Maia Bellon (right) director of the Washington State Deptartment of Ecology, speaks at a press conference, Thursday, overlooking Elliott Bay in Seattle. Washington state environmental regulators finalized a new rule Thursday to limit greenhouse gas emissions from large polluters. (AP Photo / Ted S. Warren)

Maia Bellon (right) director of the Washington State Deptartment of Ecology, speaks at a press conference, Thursday, overlooking Elliott Bay in Seattle. Washington state environmental regulators finalized a new rule Thursday to limit greenhouse gas emissions from large polluters. (AP Photo / Ted S. Warren)

Editorial: State’s Clean Air Rule will help us all breathe easier

By The Herald Editorial Board

Critics may be hyperventilating, but Washington state residents as a whole should breathe a little easier following the news Thursday that the state Department of Ecology had finalized its rule to limit greenhouse gas emissions from the state’s largest carbon polluters to begin to address climate change.

And, yes, we are all on that list.

The new rule, which takes effect in mid-October, will set a cap on carbon emissions, requiring industrial producers of carbon dioxide to reduce emissions by 1.7 percent each year. The cap starts at 100,000 metric tons of carbon a year, and for the first three years will affect the state’s petroleum refineries and natural gas utilities. By 2020, the state’s petroleum importers — and by extension, all drivers and other transportation users — will fall under the cap. The cap will be lowered every three years until it reaches 75,000 metric tons by 2035. The cap limit isn’t expected to reach Boeing’s Everett operations, for example, until 2035.

Businesses can comply with the cap limits by lowering their emissions outright, investing in projects that reduce carbon pollution or buying credits from others in an approved carbon-trading market.

The need for such a rule is evident all around us.

The University of Washington’s Climate Impacts Group has outlined how climate change’s effects on declining snowpack and melting glaciers are expected to decrease streamflow for salmon, agriculture, municipal water supplies and hydropower. Our forests on both sides of the Cascades are likely to experience greater losses from wildfire, insects and disease. Wildlife will also decline in numbers and health as habitat changes and is lost. Coastal habitat also will be lost for marine species as sea levels rise.

A state economic analysis, reported by the Associated Press, showed that the state’s Clean Air Rule is estimated to provide some $9.6 billion in environmental, health and other benefits over its first 20 years, compared to an estimated range of costs to businesses and consumers that runs from $410 million to $6.9 billion over the same period, still well under the expected gains.

Republican legislators have accused Gov. Jay Inslee and the Department of Ecology of executive over-reach for using the agency’s rule-making process to address something that should be left to lawmakers. Inslee proposed a similar carbon cap-and-trade program, as well as a low-carbon fuel-standard, in 2015, but no action followed from the Legislature.

As has happened before, Legislative inaction now has led to a citizen initiative. Voters may force the issue if they approve Initiative 732, which would tax carbon and pass on the revenue to taxpayers by reducing the state sales tax by 1 percentage point. It’s uncertain how I-732 would mesh with the state’s Clean Air Rule.

The state also is facing increasing pressure through the courts. In April, a King County judge ruled in favor of eight children who had sued the state over its failure to reduce greenhouse gases. The state was ordered to adopt a rule capping carbon and make recommendations to the Legislature for further action. The state has appealed the ruling, seeking time while it finalized its rule.

Washington joins a few other states that have such carbon cap programs, including states in New England, and more notably California, which has had a cap-and-trade program for two years. California will need to make adjustments to its program, as demand has fallen for carbon permits that are auctioned off, but that decrease in demand points to the success industry is having in reducing carbon; they don’t need all the allowances available, reports The Los Angeles Times.

California is on pace to meet its goal to reduce overall greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels by 2020, the same goal that Washington state has set with its Clean Air Rule.

The governor and the Department of Ecology have proposed a Clean Air Rule that industry and consumers can adapt to and afford, especially when the costs of inaction loom before us.

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