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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Washington Democrats get major climate bills across legislative finish line before end of session

Gasoline and diesel prices are displayed on a pump at a Shell gas station Feb. 18 in Westwood, Mass.  (Associated Press)

OLYMPIA – Lawmakers this weekend passed two major climate change bills that would put caps on carbon emissions from large polluters and push fuel companies to make cleaner products – two proposals long sought by Gov. Jay Inslee and Democrats.

The cap-and-trade and low carbon fuel standard proposals passed in both chambers after big changes, including tying them to a 5-cent gas tax increase to help fund a transportation package.

“We’re the home of 21st century climate action,” cap-and-trade sponsor Sen. Reuven Carlyle, D-Seattle, said on the floor Saturday.

Both proposals were pushed through in the final days of the session. Supporters say they’re long overdue to address climate change.

“We finally have meaningful climate legislation that reflects the values and priorities of Washingtonians, and that respects the science of climate change,” Inslee said in prepared remarks.

A cap-and-trade program in Washington would set a cap on carbon pollution and greenhouse gas emissions beginning in 2023. The largest polluters in the state would need to either clean up their work to meet the cap or purchase allowances from the state.

The state would then receive the revenue generated from those allowances, which it would use to improve the environment and invest in programs to help those disproportionately affected by climate change, including people of color, tribal communities and low-income earners.

Washington would be only the second state, behind California, to have such a plan.

In a statement, Fawn Sharp, president of the National Congress of American Indians and vice president of the Quinault Indian Nation, said the Legislature “boldly confronted” the existential threat of climate change.

“Our collective spirit soars for the ancestors whose example we have finally heeded, and for our youth and children who deserve to live in this beautiful and blessed land the way the Creator intended it,” she said.

Opponents argued the plan would hurt businesses, which could mean higher costs for fuel, electricity or food. During the debate, Sen. John Braun, R-Centralia, said the bill is “deeply regressive” with high gas tax increases.

Sen. Curtis King, R-Yakima, said the bill will drive businesses and families from the state who can’t afford to stay.

“What are my grandchildren going to do? Because their best opportunity will be to get the heck out of Washington,” he said.

A similar climate bill, the clean fuels standard, passed the Legislature on Sunday. It aims to use progressively cleaner transportation fuels in the state, including those used in cars, trucks, boats, trains and aircraft.

Beginning in 2023, polluters must start reducing their emissions a little bit each year in order to hit a statewide goal of emissions 20% below 2017 levels by 2038.

Fuel companies can either clean up their fuels by producing biofuels or mixed fuels. If they can’t, they would be required to purchase “credits” to make up for emissions that go above the allowed amount.

During the floor debate, Rep. Joe Fitzgibbon, D-Seattle, said the bill lays the foundation for “a safer climate for every single person in the state.”

“This bill is not the silver bullet,” he said. “No bill will be.”

For residents at the pump, that could mean more fuel options to choose from, said Leah Missik, Washington transportation policy manager at Climate Solutions, a Seattle-based nonprofit. Aside from regular and diesel, there may also be a more mixed, cleaner option.

Oregon, California and British Columbia all have similar clean fuels standard systems.

Opponents of the bill, however, say it will raise prices for people buying gas in Washington. And with cap-and-trade as well as the proposed 5-cent tax increase, it could mean too much for working families, Republicans said.

Rep. Mary Dye, R-Pomeroy, called the bill “a trifecta of taxes” that is bad for middle class families in the state.

Both climate proposals are now tied to at least a 5-cent gas tax increase, meaning they cannot go into effect as scheduled unless the Legislature passes a transportation revenue package that includes one. Lawmakers have said a new transportation revenue package is needed to pay for more roads, highways and infrastructure investments across the state.

Without one, the transportation budget that passed Saturday only “keeps the lights on,” as Sen. Steve Hobbs, D-Lake Stevens, has said.

Democrats want to tie new investments in transportation to climate policies, so the state is investing in new infrastructure while simultaneously cleaning the air.

A transportation package did not pass this session, but lawmakers have indicated they want to continue working throughout the interim. If a deal is reached before January, they may call themselves back into special session to pass one.

Missik said both the clean fuels standard and cap-and-trade proposals are complementary of each other in how they both look to reduce emissions, but they can also stand alone.

The bills now head to Inslee’s desk where he will almost certainly sign.

Laurel Demkovich's reporting for The Spokesman-Review is funded in part by Report for America and by members of the Spokane community. This story can be republished by other organizations for free under a Creative Commons license. For more information on this, please contact our newspaper’s managing editor.