Inslee's climate push faces deadlines

With time running out for agreements this year, the governor is busy with a special legislative session.
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Gov. Jay Inslee

With time running out for agreements this year, the governor is busy with a special legislative session.

Will Gov. Jay Inslee's climate change panel agree on enough major planks to make significant recommendations to the Washington Legislature in January?

No one is saying "No" yet. But a massive amount of work and agreeing will have to be done by Dec. 31. "Can we get there on time? I don't know," said panelist Sen. Doug Ericksen, R-Ferndale, after the committee's Wednesday meeting.

And any proposal that involves a cap-and-trade program on industrial emissions, a carbon emissions tax or lowering the carbon content of fuel are all still in the vague, "this-is-something-to-think about" stages. These three measures are important because the governor's panel — consisting of two Republican legislators, two Democratic legislators and a non-voting Inslee — learned last month that the state's legal targets in reducing carbon emissions over the next few decades would be impossible without one or more of these measures.

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 governor's panel will meet again on Nov. 21, supposedly to map out its proposals to send to the Legislature. A Dec. 6 public hearing in Olympia will be held on the proposals. Then the panel is supposed to hammer out the final details by the end of December.

At the Wednesday meeting, the two Republicans and two Democrats danced around having serious debate on the three big options — mainly because Inslee, the sparkplug of the effort, missed most of the meeting to prepare for a special legislative session that begins today on transportation issues.

Sen. Kevin Ranker, D-Orcas Island, and Rep. Joe Fitzgibbon, D-Burien believe one or more of those measures needs to be in the recommendations to the Legislature. "If we're serious about our statutory mandate, we have to consider these options to meet our targets," Ranker said."

However, Ericksen and Rep. Shelley Short, R-Addy, want more studies of the economic and jobs impacts of those measures before seriously considering them. Ericksen said, "This is the area where we have the least amount of details on the economic impacts."

Also, Ranker noted that the panel has not yet tackled the details of what specific targets and what specific implementation measures should be considered in mapping out those three options.

Both sides acknowledged that obtaining a significant amount to economic information that would meet the Republicans' concerns by Nov. 21 is a difficult task.

Some sort of cross-the-aisle consensus is needed to officially send any recommendations to the full Legislature; the legislation that set up the panel requires that three of the four legislators must agree to forward them.

The panel did tentatively did agree Wednesday to make recommendations to back research on battery storage, improving the Northwest power grid and how to make buildings more energy-efficient. However, those recommendations would handle only a small fraction of the carbon emissions that the panel is required to tackle. "I have no interest in making recommendations that only addresses the low-hanging fruit," Ranker said.

Washington carbon dioxide emissions totaled 96 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 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 firm Leidos.

Leidos has reported 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 could trade their rights. 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. Since transportation emissions account for 44 percent of Washington's carbon dioxide output, requiring lower carbon levels in fuel mixes would help. 

Leidos's briefing last month 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 Wednesday, Ericksen said some of the panel's planning and discussions might have to extend beyond December. And he said the 2008 law has no penalties for not achieving the 2050 goals, with those targets possibly being considered non-binding.

Ranker said the 2008 law's targets are unambiguously legal requirements. He noted that the Legislature did not follow existing laws on funding basic education, leading to a Washington Supreme Court ruling that  ordered the state to dramatically increase education spending.

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