Environmental investments and a clean energy future
Wednesday, September 2, 2020
On Jan. 6, 2020, just shy of the legislative session for Washington’s House of Representatives, a fresh face appeared in Olympia—that of Bellingham resident and climate advocate, Alex Ramel.
While new to the House, Ramel was no stranger to policy issues and community engagement, having served as the president of the Kulshan Community Land Trust. He also served as a field director for the environmental policy group Stand.earth. Ramel previously campaigned in 2018 for the 40th Legislative District Position 1 House seat, and he appeared to be a prudent pick for the Position 2 vacancy left by Rep. Jeff Morris.
Seven months later, a field-tested Ramel rides the campaign trail for reelection. Accumulating a remarkable 69 percent of the vote in the Aug. 4 primary—and a 38-point lead over Republican Russ Dzialo—Ramel appears on his way to securing another term.
“It was an absolute honor to be appointed by the leaders in Whatcom and Skagit and San Juan county to fill this vacancy,” he said, “but it’s a different order of magnitude to know that the voters in the community are so strongly in support of the ideas that we’ve been talking about—that the community really does have my back and wants me to continue doing this work on behalf of people here in Northwest Washington.”
“This work” includes initiatives on a range of 40th District issues, from housing security to energy policy. However, one topic dominates Ramel’s platform—climate action.
“We adopted the zero-emission vehicle standards that will increase access to electric vehicles in Washington,” he reflected on the past session. “And we required gas companies to do a better job of preventing leaks in their pipeline networks. But I have to be clear, the Legislature left the biggest pieces of work still to be done. These steps do not approach the scale of the problem we face and I was disappointed that we failed to pass either a low-carbon fuel standard nor an authorization for the Governor to adopt a comprehensive clean air rule. We worked hard on both of these bills, but the opposition was strong enough to delay these important steps.”
The COVID-19 crisis, Ramel believes, underscores the need for an environmentally sustainable economic recovery from the pandemic.
“What we know about economic recovery is that making investments that put people to work is what pulls us out of recessions,” he said. “We need to be making those kinds of investments. We should be using this as an opportunity to be getting work done that we have known for a long time needs to happen. So I’d put two big things on that plate: The first is investments in clean energy and energy efficiency.” The second, he says, is “investing in a broadband network that’s accessible to everyone in Washington state.”
Ramel sees universal broadband as both an economic development opportunity and a solution to disparities in online education quality. He explains that, in practice, the ideal broadband system would resemble FDR’s Rural Electrification Act—a New Deal policy that built partnerships between the government and private sector energy companies to spread electricity to rural America.
On investments in clean energy and energy efficiency, Ramel proposes “building renewable energy facilities, building energy transmission facilities, energy storage facilities, and retrofitting buildings so they use energy more efficiently.” In terms of specific policy, Ramel was quick to mention the low-carbon fuel standard, a proposition passed in the House last session that seeks to reduce greenhouse gas emissions associated with gasoline and other transportation fuels. The bill is expected to pass both houses of the Legislature next session.
“The low-carbon fuel standard is an important way that we can start to make investments—that we can be asking the refineries to be partners in making the investments in that clean energy future,” Ramel said. “I would like to be able to tell those workers that the kind of work they do has a role in a clean energy future. It’s not gonna be crude oil, but we’re going to be refining liquid fuels in the future for things like aviation from renewable sources.”
Ramel said he remains committed to workers in industries most strongly affected by altered energy efficiency rulings.
“I reached out to the United Steel Workers 12-591 to talk about the low-carbon fuel standard, and although they hadn’t taken an official position, several individual members that I spoke with are supportive of the idea of encouraging the refinery [to adopt these standards],” he said. “The workers in those industries have different interests than the companies. The companies are looking to profits and shareholders; whereas I think the workers want to see continued reliable employment in that sector.”
Low-carbon policy and sustainability can also factor into housing and infrastructure, Ramel said.
“The fossil gas that’s used to heat homes, heat hot water, is one of the biggest contributors to climate change if you look at the pie charts of our greenhouse gas emissions. And that’s what we have to address.”
Ramel emphasized the need for climate-based policies to benefit all impacted parties.
In order to encourage the switch to green HVAC installations, Ramel wondered, “What if there is a utility incentive? What kinds of things could we be doing, working with those HVAC installers to make sure that they understand the technology that’s out there and the benefits of it?
“Some of the folks that I think are most likely to be impacted as we transition away from fossil gas—folks who lay the gas pipes and the folks who are responsible for digging those trenches and that infrastructure work—it’s [the] same skill sets as laying hot water pipes,” he observed. “One of the things that I’m most concerned about—that I think folks are most concerned about in the way that we talk about and think about a transition of our economy—is that jobs are not necessarily one-to-one transferable. In this case, there actually is a skill set that’s directly transferable to some of those folks who would be affected by a transition away from gas.”
In all his remarks, Ramel makes a point of grounding ambitious environmental policy in a realistic understanding of economics. The important job of the Legislature is to develop policy that eases the anxiety and financial burdens of citizens while pursuing a transition to a clean energy future.
“Voters are making it clear that they want a careful, science-based approach to protecting public health,” Ramel said in a statement on election night. “They want us to solve the budget crisis without deep cuts and austerity, and they want us to respond to calls for racial justice with systemic change.”
Russ Dzialo declined to be interviewed in the preparation of this article.
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