Group divided over how to cut emissions in state

SEATTLE — Gov. Jay Inslee stood with the governors of California and Oregon and a Canadian province official several weeks ago and agreed to put a price on greenhouse gas pollution and mandate the use of cleaner-burning fuels.

Environmental groups cheered the news, and the climate deal got wide media attention. But the governor faces a tougher sell in Olympia as he tries in coming months to persuade lawmakers to back some of his more ambitious carbon-reducing ideas.

A bipartisan group formed by the Legislature has been meeting since spring to recommend cost-effective strategies. With a Dec. 31 deadline to finalize a report, there appears to be little agreement yet on strategies.

“We’ve reached a point in the process where folks’ philosophical differences are becoming clearer than ever,” Rep. Joe Fitzgibbon, D-Burien, said last month. “At the (Nov. 6) meeting, it seemed clear that it’s going to be very difficult for us to get a majority vote for any meaningful recommendation.”

The five-member group, which includes the governor as a non-voting member, meets again Friday. A public hearing is scheduled for Dec. 13 in Olympia. Any recommendation needs approval from at least three panelists. The group is split along party lines on many ideas.

Inslee spokeswoman Jaime Smith said Wednesday the governor is confident the group will come up with some productive recommendations. Inslee favors some ambitious strategies, including capping carbon pollution, phasing out coal-fired electricity, investing in clean energy research and developing lower carbon fuel standards.

A 2008 state law called for Washington to return to 1990 greenhouse gas emissions levels by 2020, and for greater reductions beyond that. In 2010, Washington state emitted 96 million metric tons of carbon dioxide, up from about 88.4 million a decade earlier.

Sen. Doug Ericksen, R-Ferndale, one of two Republicans on the group, has noted there’s no penalty for not meeting those climate goals.

“In 2008, the Legislature passed nonbinding goals of reducing carbon with absolutely no mandate or teeth,” said Ericksen, who is chairman of the Senate’s energy, environment and telecommunications committee.

Meanwhile, the other Republican on the panel, Rep. Shelly Short, has said lawmakers could revisit that 2008 law if it doesn’t work economically for businesses and citizens. Short, who represents a district in northeastern Washington, wants to see the state maximize its hydroelectric power or tap conservation strategies.

Sen. Kevin Ranker, D-Orcas Island, says the state must consider bolder proposals, such as a cap-and-trade program, low-carbon fuels or working with utilities to transition away from coal-powered electricity.

Ranker said he’s optimistic about a bipartisan legislative agreement. But failing that, he said, the state needs to move forward, whether through citizen initiative or executive order.

Jessica Finn Coven, state director for Climate Solutions, said some proposals could be accomplished outside the Legislature. In 2011, former Gov. Chris Gregoire reached an agreement with TransAlta to shut down its boilers at the state’s only coal-fired power plant by 2025. The Sierra Club and other environmentalists are urging Puget Sound Energy to stop buying coal-fired electricity. The Bellevue-based utility has been a leader in wind energy, but relies on coal for 30 percent of its electricity mix.

PSE spokesman Grant Ringel said the utility realizes customers want cleaner energy but it also must balances the need to keep electric bills affordable.

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