OLYMPIA – In a controversial move that could increase prices at the gas pump, House lawmakers on Saturday voted to add a $1.50 fee to every barrel of oil brought into Washington. The fee would raise $129 million a year, which would help clean up pollution in storm water runoff.
“We ask that the polluters help pay,” said Rep. Dave Upthegrove, D-Des Moines.
The bill, which passed 51 to 45, was rushed to the state Senate. It’s a priority for environmental groups and cities, but it faced uncertain Senate prospects in the final 36 hours of this year’s legislative session.
House Republicans blasted the idea, calling it a stealth tax. They predicted that motorists will end up paying 4 cents more per gallon as a result.
“These are the very types of things that have our taxpayers, our citizens, shaking their heads at what we’re doing,” said Rep. Ed Orcutt, R-Kalama. “… They’re shaking their fists, too.”
Rep. Timm Ormsby, D-Spokane, was the prime sponsor. With more than half of storm water pollution coming from petroleum products, he said, charging oil companies part of the cleanup cost is a simple matter of accountability.
For years, cities, ports and counties have footed the bill for cleanup projects, mostly using property taxes. The millions of dollars raised by the new fee, Ormsby and other proponents say, would help those local governments meet tougher new federal water quality standards.
Rep. Sharon Nelson, D-Maury Island, said that more than 6 million gallons of petroleum products flows into Puget Sound every year.
“That is the equivalent of the Exxon Valdez spill,” she said. The Columbia, Snake and other rivers also have problems with oil, she said. And she suggested oil companies can afford to pay, judging from the multimillion-dollar salaries of a couple of Exxon executives.
Rep. Tom Campbell, R-Roy, said Ormsby’s bill would be money well spent if it helps clean up the “toxic soup” of runoff from lawns and industrial areas.
“What value do we put on life? What value do we put on the health of our population?” Campbell said. “My God, this is people’s lives. … We are killing people and we are doing it to ourselves.”
Other Republicans argued that companies will pass along the $129 million-a-year cost to consumers.
“Wrong time, wrong tax,” said Rep. Jan Angel, R-Port Orchard. “Our people have had enough.”
“When is the right time?” responded Rep. John McCoy, D-Tulalip, saying that cleaning up pollution is critical. “… A millennium ago, it should have started.”
Rep. Joel Kretz, R-Wauconda, said that rural motorists, who drive more than Seattleites, would see their money go west.
“We’re going to be sending money to take care of Puget Sound,” said Kretz, calling it “urban socialism.”
Rep. Marko Liias recalled feeding ducks in Lake Washington as a child and wondering why they were swimming in oily water.
“Puget Sound is dying around us,” he said, and the state cannot ignore the problem even during a weak economy.
“We can’t ask people to stop polluting for two years,” he said, “while we wait for the budget to get better.”