A Change in Climate
Wednesday, April 24, 2019
A CHANGE IN CLIMATE: The Washington Legislature nears the end of its 105-day regular session with much done, but much left to do in the details and funding of the state’s first $50 billion-plus two-year budget.
House Democrats passed a tax package out of committee last week that includes a new state capital gains tax. But Senate Democrats didn’t include it as part of their budget, and appear inclined to discuss it separate from their own revenue proposals.
The state will almost certainly require new money to fund two of the most ambitious programs to be advanced by Legislature this session—protections for Puget Sound orcas, and a more bold approach to climate change. The tandem actions respond to separate executive orders signed by Gov. Jay Inslee in 2018 that addressed both concerns.
Spearheaded in large measure by representatives of the 40th Legislative District, the House and Senate passed all four bills this month providing sweeping protections for Puget Sound’s ailing orca population. A variety of factors have been cited for the decline, including a lack of orca’s primary prey—Chinook salmon—noise pollution from boats that makes hunting difficult, and toxic contaminants to food and water. The four bills attempt to tackle at least some portion of each of these concerns.
Earlier this year, Governor Jay Inslee proposed the investment of $1.1 billion in the region’s orca population, an amount lawmakers in their last hours in Olympia still need to fund.
Overarching all concerns, of course, are fundamental changes to the chemistry of the state’s marine ecosystems brought on through increased human activity and human-induced climate change. That’s where the second set of ambitious programs kick in, in the state’s advanced approach to clean energy reform.
In April, House representatives passed Senate Bill 5116 on a 56-42 vote, taking an important step towards securing a fossil fuel-free future for Washington. The bill returned to the Senate as the strongest clean electricity bill in the nation.
Washington is now the fourth state, and the first in the Northwest, to pass 100 percent clean electricity legislation, which will eliminate coal power by 2025 and transition the state to 100 percent clean and renewable electricity by 2045.
Inslee expressed his eagerness to sign the bill when it reaches his desk.
“I couldn’t be more proud of the Legislature’s action to pass the country’s most forward looking clean energy bill,” the governor said. “There are a number of other meaningful climate bills moving forward this legislative session, but more than any other, this bill will fundamentally transform Washington’s energy future and transition us to 100 percent clean energy.”
“It is not just a clean energy bill,” environmental writer David Roberts commented. “It also contains a raft of thoughtful, in some cases genuinely groundbreaking, structural changes to the way the state’s utilities do business.”
The bill sets three targets for the state’s utilities, ramping up in stringency over time. By 2025, Washington must eliminate the remaining 14 percent of electricity generated through the burning of coal. By 2030, the state must be 100 percent carbon-neutral.
Eighty percent of state power must come from “nonemitting electric generation and electricity from renewable resources.” Renewable energy and energy transformation projects complete the remainder of the state’s future power portfolio.
The emphasis on new energy infrastructure will prove a powerful engine for new construction and job creation, many analysts forecast.
“The state’s commitment to 100 percent clean electricity will boost jobs and strengthen energy equity through provisions in the bill that increase funding for energy assistance programs for low-income households and incorporate equity considerations in the planning and acquisition of new sources of electricity,” the Washington Environmental Council noted in a press release. “The bill also ensures new clean energy jobs that include strong worker protections and pay family wages.”
“A completely clean and efficient grid will power us forward to building a 21st century clean energy economy with good, family-wage union jobs, a healthy climate and thriving communities,” Larry Brown, president of the Washington State Labor Council, said.
A unique and diverse coalition of labor unions, environmental justice groups, businesses, medical professionals, faith leaders, and environmental and clean energy groups worked together to get the Legislature to pass the bill, in development for several years.
Perhaps needless to say, support for SB 5116 was split along partisan lines, with area representatives in the Republican caucus voting against the bill. Sen. Doug Ericksen and Rep. Luanne Van Werven in the 42nd District opposed it; while Rep Sharon Shewmake in the 42nd joined 40th District Democrats Sen. Liz Lovelett and Reps. Jeff Morris and Debra Lekanoff in support of clean energy reform.
Republicans argued that Washington utilities already rely heavily on clean hydroelectric power and that the bill’s provisions would result in additional costs and rate increases imposed on consumers.
A more nuanced reality, Roberts explains, is that utilities make money for shareholders through guaranteed return on investments in capital projects—“steel in the ground.” “Not surprisingly, that gives them considerable incentive to invest in capital projects,” he writes.
Additionally, the new bill brings utility regulators more strongly into the equation, and “grants the state’s Utilities And Transportation Commission (UTC) the authority to shift utilities from a return-on-capital model to a performance-based model,” Roberts observes. “Rather than profit (and returns to shareholders) coming purely from investments in capital projects, utilities’ returns would be determined based on their performance against metrics determined by the UTC, things like carbon reduction or equity.”
It’s a new approach that only an empowered majority with an actual interest in public policy could produce. The climate for responsive legislation has changed in Olympia.