowing from open cars, and think Portlanders and other Oregonians should ask the Federal government to study those potential impacts before allowing a gazillion open coal cars to come through our neighborhoods.

I think global warming is the overriding issue of our time, recognize that the burning of coal is a huge contributor to global warming, and am very proud to live in a state where a significant number of people are actually worried about global warming. In fact, I am actually kind of proud - as well as sad - that some of my former biggest fans hate my guts right now because they think some comments I have made about coal have hurt the climate change cause. I wish I lived in a world where more voters were mad at more politicians about global warming.

But I don't think that we're going to get anywhere asking the federal government to stop coal exports through the Northwest based on global warming concerns. Barack Obama rarely mentions climate change, but he does talk about increasing exports, and his campaign web site does talk about "clean coal." I think it's conceivable the Feds might listen to arguments about the effects of coal dust on health, but I just can't imagine that this is the issue that will finally wake them up to the seriousness of climate change. If we really want them to listen, I'd focus on the dust.

And yes, I do have a have a hard time with the idea that, even if concerns about local health impacts were addressed (if the trains were covered, for example), Oregonians would have standing to object to the transportation of coal through our state, because of our concern about global warming.

My feelings are not entirely rational, I guess. They are based on my own particular moral code, which is largely based on the lawyerly idea that "if you don't know how you wouid defend your statement on cross-examination, you better not say it at all." Which is closely tied to Immanuel Kant's rule, "act always as if the maxim of your action should be a universal law." Which is closely tied to "people who live in glass houses shouldn't throw stones." Which is related to Pogo's immortal statement, "We have met the enemy and he is us."

The maxim here, it seems, is that "the people of every jurisdiction have a responsibility to prevent the transmission of fossil fuels through their borders on the way to buyers in other jurisdictions." So if I embraced that maxim, here are the questions I would expect to face on cross-examination:

"Oregon gets most of its gasoline from a pipeline that goes through Washington State. If Washington climate activists sabotaged that pipeline, causing a gas shortage and price spike in Oregon, would you applaud those activists?"

"Half a million PacifiCorp customers in Oregon get their electricity from coal plants in Utah and Montana that goes through transmission lines in Nevada and Idaho to get here. If Nevada and Idaho activists cut those transmission lines, would you applaud?"

I am not being sarcastic or facetious here. I think that it's exactly the same thing. If we have the right to interrupt the flow of fossil fuels to China, then Washingtonians and Nevadans have the right to interrupt the flow of fossil fuels to us. And I'm not sure we'd like the results.

I also think we need to be prepared for cross-examination by people in China, who might say: "We are making greater investments in renewable technology than you are. We emit less than half the carbon dioxide, per capita, than Americans do. We are even making progress on adopting Western-style emissions standards for mercury and sulfur from our coal plants. Importing Powder River basin coal, which is lower in sulfur and mercury than most of our coal, would help us to meet those standards. What right do you have to prevent us from doing that - when you yourselves are using the same damned coal?"

So again: I think we have a right to demand a halt to the coal train plans until the railroads cover the trains, or a Centers for Disease Control study tells us that dust from open cars isn't a health threat.

But as far as global warming is concerned, I think we should be using the prospect of coal exports primarily as a teachable moment in which we take action to reduce the DEMAND for coal by Oregonians and Oregon companies. Because ultimately, with fossil fuels, as with heroin, you beat the problem by reducing demand, not by trying to interrupt the supply.

Here's one idea. PGE (which at this point still gets some of its energy from the Boardman coal plant) and PacifiCorp (which gets most of its energy from coal) both have "opt-in" green energy programs, where people agree to pay a little more to get some or all of their power from renewable sources. But only 6.5% of PacifiCorp customers, and I think about 11% of PGE customers, buy in. Polls show, however, that over 50% of Americans claim they are willing to pay more for renewable power.

Based on a lot of recent behavioral economics research, I think the primary reason more people haven't signed up is not hypocrisy, but inertia: people just don't get around to filling out the form. So I think the Legislature should order PGE and PacifiCorp to move from opt-in programs to opt-out programs: start charging everyone a few bucks extra for renewables, unless they send in a form opting out. I'd give people plenty of warning -- highlight the change for months in advance on the outside of your billing envelope, so it's not a surprise. But go ahead and do it.

I know there will be opposition. I raised this suggestion at a City Club forum recently, and the head of PGE didn't like it at all. But I think it's a fight worth having. Oh, and how about this: we could have a gift program, too, where those of us who can afford to would buy renewables for other people who can't afford the extra $5 a month. Kind of a "sponsor an environmentalist" idea.

Here's another idea. We have at least two major Oregon companies, Nike and Columbia Sportswear, that do most of their manufacturing in Asia, where coal is the dominant energy resource. Let's ask Nike and Columbia Sportswear to pledge that, first, they only get power from coal plants that meet American standards for mercury and sulfur emissions, and second, that their contractors' Asian operations meet some sort of "renewables portfolio standard" for energy use - that by X date, they get Y percentage of their energy from renewables. We as Oregonians have, I think, a lot more power to influence Nike's and Columbia Sportwear's decisions than we do to affect the global coal export-import market.

Here's a third idea: Let's start promoting the fact that Portland's pro-bicycle policies are also anti-coal policies. In the long run, I think that we are going to be seeing a lot more electric cars on the road, as oil gets more expensive. But as long as electricity comes from fossil fuels, coal included, cars will still be spewing carbon dioxide. PacifiCorp customers' electric cars are actually "coal cars". Now, it's my understanding that even a coal-driven electric car is more carbon-efficient than most gasoline cars. And right now, America-wide, "only" 33% of our electricity comes from coal, down from 45% a few years ago -- but it's being replaced, not by renewables (which are still a small fraction of the total), but by natural gas, which is less carbon intensive than coal, but still a fossil fuel. Anyway, at the moment, because most Oregonians are PGE and PacifiCorp customers, and even PGE is still using some coal, most electric cars use coal.

So if we really want to fight global warming, Priuses are not the best weapon: bicycles are. And if Portland can meet its goal of having 25% of trips made by bicycle, it will be a great example to the nation and the world ... including China, where, if everyone who drives bought an electric car, they would be overwhelmingly "coal cars," because that's where most of China's electricity comes from. So if you want to fight coal -- support the Portland bike plan.

I realize, again, that my views on this issue are shaped by my particular moral code, and my moral code probably isn't any better than the next guy's. I don't think the people fighting coal exports are hypocrites; I think they have the best of motives. I'm just personally a lot more comfortable, on this issue, fighting to reduce demand than trying to interrupt the supply. And I'm more comfortable with strategies that rely on making some sacrifices and changing some behavior of our own than on a strategy of interrupting the flow of cheap energy to people in other parts of the world.

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    Steve Novick writes:"Barack Obama rarely mentions climate change"..."and his campaign website does talk about 'clean coal'". "Clean coal" is a myth. It is unproven, other than it would be cost-prohibitive (only that aspect is proven). And so, this is the #1 and convincing reason that y'all can go out & do the right thing and vote for Dr. Jill Stein of the Green Party for POTUS, because Obama's "All Of The Above" energy plan, with some good initiatives in it, will destabilize the climate almost as fast as energy policy as advocated by the evil GOP. We are already seeing the opening stages of climate destabilization. As this continues, all other issues will be relegated to the unconscious. And Obama/Romney aren't really doing a damned thing about it- both of their policies are exacerbating it!

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    Steve, I’m in general agreement with you. But some nuances and additions:

    The extent of global warming and of carbon emissions will be largely decided in China and India. That’s where large poor populations want and need addition electrical power to raise their living standards. We should not want to keep them poor and without electrical power. And we should recognize that China and India, not us, will decide what kind of electrical generation to install. There is little we can do, short of massive subsidies to them for clean power, that might make a difference. They already have strong incentives (from reduced glaciers in their headwaters to urban air pollution). If they want more coal, they will get it somewhere. If we make coal a bit more expensive, they will probably just pay more somewhere. If we try to set a low carbon emission example here in Oregon, it probably won’t make much difference (not in the context where they already have strong incentives to reduce carbon emission).

    Climate change is not the only issue that leads to the importance of China and India. With together forty percent of the global population and rapidly growing economies (including growing middle classes with electricity who want things), they are among the best business opportunities for Oregon's economic development. President Obama has already made a “pivot” to Asia recognizing their increasing strategic importance for national security. To a large extent, relations (cooperation or lack of it) between the US, China and India will determine much of the global future.

    The one thing we can do in Portland is prepare our next generations for a world in which China and India are more important by expanding Mandarin immersion programs and high school study abroad in China and India. Give our next generations more skills to understand and influence China than we now have. The one thing you or the Portland City Council could do right now is tell Portland Public Schools to implement my proposal to “Make the Jefferson cluster a leader in 21st century foreign language education.” Change in the Jefferson cluster would be more important than pressuring Nike or Intel.

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      Are you familiar with the saying about rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic? Foreign language programs? We won't be able to get any communication across the Pacific in fifty years if civilization crumbles from climate disruption.

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        We might not even make fifty years if we have a nuclear war with China. There are war hawks and public sentiment in both countries that could drive such an outcome. Global warming is a very big issue, but it is not the only one.

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    Well stated, Steve. Ideological purity doesn't create transformative strategies for new energy. New energy is creative by innovative technology and new energy supplies and markets, not by illegal and politically unpopular acts of transportation sabotage. When we begin to have a real alternative to the burning of coal in Oregon, we can begin to sell the rest of the world on alternatives to coal as well. Until then there are going to be coal markets, coal production, and transportation infrastructure for coal and other commodities that some don't agree with. What some at this site might advocate is the setting up of railway and highway blockades to screen every commodity that is shipped through our geographic area to see if it fits with our ideals for energy or any other policy. That kind of thinking feeds into the irrational climate change denier agenda on the other side.

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    I won't pay PGE or Pacific Power anything for renewables. Turn them into PUDs and then I'd do it.

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    There is a huge undistributed middle here. Not all fossil fuels are created equal in terms of climate, other ecological, or health impacts. Coal is probably the worst for all three among the fossil fuels.

    Typically I agree with Bill Ryan on most things but I find the invocation of "ideological purity" a bit odd here since, Steve's argument is exactly for a kind of ideological purity -- Kantian ethics through the lens of being cross-examined.

    I oppose coal exports from Puget Sound too, and from British Columbia, and California. It's not my fault, nor a failure my ethics even in Kantian terms, that the structure of the political system means that my opinion carries more weight in Oregon. I hope to heaven that good activists in those jurisdictions are fighting like hell to protect me from coal exports through those places.

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    Several years ago when Oregon DOE was trying to justify lax limits and long timeline for PGE to shut down the Boardman coal-fired plant they argued, relative to environmental deposition of mercury in Oregon, that the overwhelming majority of mercury deposed in Oregon came from China.

    Of course they had not bothered to consult with Oregon DEQ which had an analysis of local deposition around Boardman on salmon and other fish in the Columbia.

    But their overall statistic about statewide mercury deposition and the global quality of coal burning emissions was quite right. Oregon's health stake in coal-burning pollution goes beyond the coal dust issue and the health consequences of global warming.

    Likewise the health consequences of the transportation also include massive increases in diesel exhaust and small particulate pollution it causes.

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    Does anyone know if the routes to any of the coal terminals projected (e.g. on the Washington side down the Columbia) would involve the coal trucks going over the CRC if it is built, and getting caught in the traffic congestion the CRC would drive deeper into residential Portland?

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    I like your idea to make the green energy programs opt-out. This would likely increase participation greatly.

    You are correct that "even a coal-driven electric car is more carbon-efficient than most gasoline cars." The Union of Concerned Scientists recently published a study that demonstrated this.

    But I have to take issue with this statement: "electric cars are actually 'coal cars'"

    Did you poll electric car drivers to find out how they are powering their vehicles? I am a solar power and electric vehicle advocate. As such I know people in both communities and several of them (as I am) are active in both communities. I know solar advocates that bought an electric vehicle (EV) because they had surplus generation, as well as EV drivers that had solar panels installed because they wanted to "drive on sunshine". Here is one solar driver speaking at Pioneer Courthouse Square last month

    Also, the Oregon Electric Vehicle Association ( often encourages members to purchase renewable energy.

    My point in all this is, I think you'll find that the people most likely to drive an EV are also the ones most likely to support renewable energy. I believe both are worth promoting.

    You had a few maxims above; I'll add this one from Voltaire, "The perfect is the enemy of the good." In this case, to me, this means that we do not have to wait for a perfectly clean grid before we start using it for transportation. Rather, we start using it now because it is good and we strive to make it better.

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      It doesn't pencil out. According to the CoP website, "A typical residential system of 3 kW will supply about 3,000 kWh annually, or quarter of an average Oregon home’s yearly electricity usage (an average four-member household uses 12,000 kWh/year)."


      A solar system is not enough to power your home, much less charge your electric vehicle. More EV's on the road may mean a lot less gasoline but that electricity has to be generated somehow (and somewhere). Particularly in the cloudy Portland winters, that isn't going to come from the sun.

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        More people should learn enough so they can see if the options pencil out.

        I live on a hill top with enough room for solar and wind. For 6 months, I tracked average wind speed, as well as peak and calm periods. In a word, it didn't pencil out. Simply not enough wind in Washington County to make a significant contribution to my electrical use.

        I may be a bit luckier with solar; either for electricity generation or for heating. I've got the unobstructed southern exposure, but again it is not penciling out, unless subsidies increase. For the capital outlay, payback is longer than the estimated life of the installation. And this doesn't factor in maintenance costs over the years.

        There was an excellent article in the NY Times Sunday Magazine about successful businesses in CA and the Southwest. I'll be researching those alternatives for financing. I understand Solarcity here in the PacNW offers similar leaseback installations. We'll see.

        The bottom line thus far is that you either need to rely on subsidies or your own personal wealth to install a useful alternative to our present electrical grid.

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        In the video I linked to above, they had a 4kW system that was more than supplying their home's needs. Or in my case, I bought solar panels for the electric car's use. The 3kW system that you mentioned is enough to drive an EV about 12,000 miles annually (here in cloudy Portland). My system generates enough for me to drive about 16,000 miles annually. I only drive about half that much. So it is fueling all my driving needs and reducing my home electric bill.

        For me, looking at all the costs, that pencils out.

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    Two questions:

    I have heard that the green energy utility opt-ins use most of the extra money for PR to get--more extra money. True?

    I heard that the high haze that has obscured the sky over Oregon lately comes not from fires in CA but from fires in Asia. If true, the implications for more coal burning in Asia are even more drastic for our health. True?

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    Great posting, Steve.

    To Rich, I think your concerns can be accommodated.

    I agree that the But you jump right a list of externalities to an outright ban. Isn't it better to use market incentives to encourage behavior (the essential logic behind Steve's post--and the logic behind carbon taxes, pollution tax credits, and many other successful regulatory models)?

    Why does it matter who does or does not profit from the exports, as long as they do so legally, within an acceptable regulatory regime, and without having to pay for any negative externalities?

    It's important to be clear who benefits from a policy change, but just the fact that someone benefits is not, ipso facto, an argument against a policy.

    In most cases of policy change, there are other economic interests (in this case, Australian coal exporters) who are undoubtedly funding the argument on the other side.

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    Sorry for the typo, above third paragraph should say "and with having to pay for negative externalities."

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    Steve - I really appreciate your post. It's clear you've thought a lot about the issue, and you make a cogent argument for your position.

    I also appreciate your dedication to the climate crisis being the defining issue of our time, and your awareness that walking and biking have huge benefits for cleaning up our climate footprint.

    That said, I want to believe Obama's irresponsible pro-coal positioning might change once he (hopefully) is re-elected and free from campaigning again. Local pressure and leadership might help get him there, showing examples of courageous leaders making climate change a centerpiece of their campaigning (which across the country is most likely beneficial). People don't talk about it as a priority because leaders don't talk about. Leaders don't talk about it because they're not really leading.

    Sure, philosophers could argue we have no moral standing to take action. But I don't think that really holds up.

    I would agree with you that we have the responsibility to transform our energy sources, just as we have the responsibility to not help others use coal. But we don't need to finish doing (a) to have the right to do (b). Even if we haven't kicked our addiction, we shouldn't be helping others be addicted.

    The transmission line argument isn't strong - there are differences in existing vs. future and ease of replacement of energy sources (i.e. China can get energy other places and isn't immediately disrupted, as the source doesn't exist yet). But yes, we have the responsibility to internalize many more costs into gas prices and move away from coal. Shifting the supply cost curve up helps move the demand-supply intersection to the left (to less consumption). Our emissions per GDP levels are huge, much higher than many other countries.

    I think the science calls for stronger actions than you bring up, and some of those actions will make us all uncomfortable. In the end, that's what our planet, our community, our ecosystem, and our economy need.

    The part of your argument I struggle with is the most cynical, or most realistic, depending on your view: the result of blocking Powder River basin coal will be consumption of dirtier coal.

    I don't know enough to know whether I buy that argument, but tend to fall on the side of leadership demands we act as if others will also act that way (for example, Australia has passed a carbon tax even though the US hasn't). We should do what we can to cut coal consumption across the world, including making it more expensive to ship, hoping that our actions will inspire others.

    Thanks again.

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    Congratulations Steve on becoming a true politician.

    By the same rational of course Oregonians should not be able to object to anything being transported through our state.

    Your position seems to be that as long as Portland looks trendy what the heck-

    Already soft peddling Boardman for PGE- nice touch- "some of their energy" - as late as 2009 try 15%.

    You don't really think those "green energy" buy-ins for PGE/PPL are anything more than public relations and another chance to pick consumer pockets?

    Oh you forgot to disclose your consulting fees for wind turbines like you sometimes do-

    What happened to Oregon where our leaders were leaders and not experts in rationalizing and passing that off as a moral code? Only in your mind Steve.

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    Global issues aside, It comes down to not wanting several hundred pounds of coal dust dumped in my neighborhood each day the coal trains run. North Portland doesn't deserve this and anyone running for a city office would allow the dumping should not be elected.

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    Kant, Hume, and Descartes walked into a bar and ordered a pitcher of beer. There was no beer because global warming had destroyed the barley and wheat crops.

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    And yet this morning an announcement came out of Louisville, KY that Appalachian Coal Operators have inked a long term deal shipping 9,000 tons per year of Appalachian coal to India. Developing countries WILL build more coal burning power plants. The coal will come from Appalachia, New South Wales, Australia or the Powder River Basin.

    By far and away, the Powder River Basin coal is the cleanest and the easiest to transport. The group that facilitates this early on will have a seat at the table to mold and form opinions with users about moving towards Natural gas and other cleaner technologies. Obstruct and try to build walls and you will be shut out of the conversation entirely.

    Try to talk to India and China about wind, solar or fuel cell technology for thier power needs and they will look at you like you are speaking a foreign language; which you are.

    KY, IL, WV and IN will ship their coal to China and India. Australia will ship their coal as well.

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    hi steve,

    thanks for this thoughtful post. however, and i say this WITH LOVE (as my yoga teacher always says) - i think you are off-base.

    first, others have pointed out that your fossil-fuel derived electricity transmission line analogy doesn't hold up due to the difference between removing existing infrastructure compared to preventing the construction of new infrastructure. i mean - look at hydroelectric dams. environmentalists were successful decades ago halting the construction of new dams in this country, but look how hard it is to get dams removed (lower snake river i'm looking at you).

    from a purely philosophical point of view, your analogy can be contemplated and debated though. and honestly - stopping the generation (and subsequent) transmission of fossil-fuel derived electricity is what clean energy activism is all about. and yes, there is an understanding and acknowledgement that energy prices will increase as/when that happens.

    that said, this is something of a philosophical debate within environmental circles anyway - there is a school of thought that believes that energy in this country SHOULD be a lot more expensive than it is, because that is what is needed to spur the kinds of demand reductions necessary to save ourselves - if we even can at this point.

    the alternate view, coming more from an environmental justice angle, is that it's not really okay for those of us in positions of relative privilege to be advocating directly for an increase in energy prices "for our own good", as the negative effects of those increases will be felt by the people who always get the short end of the stick, i.e. poor communities, esp. communities of color.

    however, the third issue to add to the mix is the economic upheaval that will come about, and already is coming about (think NOLA) from climate change. and there is certainly some inevitability about that.

    so when you bring up the idea of economic disruption that would be caused were WA or ID activists hypothetically able to halt the transmission of coal-generated electricity to OR, i'm not exactly saying "bring it on", but rather - we need to pick our poisons. we're in for a lot of hurt, whether from increased energy costs or the impacts of climate change or both. let's be smart about our planning.

    and lastly, in framing the issue as being one of fighting supply vs. fighting demand, IMHO that is a false dichotomy. this came up a lot during the battle to stop the keystone XL pipeline - we activists heard over and over that we needed to be working to reduce US demand for oil. to which my reply was always, "what makes you think we're not?" when it comes to fighting climate change, we need to be throwing everything we can at it and not eschewing any possible solution as not being as good as another.

    i love love LOVE all of your suggestions to mitigate demand. let's do it. AND let's fight to stop the coal terminals in the PNW too.

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    Pretending that we can either reduce demand OR interrupt supply is a false dichotomy. Indeed, we'd move even faster toward our ultimate goals if we did both.

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    Mr. Novick, your guess is wrong, as I don't sign up for carbon credit schemes because I don't want to pay people who are polluting for the right to call my energy clean as if I did actually receive clean energy and take away in that contract the right of a clean energy user to call their energy use clean through the fake use of a contract.

    I instead prefer carbon taxes, and heavy ones at that -- enough to fully internalize the external costs of the pollution and to return that carbon back to its original usable form. Sustainability isn't a "half way" thing. You're either sustainable, or you are not.

    Credits only make sense in a world where pollution still exists and people are willing to sell the rights of their clean energy's clean label to polluters, to put a Kantian spin on it. To buy a credit means that renewable source is no longer clean -- it is dirty. Its power goes into the grid and can only be counted as dirty power if somebody else's polluting power can take credit for being clean thanks to a contract.

    Credits also don't take transmission and conversion into account, nor do they take into account the costs of building generating facilities.

    Credit marketplaces are lovely for the pollution industry to buy off the few percent of America willing to actually pay extra to feel better about using dirty energy sources.

    I'll pay extra when my utility actually provides renewable energy to me because the full cost of the non-renewables was taxed (to pay for building clean energy and sustainability projects) and renewables are now much cheaper for the utility to generate, so they switch on their own. Taking that money I would have spent on the credit and turning it to political causes to mandate proper pollution accounting is to me a lot more fruitful and better in the long term.

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