In climate fight, Inslee tests limits of executive power

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A top state Republican lawmaker says Gov. Jay Inslee’s plan to use executive action to trim carbon emissions is not supported by state law, citing an informal opinion released this week by the state's attorney general. The opinion concluded that specific targets for reducing climate changing gases, set in a 2008 law, are not legally binding.

It’s the latest move in a two-year chess game between a green wonk governor who has made fighting climate change one of his top priorities, and a Republican-controlled Senate that says carbon emission caps will cripple state industries.

So far, the GOP legislators have been winning on defense.

Inslee is a longtime crusader for reducing carbon emissions, which science links to global warming, increased acidity in the ocean that harms the state’s shellfish industry, shrinking snowpacks which deprive farmers and forests of water, and public health problems.

So far, however, the governor has not been able to get major bills attacking carbon emissions through the Legislature. The Republican-controlled Senate has killed many of them in committee, and threatened to slash mass transit funds in retaliation if he finds a way to win legislative approval. One major Inslee tax-oriented anti-carbon bill died in the House Democratic caucus before it could reach the House’s floor.

Consequently, in late July, Inslee announced that he would pursue putting a cap on major industrial carbon emissions via a public process expected to take about a year. To back his plans, he has routinely used the 2008 state law, which set a goal of reducing the state’s greenhouse emissions to 1990 levels by 2020, then to 25 percent below that 1990 level by 2035 and to 50 percent below by 2050.

In response, Sen. Doug Ericksen, R-Ferndale, who chairs the Senate’s Energy, Environment & Telecommunications Committee, asked the Washington Attorney General’s Office for an opinion on the law. Tuesday’s informal opinion concluded that the wording of the 2008 law does not require the state to enforce its emissions goals, nor does it penalize anyone for not meeting those goals.

“Governor Inslee has repeatedly called the legislative goals set in 2008 a ‘statutory mandate’ that allows him to take executive action, but that simply is not the case,” Ericksen said in a press release. “The attorney general’s opinion makes it clear that these goals have no legal standing which would compel the governor to pursue either cap-and-trade programs or carbon caps by executive order.”

Inslee’s spokesman, David Postman, seemed unfazed. “The opinion doesn't change anything,” Postman wrote in an email. “The governor has said he's acting under broad authority, principally derived from the State Clean Air Act. … There's nothing even remotely in there that says we don't have the authority to act.

“The Legislature put those limits in statute with specific intent that the state would act to achieve them,” Postman added. “The governor has given the legislature three years to find a means to do that, and since they haven't, he is going to move ahead.”

The story has parallels to the climate debate on the national level, where President Obama has pushed for stricter limits on carbon pollution only to be rebuffed by Congress. Instead, Obama has worked via the executive branch to enact strict new limits on coal-fired power plants and promote renewable energy development. He signed an agreement with China to cut carbon emissions, and is pushing for a major international climate deal at UN talks in Paris later this year -- all to loud objections from Republicans in Congress.

The recent attorney general’s opinion aside, there are clearly opportunities for Inslee to push change via executive actions. There are also clear limits on what an executive can accomplish without the support of the legislative branch – and ample opportunities for legislators to put up road blocks to the executive agenda.


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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