Third Time’s A Charm
Wednesday, April 14, 2021
THIRD TIME’S A CHARM: Washington made history last week after the state Senate in Olympia narrowly passed a Clean Fuel Standard. This marks the first time the Senate has voted on the policy, after a majority of the state House of Representatives passed an earlier version of the legislation in February. The House tried to pass comparable measures in the 2019 and 2020 legislative sessions, which builds a useful currency to measure carbon in the environment and brings Washington closer to joining with other West Coast states to create a clean fuels market to drive down pollution.
Senate Democrats brought two proposals that address Gov. Jay Inslee’s climate-change agenda. Senate Bill 5126 would establish a cap-and-trade program under which businesses would pay the state for carbon-emissions beyond a set limit. House Bill 1091 is more direct, and would simply establish low-carbon fuel standards.
Debate on the cap-and-trade bill, named the “Climate Commitment Act” by its sponsors, went on for hours, as senators worked through 44 amendments, proposed mostly by Republicans. The bill passed by a narrow 25-24 vote, with four Democrats joining all Republicans to vote against it.
The House bill is a stronger version of carbon reduction policy, designed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by directly lowering the carbon intensity of transportation fuel. This bill would direct the state Dep. of Ecology to adopt rules establishing a Clean Fuels Program to limit the aggregate, overall greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions per unit of transportation fuel to 10 percent below 2017 levels by 2028 and 20 percent below 2017 levels by 2035. Where cap-and-trade makes a commodity of carbon pollution, HB 1091 seeks to more aggressively drive down the net amount of carbon in transportation fuels. The transportation sector is the largest source of carbon pollution in the state.
A clean fuel standard reduces air and climate pollution by requiring transportation fuel producers to reduce the carbon intensity in their products or invest in the production of cleaner fuels, such as sustainable biofuels and electricity. Oergon and California have already enacted such policies.
The Senate’s lengthy debate on more than a dozen proposed amendments to HB 1091 marks the first time that body has grappled with a low-carbon fuel standard for Washington. The measure passed by a 27-20 vote, with two Democrats voting against it.
“Climate change is profoundly affecting our lives and our quality of life,” Sen. Reuven Carlyle said. The Seattle Democrat was a primary sponsor of SB 5126, the governor’s preferred approach to reduce carbon pollution. “It is real, and it is happening on every level. At the same time, it can feel like we can’t affect change, but we can.”
“To say we cannot enact our own climate policies here at home until another country does their part is unconscionable,” Sen. Liz Lovelett said during the prolonged floor debate. “We have to do our part here in Washington.”
Ironically, Lovelett was among the four Democrats who ultimately did not support and voted against SB 5126, preferring the more direct approach in HB 1091.
In Lovelett’s view, cap-and-trade—pay to pollute—does not aggressively address the issue of carbon reduction. And as major emissions producers (such as the region’s four refineries) wrangle for pollution credits, it risks concentrating carbon pollution in lower-income, at-risk communities (such as ours).
Critics of a clean fuels standard say those costs will be heaped on top of proposed increases to Washington’s gas tax, which, at 67 cents a gallon in state and federal rates combined, is already one of the highest in the country. However, last year Oregon estimated the average cost of their analogous program at just 2.57 cents per gallon of gasoline.
Vlad Gutman-Britten, state director for Climate Solutions, notes that an analysis of the gas and diesel prices in California over the last several years shows little if any elationship between the price of the state’s fuel credits and the rise and fall of prices at the pump.
Two-thirds of state residents support a clean standard, according to public opinion polling by FM3 Research conduced during the November 2020 election. They found support for the proposal even in competitive legislative districts that tend to swing in political party preference (such as ours). Petitions calling on the Legislature to pass a strong standard this session included signatories from more than 250 cities and towns, all 49 legislative districts, and 38 out of 39 counties (including ours).
Because the House passed a stronger version of carbon-reduction policy, that chamber needed to either concur on the bill in its current amended form or enter conference to negotiate with the Senate to finalize the bill. The House conference this week concurred with Senate amendments on HB 1050, saying they could work with them, so the bill is headed to Inlsee’s desk.
Legislators can now tune their standard to work alongside the similar clean fuel programs in California, Oregon and British Columbia and meet the state’s carbon reduction goals set into law last year. Oregon doubled its standard last year. New Mexico and New York are considering similar policies.
Establishing a low-carbon fuel standard program has been among Gov. Inslee’s highest priorities for years, and his proposals passed the House during the last three sessions. This time, the Senate finally came around.