If we have learned anything since the recent Great Recession, it is that companies are hesitant to invest in new ventures and markets when times are turbulent. Therefore, if we want to see more jobs and greater economic growth in the state of Washington, we need to provide the foundations necessary for any type of investment: predictability and certainty.
We have limited power to control many elements of the future. That’s why it is all the more important that government regulators and legislators strive to bring a sense of structured process and a pathway forward to instill confidence for an investor wherever possible. Throwing a curveball, or leaving those involved confused about changes to regulatory framework, simply puts the brakes on investments and new jobs.
Knowing this, I am particularly concerned about recent announcements from the state Department of Ecology regarding pending plans to invest in new port terminals. Descriptions of a new and overly ambitious environmental review process could have ripple effects on virtually all Washington state exports — at a time when 40 percent of the state’s jobs are related directly or indirectly to trade.
Currently, private enterprise is looking to invest hundreds of millions of dollars to expand shipping capacity at export terminals. As with any large business venture, before proceeding with a new project, an environmental impact statement is needed, which looks at the impacts this rail or port terminal project, for example, would have on the local environment.
Yet Ecology has thrown a curveball in this standard mitigation process by proposing to go far beyond studying the environmental impact of the construction and operation of the terminal. Instead, it wants to include the possible impact of the use of products shipped through the terminal on the global environment.
This scope goes far into the realm of unpredictability, and also sets a dangerous precedent for future exports of all kinds.
Ecology leadership recently sidestepped questioning on the unintended consequences of such a far-ranging environmental impact study at a Senate hearing last month. Statements were made saying that the extent of a review could vary from project to project, leaving those close to this issue scratching their heads.
Reviews open to subjectivity and an unwillingness to be specific and deliberate are precisely the elements of uncertainty that would make a future investor think twice before proposing any infrastructure project in the state of Washington. Without innovative investments by both the private and public sectors, we would see our position as a trade leader fall to competing states and countries. Development of Washington’s ports, as well as other economic development efforts, could slow or stall. Our export economy for all the goods produced here would be in serious jeopardy, as would the countless jobs it supports. New job growth would go to other communities.
Washington is blessed with natural deep-water ports and an abundance of exports we build and grow, from agriculture to our cutting-edge technology products. We must create certainty for our businesses and avoid overreaching regulation so that we create a predictable foundation upon which investors can improve our infrastructure, stimulate our economy, and put Washingtonians to work in good jobs.
Jerry Oliver is a commissioner at the Port of Vancouver and is past-president of the Washington Public Ports Association. The views expressed are his own.