A STRONG YEAR FOR CLIMATE AND ENVIRONMENTAL LEGISLATION IN OLYMPIA
(By John Stafford)
The 2019 Washington State Legislative Session was the most successful in modern times with respect to climate change and other environmental legislation. Carbon Washington, a leading non-profit organization that advocates for climate change legislation, states that, “2019 has far and away been the most productive year for legislative climate action in Washington State.”
Governor Inslee adopted a new strategy for climate change legislation in this year’s session. After multiple failed attempts to pass a statewide carbon tax – both at the ballot (e.g., I-732 and I-1631) and in the State Legislature – Inslee temporarily abandoned the effort and focused instead on passing a number of smaller bills. This approach was largely successful (although a statewide carbon tax remains an essential priority), as the following measures all passed:
- Coal will be made illegal for electricity production by 2025.
- Washington’s electricity grid will be based on 100% clean energy by 2045 (it currently operates with 15% coal and 11% natural gas). It joins California, Hawaii and New Mexico as states that have adopted this critical policy. (It is important to note that achieving this goal in Washington State is easier than in other states due to our abundance of hydropower.)
- Hydrofluorocarbons will be phased out (hydrofluorocarbons are a major greenhouse gas pollutant – they are used in air conditioners and other industrial equipment).
- New energy efficiency standards have been established for new buildings.
- Energy-efficiency retrofits will be implemented for existing buildings.
- New energy efficiency standards have been created for appliances.
- There will be ongoing incentives for solar power use, which allow individuals to sell their excess power to utilities (“net metering”).
- Electric Vehicle purchase incentives have been extended.
- The state’s utilities will be incentivized to create electric vehicle charging stations.
- There has been $46 million allocated for firefighting, wildfire prevention and forest health in the State Operating Budget, in part in order to mitigate the impacts of climate change.
In addition to these legislative achievements, there was progress on other fronts:
- Governor Inslee changed his earlier stance, and announced his opposition to the natural gas plant proposals at Kalama (to convert natural gas to methane for shipment to China) and Tacoma (to produce natural gas as a maritime fuel). This stance represents an important step in Inslee’s evolution as a climate change leader. By opposing this new proposed infrastructure, Inslee is demonstrating his opposition to a future economic system based on fossil fuels.
- Washington State will use over $13 million of its financial award from the settlement with Volkswagen (over the diesel emissions scandal) to purchase 50 zero-emissions electric buses. This is an important step toward converting the state’s vehicle fleets from fossil fuel to electric power.
Notably, four important climate change proposals did not pass:
- A bill to establish a clean fuel standard by lowering the carbon intensity of fuels. This passed the House but failed in the Senate. Representative Joe Fitzgibbon referred to this legislation as, “the most important climate bill the House has ever passed.”
- The Heal Act to address the challenge of environmental and climate justice. This bill called for government agencies to adopt policies that address the reality that certain communities (typically economically disadvantaged and minority) face disproportionate impacts from climate change.
- A zero-emission vehicle phase-in mandate. This measure requires vehicle manufacturers to sell a specified number of electric vehicles in the state (with the number based on its overall vehicle sales in the state).
- A proposal to eventually ban the sale of new internal combustion vehicles in Washington State was discussed at the start of the session, but not introduced as a bill.
These proposals are all essential to the cause of climate change. It will be imperative for them to be re-introduced and passed in the 2020 session. Nonetheless, despite these shortcomings, the overall level of progress in the climate change realm was strong.
There was also progress in other environmental arenas, including:
- Legislation to support the endangered Southern Resident Orcas. This includes proximity limits and speed limits for tour boat operators; new regulation on Puget Sound toxins; limits on shoreline hardening (e.g., building seawalls) which can damage aquatic ecosystems; etc.
- Increased funding for improving salmon culverts, which allow salmon to move unimpeded through pipes under roads and other infrastructure. The Legislature allotted $100 million to this endeavor, but Inslee appropriated an additional $175 million. This is being done to comply with a court ruling that requires Washington State to invest in improved salmon habitats. These improvements will support Orca population recovery.
- Funding to study dam removal in the Lower Snake River (which would have significant positive impacts for salmon runs and Orca recovery).
- Environmental measures that did not pass included bills to ban single use plastic bags and single use plastic straws.
In closing, it is important to note that the strong climate change and environmental progress in the 2019 State Legislature suggests several themes.
First, Inslee and the State Legislature have demonstrated that there are myriad ways to approach the challenge of climate change. If the prospects for passing a carbon tax are temporarily low, it is possible to switch tacts and pursue a bevy of smaller measures that collectively represent significant change. This lesson can serve as inspiration for other states.
Second, with the 2019 Legislative Session, Washington State has finally emerged as one of the leading states in the nation on climate change policy.
Third, the legislation passed in Washington State provides a partial window into the nation’s climate change policy future. Eventually, the nation will be forced to deal with the massive threat of climate change. When it does, many of the policies that were implemented in Washington State – a ban on coal, a fully electric grid, opposition to new fossil fuel infrastructure, etc. – will become national standards.
Fourth, it is important to keep in mind that the challenge of climate change is so massive, that even this year’s legislative progress represents a modest percentage of the change necessary to deal with the problem. A leading climate change organization, 350.org, asserts: “In terms of our impact on the state legislature, 2019 was our finest year ever. Now here’s the bad news: …We are not even 25% of the way to ensuring we are reducing our pollution in line with what the IPCC [Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change] has said is necessary to prevent climate chaos.”
Finally, the session demonstrated the potential power of unified, Democratic Party leadership. The 2018 elections saw Washington emerge as one of fourteen states with a Democratic trifecta – control of the governorship, the State House (a 57-41 majority) and the State Senate (28-21). Thus, the 2019 Session represented an opportunity for Democrats to demonstrate what they could achieve with full control in Olympia. Some predicted that the Session would be unsuccessful, as the Democratic trifecta would lead to undisciplined policy. Instead, the Legislature arguably accomplished more in this session than in the last five sessions combined, and it finished on-time with far less acrimony than in prior years.
John Stafford is on the Steering Committee for the South Seattle Climate Action Network (SSCAN). He is also active with the Democratic Party in South Seattle.