Governor's climate panel looks at uphill haul

The state has set lofty goals for reducing greenhouse gases but emissions appear likely to increase.
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Jay Inslee

The state has set lofty goals for reducing greenhouse gases but emissions appear likely to increase.

A cap-and-trade program on industrial emissions and a carbon tax  appear to be strong possibilities for consideration in the Washington Legislature soon.

That's what the preliminary math seems to show. 

In 2008, Washington's Legislature set a goal of reducing the state's greenhouse emissions to 1990 levels by 2020, with further trimming 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, Gov. Jay Inslee successfully lobbied the Legislature to set up a task force to map out how those goals can be reached. The task force is supposed to have recommendations for the state Legislature by Dec. 31.

On Friday, the legislative task force's technical consultant, Science Application International Corp. of Virginia, provided the panel with predictions, targets and possible fix-it plans, all with the caveat that the figures still have to be fine-tuned.

This is how the preliminary math unfolds. Washington carbon dioxide emissions totaled 88.4 million metric tons in 1990. The tally hit 96.1 million metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions in 2010.

If no new remedial measures are tackled and the state' population growth continues, those discharges will blast away all the lofty goals for reductions set five years ago. The 2008 law says that Washington's total carbon dioxide emissions must drop in steps to 44.2 million metric tons by 2050. Instead, emissions will grow throughout the coming decades, hitting135 million metric tons by 2050.

Right now, there are 14 tons of carbon dioxide emissions for every Washingtonian, compared to a national average of 22 metric tons per person, according to SAIC. A 2011 state study sees Washington's population growing from 6.8 million this year to 7.4 million in 2020 and to 8.4 million in 2035. That population growth will hamper the state's efforts to trim its emissions.

Some existing state and federal laws that have been passed, but not yet implemented, will cut some emissions, SAIC and state staffers said.

An SAIC study looked at 13 potential policies to help trim the state's carbon dioxide emissions. Each policy is able to tackle only a small fraction of the overall problem.

The most potent proposed policy would be to install a cap-and-trade program in which 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 the companies would be able to swap, buy and sell their rights to each other.

The SAIC analysis of cap-and-trade used different numbers that those set by the 2008 Washington law. Under a scenario in SAIC's report, a cap-and-trade arrangement could trim the carbon dioxide emissions by 29 metric tons by 2050, bringing the state a good way toward meeting its goal.

Of the 13 possible new policies that could be used in Washington to combat carbon dioxide emissions, SAIC list only three with the potential of significant reductions — cap-and-trade, a carbon tax and low-carbon fuel standards.

A carbon tax is simply a levy on a firm's carbon dioxide emissions, which is supposed to inspire a business to decrease its emissions to lower its tax bill. Since transportation emissions account for 44 percent of Washington's carbon dioxide output, requiring lower carbon levels in fuel mixes would help, the report said. The other 10 potential measures address public transit, wind power, ocean power, other clean energy sources,  landfill methane capture, plus technical tweaks in fuels and vehicles. These measures  will have lesser impacts, SAIC's  report said.

Many of the reports' calculations are preliminary and many variables are still unknown, making concrete conclusions difficult at this time. But the indications are that several of the 13 possible policies need to be implemented to meet the 2008 legal carbon dioxide emission goals. That means a cap-and-trade program and a carbon tax will likely be needed to get the numbers to add up to reach those goals.

The economic impacts — good and bad, short-term and long-range — of the measures are still largely uncalculated and uncertain.

That bothered panelist Rep. Shelly Short, R-Addy, on Friday. "I what to know the economic impacts on the citizens of Washington state. I want it balanced out for the average family," she said.

Inslee replied, "We're trying to find the most economically efficient ways to achieve the goal, but we must achieve the goal (of reduced emissions)."

The five panelists are Inslee, Short, Rep. Joe Fitzgibbon, D-Burien, Sen. Kevin Ranker, D-Orcas Island, and Sen. Doug Ericksen, R-Ferndale, who is also chairman of the Senate Energy & Environment Committee. Ranker is the committee's ranking Democrat.

The panel's rules say that at least three of the four legislators must agree before any formal recommendations can be made. That means at least one legislator will have to cross the political aisle for any recommendations to be made.

The panel's next meeting is Oct. 14 in Olympia. The task force will hold public hearings on how Washington should deal with climate change on Oct.16 in Spokane and on Oct. 23 in Seattle.

Climate change and ocean acidification are major issues for Inslee. He has argued that carbon emissions will likely cost Washington's economy $10 billion by 2020 due to increased health costs, smaller snowpacks to feed irrigated croplands, greenhouse gases acidifying the ocean and killing shellfish larvae in Washington's waters, higher temperatures raising the risk of forest fires, and higher sea levels pushing more salt water into coastal water treatment plants. Today, the Earth's oceans are 30 percent more acidic than they were in the 18th century. That figure is expected to reach 150 percent by the end of the 21st century.

Inslee noted that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, meeting in Stockholm, declared that human activities are definitely responsible for global warming. On Friday, that panel called for putting a global limit on greenhouse gas emissions.

For exclusive coverage of the state government, check out Crosscut's Olympia 2013 page.


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About the Authors & Contributors

John Stang

John Stang

John Stang is a freelance writer who often covers state government and the environment. He can be reached on email at and on Twitter at @johnstang_8