Inslee leaps into West Coast climate agreement

Gov. Jay Inslee signed a pact with other governors and the head of the B.C. government. But where does that leave his own climate task force?
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Gov. Jay Inslee

Gov. Jay Inslee signed a pact with other governors and the head of the B.C. government. But where does that leave his own climate task force?

A new West Coast agreement on global warming raises political questions for Washington state: Does the agreement boost or hinder an effort to create a climate plan that both Democrats and Republicans can accept?

The governors of Oregon, California and Washington and British Columbia's environment minister signed a non-binding agreement Monday in San Francisco to coordinate how they deal with climate change. The leaders said they would act in generally similar fashion to address greenhouse-gas emissions, even though their legislatures haven't always been in accord with the Western governors have proposed.

One wild card is that, in signing the agreement, Gov. Jay Inslee committed Washington to some specific actions before his own bipartisan panel decides what legislative steps to recommend for tackling climate change. Another wild card is that the four-government agreement is not legally binding on the signers. And the political implications in Washington state could have practical effects if the reaction reduces what can be achieved by Inslee and the Legislature together.

Last spring, Inslee got the state Legislature to set up a task force — consisting of him, two Republican legislators and two Democratic legislators — to map out how to reach those goals. It is supposed to have recommendations for the Legislature by Dec. 31.

State Sen. Doug Ericksen, R-Ferndale, a member of the bipartisan state panel who is also chairman of the Washington Senate's Energy and Environment Committee, said he would have preferred that the task force finish its work before the four-government agreement was signed.

Todd Myers, environment director for the conservative-leaning Washington Policy Center, said, "It undermines the process and dates laid out by the governor's own climate legislation." He added, "The governor is saying, 'I've already made up my mind to shortcut the process.' It was a very difficult fight to get bipartisan agreement on the governor's climate bill" last spring.

"This does not negate the process," countered panelist Sen. Kevin Ranker, D-Orcas Island and ranking Democrat on the Senate environment committee. Ranker said the West Coast agreement does not require that the Washington panel to tailor its recommendations to it, but instead encourages the state to make its efforts fit into a larger picture. "It makes what we do here bigger than just Washington state," he said.

The West Coast agreement is consistent with what Inslee has supported in the Washington panel's discussions, said Gregg Small, executive director of the green-leaning Climate Solutions organization. Last month, Inslee said some of his priorities are cleaner fuels, capping emissions and developing green technologies.

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. 

At the task force's September meeting, Inslee said he wants the panel to consider recommending a cap-and-trade program on industrial emissions and a carbon tax. The panel's Republicans  — Ericksen and Rep. Shelly Short of Addy — want the economic costs of any climate change-related proposal researched before they are adopted. The panel meets next on Dec. 6 to get more feedback and to begin discussing specific recommendations by the entire task force.

The West Coast agreement calls for Washington and Oregon to come up with low-carbon fuel standard similar to ones in California and British Columbia. Such standards typically limit the amount of carbon in a fuel company's overall sales for transportation, encouraging more use of fuels like compressed natural gas and bio-diesel.

Other provisions include encouraging private and public vehicle buyers to purchase electric cars to the point where 10 percent of the vehicle sales in 2016 use alternative power; supporting the expansion of alternative fuels; and pushing both the American and Canadian governments to tackle ocean acidification. 

Inslee's bipartisan Washington panel is looking at 13 possible new policies to combat carbon dioxide emissions. The panel's staff has found that three have the potential for 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 has said this approach lets market forces be the prime mover in combating greenhouse gas emissions. 

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 could also help. The other 10 potential measures under review by the Washington panel address such areas as public transit, wind power and other clean energy sources and landfill methane capture. Those measures will have lesser impacts, according to previous briefings to the governor's panel.

Pushing low-carbon fuels is a major priority of the four-government agreement. 

Myers of the Washington Policy Center argued that pushing low-carbon fuel is the most expensive course being considered by Washington. He said cap-and-trade and a carbon tax provide more flexibility to industries and are cheaper in the long run. However, John Plaza, CEO of Imperium Renewables, which operates a biofuels facility in Grays Harbor County, argued that low-carbon fuels are the most cost-efficient of the three major measures under task-force review. He described low-carbon fuels as a flexible way for businesses to tailor fuels to their needs.

California and British Columbia already have placed a price on greenhouse gas emissions — through cap-and-trade and a carbon tax, respectively. Inslee, who co-authored a book on clean energy while a member of Congress, is seeking to make action on climate a hallmark of his governorship.

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