Washington state releases plan to cut carbon emissions

The state’s largest polluters will need to begin reducing their carbon emissions.

Maia Bellon, right, director of the Washington State Dept. of Ecology, speaks at a press conference. CREDIT: AP PHOTO/TED S. WARREN
Maia Bellon, right, director of the Washington State Dept. of Ecology, speaks at a press conference. CREDIT: AP PHOTO/TED S. WARREN

On Thursday, Washington state adopted new rules that will force large polluters to begin curbing their greenhouse gas emissions. The rules come after a lengthy process that began last year when Gov. Jay Inslee (D-WA) directed the state’s Department of Ecology to develop a regulatory cap on carbon emissions in the state.

“When we consider the challenges our communities face from climate change, we are compelled to act,” state Ecology Director Maia Bellon said at a news conference announcing the finalization of the rule.

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The rule will compel the state’s largest polluters to decrease their carbon emissions by an average of 1.7 percent annually. Those reduction requirements will only apply, at first, to the state’s largest polluters — those industries that emit at least 100,000 metric tons of carbon each year. In time, the restrictions will be tightened to include more businesses that emit less carbon pollution.

According to the Associated Press, Republican lawmakers in the state have been critical of Inslee’s approach, arguing that he should not have directed the Department of Ecology to act through executive action, and instead worked a rule through the legislature. Inslee has tried that approach in the past, however, and been stymied by the State House and Senate. Last year, he attempted to move a cap-and-trade bill through the legislature, only to see the bill fail during the 2015 legislative session.

So Inslee announced in July of last year that he would be directing the Department of Ecology to create a cap on carbon emissions through the agency’s existing authority to regulate pollution. The initial draft of the rule covered 40 businesses that are among the largest polluters in the state; but that draft rule was withdrawn after industries complained that it would have a negative impact on their business.

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A court ruling in May re-opened the issue, however, when a judge ruled that the Department of Ecology had to deliver an emissions reduction rule by the end of the year. The ruling came from litigation related to Our Children’s Trust, a group that has filed suits in states across the nation arguing that federal and state governments are failing to protect the public trust — in this case, the atmosphere — through inaction on climate change.

The finalized rule released Thursday covers far fewer businesses than the draft rule — only two dozen businesses will initially be required to reduce their carbon emissions.

In November, voters in Washington state will have the chance to vote for another method of curbing carbon emissions in the state through Initiative 732, which would place a price on carbon throughout the state. The initiative, based on the popular carbon tax in British Columbia, is written to begin at $25 per ton of carbon pollution from fossil fuels and increase gradually at rate of 3.5 percent, plus inflation, every year until 2059. Unlike the Department of Ecology’s plan, the carbon tax would affect all producers — and consumers — of fossil fuels, not just the largest producers in the state.

The carbon tax has been controversial among environmental groups in the state, with many opposing the initiative for not reinvesting the funds gained from the carbon tax into supporting green energy and infrastructure, and for excluding low-income and communities of color in its drafting process.

But environmental groups throughout the state took a more positive — if still measured — tone on Thursday, in light of the finalized rules from the Department of Ecology.

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“The Governor took important executive action by crafting the Clean Air Rule,” Sasha Pollack, Climate and Clean Energy Program Director for the Washington Environmental Council — a group that come out in opposition to Initiative 732 — said in a statement. “We look forward to seeing it implemented but in the long run we must continue to work toward a comprehensive climate policy that prices and reduces emissions and reinvests in accelerating the transition to a clean energy economy and in the communities most impacted by climate change and the economic transition.”

Vlad Gutman-Britten, Washington director for ClimateSolutions, echoed Pollack’s views that the Department of Ecology’s rule was an important first step, but that more action would ultimately be needed to curb the state’s carbon emissions.

“We appreciate Governor Inslee’s ongoing commitment to putting Washington on a path to a clean energy transition,” Gutman-Britten said in a statement. “The Clean Air Rule is only the first step to creating a robust policy that drives pollution reduction and invests in creating tens of thousands of jobs in a new, sustainable economy.”

Youth petitioners in the legal case that jump-started the final rule were less than pleased with the rule’s scope, however, with cimate scientist James Hansen, who is a plaintiff in the federal climate lawsuit, arguing that a 1.7 percent reduction is not much different from a business-as-usual scenario.

“Ecology’s new rule fails us children in every possible way,” Gabe Mandell, a youth petitioner in the case, said in a statement. “It ignores the judge’s ruling that we have the right to a healthful and pleasant atmosphere. Talking about the dire consequences of climate change, yet planning to let big polluters off the hook shows real disrespect for my generation and generations to come.”

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A state economic analysis estimates that implementing the rules could cost businesses in the state anywhere from $410 million to $6.9 billion over a 20 year period, but notes that the rules will also generate some $6.9 billion in benefits over the same period of time due to improvements in environmental conditions and public health.

UPDATE: This post has been updated to include a statement from Our Children’s Trust.