Two major climate bills championed by Gov. Jay Inslee passed the state Senate late Thursday, bringing Democrats one step closer to a long sought cap-and-trade program and a low-carbon fuel standard.
The bills passed nearly along party lines after several hours of fierce debate. Among Southwest Washington’s lawmakers, Sen. Ann Rivers, R-La Center, and Sen. Lynda Wilson, R-Vancouver, voted no on both. Sen. Annette Cleveland, D-Vancouver, cast her votes in favor.
Together, the two pieces of legislation would mark a significant advancement in Democrats’ big-picture climate goals.
The first, Senate Bill 5126, would cap greenhouse gas emissions by major polluters. The cap would slowly decrease over time and companies would need to shrink their emissions or purchase carbon allowances, a trade-off that proponents say encourages industries to invest in green energy.
Revenue raised would go toward a handful of proposed funds, including transportation projects and programs that help fund transitions to cleaner energy sources.
If signed into law, Washington would be required to reach carbon neutrality by 2050.
“The hour is late, but the time for action is now,” said bill sponsor Sen. Reuven Carlyle, D-Seattle, in his opening statements of the floor debate Thursday evening. “By creating a cap on emissions that responsibly lowers the aggregate emissions allowed in our state, we give the industry sector time to adjust. We give them the regulatory structure to function.”
SB 5126 passed 25-24, a major victory for Democrats on the first carbon pricing bill ever brought to a vote in the state Legislature. It now faces an uncertain future as it heads to the House, where representatives are expected to make changes.
Wilson said she voted against the bill because she worries that it will limit Washington’s competitiveness among major industries without making a significant dent in greenhouse gas emissions – companies will just “pay for the privilege” to emit, she said.
Wilson added that she’s also concerned about the regulatory power that the bill gives to the Department of Ecology, which would be tasked with creating and enforcing the cap-and-trade program.
“When we cede this authority over to unelected bureaucrats, we don’t have any control,” Wilson said.
Clean fuel standards
The other environment-related bill to pass the Senate on Thursday has already passed the House. House Bill 1091 aims to implement progressively cleaner fuel standards for cars, trucks, boats, airplanes and trains, shrinking the amount of carbon they’re allowed to emit over time.
It passed by a wider margin, 27-20. Both Rivers and Wilson spoke vehemently against it.
Rivers argued a bill that raises the price of fuel will disproportionately impact people who can least afford it.
“Here we are again, passing yet another regressive tax,” Rivers said. “This is super personal to me, because in Battle Ground in my district, we have cheap land, but it’s far and away from the job center. Our people have to drive a far distance. They live out there because it’s where they can afford to live, so now they’re going to be paying more for fuel to get to work.”
“We talk about regressive taxes. I think tonight we have seen possibly one of the most shameful nights in Senate history,” Rivers added.
Rivers proposed an amendment to the bill that would use existing Washington State Department of Transportation maintenance funds to plant grass on department-owned land. Sen. Derek Stanford, D-Seattle, called the motion a distraction from the issue at hand, and the amendment ultimately failed.
“Carbon sinks have one purpose, and that is to decarbonize,” Rivers responded, appearing frustrated behind her face mask. “The idea that we can’t do some of these things that would be helpful to decarbonization, I just find that to be a really questionable statement.”
Cleveland, a Democrat, joined her colleagues Thursday evening casting her vote in favor of both bills. She didn’t testify in the Senate hearing or respond to The Columbian’s request for comment Friday, but she’s previously said that raising revenue for transportation projects should be the Legislature’s top budget priority this session.
In March, Cleveland was one of just three Democrats to cross the aisle and vote against a hotly debated capital gains tax. Her reasoning, she said at the time, was that passing other taxes could reduce the political clout to raise revenue for an ambitious transportation project she was championing. That plan hinged on carbon pricing and a cap-and-trade program.
“In the Legislature, there are only so many tax votes that there are going to be an appetite to pass this year,” Cleveland said last month.
Whether Democrats can shepherd both bills over the finish line before the legislative session concludes on April 25 remains unknown.
Inslee has long pushed for both a carbon pricing program and a fuel standard. In 2014, he put forward a cap-and-trade proposal during his first term as governor; in 2019, a bill that would have established a low-carbon fuel standard passed the House but never made it to the Senate floor.
Washington voters have twice struck down ballot measures that would have levied an environmental tax on fossil fuel sales, once in 2016 and again in 2018.
Wilson believes it’s unlikely that the Legislature can get the bills to the governor’s desk in the next 16 days, but she said it’s not impossible. The cap-and-trade bill will need to work its way through the House Environment & Energy Committee before it lands on the floor for a vote – a public hearing on the legislation is scheduled for Wednesday.
“Where there’s a will, there’s a way,” Wilson said. “This is the farthest they’ve gotten it in all those years.”