AUBURN — Washington Gov. Jay Inslee is likely in 2015 to roll out some of the most ambitious proposals in the nation to reduce carbon pollution, such as a bill to cap greenhouse gases, but unless Democrats can make gains in the state Senate on Tuesday, he’ll face a tougher challenge.
The Democratic governor is hoping for allies next legislative session when he is likely to introduce a bill to cap greenhouse gases through a market-based system, whether a carbon tax or a cap-and-trade program.
Inslee is also studying a mandate for cleaner fuels, similar to California’s first-in-the-nation standard, though he says he could take executive action without legislative approval.
Inslee and his Democratic allies need to win control of the 49-member Senate, which is controlled by a mostly Republican coalition, to increase the likelihood of his proposals’ success.
But critics, including Republican state lawmakers, worry the proposals could hurt working families and businesses and say there are other ways to encourage people to reduce pollution.
“We’re already pretty clean and we’re moving in the right direction without the heavy hand of government,” said Senate Republican Leader Mark Schoesler of Ritzville. The state gets a majority of its electricity from hydropower and the state’s only coal-fired power plant is slated to close in 2025, he said.
Inslee says the state can find solutions to curb carbon pollution while also spurring jobs and economic growth.
“The decision people will make this November can have a huge ramification on the course of our state,” Inslee said during an interview Tuesday, while on a stop of his statewide tour to highlight the challenges communities face because of climate change.
In Auburn, local leaders told Inslee about a project where a levee was set back from the Green River to protect homes and businesses from future intense flooding. Inslee credited them for not arguing over the issue but “rolling up their sleeves” to do something.
“We’re hopeful the Legislature will respond as well,” he added.
That same day, the governor’s task force met in Seattle to finalize a report evaluating a carbon tax or cap-and-trade program, which is due Nov. 21.
According to an Oct. 15 draft report, the group doesn’t appear to be leaning toward one choice but note the advantages of both, and said there are challenges in designing and implementing a program that would require thoughtful policy decisions.
The state Office of Financial Management ran two scenarios with a low carbon price and a high one, and found there was a positive, though small, effect on jobs, gross domestic product and personal income with varying effects across industries. Some sectors such as electric power generation and construction, for example, would see more job gains than others such as natural gas and pipelines.
Schoesler criticized the task force as “pretty much set up for a predetermined outcome.”
California and an alliance of Northeast states currently have a cap-and-trade system, which sets a limit on emissions of heat-trapping gases and requires companies to pay for each ton of pollution they emit.
Meanwhile, Washington state is evaluating whether to pursue a clean fuel standard, which requires fuels over time to be blended with biodiesel, ethanol or other low-carbon alternatives.
Critics have raised fears that it would increase prices at the pump and questioned whether there is sufficient supply to meet the standard. State Republican leaders have seized on a high estimate of $1 a gallon, based on a report commissioned by the Western States Petroleum Association.
But a new draft report released by the state Wednesday says the mandate could raise gasoline prices by 2 cents in 2020 to 10 cents by 2026. It also found that there would be a small, mostly positive, impact on the state economy compared to doing nothing.
“It’s all within normal fluctuations. It’s much, much less than what we’ve heard from the industry,” said Jessica Finn Coven, Washington state director for Climate Solutions. “The point of the policy is to give people more fuel choices.”
The new analysis isn’t likely to end debate. Schoesler called the estimates rosy and optimistic.
Inslee says the state is still examining the details of a standard and that he hasn’t made a decision.
He added: “This is our moment to shine as a state and really build a clean energy economy.”