Washington Legislature charts ‘new beginning’ in climate change fight

As the dust settles in Olympia, the state has finally embraced cap and trade, electric cars and environmental justice.

Emissions from the Marathon Oil refinery in Anacortes mix with a blanket of wildfire smoke in September 2020. Washington state’s new environmental law requires industrial polluters to buy pollution credits from the state in a cap-and-trade market and dedicates tens of millions of dollars for cleanup in the most polluted areas of the state. (Dan DeLong/InvestigateWest)

Lawmakers in Olympia have bound Washington state’s fortunes — literally — to the fight against climate change with a legislative blitz, enacting a “historic” suite of climate protections.

Before adjourning on April 25, Democrats passed a pair of sweeping restrictions on greenhouse gas pollution intended to aggressively cut Washington’s carbon footprint while driving billions of dollars into state coffers and toward clean energy.

The Climate Commitment Act will require industrial polluters to buy pollution credits from the state in a cap-and-trade market system similar to one operating in California. The bill stipulates that tens of millions of dollars collected each year should be used to underwrite cleanup in the most polluted areas of the state, clearing the air and restoring the land in communities where Blacks, Latinos and Native Americans suffer disproportionately.

The Legislature also passed vehicle-fuel restrictions meant to force producers of carbon-heavy fuels like gasoline and diesel to buy biofuels and underwrite new charging stations for fleets of electric cars and trucks. Electric vehicles are expected to proliferate on Washington roads, in part because of House Bill 1287, which sets a goal of phasing out the sale of fossil-fuel powered passenger vehicles by 2030, but lawmakers stopped short of banning the sale of gasoline- and diesel-powered cars, as some lawmakers wanted.

Along with legislation that addresses environmental racism, these revenue-generating, pollution-reducing bills and a collection of less expansive efforts could finally put Washington on track to begin achieving its goals for reducing the state’s contributions to climate change.

“ ‘Historic’ is such a cliché, but it truly is historic,” said Darcy Nonemacher, government affairs director of the Washington Environmental Council, an umbrella group representing the state’s largest environmental organizations.

“We’ve known for a long time that climate change is on a ticking clock,” Nonemacher said. “This legislative session seems like a new beginning.”

None of it proved easy, even with Democratic majorities in the House and Senate and Gov. Jay Inslee, an erstwhile “climate candidate” for president, in the governor’s mansion.

While the key bills passed with comfortable majorities, they did so without uniform Democratic support. Republicans, entirely out of power in Olympia, opposed all the major pieces of climate legislation and the Healthy Environment for All (HEAL) Act, landmark environmental justice legislation requiring state agencies to do more to protect residents of Washington’s most-polluted places.

To supporters, the HEAL Act (Senate Bill 5141) is a consequential first step toward correcting inequities that have concentrated pollution in places where Black and Latino Washingtonians are far more likely to live. It is the Legislature’s answer to demands first raised by communities of color more than 20 years ago, and it is expected to shape Washington’s climate response as this year’s freshly passed laws are translated into action.

“Passage of the HEAL Act is an important step toward environmental justice,” said David Mendoza, co-chair of the state Environmental Justice Taskforce, a group whose recommendations formed the foundation of the policy. In a statement, Mendoza added that Washington still has “work to do to repair generations of damage.”

If it works as intended, the HEAL Act will ensure that residents most often on the receiving end of environmental problems — which disproportionately affect Black, Latino, Native American and low-income communities — will guide the hand of state government. Agencies will have to explain what they’re doing to lift the pollution burdens in the Interstate 5 corridor between Tacoma and Everett, and through parts of Yakima, Spokane, the Tri-Cities and other areas of the state with unhealthy pollution levels.

An appointed commission will monitor how well state agencies have improved their outreach to communities of color and directed their efforts to improve the environment for those now being harmed by pollution. It will fall to the commission to correct the Department of Ecology or other state agencies if they come up short.

Hamdi Abdulle, executive director of the SeaTac-based advocacy organization African Community Housing & Development, said African immigrants like herself and other people of color are waking up to the harm being done to them by pollution generated by enterprises that disproportionately benefit the rich.

Pollution seems like a distant problem until people get sick, Abdulle said. After the coronavirus pandemic and four years during which immigrants were berated by the White House, Abdulle said, communities that have been cut out of the environmental movement now are prepared to stand up for their air, water and climate.

David Mendoza on a street corner near Georgetown on April 1, 2021. Mendoza, who now works for The Nature Conservancy, co-chaired a state task force examining racial environmental health disparities and is advocating for the HEAL Act in the Washington legislature, which would address some of those environmental inequities that disproportionately hit Black, Latino and Asian people. (Dorothy Edwards/Crosscut)

“The community’s understanding is growing,” said Abdulle, a HEAL Act supporter who arrived in the United States as a refugee from Somalia two decades ago. “We came to the United States with nothing. We’re survivors. … These are issues that need our contributions and our actions.”

Citizen committees created by the HEAL Act will soon begin reviewing a host of environmental actions, including the cap-and-trade system’s operations.

‘Home of 21st century climate action’

The most contentious and, supporters say, consequential piece of 2021 legislation was the Climate Commitment Act. It drew opposition from progressive lawmakers and activists who argued that a cap-and-trade system is ripe for abuse by large corporate polluters, some of whom backed the bill.

Pushed by Inslee and influential Democrats in the Legislature who characterized it as a “cap-and-invest” system, Senate Bill 5126 is expected to bring in hundreds of millions of dollars in state revenue each year. Much of that money, collected as heavy industry pays for pollution credits, is aimed at underwriting state transportation expenses.

Large industrial polluters will have to buy or earn credits that account for the amount of greenhouse gas pollution they produce. The number of credits available each year will shrink, which, it’s hoped, will increase the cost to polluters.

Addressing the Senate, the bill’s prime sponsor, Sen. Reuven Carlyle, D-Seattle, said Washington is taking a leading role in combating climate change as evidenced by the cap-and-trade program and new carbon-pollution restrictions on vehicle fuels. That was a commitment made two years ago to transition completely to clean electricity, and a collection of other pieces of climate legislation. 

“We’re the home of 21st century climate action,” Carlyle said in the final days of the session. “All of these policies are deeply integrated for a 21st century economy, with good jobs, a strong economy and a low carbon footprint.”

State representative Bill Ramos touches a tree while walking on a trail leading to Tiger Mountain in Issaquah, Washington on January 24, 2021. Ramos has introduced a bill that would energize the state's leading urban forestry initiative, which stalled early in the last recession. (David Ryder for Crosscut)

‘Rooted in pollution’

The first $357 million raised by cap and trade in 2024, its first full year of operation, would go to transportation projects. The Legislature couldn’t agree on a transportation proposal before the session ended. One plan put forward would see $5.2 billion generated through the cap-and-trade program spent on transportation over the next 16 years. A special legislative session is expected to take up the proposal.

Money generated by the cap-and-trade program that’s not spent on transportation — an amount that’s forecast to reach hundreds of millions of dollars annually — would pay for a substantial part of Washington’s response to a range of climate change impacts. Money could go toward everything from a tax rebate for working families to air-quality monitoring, preparing for rising sea levels and promoting energy-efficient buildings. At least 35% of the nontransportation spending must go toward decreasing pollution in communities where environmental burdens are the greatest.

Through the cap-and-trade program, polluters will be allowed to offset from 6% to 8% of their greenhouse gas emissions by paying for environmental enhancements that capture the carbon pollution they release. About a third of that enhancement work would need to occur on tribal lands if polluters want to maximize their use of the offset program. The legislation also requires that the state pay at least $5 million to tribal governments so they can launch programs to manage the offsets.

Passed without Republican support, the Climate Commitment Act remained a tough sell for both liberal and conservative Democrats. Conservative Democrat Sen. Steve Hobbs, who, as chair of the Senate Transportation Committee has considerable influence over state transportation policy, described it as “a good compromise” that he was voting for with reservations.

“There are things I don’t like in this bill — I admit that,” the Lake Stevens senator said on the floor. “It’s not perfect, but it’s good for Washington.”

Sen. Rebecca Saldaña, a progressive Democrat representing South Seattle, supported the bill, but had completely different concerns from those held by Hobbs.

The Climate Commitment Act, Saldaña said, remains “rooted in capitalism,” an economic system that’s left many of her members to live with levels of pollution that wouldn’t be accepted in richer, whiter communities. She praised changes made to the bill to ensure money generated by the cap-and-trade system serves to correct environmental inequities.

“The children of my community experience higher levels of asthma, higher levels of diabetes, and that means they have a shorter lifespan than those living in other parts of our state,” Saldaña said before voting for the bill. “Environmental justice … recognizes that people of color, sovereign nations, lower-income people of all backgrounds, have been overburdened by our choice to have an economy that’s rooted in pollution.”

The Senate ultimately approved the bill in a 27-22 vote, with two Democrats and all 20 Republicans voting against it.

Some progressive Democrats assailed the bill as too generous to polluters and rallied around a competing proposal, Senate Bill 5373, which would have taxed carbon emissions. Facing opposition from leading Democrats, the carbon tax stalled in committee.

Yolanda Matthews of Front and Centered, an umbrella organization representing dozens of minority and low-income advocacy groups, supported the carbon tax as a step toward a hard cap on emissions and opposed the cap-and-trade plan.

Matthews described the cap-and-trade plan as too lenient on industrial polluters, which, she argued, can pay to keep emitting greenhouse gases and other pollutants. Some fossil fuel companies like BP support cap and trade because it allows them to keep profiting from pollution and avoid a hard cap on greenhouse gas emissions, Matthews said.

“Oil is money,” said Mathews, a community council leader with Front and Centered and a climate justice organizer with Puget Sound Sage, a social equity organization based in Seattle. “It’s called black gold for a reason.”

The cap-and-trade plan calls for a steady reduction in levels of greenhouse gas pollution from large industrial facilities in the state. The amount of allowable pollution is expected to shrink each year in line with the Legislature’s goal of achieving a net effect of zero greenhouse gas pollution by 2050.

Matthews and other opponents of the cap-and-trade plan contend it contains too many loopholes to actually curtail emissions. As the pollution continues, Matthews said, communities that are home to low-income people of color will keep getting hurt.

After years of effort, the Legislature also set new fuel standards meant to lighten the toll transportation takes on the state’s climate costs of transportationHouse Bill 1091, modeled on similar programs in Oregon and California, is meant to force producers of greenhouse-gas-emitting fuels like gasoline and diesel to either clean up their products by adding ethanol or biodiesel, or pay to expand the state’s nascent electric transportation system.

In other legislation, lawmakers approved new water projects and bolstered the state’s clean energy program, the Washington Environmental Council’s Nonemacher said. Some chemicals responsible for major greenhouse gas emissions have been banned, and building materials will now carry labels detailing their source and information about the producers’ labor practices.

Republicans, now virtually powerless in Olympia and without an apparent path to challenge the Democrat majorities in years to come, uniformly opposed the climate bills. Some questioned whether human-caused climate change is occurring; Sen. Phil Fortunato, R-Auburn, wondered aloud whether cuts to carbon dioxide emissions might “starve the rainforest.”

Others argued that the Legislature is handing too much authority to state agencies and, in doing so, trying to run the state’s economy from Olympia. Many said the new restrictions would make life in Washington, particularly rural Washington, too expensive for most people to bear.

“You can talk about the green jobs. They’re few and far between,” Sen. Curtis King, R-Yakima, said on the Senate floor before voting against the bill. “My concern is that, if these bills pass, what are my grandchildren going to do? Because their best option is going to be getting the heck out of Washington.”

CORRECTION: In its recent session, the Washington Legislature did not enact a ban on the sale of gasoline- and diesel-powered cars starting in 2030. This article has been corrected to reflect that. House Bill 1287 does set a goal of phasing out the sale of new fossil-fuel powered passenger vehicles beginning that model year.

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About the Authors & Contributors

Levi Pulkkinen

Levi Pulkkinen is a Seattle-based journalist specializing in law and justice issues in the Pacific Northwest.