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Wednesday, August 21, 2019  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Getting There: Emissions tests will disappear, but accountability gains traction

UPDATED: Mon., March 11, 2019, 9:34 a.m.

A 2013 Volkswagen Passat with a diesel engine is evaluated at the emissions test lab in El Monte, Calif., in 2015. Washington state lawmakers are considering new laws and taxes to lower pollution as vehicle emissions testing ends this year. (Nick Ut / AP)
A 2013 Volkswagen Passat with a diesel engine is evaluated at the emissions test lab in El Monte, Calif., in 2015. Washington state lawmakers are considering new laws and taxes to lower pollution as vehicle emissions testing ends this year. (Nick Ut / AP)

Lawmakers in Olympia just don’t know what do with your tailpipe.

More to the point, it’s the internal combustion engine under your car’s hood converting a gallon of gas into, on average, 24.7 miles of travel that’s boggling their minds.

This legislative session, a number of new laws and taxes are being considered that, at least on the surface, aim to finally do something about the state transportation system’s outsized contribution to carbon emissions, the primary driver of global climate change.

But there’s some strange political logic going on. The state wants to reduce carbon emissions, but beginning next year it will no longer require vehicle emissions testing. And legislators are considering charging drivers a “carbon fee” for the emissions, and using that money in part to widen highways, encouraging even more driving.

Last week, the state Senate passed a bill that would require a certain percentage of cars sold by automakers in the state to be zero-emission vehicles. Twelve other states have adopted this policy. It’s a movement that began in California and has helped to spur electric car adoption in those states.

In Washington, not to mention the rest of the nation, a measure like this is sorely needed. Transportation accounts for 40 percent of carbon emissions statewide. The Washington State Department of Transportation estimates transportation-related greenhouse gases will contribute nearly 45 million metric tons to the atmosphere next year, which is equivalent to more than 99 billion pounds. Just for comparison, that’s how much about 1.24 million semitrucks weigh.

Needless to say, getting a handle on these dangerous gases begins with our driving habits and technology.

On the technology front, going electric in the Pacific Northwest is a giant step in the right direction.

The energy from Avista, the primary energy provider in Eastern Washington, comes primarily from water power, with nearly 48 percent of its energy mix coming from dams. Six percent of Avista’s power comes from wind. Nine percent comes from coal, the biggest contributor of CO2 emissions for electric facilities. Another 35 percent comes from natural gas, which also produces CO2 but not near the levels coal does.

Avista says switching to an electric vehicle would reduce CO2 emissions for an Avista customer by 79 percent, or more than 1 ton of CO2 annually.

Before you cry government overreach, or complain about the diminishing free market, know that the governor’s office estimates that the program would lead to just 8 percent of new vehicle sales to be zero-emission and electric by 2025. That leaves 92 percent of regular old internal combustion vehicles.

The Legislature is also working on a carbon fee, which would tax carbon producers. As it’s envisioned now, the carbon fee would charge $15 per metric ton of carbon pollution on the sale and use of fossil fuels in the state. For motorists, that translates to about 15 cents per gallon of gas at the pump.

So far so good, but a Senate transportation committee approved a proposal to use the money generated from the carbon fee to fund a $16.2 billion transportation spending package. Among money earmarked to repair state culverts that block fish routes, maintain local roads and improve ferry service, there’s a bunch of money spent on freeways.

The big-ticket highway items include $450 million to replace the Interstate 5 bridge over the Columbia River, $1.1 billion to rebuild a trestle on U.S. Route 2, $470 million for widening I-405, $370 million for widening state Route 3, and $160 million to widen state Route 522.

In other words, the state would slap fees on drivers – because they’re generating carbon emissions – and use that money to build roads that would encourage even more driving.

That’s circular logic, and there’s only $35 million in the package to build one roundabout on state Routes 3 and 16.

But there’s more.

Beside the state’s actions to encourage the electric vehicle market, the Legislature is also considering a bill that would require all vehicles purchased by the state be electric by 2023, and all vehicles purchased by other public entities to be electric by 2025.

If passed, the bill would add some muscle to a 2007 state law that said cities, counties and other local governments and entities had to switch their vehicle fleets to run solely on electricity or biofuel by June 2018.

As of that deadline, the city of Spokane had exactly one electric vehicle – a Nissan Leaf purchased during the tenure of Mayor Mary Verner – out of its fleet of 1,086 vehicles, which includes fire trucks, garbage trucks, patrol cars and pool vehicles.

Again, a needed measure to get a handle on our cars’ role in climate change. We need to know how much our tailpipes are contributing to the problem, and help reduce it.

Speaking of, at the end of this year, the state is ending its mandatory vehicle emissions testing. For nearly 40 years, the state has required that all vehicles get tested before their registration could be renewed.

“Air quality in Washington is much cleaner than when the program began in 1982, and every community in our state currently meets all federal air quality standards,” the state Department of Ecology said in a statement on its website. “The combination of the testing program, advances in vehicle technology, and improved motor fuels have led to significant reductions in transportation-related air pollution.”

The agency anticipates air quality will continue to improve as “newer, cleaner vehicles replace older, less-efficient models.”

So in the end, the state wants to reduce carbon emissions, but won’t test for them anymore. And it will charge drivers for pollution and build more roads.

All of which is to say, what exactly are state lawmakers doing with our tailpipes?

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