Environmentalists win historic gains in Legislature despite a few stumbles

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OLYMPIA — Environmentalists scored big victories — of historic size, especially on climate-change — but also suffered a few significant setbacks at the Washington Legislature’s 2019 session. Big Oil sustained one significant loss but also pulled off a perhaps unlikely major win given the political winds. And the winners also include the insurance industry, which was able to head off extra fees on insurance policies to fund efforts to reduce the threat of wildfires.

The greens’ political wins clearly outweighed the losses — especially on clean energy policies and most legislation proposed to protect dwindling salmon runs and save endangered Puget Sound orca whales.

Overall, it appears lawmakers also improved funding for natural resources programs — boosting funding for environment-related agencies to nearly 2.15 percent in the state’s 2019-2021 operating budget and also providing hundreds of millions more dollars in capital funds for habitat and other projects. This represents a slightly higher percentage than in the current biennium, which ends June 30, but it is still well below the 2.7 percent of a decade ago before the Great Recession hit.

Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee, who is making federal action on climate change the centerpiece of his 2020 presidential campaign, called the grueling 105-day session an “epic’’ year — one he’s counting on to propel him on the presidential campaign trail, where he has made climate change his signature issue.

Meanwhile, a coalition of more than 20 advocacy groups said flatly that 2019 produced the greatest environmental gains in more than a decade.

“Last November, Washington elected one of the largest pro-environmental legislative classes in our state’s history and we all see the results,” Joan Crooks, chief executive officer for Washington Conservation Voters and the Washington Environmental Council, said in a statement released by the statewide Environmental Priorities Coalition. “Together with long-time champions, these first-year legislators have shaken our state capitol awake. People called for environmental progress and Washington just delivered.”

The year’s biggest steps forward for environmentalists include the nation’s most sweeping clean-electricity law. It will require 100 percent of the state’s electricity to come from non-fossil-fuel sources by 2045. The legislation also phases out the use of coal after 2025.

These mandates were the centerpiece of Senate Bill 5116, one of a handful of bills aimed at moving Washington off dependence on fossil fuels as part of an ambitious state strategy to fight climate change.

Washington is already more than halfway there, because some 70 percent of electricity comes from hydro-electric dams or nuclear plants. Other newly passed policies will improve the energy efficiency of large existing buildings and set higher standards for new buildings and appliances such as water heaters, making it easier to meet power demands using renewable or nuclear sources.

Any new costs that fall on taxpayers and consumers for these policies may take years to be felt, according to Republicans who fought in vain to halt the environmental juggernaut that bulldozed their objections at nearly every turn. By then, legislators who voted for the policies will be long gone, the GOP says.

“In times when things are prosperous, it’s easy not to sweat the details. If things don’t affect you for five or six years, it’s easy,” Senate Republican Leader Mark Schoesler of Ritzville said of impacts from Democratic policies, which he fears will harm people especially in rural areas. “Most of the (legislators) guilty of this will be gone before this is felt by consumers.”

Also winning passage was a bill to protect fish habitat by toughening regulatory sanctions for those who violate stream and shoreline codes. Other bills will ban or eliminate more environmental toxics and restore threatened fish and killer whale populations.

There were significant defeats for environmentalists, chiefly the failure to adopt a measure to reduce the climate impacts of cars and trucks by requiring less carbon-intensive fuels. Also, legislative budget writers fell far short of paying for repairs to fish passageways along salmon-bearing streams, which is a state obligation after Puget Sound tribes won a lawsuit last year at the U.S. Supreme Court.

It remains unclear how legislators will answer the Supreme Court’s requirement that they fix culverts — big pipes that carry streams underneath bridges and roads — that were poorly designed or have broken, blocking salmon from prime spawning habitat on more than 1,000 miles of streams. Inslee wanted $275 million for the next installment of culverts work, but legislators provided just $100 million from the transportation budget.

The federal court injunction on culverts requires the state to spend some $3.8 billion by 2030 to remove fish-passage barriers on streams – meaning that for the first two of 12 years until the deadline, the state plans to spend less than 3 percent of the total.

“We are extremely disappointed in the Legislature’s last-minute decision to underfund culvert removal,” said Lorraine Loomis, chair of the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission, an umbrella group representing 20 Western Washington tribes.

This year marked the first two-year budget cycle in several when the Legislature was not under orders of the state Supreme Court to improve state funding of K-12 public schools. But lawmakers were under pressure of courts to find money for mental health needs. Unlike with culverts, lawmakers found millions to invest in new mental health treatment space and staffing.

Now for a closer look at some of the legislative wins and losses by sector:

TOXIC POLLUTION AND TAXING OIL

Majority Democrats found themselves stymied by Senate Republican majorities beginning in 2013, Inslee’s first year in office, from acting decisively on environmental bills. Democrats won back the Senate by a single vote in fall 2017 and then built larger majorities in both chambers in the 2018 elections, which gave them more clout than they’d enjoyed in years.

And some members amazed themselves by the breadth of what they accomplished this year.

For example, Democrats were able to overcome oil-company opposition and enact the first hazardous materials tax increase on crude oil in more than three decades, with the proceeds to be used for cleanup of toxic pollutants. Voters had set the initial tax rate by passing Initiative 97 in 1988, when Ronald Reagan was finishing his second term as president, and industry killed all efforts since then to adjust the rate.

This beefed-up investment in toxic cleanups was part of a larger effort by legislators of both parties to help recover endangered and threatened runs of salmon and Puget Sound killer whales.

Highlights of that tax increase in SB 5993 include:

  • The bill raises the Model Toxics Control Act tax rate on oil and other hazardous substances, in effect, by more than 50 percent. This means the state will collect about $475 million in 2019-21, up from about $310 million expected under current rates. This is a rare loss for Big Oil.
  • This additional money means that the state for the first time is earmarking about $50 million per two-year budget cycle for cleaning up dirty rainwater running off streets and other hard surfaces. The cleanup of so-called “stormwater” projects previously had no dedicated revenue stream.

The shift of toxics tax revenues to the transportation budget to address storm water drew complaints from the GOP, but environmentalists argued that better management of storm flows can help the state avoid recontamination of waterways that have been cleaned up, as has happened in Commencement Bay and elsewhere.

Advocates for ports, cities and counties argued that additional cleanup funding makes it easier for local governments to partner with the state and land owners to clean up contamination and return sites to productive economic activities that more than repay the cost of cleanup.

Passage of the legislation may stop the Legislature’s practice of swiping cash from toxic cleanup accounts to fill budget gaps elsewhere in state government. The bill sponsor, Democratic Sen. David Frockt of Seattle, says the measure should halt the transfers, make tax receipts more predictable year-to-year, and provide enough extra funds that the state can finance $40 million more in cleanup costs.

The measure increases the toxics tax burden on crude oil from the equivalent of about 70 cents per barrel today to $1.09. It also changes the way the state levies taxes on hazardous substances, basing it on the volume of crude oil rather than the fluctuating value or price of the product when it is brought into the state. That fluctuating value, which ranged from below $30 per barrel to over $100 for crude oil during the past dozen years, is another reason that revenues for toxic cleanup accounts varied year to year.

The Western States Petroleum Association, which represents oil refiners in several western states including five refineries in Washington, and Republicans warned that higher refinery costs could backfire on the state and put at risk thousands of high-paying jobs, which average nearly $130,000 in pay and even more in benefits.

The bill awaits Gov. Inslee’s signature.

ORCA AND SALMON RECOVERY

The killer whales, or orcas, that frequent Puget Sound captured public attention last summer when one orca mother was seen swimming and pulling her dead calf for weeks in a remarkable display of grief.

But concerns about the survival of the so-called southern resident killer whales, which number just 75 compared to more than 200 historically, has long been a priority for environmentalists, who have often made common cause with tribes on related salmon-recovery efforts.

Faced with the threat of killer whale extinction, Inslee created a task force of experts and interest groups last year that studied the orcas’ problems, which include a shortage of food both when the mammals are in the Pacific Ocean or in the Sound. They eat mostly chinook salmon, whose numbers have been battered by more than a century of habitat destruction and hydroelectric dams on the Columbia River and elsewhere, as well as fisheries.

The task force came up with nearly 40 recommendations including calls to end whale watching in the Puget Sound, enactment of larger go-slow zones around orcas, stronger regulatory tools for agencies in charge of protecting habitat, and major investments in salmon stocks, salmon hatcheries and fish habitat.

“We are very happy with this legislative session. It was a major success for the orca task force’s recommendations,” said Stephanie Solien, who co-chaired the task force with former Evergreen State College president Les Purce. Solien said the governor and lawmakers listened to what the panels of experts were recommending and largely put the advice to work.

  • The governor proposed some $1.07 billion in funding that would target the needs of the orca, including reductions of toxics flowing into Puget Sound, and the salmon runs on which the killer whales depend for sustenance. Inslee secured about $933 million toward those orca and fish recovery goals.
  • The overall investment includes more than $435 million in the construction budget to acquire or protect habitat important to fish and killer whales.
  • The biggest gaps between what was requested and funded were fish hatcheries — $75 million in new funds requested but $40 million provided – and the stream culverts for salmon. Hatcheries are controversial because while they produce additional chinook salmon for orcas, people and other animals to eat, they have been shown to affect the genetic makeup of wild runs.

Some of the major policy changes recommended by the task force were also approved by the Legislature:

  • HB 1579 gives the state Department of Fish and Wildlife the authority already utilized by other environmental enforcement agencies to issue stop work orders and to fine contractors or landowners when they violate state laws meant to protect fish habitat. This is important because, in Puget Sound, there is a need to protect the small forage fish eaten by salmon including smelt, which spawn on beaches where there is enough gravel or sand accumulating to allow them to lay eggs. These smelt and other fish are key to the diet of salmon, which are the dietary mainstay of the orcas. The House measure gives DFW new enforcement powers, including the ability to issue a stop-work order or levy fines of up to $10,000 for egregious cases.
  • A proposed moratorium on commercial whale watching didn’t pass. The task force recommended it because the noise of boats interferes with the special ways orcas locate their prey, “echolocation,” which involves the whales to emit sound waves and then listen for them to bounce back when they hit an object in the water such as a chinook salmon.
  • SB 5577 expands a buffer zone around orcas and reduces the speed limit to 7 knots for vessels less than a half-mile from the mammals. Sponsored by Democratic Sen. Christine Rolfes of Bainbridge Island, it is meant to reduce noise that interferes with the orcas’ ability to find prey. The bill also creates licenses and fees for commercial whale watching.
  • HB 1578, sponsored by Democratic Rep. Debra Lekanoff of Bow, launches new requirements to protect against oil spills in Rosario Strait, between Canada and the United States, where the amount of oil carried by tankers from Canada may soon increase up to eight times as much oil for export to Asia. The legislation requires vessels transiting the area to be escorted by a tug that can help keep an oil-bearing vessel from running aground and causing an oil spill.

CULVERT REPAIRS FOR SALMON PASSAGE

The biggest failure in salmon recovery involved funding for projects that remove fish-passage barriers on streams.

Legislators arguably had competing demands.

Their $4.9 billion capital-construction budget provided close to $2 billion for projects benefiting K-12 schools and state higher education institutions. But the capital budget allocates just over $26 million for removals or upgrades of about 50 fish barriers that are under the jurisdiction of local governments.

That compares to a potentially 4,000 local-government projects in the greater Puget Sound and coastal areas that could cost over $10 billion, according to a new infrastructure report issued by the Association of Washington Business and associations for city, county and port governments.

Whether tribes go back to the federal courts to seek additional leverage for state funding remains to be seen. Lorraine Loomis, chair of the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission, called the new state spending plan “a serious setback in meeting the federal court’s order.”

The Department of Transportation has said that even with $275 million this budget cycle, the state would have needed more than $700 million per biennium to meet the court orders by 2030.

Court rulings in the 1970s established that Puget Sound tribes had rights to harvest half of the salmon returning to streams from the ocean under federal treaties they signed in the mid-1800s in exchange for ceding their traditional lands and moving to reservations.

One hang-up in getting money for culverts was a shortage of extra revenue in state transportation coffers at a time Inslee was seeking major new investments in electric or hybrid electric car ferries.

This quandary led Democratic Sen. Steve Hobbs of Lake Stevens to propose both a gas-tax increase and a tax or fee on the carbon content of motor vehicle fuels.

But gas taxes are historically difficult to get approved the same year they are proposed, and Hobbs’ House counterparts did not want to go down that path until at least 2021. Also, voters rejected a carbon tax proposal at the ballot box last November, so Hobbs dropped his tax hikes and funded only one new hybrid-electric ferry and much less of the culverts sought by the governor and tribes.

Inslee had separately proposed a new, multi-tier tax rate for real estate transactions to dedicate for culverts work. But lawmakers wanted to use a similar new tiered real-estate excise tax to spend on housing and other programs, which is what ultimately happened.

That left few options. Tribes once again found themselves stymied.

“Underfunding culvert removal at this point makes it almost impossible to meet the court’s deadline and will slow salmon recovery,” Loomis said in a prepared statement.

ENERGY AND CLIMATE

The biggest prize of the 105-day session in the energy and climate arena was an innovative measure to wean Washington state electric utilities off coal-fired power by the end of 2025.

The measure, championed by Sen. Reuven Carlyle, D-Seattle, and Rep. Gael Tarleton, D-Seattle, also forces utilities to phase out natural gas and other fossil fuels as power sources after 2030 – or pay penalties. Utilities would be able to comply by furnishing offsets such as paying to invest in charging stations for electric cars.

The overall goal of the bill is to ensure that power from the state’s power grid is in effect carbon-emissions neutral after 2030.

And by 2045, utilities must transition entirely off fossil fuel-based power generation – although there are off-ramps along the way for utilities if their costs to comply exceed a 2 percent a year threshold.

Some utilities including Puget Sound Energy, which is the state’s largest utility with more than 1 million customers, came around to support the legislation. But that was only after securing protections that will cap how much cost they must incur in order to meet the state’s decarbonization goals in 2030 and beyond.

A key worry for utilities is uncertainty about the availability of technologies such as battery storage that would allow an easier transition to a clean power future in less than two decades. Privately owned utilities that use less hydropower than public utilities were particularly concerned about having a reliable supply of power to meet consumer demand.

The state Utilities and Transportation Commission, which regulates power rates, will be given oversight of the industry’s transformation as Washington – which already relies on carbon-free electricity due to the many federal power-generating dams along the Columbia River and a nuclear power plant – shifts to an even more climate-friendly fuel mix.

Inslee is expected to sign the measure Tuesday in Seattle. Whether he will veto any sections giving more leeway to utilities is unclear, but as it stands the measure represents a major step forward in a state where no significant climate action has taken place since before the Great Recession.

Lawmakers had other successes and failures on climate and energy issues:

  • HB 1257, sponsored by Democratic Rep. Beth Doglio of Olympia, addresses buildings, which are the state’s second largest sector for greenhouse gas emissions. Her measure asks the state Department of Commerce to write stronger energy-performance rules. It also requires upgrades for commercial buildings larger than 50,000 square feet and creates incentives for retrofitting them. There are other requirements for equipping buildings with vehicle charging stations. Doglio said she will be back in 2020 to pass an element that failed – a provision to local governments to pass  “stretch” codes for residential energy efficiency that speed up the dates for implementing state codes on the books.
  • HB 1444 from Rep. Jeff Morris, D-Anacortes, sets higher efficiency standards for energy and water use for appliances sold in the state.
  • HB 1112 from Democratic Rep. Joe Fitzgibbon of West Seattle forces the phase-out of so-called super pollutants used by industry for refrigeration. These are potent gases that contribute to global warming.
  • Jake Fey, D-Tacoma, won passage of HB 2042, which renews a tax incentive for electric vehicle purchasers and provides incentives for electric buses. The measure drew bipartisan support in part because it used higher yearly license-tab fees for hybrid and electric cars to help offset the cost of the tax breaks.
  • But Rep. Fitzgibbon’s bill to require a reduction over time in the carbon intensity or content of motor vehicle road fuels failed, despite winning passage in the House, a big win for Big Oil. A low-carbon fuel standard would require fuel mixes with larger amounts of non-polluting substances such as ethanol or biodiesel made from recycled materials such as restaurant grease, or fuel production that releases fewer greenhouse gases over the life-cycle of the materials. The rule would have matched what California and Oregon have in place to reduce the amount of greenhouse-gas emissions from motor fuels. This mattered because the transportation sector is Washington’s single largest source of the emissions that international scientists agree are a driving cause of global warming.

Fitzgibbons’ proposal is all but assured of being revived in 2020. And in the meantime, the Puget Sound Clean Air Agency is continuing to draft its own clean-fuels standard transportation fuels sold in Central Puget Sound counties. A measure could be out for public review as soon as June and a revised proposal could go before the agency’s board as soon as December, agency spokesmen say.

Another measure important to environmentalists would have banned single-use plastic bags, which can end up in waterways and are harmful to mammals that ingest them. Several cities and counties already have enacted bans that largely affect retail stores and grocers.

Sen. Mona Das, D-Kent, sponsored SB 5323 and it is expected to return in some form in 2020.

WILDFIRES AND FOREST HEALTH

Another dangerous wildfire season is predicted across the West. In a bid to reduce the threat of fires, the state budget includes money for staffing at the state Department of Natural Resources and funds to bolster thinning and other forest-health programs run by the agency. Because of a misguided 20th-century policy of extinguishing wildfires, many forests have become dangerously overgrown, leading to massive wildfires that are much more destructive than fires in natural forests.

State Lands Commissioner Hilary Franz, a Democrat elected to head the Department of Natural Resources, had sought to build on her predecessor’s efforts to increase the number of permanent staff available to call out to fires. But SB 5996 — which proposed to add a tax surcharge to casualty insurance policies to raise $62.5 million per biennium on a permanent basis — failed to pass. The insurance industry lobbied heavily against it.

Budget writers did approve roughly $50 million for firefighting and forest health work. DNR spokesman Carlo Davis said the agency can hire 30 more full-time firefighters in the fall, add two helicopters in late 2020 and hire full-time trainers for the firefighters it employs.

Franz intends to keep up the fight for more funding in future years.

“To truly address this crisis, we need dedicated, long-term funding to make the investments needed at the pace and scale this crisis demands,” Franz said in a statement. “It took decades to get us into this crisis, and it will take focused, sustained investments to get us out of it.”

Robert McClure contributed to this report.

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