Tuesday, January 31, 2023
Jan. 31, 2023

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Washington’s 2021 climate laws made history. What will happen in this year’s legislative session?


Washington’s climate-minded lawmakers have big shoes to fill during this year’s legislative session, after last year’s yielded the most aggressive suite of climate laws the state has ever seen.

The stakes are high as the Legislature prepares to meet Monday, Jan. 10, kicking off a 60-day session: Climate change-fueled events such as wildfires, floods and heat waves have ravaged communities statewide in the past year, claiming lives and causing millions of dollars in damage.

“The climate crisis is not an abstraction,” Gov. Jay Inslee said in an online preview of the legislative session hosted by the Associated Press on Thursday, Jan. 6. “It is something that I, and every governor in the United States, have to deal with on almost a weekly basis.”

A slew of climate and environmental bills are already on the docket, addressing issues such as clean energy, salmon habitat restoration and electric vehicle subsidies.

Here are some of the highest-profile matters legislators will debate over the next two months.

Inslee goes big

The governor made headlines in December when he unveiled a $626 million climate plan focused on reducing greenhouse gas emissions. These planet-warming emissions are created when humans burn fossil fuels, such as natural gas, coal or gasoline.

Washington is legally required to reduce emissions to 45% below 1990 levels by 2030 and achieve net-zero emissions by mid-century. The state is not on track to meet its 2030 goal, according to the state Department of Ecology.

“We have to confront this peril at its source, which is carbon pollution,” Inslee said at Thursday’s Associated Press event.

The governor’s plan has four overarching goals: Reduce emissions from the building sector, invest more in clean transportation, encourage in-state clean energy projects and successfully implement the Climate Commitment Act.

The Climate Commitment Act was one of the landmark climate laws passed last year and mandates the development of a statewide cap-and-trade program: The state will set an emissions limit, or “cap,” on large polluters that lowers over time. Polluters must purchase permits from the state if their emissions are above the cap.

If the governor’s 2022 proposals succeed, Washingtonians would see thousands of dollars back when they purchase electric vehicles, requirements that new construction run on electricity rather than natural gas and funding for clean energy projects.

But Inslee’s plans face imminent opposition in the Legislature: Republicans have criticized it, with state Rep. Mary Dye, the ranking Republican on the House Environment and Energy Committee, saying in a statement last month that it doesn’t address the immediate impacts of extreme weather events.

The governor’s proposals have also drawn criticism from the Washington Policy Center, a conservative think tank. The center’s Environmental Director Todd Myers said many of the measures are expensive and ineffective, considering that last year’s Climate Commitment Act already requires the state’s largest polluters to create and follow a comprehensive emissions reduction plan.

“I just think we spend a lot of time duplicating what we have done over and over again,” Myers said.

He wants to see the state invest more money in projects that capture carbon emissions from the atmosphere, rather than fund solar energy and provide electric vehicle subsidies to many people who he believes would buy an EV regardless.

Saving the salmon

Inslee has also proposed $187 million for salmon recovery and introduced the Lorraine Loomis Act, which aims to protect riparian habitats that can reduce the temperature of rivers and streams. It would be the first state law requiring landowners to protect riparian habitats on their land, according to the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission.

The commission, which supports 20 treaty Tribes in western Washington, spoke out in strong support of the Lorraine Loomis Act but expressed concern that it would be watered down by the Legislature.

The bill also garnered the support of Washington’s Environmental Priorities Coalition, which represents more than 20 environmental organizations.

But Myers of the Washington Policy Center is concerned that the Lorraine Loomis Act will not provide a significant reduction in stream temperatures and will sow resentment among landowners.

“This policy is very bad for a lot of farmers, and it’s going to create a lot of conflict. It already has,” said Myers, who is also a member of the Puget Sound Salmon Recovery Council. “I think that’s the wrong approach. It’s important to find ways to reduce stream temperatures. I think this is far too radical and far too combative.”

A whale of a plan

House Republicans have rolled out their own climate plan: the Outdoor Recreation and Climate Adaptation, or ORCA, Plan.

The ORCA Plan would direct the $4 billion raised by the state’s cap-and-trade program over 10 years toward building new parks, eliminating the $30 annual Discover Pass and lowering other recreation fees.

The plan also directs funds toward “healthy” forest management, efforts to prevent future flood damage, pollution reduction in Puget Sound and securing a “sustainable” water supply for the state’s agricultural community.

“Republicans believe the focus for state policy should turn now to the question of climate adaptation — how to make Washington secure against climate impacts that we can expect due to global carbon emissions,” reads an overview of the ORCA Plan written by Rep. Dye.

The ORCA Plan does not provide any measures to further reduce greenhouse gas emissions created by burning fossil fuels.

Buildings are back

As an increasing number of Washington municipalities take steps to reduce natural gas use in buildings, several legislators are looking to decarbonize the building sector statewide.

Buildings are the fastest-growing source of emissions in Washington, according to the state Department of Commerce.

Rep. Alex Ramel, whose district includes parts of Whatcom, Skagit and San Juan counties, is at the forefront of these efforts. Last year, he introduced the Healthy Homes and Clean Buildings Act, a comprehensive bill that would have transitioned the state’s buildings to run on clean energy. It died in committee.

This year, Ramel and his colleagues in the Legislature have split up building decarbonization efforts into four bills, he said.

HB 1766 would change how gas companies are regulated to achieve emissions reductions, and HB 1767 would allow publicly owned electric utilities to offer customers incentives to convert from fossil fuel to electric equipment.

HB 1770 would require all new construction to be “net-zero ready” by 2035, meaning the buildings would not directly rely on natural gas for space and water heating. HB 1774 would expand building energy performance standards in existing buildings.

Ramel is cautiously optimistic that these bills can pass in 2022, although he acknowledges the short legislative session presents an additional obstacle. (Sessions in odd-numbered years are 105 days.)

“We have spent a ton of time going over all the things people voiced concerns about last year,” Ramel said. “I think we’ve addressed many of those concerns.”

Local land use

The Growth Management Act might sound obscure to the average person, but reforming it is a priority for some Washington environmental groups and legislators.

The act, first adopted three decades ago, requires many Washington counties and the cities in them to create plans to manage long-term population growth. Now, there is a push to pass HB 1099, which was sponsored last year by Rep. Davina Duerr and would require local governments to account for climate change in their plans.

There is also an effort to close a “sprawl loophole” in the Growth Management Act: The loophole allows development to continue in rural areas even when it may not be in compliance with the act.

Other bills to keep an eye on

These are only some of the environmental and climate measures proposed by Washington leaders this session.

There are also bills to regulate emissions from ridesharing, hold packaging companies accountable for the waste they create, incentivize green electrolytic hydrogen production, help school districts switch to electric buses and allow people to get up to $200 when they replace fossil fuel-powered lawn equipment.

It’s too early to tell which proposals will be successful, but Majority Leader Sen. Andy Billig plainly shared his opinion at the Associated Press event on Thursday: “We will be judged in the future based on what we do on climate.”