Top green priority in the legislature: a fee on oil

The measure, which died in the Washington Senate last year, would fund stormwater projects. This year the barrel fee is recast as a jobs-stimulus bill and broadly applied to many cash-strapped cities, not just cleaning up Puget Sound.
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The measure, which died in the Washington Senate last year, would fund stormwater projects. This year the barrel fee is recast as a jobs-stimulus bill and broadly applied to many cash-strapped cities, not just cleaning up Puget Sound.

To paraphrase Sen. Everett McKinley Dirksen: $120 million here and $120 million there, and pretty soon you're into real money.

That $120 million is the amount that People for Puget Sound and its allies in the Environmental Priorities Coalition hope to raise for stormwater projects through a $1.50 per barrel fee on petroleum products (including gasoline, motor oil, and asphalt, but not jet fuel) that will go before this month's session of the legislature.

The Department of Ecology would dole out the money for capital projects and retrofits that deal somehow with the petroleum content of stormwater, and with those or other projects that have the highest priority based on ecological or water-quality benefits. (It is the most ambitious part of a remarkably limited wish list that the environmental community has taken to Olympia. The greens also want to minimize spending cuts for environmental programs and phase out bisphenol-A from infant and other food and drink containers.)

For capital projects dealing with stormwater, local government will have to come up with a 50 percent match. For retrofits, the rating system will give preference to low-impact development.

Let's see: $120 million a year for 10 years would be $1.2 billion — a nice chunk of change albeit a fraction of the $8 billion some people have estimated it will cost to restore Puget Sound by the governor's optimistic deadline of 2020.

Last January, recalls Brendon Cechovic, program director for the Washington Conservation Voters, a similar bill 'ꀜpassed the House in the waning days of the session with 51 votes largely due to a push by the Blue-Green Alliance, a group of labor and environmental House Democrats. The bill didn't make it to the Senate floor." So what has changed? 'ꀜWe do feel like we're in a better position this year,'ꀝ Cechovic says. The bill 'ꀜcan be part of the solution at a time when the legislature is clearly looking for solutions.'ꀝ

With a nod to current political priorities, the bill would be not only a water quality program; it would be a jobs program, too. Cechovic describes it as a kind of statewide stimulus package. Stormwater projects are basically construction jobs that employ relatively large numbers of people at relatively high wages. 'ꀜThe bill funds shovel-ready projects all over the state,'ꀝ Cechovic says, 'ꀜat a time when we desperately need more good-paying jobs.'ꀝ

It also gets cities off the hook for financing those shovel-ready projects. (A partial list of projects that the new tax might or might not fund includes: the relocation of Maddox Creek in Mount Vernon for $9 million; outfall repairs in Oak Harbor for $2.5 million; and extension of 48-inch storm mains along Puyallup's 15th Street for $4.8 million.) 'ꀜCities are already preparing to spend over $500 million of locally raised funds for stormwater projects and costs,'ꀝ Cechovic says. 'ꀜWithout a source of state funds to meet these requirements, many local governments may be forced to raise property or utility taxes.'ꀝ

Not all the money would go to Puget Sound. Other places have stormwater problems of their own. Prime sponsors of the legislation this session and last have been Spokane Rep. Timm Ormsby, whose constituents worry more about pollution of the Spokane River, and Vancouver Sen. Craig Pridemore, whose constituents worry more about the Columbia.

The Washington Association of Cities, the Washington Association of Counties, and the Washington Ports Association all support the legislation. The petroleum industry opposes it. Last year, that was enough. This year, it may not be.

No one even talks about jacking up state water quality spending. Actually, Puget Sound restoration will probably get more money this year than last — less from the state but substantially more from the feds. Facing a $2.6 billion budget gap, confronting the prospect of short-changing the young, the old, the poor, the sick, state legislators won't turn their pockets inside out to make life better for fish. Not this year. And maybe not for some years to come.

Nor is there any immediate prospect of letting people who live near the Sound tax themselves to restore it. Last January, the Puget Sound Partnership went to Olympia hoping for a statute that would enable voters in the 12 counties bordering Puget Sound to create an improvement district, a brand-new taxing unit that could raise money for restoring the Sound. The details were a little hazy, the support a little thin, and so a Puget Sound improvement district didn'ꀙt even come up for a vote.

Virtually everyone who has thought seriously about restoring the Sound figures that it will require a dedicated source of funding. Yet, this is clearly not the year to create a new taxing entity, either. No one will even try.

The petroleum tax seems to reflect the old pollution-oriented view of water quality; if we can just remove enough chemical impurities, we'll be home free. No one — except, perhaps, a good deal of the general public — really believes this any more. Filling the Sound with bottled water would not restore its crumbling ecosystem.

Nevertheless, good, old-fashioned pollution is still very much with us. A couple of years ago, the Department of Ecology found that stormwater annually washed between 6.3 and 8 million gallons of petroleum products into Puget Sound, equivalent to an Exxon Valdez spill every couple of years.

Even if much of that petroleum could be kept out of the Sound, the broader stormwater problem — the disruption of the timing, volume, and courses of natural flows — would remain unaddressed. University of Washington professor of earth and space sciences David R. Montgomery has suggested that our fixation on pollution helps mask the real problem: a hydrologic pattern in which rainfall runs off across the paved surface of the land, instead of soaking into soil, then making its way slowly to rivers and streams.

In an undisturbed catchment, geologist Derek Booth explains, stormwater can stay in the soil for weeks, or even months. Most retention ponds are designed to hold water for a day or two. 'ꀜOne is led really inexorably toward ways of storing water in the soil,'ꀝ Booth maintains. Step one may be to 'ꀜmake sure there'ꀙs still enough of that soil column to store the water. We only make it harder when our development style is to strip the land,'ꀝ he says.

The people pushing the oil tax legislation know this. They aren't naïve. They realize that the pollution issue is broader than petroleum, and the stormwater problem is broader than pollution. But, Cechovic says, this bill would be a first step.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Daniel Jack Chasan

Daniel Jack Chasan

Daniel Jack Chasan is an author, attorney, and writer of many articles about Northwest environmental issues.