Wednesday, May 16, 2018
HEATING UP: In what’s become an annual spring tradition—much like the filing for public office—another shattering milestone was achieved, with carbon dioxide readings in excess of 410 parts per million recorded this week at NOAA’s monitoring station in the Pacific. Carbon dioxide has set a a record high each year since measurements began. It stood at 315 ppm when record keeping began at Mauna Loa station in 1958. In 2013, concentrations of heat-trapping gases passed 400 ppm. Just four years later, the 400 ppm mark is no longer a novelty. It’s the norm. But unlike previous years, the effort to address climate change may seep strongly into that other tradition, the opening of the political season.
Initiative 1631—a carbon pricing proposal sponsored by a coalition of tribes and environmental and labor groups called the Alliance for Jobs and Clean Energy—is well on its way to gathering sufficient signatures to make the fall ballot, according to initiative sponsors.
The presence of a carbon tax on the ballot should create a talking point for every candidate on the ballot leading into the November election.
Last week, Bellingham City Council approved a resolution to implement a climate protection action plan that creates a climate action task force and aims to achieve 100 percent renewable energy goals citywide by 2035—with Council member Gene Knutson pushing back a little on the aspiration timetable. Whatcom County Council has similarly empowered a Climate Impact Advisory Committee of 11 members who may map out the county policy in response to the challenges of climate change.
Both governmental bodies are well aware that municipalities cannot achieve carbon-free energy goals so long as Puget Sound Energy, the region’s largest investor-owned utility (IOU), continues to include coal-generated power in the PSE portfolio.
“In many cases, PSE has been our partner as we’ve achieved carbon reduction goals,” Council member Michael Lilliquist commented recently. “But the reality is, as long as the electrons coming across the wires are from polluting sources, we cannot fully achieve our goals.
“Put simply, Bellingham cannot reach that goal unless PSE is providing electricity that is aiming for that same goal.”
State regulators this month also stepped up their own climate activism when they urged three of the largest utilities—including PSE—to reconsider the carbon-emission costs of producing electricity from coal and other fossil fuels. The Washington Utilities and Transportation Commission directives were sent to Puget Sound Energy, Avista Corp, and Pacific Power, which collectively serve more than 1.47 million state customers from a mix of coal, natural gas and renewable power. The commission asked the utilities to begin a more aggressive, market-based transition to shutter the Colstrip Generating Plant, a major Montana coal plant in which IOU has an ownership stake.
Meanwhile, in perhaps the most aggressive move, King County filed a lawsuit that attempts to exact a price from the continued denials of energy companies to downplay and discredit scientific warnings about the risks of global warming.
King County’s Superior Court lawsuit names BP, Chevron, ConocoPhillips, Exxon Mobil, and Royal Dutch Shell as defendants, and seeks financial compensation to help pay for the costs of coping with sea-level rise, extreme weather and other effects of climate change. The lawsuit faults the oil companies for intentionally producing and marketing massive quantities of fossil fuels they know will exacerbate global warming, and alleges this conduct amounts to “a continuing trespass onto county property,” the Seattle Times reported.
If successful and joined by other Washington counties, the King County lawsuit could create a fund to assist with the public infrastructure costs in response to sea-level rise and weather events associated with global warming—in effect, an ad hoc carbon pricing effort.
The interior states and energy industries have pushed back, filing a lawsuit this week against Washington and the decision of its regulatory agencies to reject permits for a coal export facility on the Columbia River.
The Washington Department of Ecology denied the project a water-quality permit last fall, saying there were too many major harmful effects associated with the $680 million Millennium Bulk Terminals-Longview project, including air pollution, rail safety and vehicle traffic.
Six Western states—including Wyoming, Montana, Kansas, Utah, South Dakota, and Nebraska filed a joint amicus brief, arguing for project backers and saying the case has broad implications for the export of commodities.
But primarily the lawsuit illustrates how much capacity energy industries and their trade group allies have to burn up enormous sacks of money in their attempts to smash open a port on the Pacific coast for energy export—for if agencies like Ecology and the Department of Natural Resources are empowered to issue permits, then by the same power and law they are authorized to deny permits.
Into this ferment, candidates file for office this week.
Among them are Republican Sen. Doug Ericksen, the 42nd District stalwart of energy industry interests and chronic critic of climate science. Arrayed against him in an August is Pinky Vargas, an employee of PSE who helped draft the Bellingham City Council’s carbon-free energy aspirations. And Tim Ballew II, the Lummi tribal leader at the forefront of halting the shipment of coal at Cherry Point.
In the 40th District, clean energy advocate Alex Ramel squares off against Swinomish Indian Tribal Community member Debra Lekanoff, along with Whatcom County Council member Rud Browne and progressive Skagit rancher and lifelong Democrat Tom Pasma, in what appears will be a bruising contest on the left for the state House of Representatives.
At the center of it, energy and the future of energy policy for our region.