WA legislators prepare for long list of climate change bills

Lawmakers could look at more than a dozen climate proposals addressing carbon reduction and other environmental issues.

Gov. Inslee poses for a photo with electric car dealers.

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, second from right, poses for a photo, Monday, Dec. 13, 2021, with car dealership representatives who drive electric vehicles to a news conference in Olympia, Washington. Inslee announced several climate-related proposals for the 2022 legislative session, including a plan to offer rebates on the purchase of new and used electric vehicles for qualified buyers. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)

More than a dozen climate change proposals are expected to come before the Washington Legislature in the session that began this week.

Gov. Jay Inslee is hoping to build on last spring’s passage of two major climate measures — a cap-and-trade program for industrial carbon emissions and a low-carbon fuel standard.

During the current session, the governor wants to trim carbon emissions from buildings, help smokestack industries compete with foreign corporations not facing Washington’s stricter carbon requirements, provide tax rebates for people buying electric vehicles, repair frayed relations with the state’s tribes, convert state ferries from diesel fuel to hybrid electric engines, revive a dormant aluminum smelter in Whatcom County with equipment that would decrease pollution and give some financial help to a potential solar panel manufacturing plant in Grant County.

The price tag for this wish list: $626 million. Inslee contended that he can find the money without raising taxes or fees. 

“Climate change is a rapid tornado of damage going through Washington. … We’ve made progress, but we have not made enough progress,” Inslee said at a mid-December press conference outlining his budget proposals.

Washington’s leaders have blamed global warming for increased wildfires, problems with the state’s shellfish industry, a lack of water for farming and numerous health problems and other troubles.

The ranking Republican on the House Energy and Environment Committee argued that the governor’s proposals would not effectively address wildfires, flooding or drought.

“The governor’s proposal to decarbonize buildings, to get rid of the natural gas industry and retrain workers whose jobs would be eliminated from his policies would do nothing to reduce deadly, destructive wildfires and the smoke they emit,” said Rep. Mary Dye, R-Pomeroy. “The governor’s proposal to spend millions of dollars in rebates for electric vehicle purchases would do nothing to prevent flooding or address drought that threatens our farmers.”

The governor is not the only politician tossing around environmental policy ideas before the Legislature this session.

Other ideas include a new fee on banks that finance fossil fuel projects, predicted to raise $80 million to $100 million for measures addressing climate change. Meanwhile, Republicans want to reroute revenue from Washington’s new cap-and-trade program to the state’s forests and other projects. Also, a proposal to incorporate climate change considerations into Washington’s master land-use law is expected to be resurrected this session.

A potentially bipartisan bill is in the works to speed up government response to droughts.

Rep. Joe Fitzgibbon, D-Burien, center, the chair of the House Environment Committee, is greeted by colleagues, including Rep. Debra Lekanoff, D-Bow, second from left, on the House floor, Thursday, April 11, 2019, at the Capitol in Olympia, Wash., after the Washington House passed a measure that seeks to eliminate fossil fuels such as natural gas and coal from the state's electricity supply by 2045.  (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)

Inslee and Rep. Joe Fitzgibbon, D-Seattle, and chairman of the House’s Energy and Environment Committee, acknowledged that no governor’s proposed legislative package gets through the Legislature intact. However, Inslee and state Sen. Reuven Carlyle, D-Seattle, chairman of the Senate Environment, Energy and Technology Committee, said Democratic support for the governor’s plan will be strong. Democrats control both houses of the Legislature.

“We have a policy framework, and this package builds on that infrastructure,” Carlyle said at the mid-December press conference.

The bulk of that framework rests in three Washington laws: A 2008 law that sets carbon-reduction targets; a law passed last spring that ordered cuts in carbon emissions from gasoline and diesel fuel sold in Washington; and the creation of the nation's second state-level cap-and-trade system, following California's.

Fitzgibbon believes climate change legislation might progress easier through the Legislature in 2022 than it did in the previous two years. That’s because Inslee has taken one of his most ardent critics in the Democratic Party out of the mix.

Last year, Inslee appointed moderate state Sen. Steve Hobbs, D-Lake Stevens, as Washington’s new secretary of state, replacing Republican Kim Wyman, who joined the Biden administration as an election security expert. Hobbs, who chaired the Senate Transportation Committee, didn't always agree with Inslee's climate related proposals, including the low-carbon fuel standard. That's one reason that bill didn't pass before 2021, despite Inslee introducing it several times before that.

“With Hobbs out of the Senate, that opens up possibilities we didn’t have in the past,” Fitzgibbon said. The Senate’s Democratic caucus picked Sen. Marko Liias, D-Everett, to chair the transportation committee. He is much further left on the political spectrum than the moderate Hobbs.

A Volvo XC40 electric vehicle is shown Monday, Dec. 13, 2021, following a news conference in Olympia, Wash. where Gov. Jay Inslee announced several climate-related proposals for the 2022 legislative session, including a plan to offer rebates on the purchase of new and used electric vehicles for qualified buyers. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)

The governor's agenda

Here is a breakdown of Inslee’s package, which is expected to dominate the environmental debate during the 2022 session. 

  • A plan to require natural gas utilities to submit decarbonization plans to the Washington Utilities and Transportation Commission every four years. These plans would include emission reduction strategies and how they would support renewable hydrogen and electrification efforts to cut their carbon emissions. Fitzgibbon and the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Alex Ramel, D-Bellingham, expect significant pushback from gas utilities on this proposal  because it could cut their income in the long run. Ramel said the proposed legislation would likely feature the use of “renewable natural gas” from methane captured from  landfills, sewage plants and dairy ranch digesters. Renewable means they would absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere in more or less the same amounts they exude into the air.
  • A $50 million allocation to help Washington corporations compete with foreign companies that don’t have to implement carbon emission measures. These industries include steel and aluminum production, pulp and paper mills, and food processors. Meanwhile, Fitzgibbon has introduced a bill to provide breaks for these industries in calculating carbon emissions, with those breaks gradually phasing out through 2050. 
  • A request to have tribal consultants advise on climate change matters, including early notification of ventures that would impact their lands and treaty rights. Inslee faced political blowback after vetoing that provision in the cap-and-trade bill passed last spring.
  • The creation of tax rebates for residents buying electric vehicles. To qualify for the rebate, a person would have to make less than $250,000 as a single tax filer or $500,000 per couple. The proposed rebates are $7,500 for a new vehicle and $5,000 for a used one. An additional $5,000 rebate would go to an electric vehicle purchaser making less than $61,000 annually, which is 60% of the state’s median income. 
  • Money to build two 144-car hybrid electric ferries and to convert a regular ferry to a hybrid electric model. Washington State Ferries expects to start a multiyear contract to convert from solely diesel fuel engines to hybrid fuel-battery propulsion in October 2022. Washington’s state ferry system — the largest in the U.S. — has 21 vessels that crisscross Puget Sound, serving 20 terminals on 10 routes. This proposal answers a 2018 Inslee executive order to cut greenhouse gas emissions from the state ferries. The state’s 21 ferries consume 19 million gallons of fuel annually. State officials believe that this move will dramatically trim that figure. When a ferry is docked to load and unload vehicles, the batteries will be hooked up to a shoreline charging station, which will replenish battery power in 18 minutes. However, the construction of the dockside charging stations is not expected to be complete until 2025.
  • Money to help restart the dormant Italco aluminum smelter in Whatcom County in northwestern Washington. The proposed restart would come with equipment that would trim carbon emissions below August 2020 levels, when Alcoa shut down the plant, leading to the loss of 700 jobs. Two unidentified companies have expressed interest in buying and reviving the plant.
  • A state grant to help build a solar panel manufacturing plant in Grant County in Central Washington.

Amazon employees and supporters march from the company's headquarters during a climate strike Friday, Sept. 20, 2019, in Seattle. Across the globe, hundreds of thousands of people took the streets to demand that leaders tackle climate change in the run-up to a U.N. summit. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)

Other climate-related bills

Blaming climate change, Inslee declared a drought emergency last July for all of the state except Seattle, Tacoma and Everett, which have solid municipal water supplies. The measure sent the state scrambling to find money to help local governments and boards buy or divert water or tackle other heat mitigation measures. The declaration sped up processing for emergency drought permits and allowed temporary transfers of water rights.

The state has no designated sources from which to collect money for drought funding.

That drought declaration also activated the Joint Legislative Committee on Water Supply During Drought, which meets only in years when the state declares a drought. “We learned a hard lesson this year. … We need more flexibility in time of drought. We need more certainty,” said Sen. Judy Warnick, R-Moses Lake, and the committee’s chairwoman.

In briefings this year, the committee learned that 2021’s March to August temperatures were the third warmest in Washington history — 2.1 degrees Fahrenheit above average. Fifteen of Washington’s 39 counties posted their driest conditions ever. The easternmost quarter of the state is undergoing drought conditions that normally show up once or twice every 100 years.

Among other impacts, the drought drastically cut into Washington’s crop yields in 2021.

Last year’s wheat crop was 46% of 2020’s harvest, the state’s lowest wheat harvest since 1964. “We had everything from complete crop failures to low [numbers of] bushels [per acre],”  Michelle Hennings, executive director of the Washington Association of Wheat Growers, told the drought committee.

The state’s cherry harvest dropped 20% from 2020 to 2021. Cherries are a major Washington export to Pacific Rim nations. Meanwhile, the northwestern corner of the state produces 85% of the nation’s red raspberries, and this year’s heat cut the harvest by 30% below normal. “Is this a once-in-a-century event or a sign of what’s to come? We don’t know that,” Henry Bierlink, executive director of the Washington Red Raspberry Commission, told the committee.

State officials expect a drought to reemerge in 2022 because Washington would require 150% of its regular rainfall through next spring just to recover the water lost in 2021 in the agricultural breadbasket of the Columbia River Basin. “That’s not likely to happen,” state climatologist Nick Bond told the committee.

Warnick, the senator from Moses Lake, plans to introduce a bill — which she hopes will be backed by both Republicans and Democrats on the drought committee — to provide state grants to drought-stricken communities, better define what constitutes emergency funding, and to speed up the state’s responses to declared droughts. The bill would also likely try to prevent emergency withdrawals from exceeding existing water rights. She said money to pay for these drought responses still needs to be identified.

“I hope we get pragmatic and get something in,” Warnick said.

In this Sept. 2, 2014 file photo, a northbound oil train sits idled on tracks, stopped by protesters blocking the track ahead, in Everett, Wash. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)

Besides Inslee’s package, other climate bills are in the legislative pipeline.

Pomeroy Republican Dye plans to introduce a bill that would reroute some money to improve forests in state parks, tackle wastewater polluting Puget Sound and mitigate flood and drought damages “There’s a huge backlog in needed development in our state parks,” Dye said.

However, Fitzgibbon, her committee chairman, said, ”We’re not going to do this.”

Rep. Davina Duerr, D-Bothell, has introduced a bill that would add municipal landfills and limited-purpose landfills to those covered by a state law requiring monitoring and methane collection systems when landfill exceeds specific levels of exuding heat and methane.  Fitzgibbon noted that methane is the second-most voluminous greenhouse gas in Washington behind carbon dioxide.

Duerr also plans to revive a bill that would add climate change considerations to the Washington Growth Management Act. In 2021, the House passed the bill and the Senate Ways & Means Committee recommended approval. But it stalled in the Senate’s transportation committee. The proposal would require comprehensive plans, development regulations and regional plans to support state greenhouse gas emission targets and improve resilience to climate impacts and natural hazards.

Her bill would have required climate change to be considered in land-use and shoreline planning for the 10 largest of Washington’s 39 counties and in cities of 6,000 people or larger. The 10 largest counties cover Puget Sound, Spokane, the Yakima River Valley and the Washington-side suburbs of Portland. A legislative memo said 246 county and city governments would be affected, including 110 jurisdictions outside the 10 most populous counties.

The bill called for the state Department of Commerce to set guidelines by 2025 on how those areas can reduce greenhouse gas emissions and vehicle miles traveled. Because 45% of Washington’s greenhouse gas emissionss come from motor vehicles, traffic issues would become a major priority in those guidelines.

In this file photo taken July 24, 2019, a block of houses is surrounded on three sides by a forest in the Cascade foothills of North Bend, Washington. Experts say global warming is changing the region’s seasons, bringing higher temperatures, lower humidity and longer stretches of drought. And that means wildfire risks in coming years will extend into areas that haven’t experienced major burns in residents’ lifetimes. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)

Carlyle, the Seattle senator, plans to introduce a bill to create a “climate resiliency fee” on global financial institutions in Washington.

He wants to add a surcharge to a financial institution’s business and occupation tax, the state’s tax on a firm’s gross income. He expects the surcharge to raise $80 million to $100 million annually for climate resiliency measures, such as creating public cooling centers, relocating infrastructure at risk from floods and sea level rise, and helping farmers and communities obtain critical water supplies during more frequent and severe droughts. The bill would reduce the surcharge as the affected institution decreases its investment in fossil fuels — eventually reaching zero when a bank’s investments in fossil fuel projects reach 5% or less of its 2022 level.

“One of the most profound lessons from the UN Climate Summit conference was that global banks have financed almost three times more fossil fuel than clean energy projects since the Paris Agreement in 2016. At the same time, these same banks have made commitments to design net zero portfolio investments by 2050. This bill is simply asking those funding climate change to pay a modest fee toward the cost that Washington taxpayers are currently spending on climate resiliency,” Carlyle said when he announced the proposed bill. 

A bill introduced by Sen. Jeff Wilson, R-Longview, would require the Washington Department of Ecology to set up a program by 2024 covering how manufacturers of wind turbine blades would recover overused blades and recycle the materials.

CORRECTION: A previous version of this story misstated the number of vessels Washington State Ferries operates in Puget Sound. They have a fleet of 21 ferries, serving 20 terminals on 10 routes.

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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 johnstang_8@hotmail.com and on Twitter at @johnstang_8