State climate panel hits road bump

Gov. Jay Inslee Credit: Governor's Office

UPDATE at 12:30 p.m. Dec. 17: Wednesday's climate panel vote has been postponed indefinitely as the widely split panelists try to find a compromise behind the scenes.

The business community does not like Gov. Jay Inslee's ideas for tackling carbon emission. But a vocal part of the public spoke up for the Democrat's proposals at a hearing that set the stage for decisions Wednesday on the state's climate change policies.

In fact, members of the public overwhelmingly backed strong action during the hearing Friday in Olympia, as they had at earlier hearings in Seattle and, to a lesser but still strong degree, in Spokane.

The conflicting strands of thought from the hearings — along with roughly 6,500 written comments — provide the feedback that a legislative panel has as it faces a Wednesday vote on how to tackle carbon emissions in Washington. The emissions contribute to global warming, which has been linked to rising acidity in the sea water killing Washington's baby oysters, and linked to increasing the risk of forest fires.

A panel of four legislators — Sen. Kevin Ranker, D-Orcas Island; Sen. Doug Ericksen, R-Ferndale; Rep. Shelly Short ,R-Addy; and Rep. Joe Fitzgibbon, D-Burien — will vote Wednesday on whether it will support one of  two radically different sets of recommendations to send to the Washington Legislature. That vote will likely split two-to-two along party lines. Inslee, the fifth member of the panel, does not have a vote on it. Three of the four legislators are required to approve a recommendation for it to become official.

At Friday's hearing, a panel of business interests and a panel of environmentalists each testified as groups. Then 44 people, out of more than 120 individuals present, testified . The tally: 38 supported immediate action as proposed by Inslee and the Democrats. Four supported the Republicans’ position of opposing Inslee's push. Two could not be easily pigeonholed into a pro or con position.

During the testimony, Robin Love described Inslee's push for legislation to combat climate change as a "mad hatter's race” and as" steamrolling." However, Rhonda Hunter told the panel: "Please be climate leaders and take action."

All this was set into motion in 2008, when Washington's Legislature set a goal of reducing the state's greenhouse emissions to 1990 levels by 2020, with further trimming of emissions to 25 percent below Washington's 1990 level by 2035 and to 50 percent below by 2050. So far, nothing has happened. Early this year, the Legislature passed a bill to set up this task force with a Dec. 31 deadline for making recommendations. Wednesday is the final time the task force is scheduled to meet.

A fundamental clash has developed: The Republicans want to change the emission-reduction targets that the state adopted in 2008 while the Democrats want to put a cap on Washington's carbon emissions and install a cap-and-trade program for the state's industries. Neither side likes the other's proposals.

Ericksen and Short want more incentives provided for using hydroelectric power. More cost analyses should be conducted on reducing greenhouse gases. And they want to explore the climate benefits of nuclear power and "clean" technologies.

Meanwhile, Inslee, Ranker and Fitzgibbon propose putting a legal cap on all of Washington's carbon emissions, with a cap-and-trade program included to allow corporations to juggle emissions among themselves. They suggested that coal imported to Washington power plants from out-of-state be counted as a source of carbon emissions to be kept within Inslee's proposed cap. Energy efficiency measures would also be tackled.

Under a cap-and-trade program, Washington would have an overall annual limit to its carbon dioxide emissions. Limits would be set for specific geographic areas. Firms would obtain rights for specific amounts of emissions in those areas and could trade their rights. The legislative panel's technical consultant, the Virginia-based firm Leidos, has reported the most potent proposed policy would be to install a cap-and-trade program.

At Friday's hearing, most of the panel of business interests opposed the proposed carbon emissions cap and the cap-and-trade proposal.

Washington is the nation's third-most green state as measured by its carbon footprint and other factors, said Brandon Houskeeper of the Association of  Washington Business. The state also has the eighth lowest amount of emissions from gasoline, he said. The bottom line is that Washington does not need to trim carbon emissions more and make it less competitive with other states that have weaker carbon standards, at least without studying the economic ripple effects first, Houskeeper said.

The Washington State Labor Council and several environmental organizations supported reducing carbon emissions. They and several members of the public argued that tackling climate-change legislation will lead to the creation of new green industry jobs, while saving shellfish industry and forest-related jobs that are threatened by global warming. Meanwhile, many members of the public also opposed Washington using coal-generated power from outside of the state, a feature dubbed "coal by wire."

Several voiced specific support for the 2008 law's standards the Ericksen and Short recommend to be revisited and possibly changed.

Private citizen Ed McClure said: "The (Republican) committee members have forgotten why they are on the committee, and that is to move this mandate forward."

But, even with the hearings complete, the prospects for moving forward along the lines advocated by either party remain uncertain. 

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