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Washington’s 2013 Climate Report Card

Wind turbines in Washington's Columbia Valley Credit: Flickr: schmeeve

Kicking the state’s carbon habit may seem as likely as visiting a distant galaxy for the weekend if your vantage point is I-5, coal trains rolling through town, or ships transiting coastal waters laden with tar sands oil. But duck into a commercial building powered by renewables or wind farms like Wild Horse and Kittatas in Eastern Washington, and you’ll realize a clean energy future is already on its way.   

In the aftermath of another UN Climate Summit and Typhoon Haiyan’s climate savagery, it seemed time to assess the state’s own carbon output in three key areas: energy, transportation and fossil fuel exports.

Energy: B+

Energy, hands down, gets the highest marks, particularly when it comes to grid power for buildings and housing. The most significant carbon slayer here is energy efficiency: insulation, retrofits and thermal wraps of windows, doors and roofs. It may not sound sexy, but it’s a conservation measure that’s been gaining ground for thirty years.

The Northwest (WA, OR, ID and MT West of the Rockies) has saved enough energy through efficiency measures to power nearly five cities the size of Seattle, according to KC Golden, a policy analyst with Climate Solutions. Energy is best understood in megawatts rather than time, he says, and an estimated 5,000 average megawatts have been saved over the course of a year. (A megawatt hour is a million watts for one hour). Seattle likely uses 1100 megawatts a year. Efficiency measures also count as savings. A building might last a century. A window maybe 25 years. A fridge maybe 10.

Since 2006, each of Washington’s 17 largest electric utilities have met or exceeded energy efficiency targets mandated by I-937. The initiative, known as the Energy Independence Act, ramped up renewable energy production and required state utilities serving 25,000 or more customers a year to obtain 15 percent of their energy from new renewable sources by 2020. The Northwest Energy Coalition estimates that I-937 allowed the state to avoid 14 million tons of CO2 emissions in 2010 alone.

Not all agree that the initiative is a success. Todd Myers, environmental director with the Washington Policy Center, disputes claims that investments in renewables such as wind and solar will result in cheaper energy for Washington state. Both wind and solar, he says, are more expensive per kilowatt hour than hydro or natural gas.

His argument: Legislation should be cost effective. “How much CO2 reduction do you get for every dollar that you spend this way?” Myers asks. It’s a question a coalition of lawmakers and business groups aligned with the Policy Center have asked the State Auditor to answer.

Rachel Shimshak with the Renewable NW Project says Myers misses the point. Policies like I-937, she says, provide not only enormous environmental benefits, but long term economic benefits as well. “It’s like a home mortgage. You have certainty and predictability,” says Shimshak. “But it’s a long term comparison. If you had a way of valuing all the benefits and shoe horning that into costs, renewables would win hands down.”

According to Shimshak, investors have already sunk $8 billion into wind, solar and other renewables in Washington state. That number jumps to $20 billion when you look at the entire region, including Oregon, Idaho and Montana. Policy drivers like the sales tax exemptions for capital invested in the state, she says, tap local carbon-free resources and generate income and incentive across the state’s red/blue divide. Market barriers make it difficult to credit all the benefits they generate: local resources instead of imports, a lower risk of climate regulation and a stable price over 30 years.

Still, a look at the state’s overall “energy” picture proves Washington has a long way to go before it can call itself carbon free — or even environmentally sustainable. Hydro, long the region’s “clean energy” powerhouse, comes with a price: Thirteen wild salmon species are endangered; 11 are near extinction. Coal still accounts for 30 percent of Puget Sound Energy's power supply. Natural gas, often touted by officials and utilities as a clean energy alternative to coal, was responsible for nearly a million metric tons of CO2 emissions in the state in 2010, according to the most recent findings by the Department of Ecology.  

Transportation: D

Try and score transportation, the state’s biggest greenhouse gas emitter, and you’ll find few carbon wins. Light Rail is making ground and Sound Transit is doing its part to move people from point A to point Z, but single occupancy vehicles still reign over rideshares, vanpools, and buses. And, Clark Williams-Derry, Sightline Institute’s Director of Programs, says despite impressive growth in sales of electric vehicles, “they remain little more than a rounding error in Washington’s vehicle fleet data.”

In 2011, about 5.9 million vehicles vied for space on city streets and and jammed state highways. The legislature, for its part, has yet to fund a transportation “package.” Many say the solution is a three legged stool: alternatives to cars, cleaner cars and cleaner fuels. But with funding for mass transit in crisis mode, it’s hard to envision the stool having any legs to stand on.

A recent report by the American Society of Civil Engineers gave transit in Washington a D. Highly dependent on sales tax, Washington has been flattened by massive recession-driven tax shortfalls, notes Shefali Ranganathan with Transportation Choices. The result is that agencies have been forced to cut service or raise taxes. Many communities (Clark, Grays Harbor, Walla Walla, Bellingham) have chosen to increase their sales tax to fund the shortfall and prevent cuts. Others, such as King and Snohomish Counties, are already at their taxing limit. King County Metro is facing 17 percent cuts next year in the absence of a new revenue source.  

There is a bit of good news in the state’s transportation’s carbon appetite, though. According to the same Ecology study, transportation saw the most significant decrease in greenhouse gas emissions from 2008 to 2010 — a 6.6 percent decline. Considering it’s the largest greenhouse gas emitter though, there's still a long way to go.  

Fossil fuel exports: C

The 3rd carbon behemoth facing the state — increased fossil fuel exports — is the most difficult to score. These include coal from Montana’s Powder River basin, tar sands from Alberta and crude from North Dakota’s Bakken oil fields. The Department of Ecology hasn’t begun to assess the collective carbon impact of these exports, although it does monitor coal’s impact on air quality.  

A Sightline Institute report, “Coal Exports Are Bigger Threat Than Tar Sands Pipeline” found surprising results. “Coal looks to be an even bigger climate disaster than the pipeline,” wrote report author, Eric de Place, who assumed that 110 million tons of Powder River Basin coal might be exported annually. “Do all the algebra,” he writes, “and you arrive at 199 million tons of CO2 per year in 'direct' emissions from coal exports”.

Compare that with the 144 million tons of CO2 emissions de Place estimates would result from the Keystone XL pipeline each year and you might ask, as he has, “which climate catastrophe is worse?” The pipeline will move 830,000 barrels of oil a day or 303 million barrels a year into the state, according to the U.S. Department of State. But it won’t be “average” oil the pipeline moves: Tar sands oil is especially carbon intensive and dirty, says de Place.

What about increased crude into the state from North Dakota’s Bakken Oil Fields? It’s still too early to do the carbon math. Sightline estimates that 784,000 barrels or 157 trains per day could enter the region. Ten refineries are proposed or already prepared to handle the crude — nine in Washington and one in Oregon.

“The critical line in the sand we must not cross,” says Climate Solutions' KC Golden, “is to not lock into a future of unrelenting climate catastrophe and fossil fuel dependence by building these long term capital investments in infrastructure.” That lock in, he says, is a “ticket to a future none of us can even imagine — let alone condone.” If the region becomes a fossil fuel chokepoint, as Dan Serres with the Columbia Riverkeeper points out, it will drive demand for decades.

Still, Golden is encouraged by popular opposition to coal exports. The same ferocity needs to be applied to tar sands and crude oil, he suggests – now.

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