Jay Inslee finally has a climate win—and another state is headed for carbon-free electricity.
The Washington House of Representatives’ vote last week to zero out emissions from the state’s power sector represents a potential turning point, both for America’s most vocal climate hawk and for state efforts to curb carbon dioxide. State House and Senate negotiators still must reconcile their separate versions of the legislation, but that is a mere formality.
Inslee will soon sign the bill ending coal use by 2025, requiring a carbon-neutral grid by 2030 and mandating Washington’s power sector to run without greenhouse emissions by 2045.
It is a major moment for Washington’s Democratic governor. Inslee has made climate policy his calling card in politics and the centerpiece of his bid for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination. Yet until last week, he had come up short in his efforts to pass major legislation to slash greenhouse emissions.
There was cap and trade during his time in U.S. Congress, which passed the House but died in the Senate.
Inslee’s clean air rule, which sought to cap Washington’s large emitters of greenhouse gases, got snagged up in the courts.
And two attempts to pass a carbon tax, once through the Legislature and once at the ballot box, both failed.
“I think the lesson is we can solve complicated problems with concerted efforts,” said state Rep. Joe Fitzgibbon, a Democrat who championed the legislation. “It is very clear that the elections changed the pathway on the bill.”
Indeed, Inslee would likely not have be on his way to a first climate victory had Democrats not wrested control of the state Senate from Republicans in 2017 and padded their margins in both chambers in 2018.
Yet the votes in the state House and Senate still point to a potential shortcoming of the approach. Democrats failed to win a single Republican vote in either chamber for their plan, as GOP lawmakers raised concerns over the costs to Washington businesses and families.
Supporters nevertheless said the bill’s success was notable on several levels.
Its passage comes as Inslee’s presidential campaign remains a longshot. The governor was touring flooded areas in Iowa last week when the legislation passed. He’ll now be able to talk up the achievement on the campaign trail.
But just as important may be the lessons for climate hawks in other states, who have seen similar efforts beaten back in recent years. Liberal states, in particular, have talked up attempts to redouble their efforts as President Trump has undone federal climate initiatives. Outside of California, however, few have resulted in meaningful policy.
Washington climate advocates changed their approach this year. Instead of pursuing an economywide policy, like cap and trade or a carbon tax, Inslee and his legislative allies have pushed specific measures focused on cutting emissions from specific sectors of the economy. In addition to the clean electricity bill, lawmakers are also considering legislation to increase efficiency standards for buildings and appliances, eliminate a super pollutant used in air conditioning, and create a low-carbon fuel standard.
The approach has enabled backers of the bill to work with those affected. The final legislation, for instance, includes a cost cap sought by power companies. And so, by the time the legislation emerged from the House Appropriations Committee last week, Puget Sound Energy, the state’s largest utility, had announced its support for the bill.
“We stepped up to the plate in building our climate agenda [in the past] and swung for the fences over and over,” said state Sen. Reuven Carlyle (D), who pushed the bill in the upper chamber. “This year we made a strategic agenda to say let’s focus on good stand-up doubles. Let’s get good singles, stand-up doubles, once in a while a triple—and let’s win the game.”
The legislation will make Washington the fourth state to pursue plans to decarbonize its grid. California, Hawaii and New Mexico had previously passed similar plans. And it builds momentum for other states. Legislators in Nevada and New York are considering similar bills this year (Climatewire, Feb. 12).
Yet the architects of the Washington bill faced a paradox as they crafted the legislation. Much of Washington’s power comes from public utilities dependent on hydropower. A traditional renewable portfolio standard, then, would have required power companies to go out and acquire even more carbon-free energy. At the same time, the state’s investor-owned utilities are still highly reliant on coal and natural gas.
The ultimate bill settled on a novel approach. Power companies will need to get 80% of their electricity from carbon-free sources by 2030. They will be able to offset emissions for the remaining 20% by buying renewable energy credits. That will change in 2045, when all of the companies’ retail electricity sales will come from carbon-free sources.
“What you’re seeing in the electricity sector is utilities are seeing the way forward. Things are going to need to change, which is hard, but it’s possible. It’s possible feasibly for their system, and for cost,” said Wendy Gerlitz, policy director at the NW Energy Coalition, a nonprofit that advocates for clean energy.
The bill’s impacts are likely to be felt beyond Washington’s borders. Avista Corp., Puget Sound Energy and PacifiCorp, three of Washington’s investor-owned utilities, all maintain an ownership stake in the Colstrip Generating Station, a 2-gigawatt coal plant in Montana. The bill will require the trio to be out of the massive coal plant by 2025. Two of the plant’s units had originally been slated to close in 2045.
PacifiCorp was already facing a 2031 deadline to be out of the plant to comply with a 2016 Oregon law.
“Washington having this as a component is a nudge to something that is already happening,” Gerlitz said. “It may make things happen more quickly then they would otherwise.”
‘Biggest year the climate has ever had’
And yet, for all of that, Washington still has considerable work to do to meet the greenhouse gas reduction targets called for by state law.
Eliminating coal from Washington’s power sector would reduce Washington’s emissions by 14%. In total, the power sector accounts for nearly 20% of state emissions.
But Washington law calls for cutting emissions 25% of 1990 levels by 2035 and 50% by 2050 (Climatewire, March 18). That means the state must cut carbon from sectors of the economy like transportation, which accounts for roughly 40% of Washington emissions, to meet its goal.
Democratic lawmakers said they were optimistic about the prospects of bills to eliminate hydrofluorocarbons and establish new standards for buildings and appliances. It remains to be seen if they can pass a clean fuel standard, which would reduce the carbon intensity of transportation fuels.
“It’s certainly the biggest year the climate has ever had in Washington history,” Fitzgibbon said. “If the clean fuel standard doesn’t make it, we haven’t done enough to address the largest source of emissions in Washington.”
Yet where such an outcome might have felt like a blow in previous years, climate hawks now feel confident about their ability to pass ambitious legislation. If Washington greens fail to move on transportation this year, they’ll be back to try again the next, Fitzgibbon said.
Reprinted from Climatewire with permission from E&E News. E&E provides daily coverage of essential energy and environmental news at www.eenews.net.