Despite industry opposition, a budget shortfall and vows by Republican lawmakers to focus on economic recovery alone this session, environmentalists in Olympia had reason to celebrate Monday, with two of their biggest legislative priorities moving on ahead of the deadline for voting bills out of their houses of origin.
The Environmental Priorities Coalition, which represents 24 environmental groups in the state, started off the year with four main legislative goals: end coal-fired electricity generation, limit phosphorus pollution from fertilizer, fund stormwater cleanup and mitigate budget cuts to environmental programs.
Ahead of Monday’s deadline for the each house to vote on its own policy bills, the Legislature passed bills to end coal power and limit phosphorus Representatives from the environmental lobby said they were pleased with the progress so far.
“I think we’re having a great conversation about how smart policies can improve the economy and clean up our environment,” said Environmental Priorities Coalition spokesman, Craig Benjamin. “As difficult as things are, we’re realistic about things moving forward, but we’re also optimistic.”
A bill to phase out coal power in Washington passed the Senate 36-13 Saturday; another measure to limit when and where people can use fertilizer that contains phosphorus passed the House in a 58-39 vote last week, and bills in both houses that would add a fee to petroleum products to pay for stormwater cleanup had hearings in February.
One of the most significant steps forward so far, said Benjamin, was the announcement Saturday that the governor and TransAlta, the state’s only coal-fired power plant had reached an agreement to shift entirely to greener electricity sources.
“We’re really excited,” Benjamin said. “This agreement is a model for how you can transition to coal-free energy throughout the U.S.”
Senate Bill 5769 would require TransAlta to phase out coal in one of its boilers by the end of 2020 and the other at the end of 2025.
TransAlta spokeswoman Angela Mallow said the company was happy with the revised bill, which, in an earlier form, drew strong opposition from the company’s workers and executives.
Key provisions in the legislation that made it acceptable to the company, Mallow said, were the gradual shutdown of the two boilers and an expedited permit process included in the bill that will allow TransAlta to build a new natural gas-fired power plant by 2020.
In another victory for environmentalists, a bill to limit phosphorus fertilizer use, House Bill 1489, made the March 7 cutoff in a floor vote last week, but it faced concerted Republican opposition, with only three Republican lawmakers joining Democrats in support of the measure.
The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Andrew Billig, D-Spokane, said the measure was a “common-sense, clean-water bill,” and he thought it had a good chance of passing the Senate.
Washington Ecology Department spokeswoman Sandy Howard said phosphorus can be harmful because phosphorus runoff causes algae blooms, and the bacteria that decompose dead algae use up oxygen in the water, harming aquatic life.
Although they saw two of their priorities move forward recently, environmental groups have run up against some obstacles so far, said Clifford Traisman, lobbyist for Washington Conservation Voters and the Environmental Priorities Coalition.
Bills to limit stormwater pollution, for example, House Bill 1735 and Senate Bill 5604, have been stalled in committee by the oil and gas industry, Traisman said.
Frank Holmes, the Northwest Region Director for the Western States Petroleum Association said those measures would put an unfair burden on the oil and gas industry.
“It’s a very onerous bill,” Holmes said. “In reality it’s a tax, a tax on only two components on the list of threats to the Puget Sound: petroleum and agriculture.”
The bill would add a fee of 1 percent of the wholesale value of petroleum products, herbicides, pesticides and fertilizers when they enter the state and dedicate the money to cleaning up or preventing stormwater pollution, which can contaminate drinking water and damage habitat for fish and wildlife.
Benjamin said the environmental lobby would keep pushing for the stormwater proposals to pass because there are no other options on the table for funding stormwater cleanup in the state, and the burden for doing so tends to fall on local governments.
Environmentalists will have more time to work on that issue than they did on the phosphorus and coal bills because it relates to the state budget, and bills that are necessary to implement the budget do not have to make the same cutoff deadlines as policy bills.
Bills relating to the final priority on the environmental agenda this session – adding fees to state industry to mitigate cuts to environmental programs – probably won’t be introduced until later in the session when the Legislature begins work on the biennial budget.
Republican leaders said that they would like to see the environmental agenda postponed until the state economy improves, arguing that it sent the wrong message to voters to spend time on environmental bills when job creation and addressing the state’s budget shortfall should be top priorities.
“Our concern going into this whole session was: we’re focused in on trying to solve a budget problem,” said Rep. Charles Ross, a Naches Republican and the House Minority Floor Leader. “We were hoping to see the Legislature just kind of hold the ground on the environmental communities and not aggressively create new programs.”
Katie Schmidt: 360-786-1826 firstname.lastname@example.org