Governor promises to put a lid on greenhouse gas emissions

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Jay Inslee

Gov. Jay Inslee plans to install a regulatory cap on carbon emissions using existing laws. On Tuesday, he ordered the Washington Department of Ecology Tuesday to begin a year-long public process of developing a plan to this end.

Inslee’s order steps around two issues that have been heavily publicized in recent months.

First, his proposed cap on emissions will not include any taxes on polluters, which means this will not be an avenue to raise revenue like Inslee's proposed carbon emissions tax. That plan died in the Democratic House earlier this year. Second, this order includes no plan for mandating low-carbon fuel standards for vehicles, which means Inslee’s order will not trigger a legislative “poison pill.” If low carbon standards were ordered, the legislative poison-pill provision would automatically transfer at least $700 million in transit and other multi-modal money to roads projects.

An Inslee press release said it will likely take a year of public input to develop a carbon emissions cap on industries through executive branch regulations.

“Carbon pollution and the climate change it causes pose a very real and existential threat to our state,” Inslee said in the release. “Farmers in the Yakima Valley know this. Shellfish growers on the coast know this. Firefighters battling Eastern Washington blazes know this. And children suffering from asthma know this all too well and are right to question why Washington hasn’t acted to protect them.”

In the past few weeks, Inslee had consulted with a variety of interests on whether he should trigger the poison pill to get the low-carbon fuel standards. The governor’s signature issue is climate change. Republican legislators — anchored by a majority in the Senate — have thwarted virtually every Inslee climate change measure of the last three years.

Inslee said: “This is not the comprehensive approach we could have had with legislative action. But Senate Republicans and the oil industry have made it clear that they will not accede to any meaningful action on carbon pollution so I will use my authority under the state Clean Air Act to take these meaningful first steps. … In talking about the terrible choice the Senate imposed on the people of Washington – clean air or buses and safe sidewalks – I heard broad agreement that we need both clean transportation and clean air.”

The Senate Republicans have argued that the anti-pollution measures would increase gasoline prices and would drive many industries away from Washington because of expensive fix-it work.

Sen. Doug Ericksen, R- Ferndale and the GOP’s point person on carbon emissions issues, could not be reached for comment Tuesday.

The public process on a regulatory emissions cap will likely take about two months to map out, said Stu Clark, air quality programs manner for the ecology department, “At this point, the game plan and specifics are to be determined,” he said.

The current questions include which industries will be capped, what are their current levels of pollution, and what timelines and targets will be set, Clark said.

Inslee pointed to a 2008 Washington law that set a goal of reducing the state's greenhouse emissions to 1990 levels by 2020, with further trimming of emissions to 25 percent below that 1990 level by 2035 and to 50 percent below by 2050. So far, no progress has been made toward those goals and the state appears to be on course, especially with continuing population growth, to miss all the targets set back in 2008.

In 2010, Washington spewed 96 million metric tons of greenhouse emissions into the air. If left unchecked, that volume is projected to increase to 135 million metric tons by 2050. According to the EPA, the average vehicle generates 4.4 metric tons of these emissions annually.

Tuesday’s announcement is the latest move in a complicated political chess game between Inslee and the Senate Republicans.

Inslee views global warming as a major threat to Washington. It has shrunk Cascade Mountains’ snowpacks feeding streams and rivers used by migrating fish and for irrigated farming. Carbon emissions have been linked to both global warming and to the increasing acidity of sea water, which harms baby shellfish, part of a $270 million annual industry for the state.

Republican legislators contend that any measures by Washington would have little impact on global warming, and the anti-carbon measures would hurt the state’s economy. In March, Senate Republicans defeated a Democratic amendment to a bill that would have definitely declared that humans cause global warming, preferring to stick with the word “may” to indicate there is doubt the humans are the cause.

Last year, Senate Republicans took a pre-emptive strike against low-carbon fuel standards by saying they would never pass a huge transportation projects package unless Inslee promised not to install low-carbon fuel standards. Early this year, that stance morphed into the “poison pill” in which transit, biking and pedestrian projects would lose their funding shifted to roads if Inslee installed the standards.

House Democrats tried for months to get the Senate Republicans to remove the poison pill. But the GOP senators would not budge. In June, Inslee agreed to the poison pill in order to get the $16 billion transportation package passed.

On the carbon emissions tax, Inslee has been publicly playing with this idea since 2013. Last December, he announced he would seek a carbon emissions tax on several dozen of the state’s top polluters to encourage them to trim their emissions. The bulk of that revenue was supposed to go to education improvements and to eliminating the need for an 11.9-cents-per-gallon gasoline tax that Democratic and Republican legislators passed a few weeks ago.

His proposal never won approval from the Democratic-controlled House, with different stories emerging of what happened behind the scenes.

One scenario is that the House Democrats could not muster the 50 votes within their own caucus to guarantee that the proposal would get out of the House. A second scenario is that the House Democrats decided that the Senate Republicans would never approve a carbon emissions tax, and the Democrats then decided to focus their budget bargaining efforts on other proposed taxes and tax break closures.

Inslee said Tuesday that he has not ruled out trying to obtain revenue from carbon emissions in a future legislative session.


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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