Carbon taxes? Inslee wants a look

A small nuclear reactor could also be examined by the state Legislature.
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Gov. Jay Inslee

A small nuclear reactor could also be examined by the state Legislature.

Gov. Jay Inslee wants a climate change panel to consider a cap-and-trade program on industrial emissions and a carbon tax to be sent to the Washington Legislature as recommendations.

Meanwhile, the panel's two Republican members want the economic costs of any climate change-related proposals researched before any are adopted.

The panel met Monday in Olympia with each of its five members — Inslee, two Republican legislators and two Democratic legislators  — saying what he or she wants explored more. "My concerns is that we go forward without determining the costs to the the people of Washington state of going forward," said panelist Sen. Doug Ericksen, R-Ferndale.

"We're going to look for the single most cost-effective way of doing this," Inslee said.

Inslee wants the upcoming recommendations to come with the best available estimates of how much carbon emissions each will trim from the state's long-range greenhouse-gas picture. That is to ensure that the panel' meets the goals set by a 2008 law. 

In 2008, 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, 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.

"Failure is not an option to meeting these legislatively mandated goals," Inslee said.

Ericksen suggested, and Inslee appeared interested, in studying how expanding Washingtons nuclear power industry beyond one reactor might help combat climate change. A nuclear power plant takes billions of dollars and many years to build, plus it has fuel disposal problems. But such plants don't contribute to carbon emissions.

The Tri-Cities area is looking at whether it could be a center for building small modular reactors — prefabricated ones at a fraction of the size of the Columbia Generating Station — in the next decade. 

Public feedback sessions on the state's climate change goals and efforts are scheduled for Wednesday in Spokane and Oct. 23 in Seattle. 

Washington carbon dioxide emissions totaled 96.1 million metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions in 2010. If no new remedial measures are tackled and the state' population growth continues, state discharges will blast away all the 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. If measures are not taken, emissions will grow throughout the coming decades, hitting 135 million metric tons by 2050, according to the panel's technical consultant Leidos, which used to be the Science Application International Corp. of Virginia.

Right now, there are 14 metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions for every Washingtonian, compared to a national average of 22 tons per person, according to the consultant. 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 state and federal laws that have been passed, but not yet implemented, will cut some emissions.

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

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. Inslee likes this approach because market forces would be the prime mover in combating the pollution that leads to increased carbon dioxide levels in the air and eventually to rising and potentially environmentally and economically crippling acidity in the oceans. Washington's shellfish industry is already feeling harmful effects from the increasing ocean acidity. 

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 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, according to previous briefings to the governor's panel.

Leidos's briefing on Monday strongly indicated that both cap-and-trade and a carbon tax would likely be needed for Washington to reach the goals of the 2008 law.

On Monday, Inslee identified cleaner fuels, dealing with carbon pollution, capping emissions, developing green technologies and improving transportation planning as his priorities. Ericksen and Rep.Shelly Short, R-Addy, wanted more work done on mapping out economic costs, improving research and development, working hydropower into the electricity-and-carbon-emissions calculations, and studying how to deal with a state-mandated increase in the use of alternative power sources. 

Rep. Joe Fitzgibbon, D-Burien, put his priorities are reducing the carbon content of fuels, research and development, working emissions controls into transportation planning, plus improving energy efficiencies in buildings. Sen. Kevin Ranker, D-Orcas Island, was absent, but sent a letter to the panel with his recommendations. The letter was not available Monday. 


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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