OLYMPIA – A controversial “cap and trade” plan that would put Washington at the forefront of efforts to combat global warming has been dramatically watered down under pressure from businesses and rural Republicans.
Nonetheless, proponents say they remain optimistic. The bill, requested by Gov. Chris Gregoire, cleared a key House committee Tuesday.
“It’s still viable. It establishes a real cap” on greenhouse gases, said state Rep. Hans Dunshee, D-Snohomish. “That’s a critical first step.”
Among the sharpest critics of the bill: Rep. Joel Kretz, R-Wauconda. Saying that the plan will destroy rural industries, he’s blasted it as “cap and extort” and says that trading pollution credits would spawn cronyism. He’s publicly suggested that disgraced former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich would be a good fit to run it.
“He’s well-suited to run a system like that,” Kretz said in an interview Wednesday. “And he’s looking for work.”
A year ago, state lawmakers set a goal of cutting emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases to 1990 levels by 2020. By 2050, the state hopes to have cut the pollution by half.
To do it, Gregoire is calling on lawmakers to set a limit – the “cap” – on how much of the pollution industries can release. Initially, the cap would apply to power generation, factory and commercial burning, and other industrial processes.
Since some companies will have to emit more of the pollution than others, state environmental officials would issue “allowances” that cleaner companies could sell to more polluting ones. That’s the “trade” part.
In the state Senate, the plan is moving ahead. But in the House, opposition has whittled away nearly a dozen provisions of House Bill 1819. It would still cap emissions. But the trade part would wait for recommendations from a new legislative task force.
Environmental groups say they still support the bill, which they consider a work in progress.
“That bill getting out of committee means the Legislature is serious about passing something this year,” said Clifford Traisman, a lobbyist for the Washington Environmental Council. It still includes key language setting deadlines for cutting emissions and clarifying the state’s ability to enforce the emission goals, he pointed out.
“It’s a significant step forward,” he said.
Republican lawmakers, although outnumbered nearly 2-1 in the statehouse, are fighting the proposal hard. Rep. Ed Orcutt, R-Carrolls, on Tuesday predicted that its push for more-expensive renewable power would double utility bills.
Rep. Shelly Short, R-Addy, said it would be a mistake to cap emissions without knowing more about how the system would work, or the costs and benefits.
“I’m hopeful that we’re going to take a good deep breath on this one,” she said.
If there’s to be a fix, it should be on a national or international level, some critics say.
“This bill isn’t good for Washington,” said Rep. Matt Shea, R-Mead. “This bill is good for China and countries like that, developing third world countries that aren’t controlling their pollution and aren’t doing anything.”
Dunshee, citing a recent report commissioned by the University of Oregon, argues that global warming would be destructive to the region. The report found that salmon revenues would be down $531 million by 2020. More drought, particularly in the Yakima valley, would cut crop production another $35 million. Fiercer wildfires would cost $102 million, worse coastal storm damage $72 million, and increased energy consumption another $1.4 billion.
“There’s all kinds of good sound bites and black helicopters” from critics, said Dunshee. “But the reality is that if we do nothing, it gets worse … They always are afraid of the future. But the future is coming.”
The bill’s backers also include the Spokane Alliance, a coalition of local churches and unions. Members were in Olympia Wednesday urging lawmakers to back the plan.
Alliance member Jerry White said the group wants the state to sell the allowances to industry, then use the money to improve energy efficiency, such as insulating drafty homes and small businesses. Using less power means less emissions, he said, and saves money.
Dunshee said it’s a challenge to get critics to try to do something about pollution that’s invisible, especially when the economy’s shaky.
“This is a multi-year effort,” he said. “It took us 100 years to create the problem. Hopefully it will take less to solve it.”