The Politics Blog

Climate change: Gov. Inslee favors pollution cap, other steps to meet state emissions goals

OlympianOctober 14, 2013 

Gov. Jay Inslee, second from right, chairs Monday's climate workgroup meeting in Olympia.

BRAD SHANNON — The Olympian

Gov. Jay Inslee said Monday he supports an absolute cap on carbon-fuel emissions in Washington as one of a half-dozen ideas he thinks can get the state closer to reaching goals set in 2008 for cutting the greenhouse gas emissions linked to global warming.

The cap was one of a half-dozen ideas Inslee floated during a meeting Monday of the Climate Legislative Executive Workgroup that the Legislature created in response to his request this year to bring greenhouse gas emissions back on the state’s political agenda. 

“It is clear to me there is no silver bullet,” Inslee said. “There is green buckshot if you will.”

Making his comments two days before the CLEW team goes on the road to meet with the public in hearings at Spokane and Seattle, Inslee said the state needs a “belt and suspenders, economy-wide approach to capping emissions.” 

The governor’s comments – and the two Republican panelists’ skeptical views that contrasted with the Democratic panelists’ – gave clues to the uncertain path forward if Washington is going to adopt a plan for reducing greenhouse gases by 2020, 2035 and 2050, which is already written into state law as a goal. 

The Democratic governor, who campaigned last year on a clean-energy agenda, did not get into details about how a cap could function or whether he favors a California-style “cap and trade” system that lets companies that reduce pollution below limits to trade or sell pollution credits. He notably left a carbon tax – which might compete with his ongoing backing of a gas tax increase to improve highways and bridges – off his list of preferred options.

Inslee’s favored approach includes a low-carbon fuel standard for transportation, which is the state’s biggest single source of greenhouse gases linked to global warming and ocean acidification (transportation accounts for 44 percent of the state’s carbon emissions). He also favors a phase out of coal-fired electricity supplies, more energy efficiency in existing buildings, more investments in clean energy and planning changes that reduce transportation-related emissions.

The Sierra Club put out a statement calling Inslee’s general approach the “boldest in the nation.”

But Republicans on the panel were skeptical and they publicly worried about the cost – and effectiveness – of any steps the state might take.

Sen. Doug Ericksen, R-Ferndale, and Rep. Shelly Short, R-Addy, both voiced concerns that the consultants hired by the workgroup have not yet identified the impact on consumers and industries if the cost of fuels goes up in Washington as a result of the climate actions.  Ericksen said the workgroup is supposed to offer a menu of choices for lawmakers to consider in January, and he wants “a price tag for each individual policy” that could be considered.

Ericksen said that if the Legislature is asked next year to approve new policies to get the state in compliance with pollution goals for 2020 and 2050, individual lawmakers' decisions will be influenced by costs. He questioned what might happen if they learn the result of some policies is to send Boeing Commercial Airplanes’ manufacturing work to another state that had lower carbon fuel costs and more greenhouse gas emissions.

Ericksen also suggested that nuclear power could have a role to play.

Inslee said a carbon-pollution cap would be technology neutral in that it would favor any alternative to carbon-based fuels that helped reduce carbon pollution linked to global warming. He said there would not be discrimination between such varied approaches as solar, wind or nuclear power generation.

Short said after the meeting she thinks the committee is going through a “really valid process” but she finds the lack of details on costs from consultant firm SAIC is "really frustrating.'' "I think one of the clear charges was the economic impacts. I think we need that and the cost effectiveness (of policies) to determine what makes sense for Washington state,” Short said.

Short said she is still hopeful of getting the details she wants before the committee starts voting in November on recommendations to the Legislature. If she can’t get the data, Short said she thinks lawmakers can pass a budget proviso next year to specifically request the additional details.

“I think clearly I don't plan on making decisions that are going to impact Washington state citizens without having that information. And that's where I'm at,'' she said. "I'm going to look at the cost effectiveness and that's going to be the determinant for me on supporting policies.''

Short also spoke in favor of energy conservation incentives.

Inslee elaborated on his carbon cap idea during a short walking interview on his way back to his office after the workgroup meeting. Although he declined to say why he wasn’t looking at a carbon tax like what British Columbia has in place, Inslee did say:

"My preference at the moment is to have an economy-wide cap on emissions and use market based mechanisms to distribute that allocation right for the emissions. I think it's a preferable way because it combines the certainty of the cap or an absolute limit with using the market as the most efficient way to address where the allocation of the emissions are. I think both of those are important.''

Inslee added:

"I think the certainty of a cap is very important. If you adopt an economy wide cap you get something - you get a cap, an enforceable limit on the amount of carbon pollution ... that's a very attractive and necessary thing. So in my mind, getting those two options from what I know today is the preferable way.''

Asked if that meant he favored the cap and trade scheme used by California – which lets industries invest in low-carbon technologies and then sell any excess pollution capacity they have under the cap to other industries, he said declined to say.

"What you do under the cap, there are a variety of things you can do,'' Inslee said.

Inslee’s other ideas:

  • Adopt policies to reduce carbon in the use of fuels for transportation by adopting a standard or limit on the carbon content of fuels. That idea reflects the consultant SAIC’s report that 44 percent of the state’s greenhouse gases are from the transportation sector, and Inslee said “we are going to look for the single most cost effective way” to get there.
  • Reduce carbon in the state’s electricity power supply. That includes the planned phase out of coal-fired power plants run by TransAlta at Centralia; the firm is replacing one plant with cleaner natural gas starting in 2021 and the other starting operations in 2026. Puget Sound Energy also relies on coal power from Montana for about 30 percent of its electricity supply.
  • Launch a push for energy efficiency in buildings.
  • Lastly he wants to change transportation planning and investment to encourage moving people with the least emissions and cost. He mentioned pilot programs for modernizing the transportation system but gave little detail.

Democrats on the committee besides the governor include Sen. Kevin Ranker of Orcas Island and Rep. Joe Fitzgibbon of West Seattle. Ranker, unable to attend after fog kept his flight from leaving the island, sent a letter to the committee that outlined his support for a “comprehensive multisector cap on emissions.’’


Ranker said a cap approach could be combined with a cap and trade concept or other scheme, and he said it is important that any plan cover a majority of emissions and give certainty to carbon-pollution emitters so they can make long-term decisions. He also said the state could adopt policies to speed the end of coal-fired power by Washington utilities and that big gains could be made by improving the efficiency of old buildings.

Fitzgibbons said that like Ericksen he does not know which technologies will make meaningful reductions in greenhouse gases in the future. But he said research and development could spur answers. Like Ranker, he spoke in favor of retrofitting existing buildings as a way to reduce energy use and boost jobs, and he spoke in favor of a carbon-standard for fuel and using planning policies to encourage fewer miles traveled by vehicle.

The CLEW workgroup now heads around the state to talk about the emissions targets and find out what the public thinks in a pair of meetings. The first is Wednesday in Spokane and the second is Oct. 23 in Seattle.

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