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Plan to go green has some seeing red

Sustainability Task Force report runs into opposition

Citing fears of meddling by the United Nations and concern over increased government spending, some Spokane City Council members are opposing suggestions from a local task force that wants to help reduce this region’s dependence on foreign oil.

Among the recommendations are ideas for making city vehicles more fuel-efficient, increasing recycling among residents and city workers, and supporting the use of electric vehicles. It also sets a goal for the city to acquire 100 percent of its energy from renewable sources by 2030.

Mayor Mary Verner formed the 13-member Sustainability Task Force a year ago in response to climate change and concerns over access to traditional fuel resources. The group completed its report earlier this year. Verner doesn’t need the City Council’s approval to take the advice, nor does a vote in favor bind the city into any spending or rule changes.

Verner had hoped to gain the council’s stamp of approval, though.

“For our city, we’re moving ahead,” Verner said. “City government is moving forward with greater efficiencies with saving energy, saving fuel.”

But when the plan was first reviewed by the council last month, numerous people testified in opposition.

“Do citizens really want all government to function primarily around environmental concerns?” wrote Spokane County Republican Party Chairwoman Cindy Zapotocky in a letter urging party members to testify in opposition. “Do we want big government watching us to make sure we comply?”

Zapotocky also questioned the report’s recommendations that promote solar and wind energy, asking if those sources were sufficient to maintain the United States as a superpower.

“Will we become a broken, corrupt, poverty-stricken socialist country like Brazil and Indonesia, where these plan models were created by the U.N. agencies?”

Task force members say they were surprised by the strong opposition.

The plan, they say, avoids imposing new regulations on city residents. Instead, they want the city to lead by example when it comes to reducing its use of oil.

“The controversies are rooted in fears that aren’t in the report,” said task force chairman Roger Woodworth, vice president for sustainable energy solutions at Avista.

Councilwoman Nancy McLaughlin said in an interview she’s worried the task force’s recommendations would put jobs at risk.

And she and others who’ve voiced concerns about the report – including Jeff Sever, chief operating officer of Greater Spokane Inc., which serves as the region’s chamber of commerce – fear it would require taxpayer money to be spent during difficult economic times. Sever said his organization supports the report’s principles in general, however.

Councilman Mike Allen, while noting that many of the ideas would benefit the city and environment, said, “my job is not to be progressive, but to be prudent.”

In response, Verner points to the report’s business-friendly recommendations such as “support the growth of small businesses” and “prioritize work force development initiatives and partnerships that grow green jobs.”

“Some of the comments that have been submitted to City Council seem to be just fabricated for political purposes and are not at all grounded in what we actually have done nor in the actual language of the plan,” she said.

Verner said implementing some of the ideas could carry up-front costs, but most would result in long-term savings. Task force members stress that accepting their recommendations wouldn’t lock the city into spending anything.

“What it does is says that the city is on a path and that there are guiding principles to put us on a path to be a more sustainable city,” said Mary Carr, a task force member who is dean of instruction services at Spokane Community College.

Of the six council members contacted this week, only McLaughlin shared the concerns mentioned by the GOP about the United Nations.

“I would say that what I’ve read leads me to believe that there is a definite U.N. tie with the process,” McLaughlin said. “Putting that aside, I just want to know that the things we put in place are being done with sound science” and take into account job creation and cost efficiency.

“Our emphasis should be placed on fiscal sustainability,” she said.

Task force members said while they used some U.N. reports on climate change as resources, concerns that the U.N. drove the process are laughable. The group was led by local people without interference from the international body, they said.

Another of McLaughlin’s concerns: whether humans cause, or can do anything to stop, climate change. Science pointing to human activity as a cause of global warming is “faulty,” she said, pointing to a report issued by U.S. Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., that lists scientists who disagree with the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which issued a report in 2007 that indicated consensus among scientists.

Council President Joe Shogan and council members Richard Rush and Steve Corker said they believe science shows human activity plays a role in climate change. Councilman Bob Apple and Allen said they don’t believe there’s enough of a scientific consensus to say either way. Attempts to reach Councilman Al French were unsuccessful.

George Mount, a Washington State University environmental engineering professor who has studied climate change, said while it’s true that the past two years have been cooler than the previous eight, a warming trend is clear.

“The current consensus of scientists – the vast majority of scientists, not all of them – is that it’s very difficult to explain the kind and rate of climate change we’re experiencing today by natural causes alone,” he said.

Mount said there are legitimate scientists who disagree, but he couldn’t think of any working at WSU or other universities in the region.

Some task force members said it would be embarrassing for the council to reject the group’s report as more businesses and local governments take action on climate change.

“Spokane would look rather silly,” Carr said.

Verner said she’s confident the report will win City Council acceptance.

“If city government doesn’t move in this direction, we’ll be the last ones to get on board,” she said, “because our community is moving forward with recognizing all the economic advantages, environmental advantages of moving in this direction.”

Jonathan Brunt can be reached at jonathanb@spokesman.com or (509) 459-5442.


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