Climate panel heats up. Result: frozen in place.

Gov. Inslee's effort to move the state to reduce carbon emissions is running into trouble.
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Jay Inslee

Gov. Inslee's effort to move the state to reduce carbon emissions is running into trouble.

Both sides bared their fangs Friday. Gov. Jay Inslee got frustrated. And Rep. Shelly Short, R-Addy, resented that.

Inslee, two Democratic legislators and two Republican legislators, all members of a committee tasked with creating recommendations for dealing with climate change issues during the coming legislative session, could not agree on anything. Not a thing. A vast chasm between stances. A gap that has existed for months.

For months, Inslee and the panel's Democrats have preached that the state has a legal obligation to tackle carbon emissions quickly. And for months, the panel's Republicans have responded that the economic impacts must be studied before any carbon emissions-related legislation should be considered.

And for months, both sides have avoided discussing how to resolve those differences. In theory, the panel was supposed to agree on some tentative recommendations Friday. Recommendations that would be sent to a Dec. 13 legislative public hearing and a Dec. 18 vote. Inslee does not have a vote on the final recommendations. Three of the four legislators must agree on any formal recommendations going forward. The deadline to finish the panel's work is Dec. 31.

All this was set into motion in 2008, when 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, the Legislature passed a bill to set up this task force with the Dec. 31 deadline. As a condition for that bill's passage, the Senate Majority Coalition Caucus got an amendment that converted Inslee into a non-voting member, setting up the current two-to-two deadlock among the four legislators.

On Friday, Inslee submitted several proposed recommendations for discussion. One would have put a legal cap on all of Washington's carbon emissions, with a cap-and-trade program included to allow corporations to juggle emissions among themselves. Another suggested that coal imported to Washington power plants from out-of-state be counted as a source of carbon emissions to be kept within Inslee's proposed cap. Energy efficiency measures would be tackled. And legislating use of low-carbon fuels would be explored. 

The panel deadlocked.

Again, Short and Sen. Doug Ericksen, R-Ferndale, wanted any measures delayed until the economic impacts of those proposals could be studied. 

"I think we're putting the cart before the horse. We would be agreeing to policies without knowing what the economic impacts would be … " Short said. "My God, we're playing with people's lives."  

Ericksen agreed. "We have an unfinished work product."

Inslee, Sen. Kevin Ranker, D-Orcas Island, and Rep. Joe Fitzgibbon, D-Burien, pointed to the state's lack of action since the 2008 law went into effect, and to the that fact that last spring's new law set a Dec. 31 deadline to make recommendations. "We've got to fish or cut bait," Ranker said. "We have a statutory mandate before us that we have to meet."

"What I really resent is the governor intimating that we don't care," Short responded. "… If there is a necessary reason to change goals, there is no reason not to put that on the table." 

"We're all in the same corner in that carbon pollution is damaging our state. Two members of this committee have alluded that they would throw out these goals. That's disappointing to me," Inslee said. 

"No, no, no! ... I guess you don't care about costs. But we do," Short retorted.

Finally, the five agreed to put all of their individual recommendations into one document, which the public can pick apart at the Dec. 13 hearing. The disjointed clump of proposals is supposed to be available by the end of Monday for the public to view on the panel's website. Ranker speculated that the panel could end up with two parallel, but radically different sets of recommendations.

Inslee declined to speculate about what he would do if the Dec. 31st deadline passes without any recommendations from the panel. "Stay tuned," he said. Tackling climate change has been one of Inslee's signature issues.

Still, there may be a few options left for Inslee — even if nothing substantive comes out of the climate panel. There have been rumblings that the governor might try his hand at tackling carbon emissions matters administratively — if there is a legal way to do that.

Alternatively, Inslee could have the Democratic-controlled House introduce carbon emissions bills, hoping that the measures somehow also make it through the Republican-dominated Senate. For almost a year, the House Democrats and the Senate Majority Coalition Caucus have made a habit of holding one anothers' bills hostage, going into double overtime at the end of the last legislative session before agreeing on an operating budget. The two sides have been deadlocked on what is normally a bipartisan transportation package for eight to 11 months, depending on when you start the clock.

Washington's 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.

A Leidos briefing to the climate change panel in the fall 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. 

Carbon emissions have been linked to increasing atmospheric temperatures and ocean acidity, which is believed by scientists to be killing baby shellfish in Washington's waters. The state's shellfish industry is one of the biggest in the world, bringing in about $270 million annually and employing roughly 3,200 people in predominantly rural areas.

So now, the question is whether Democrats and Republicans can agree on measures to combat climate change. Any measures.


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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