Climate plan targets state's biggest polluters

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The Washington Department of Ecology launched a major initiative this week to trim the state’s carbon emissions and combat climate change. As a part of its kick-off announcement Monday, the department released a list of major polluters that will be targeted for pollution reduction — a list that is significantly shorter than the last one to come out of Olympia.

The list contains 35 companies that produce at least 100,000 metric tons of carbon apiece each year: five oil refineries, nine power plants, three aluminum plants, five methane-producing landfills, plus two Seattle firms — Ash Grove Cement Co and Nucor Steel. It does not include dozens of fuel supply operations and smaller food processing plants that have been named on other recent lists of climate targets.

In 2014, Gov. Jay Inslee proposed a carbon emissions tax on roughly 130 top polluters to help fund transportation and schools. In early 2015, the bill outlining that plan dropped the number to an estimated 80 to 90 facilities that produce 25,000 metric tons or more of carbon each year. That bill did not make it out of the House Democratic Caucus. Now comes the 100,000-metric-ton list, which drops the number of targeted companies down to 35.

Maia Bellon, director of the Washington Department of Ecology, says that polluters emitting at least 100,000 metric tons a year account for 60 percent of Washington’s greenhouse gases. Those emitting between 25,000 and 100,000 account for only 1 percent, Bellon said, so dropping the threshold had only a small effect on the overall reductions.

The move comes as Inslee tries to sidestep opposition to his climate agenda from Republicans, and reluctance from his fellow Democrats. In the 2015 legislative session, Senate Republicans vehemently objected to Inslee’s proposed carbon emissions tax.

In July, Inslee announced that he would install a carbon cap on major polluters instead—launching the Department of Ecology's current effort. Critics say the move stretches the limits of executive power. Inslee insists that he has the authority under the Washington Clean Air Act and a 2008 law that set a goal of reducing the state’s greenhouse emissions to 1990 levels by 2020, with further trimming later.

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.

Global warming has already shrunk Cascade Mountains’ glaciers and snow packs feeding streams and rivers used by migrating fish and for irrigated farming. Carbon emissions have also been linked to the increasing acidity of seawater, which harms shellfish, a $270 million annual industry for the state.

Sen. Doug Ericksen of Ferndale, the leading Republican opponent of Inslee’s carbon-reduction measures, said Monday that even the smaller list of polluters seeks to punish local companies for a global problem. “It could drive those companies out of Washington,” he said, adding that it is “ironic” that Inslee is about to host President Xi Jinping of China, a major polluter and a trade competitor with Washington.

A signature-gathering campaign is underway to put a carbon tax on the ballot. If passed, Initiative 732 would create a $25 per ton tax on fossil fuels, cut the state sales tax by one cent, provide a $1,500 tax credit to 400,000 poor working families, plus reduce the business-and-occupation tax for manufacturers.

The state Ecology Department, meanwhile, is pushing ahead. It hopes to unveil a rough draft of a plan about December with public hearings to begin in February 2016 and a final plan to be nailed down next summer.


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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