Orcas, climate, oil spills and more – can Inslee, Dems perform in just 105 days?

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OLYMPIA — A sweeping array of Washington legislative proposals to counter climate change have their best chance to pass into law in 2019 than at any time in recent years.

But it won’t be easy for majority Democrats and Gov. Jay Inslee, a climate action advocate, to get all they want in the 105-day session that began last week.

The thrust to combat climate change comes on the heels of a new Crosscut/Elway poll finding that the number of Washington voters choosing the environment as their top issue doubled — to one out of six voters. Five times that many want action on preventing the smoky wildfires that scientists say will likely increase as the planet warms, the poll showed.

2019 marks the first year in seven that Democrats hold a significant majority in both the House and Senate. Yet Democrats are not guaranteed to be united. They have not fallen uniformly in line behind Inslee on climate policy in the past, assisting in killing a series of climate-policy losses on the governor’s part.

And Republicans are pointing to Washington voters’ rejection of two consecutive citizen initiatives to tax carbon emissions that contribute to global warming. All while state lawmakers have their hands full with other top-rung issues this year.

Those competing priorities include finding more funds for public schools and a daunting overhaul of the state’s mental health system, which has translated into a crisis both on city streets and inside state hospitals.

Throw in a $1.1 billion proposal from Gov. Inslee to improve the survival chances of the critically endangered orcas and also improve Puget Sound health and salmon runs — well, the attention span of 147 legislators will be strained.

Inslee has targeted climate change threats for more than a decade. He and leading Democrats are clamoring for action on multiple fronts in the fight against a warming planet and related crises such as wildfires in forests, increased ocean acidity and rising seas.

“This is a tipping point moment” for action on global warming, Inslee told Capitol reporters recently, noting that ash and smoke from wildfires have reached Washington urban areas in ways that make the growing threats of climate change real even in a relatively green state like Washington.

Inslee added that a dozen new Democratic lawmakers elected in recent cycles will help make a meaningful response a reality — which he promised will also “create jobs by the bushelful” in clean energy fields.

Republicans remain skeptical of Inslee’s efforts, which coincide with his possible run for president, and they are critical of many of the Democrats’ approaches.

House GOP members have favored market incentives rather than energy mandates in the past, and Republican Caucus Leader J.T. Wilcox of Roy foresees a similar approach this time. One member, GOP Rep. Richard DeBolt of Chehalis, is working on a major proposal to reduce emissions using incentives for utilities and manufacturing and also promote the capture of carbon through forestation.

But most Democrats want aggressive action and mandates — especially at a time the Trump administration is backing away from an international climate agreement and undoing federal regulations on power plants.


CLEAN ENERGY GRID

At the top of the environmental agenda is passage of a state policy that requires the region’s electricity grid go 100 percent fossil fuel free by 2045.

The 2045 target for a clean energy grid is a step already taken by California and Hawaii to shift from carbon-emitting fuels to renewables. Under the plan, coal power would cease by 2025 and the grid would become “carbon neutral” by letting utilities use clean energy investments as credits to offset emissions from any remaining carbon-emitting power generation.

Democrats and policy advisers to Inslee say the state is not on track to meet its decade-old goals for carbon-emissions reductions in 2035 or 2045 without taking this step and others. And they say emissions targets need to be tighter to align Washington with the latest science and international climate goals.

Bills championed by Sen. Reuven Carlyle, D-Seattle, and Rep. Joe Fitzgibbon, D-Burien, would require utilities to speed their transition and include a system of offsets for natural-gas-fired electricity after 2030.

These offsets could be as simple as investments in electric vehicle charging stations, home conservation investments or buying other clean energy credits from the renewable energy market. These steps would help utilities raise their share of renewables to 80 percent, according to Inslee energy adviser Lauren McCloy.

Currently the state’s grid is about 75 percent non-carbon emitting but some private utilities are far below that, McCloy said. The relative clean mix is mostly because of the system of federal hydroelectric dams that supply two-thirds of the region’s electricity; most of the remaining carbon-free electricity is from renewables such as wind and solar or nuclear power.

Washington is already expected to see its last coal-fired electrical plant shut down by 2025 in Centralia. And major private utilities such as Puget Sound Energy may end their reliance on power from Montana-based coal plants as soon as 2028.

By 2045 all of the electricity grid would get power from renewables such as wind, solar, biomass, renewable bio-gases or nuclear power.

The potential cost to utility consumers is just one issue that needs to be worked out.

A spokesman for Puget Sound Energy said the utility, which serves much of Western Washington, is still reviewing the legislative proposal.

But Democrats are ready to move, says Rep. Beth Doglio, an Olympia Democrat and longtime advocate for climate action. “It’s time,” Doglio said.


BIO-FUEL BLENDS

A rule to force fuel distributors to blend higher amounts of ethanol, biodiesel and other renewable fuels into gasoline and diesel — for road vehicles — has been a hot button topic at the Legislature for several years.

The transportation sector is the largest emitter of greenhouse gases in Washington, and less carbon content in biofuels could help reduce the emissions.

But as with other of Inslee’s past failed initiatives on climate, this one succumbed to opposition from Republicans friendly to the oil industry. They barred the Senate door to this kind of legislation when they had a slim coalition majority from 2013 to 2017.

The GOP demanded a proviso in a landmark, bipartisan transportation package in 2015 that discouraged Inslee from bypassing legislators to enact a fuels standard by administrative rule. The proviso halted large investments in mass transit if Inslee pursued a rule through the Department of Ecology, effectively outflanking him.

Another Inslee proposal for a state rule capping carbon emissions by major polluters was halted in court.

This time around, Inslee and allies have regrouped and they hope to enact such a fuel-blend mandate by legislative action.

Advocates say the fuel blend law will boost bio-fuel job creation at existing facilities and, according to Fitzgibbon, could even spur oil refiners to get in on bio-fuels production lest they miss out on potential profits. The fuel standard would echo policies already used by California, Oregon and British Columbia.

Odds are better for passage now, but the oil industry employs thousands of workers in high-wage refinery jobs, which it lobbies hard to save.

And the Sacramento-based Western States Petroleum Association, which represents the fuel industry in five states, warns of higher consumer fuel costs.

News reports in California last year estimated the cost impacts at between 4 cents and 8.5 cents a gallon since that state’s rule took effect in 2011. Other reports say the Golden State’s fuel rule could eventually add a cumulative 36 cents to the price of a gallon of gas by 2030.

California has since delayed some fuel-blend targets once set for 2020 to soften price impacts, as noted by the Petroleum Association.

Rep. Fitzgibbon is working on proposals that reach goals later than California’s targets. He said Democrats would seek to phase in a 10 percent reduction in road fuels’ carbon intensity by 2028 and a 20 percent cut by 2035.

In a related move aimed at spurring transportation innovation, Inslee is proposing pilot funding to equip a couple of state ferries as electric hybrids that use less fossil fuel.

U.S. oil companies spent more than $31 million to defeat Washington’s carbon fee proposal, known as Initiative 1631, last November. With a lot potentially at stake for industry, the fuel standard promises to be another battle royale at the Capitol.


BUILDING CODES TIGHTEN

The state Building Code Council revises construction codes for commercial and residential buildings every three years, and the 2018 review is still underway this year.

But climate hawks including Rep. Doglio want to tighten the energy code portion for commercial buildings over the next decade. They would also give individual cities and local governments authority to speed up the pace for adopting energy efficient home goals now scheduled to be met by 2030.

For commercial buildings, the Association of General Contractors of Washington is open to discussing the energy-performance proposals in greater detail. The trade group is not saying absolutely no, said Jerry VanderWood, lobbyist for the construction interests.

Some AGC members are leaders in the green building field, and the group needs to learn more about incentives for building retrofits and other elements of the package that is still being drawn up, according to VanderWood.

But the proposal faces immediate opposition from homebuilders. Currently only Seattle has its own separate energy code, having gone first in this arena years ago, says Jan Himebaugh, government affairs director for the Olympia-based Building Industry Association of Washington.

Himebaugh argues that the value of past upgrades in the code need better assessments to determine how well the housing sector is on pace to meet 2030 code targets that were first set in 2006. She also cautions that changes to energy codes have complicated impacts on building codes.

Himebaugh also fears impacts on housing costs at a time home affordability is at a crisis level. A patchwork of city or county codes could be confusing as well as complicated for builders with multiple projects in different jurisdictions, she argues.

Himebaugh said builders in Thurston County, for instance, could conceivably see different code standards and requirements for homes built in neighboring cities of Olympia, Lacey and Tumwater.

But climate activists note energy-related emissions from buildings are the second largest source of greenhouse gases in the state. Reducing energy consumption in offices and homes may require higher upfront costs but would reduce operations costs over time.


ORCA RECOVERY AND SALMON

Not all of the $1.1 billion Inslee has proposed for orca recovery work is strictly devoted to saving the state’s dwindling population of salmon-eating killer whales, currently at its lowest point in decades at 75 whales.

About $363 million would be used to improve salmon habitat and another $296 million for improved fish-passage upgrades that open habitat on salmon bearing streams, many of them along state highways. And improved fish runs is one piece of a complicated strategy to aid the so-called “southern resident” killer whales.

Puget Sound Indian tribes sued in federal court to force the state’s hand in opening up the passages under bridges and roads to allow salmon to swim through to long-inaccessible spawning grounds. How much is needed remains in dispute, though state budget director David Schumacher argues the state is on pace to meet goals set by courts by 2030.

But Justin Parker, executive director of the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission, says tribes are skeptical, believing the state’s progress is falling short and that the new proposal may not be enough.

In order to boost the amount of money available for culvert work and to ensure funding over the long haul, Inslee is proposing a three-tier for the state real estate excise tax on sales tied to development. The governor’s proposal would tax people selling property worth more than $1 million more than those selling property worth less than $250,000.

Washington Realtors are keeping a wary eye on the tax change, believing it may not deliver much tax relief to many home buyers because of the dearth of homes selling for less than $250,000.

But the organization, which has supported transportation infrastructure investments in the past, has not formally come out against it, according to Nathan Gorton, government relations director for the Realtors association.

Getting help for cities and counties to also replace culverts that are downstream from the state’s fish-passage backlog is a priority for some lawmakers in both parties, including Rep. Doglio and Rep. Wilcox.

Inslee is also calling for laws doubling the distance vessels must stay away from killer whales, to 400 yards, and a go-slow zone for all vessels within a half-mile of the “southern resident” orcas, the ones that visit Puget Sound. He also called for a three-year ban on whale watching targeting the southern residents. When vessels are too close to the animals, it interferes with their ability to locate prey — primarily salmon — using echolocation.

And Inslee is piggybacking two other orca-friendly measures with broader implications for the health of Puget Sound: requiring tugboats to more extensively guide oil tankers and barges, and station an emergency response tugboat to help protect areas like the San Juan Islands, where the risk of oil spills is high. He also advocates investments in fish hatcheries to dramatically increase stocks of salmon that the orca feed on.

Tribes expect to look carefully at any impacts the expanded hatcheries have on threatened runs of native salmon, which can be hurt by cross-breeding with hatchery-raised fish.

Other orca and fish-related proposals deal with water quality rule changes to allow more water spill over Columbia River dams. More water to speed the flow of the river and boost survival of salmon smolts headed to sea could also boost survival for the endangered orcas that feed on coastal fish stocks.

The most ardent salmon and orca advocates want to see removal of four dams on the Snake River, a major Columbia tributary, which would benefit salmon — and by extension, orcas — by helping little fish get out to see more safely and spawning adults return more successfully. However, Republicans from Eastern Washington have been dead set against dam removal, which was not recommended by either the governor’s task force or Inslee, and it seems unlikely the Legislature would go that far this year.

Rep. Doglio and her Senate counterparts are developing a bill to curb use of toxic chemicals that end up in waterways or contaminate habitat used by the Puget Sound orcas. Toxics cleanups worth millions of dollars also are proposed.

Other legislators are proposing bills to cut down on plastic trash by banning single-use plastic bags still used in many areas of the state by grocers and retailers. Seattle, Tacoma and San Juan and Thurston counties have already banned that use. But one critic with the conservative Washington Policy Center argues that use of cotton cloth reusable bags in lieu of plastics is more energy intensive overall.

This story has been corrected to show the phase-out of coal power under SB5116 would be required by 2025.

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