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BELLINGHAM — On a night last week, state Sen. Doug Ericksen stood before a group of ranchers in the office of a cattle-auction yard and joked about the odor.

“That smell in the county, that’s not Bob’s manure spreader,” he told the Whatcom County Cattlemen’s Association. “That’s all the crap coming out of San Francisco saying I’m a bad person.”

Ericksen, a Ferndale Republican, was referring to California billionaire Tom Steyer, who has pledged to spend $100 million in the 2014 elections to defeat politicians who deny the scientific consensus on human-caused global warming.

Steyer has yet to intercede in Ericksen’s re-election contest this year. But Ericksen and other Republicans are raising the specter of Steyer’s involvement to alert voters suspicious of the big-spending liberal who has emerged as a key ally for Gov. Jay Inslee’s climate-change agenda.

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There is plenty of reason to expect Steyer’s cross hairs will find the 42nd Legislative District race in the northwest corner of the state, where Ericksen faces a challenge from Democrat Seth Fleetwood, an attorney and former Bellingham City Council member.

As chairman of the state Senate energy committee, Ericksen has emerged as a chief critic of Inslee’s plans to address climate change by reducing carbon emissions in Washington, potentially through a cap-and-trade system and new clean-fuel regulations.

Although Ericksen’s district leans Republican, environmentalists and Democrats say he remains one of their top targets. The race is among a handful that will determine partisan control of the state Senate, which has been run the last two years by a GOP-dominated coalition.

“We have a moral responsibility to try to give the governor a working Senate majority to try to pass his climate bill,” said Cliff Traisman, state lobbyist for Washington Conservation Voters.

Anticipating a showdown, business interests, including the oil and coal industry, have filled Ericksen’s campaign coffers.

Ericksen’s coziness with those interests has come under public scrutiny after media reports about free meals he’s taken from lobbyists.

For Inslee and his environmentalist allies, defeating Ericksen would be a major victory. Steyer and Inslee lunched privately at the governor’s mansion in May, discussing climate policy and the fall elections.

Steyer’s political organization, NextGen Climate, has not shown its cards, but he was heavily involved last year in Whatcom County, where anti-coal forces spent more than $400,000 to help elect four County Council members viewed as opponents of a controversial coal-export terminal proposed near Bellingham.

NextGen Climate spokesman Bobby Whithorne said in an email that last year’s Whatcom County results proved climate change is “critically important” to voters. While the group is still weighing its 2014 spending in Washington, he said, “It is safe to say we will focus on races where there is an opportunity to discuss climate issues with voters.”

Not an easy race

Polls nationally have shown climate change does not rank high among voter concerns. But, “It’s good for the donor base,” noted Todd Donovan, a political-science professor at Western Washington University.

And there are related controversies — such as safety concerns over an increasing number of oil and coal trains passing by homes and schools — that could help sharpen the climate debate in Whatcom County.

Still, the race will be difficult for Democrats to make competitive, Donovan predicted. The 42nd District includes portions of the liberal college town of Bellingham but also vast stretches of rural Whatcom County, all the way to the Canadian border. Voters here backed President Obama in 2012, but favored Republican Rob McKenna for governor over Inslee that same year.

“(Ericksen’s) generally well-known and liked, that’s just one of the advantages of being an incumbent,” Donovan said.

Citing wildfires and other calamities, Inslee has increasingly raised climate change as an urgent threat to Washington state. In a speech to climate scientists this month, he attacked not just climate-change deniers but also “climate agnostics, climate inactivists, climate pacifists” — anyone not pressing for quick action.

Those words may well have been aimed, in part, at Ericksen, whose legislative committee has stripped language on global-warming threats from bills and last year heard testimony from an emeritus geology professor who claimed global warming is not happening and carbon could not possibly cause it anyway.

Ericksen shrugs off questions about his personal beliefs on global warming.

“Climate change will always happen,” he said in an interview at the cattlemen’s event.

“We’re already a low carbon-producing state. What do you get by saying we’re gonna be even lower?” he said.

Such skepticism is shared by other prominent Republican legislators, including state Sen. Andy Hill, R-Redmond ­— another target of environmentalists this year ­— who recently told The Seattle Times editorial board, “You can find scientists on either side of the issue.”

By contrast, Fleetwood, like many Democrats, says the science is clear on the ruinous effects of increasing carbon emissions, including damage to Washington’s shellfish industry.

“To me it’s absolutely well settled,” he said during a Bellingham City Club debate last week. “It’s going to have a huge effect on our economy in Washington state.”

Friction with labor

The determination by Steyer and environmentalists to block expansion of the fossil-fuel industry has caused friction with some labor leaders who are traditional Democratic Party allies. Unions have endorsed the proposed Gateway Pacific Terminal, citing the promise of hundreds of good-paying jobs.

“The environmental community is focused on stopping any kind of fossil-fuel transportation. They’ve found some very powerful allies to do that,” said Mike Elliott, a spokesman for the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen. “Nobody ought to be able to come in with a big wheelbarrow full of money and influence an election.”

Running in a district that includes two oil refineries in addition to the proposed coal terminal, Fleetwood is choosing his words carefully when it comes to specific actions to deal with climate change.

In an interview, Fleetwood said he supports the goals of Inslee’s climate-change advisory group, which is helping to develop potential cap-and-trade legislation to be introduced next year.

But, he added, “I recognize that there are implications to our economy by increasing environmental protections and that fact is what makes this area very complicated.”

Fleetwood said he has not taken a position for or against the coal terminal, but is waiting on environmental studies.

Ericksen criticizes Inslee for seeking a wide-ranging study of the climate effects of the proposed coal port, including impacts of exported coal being burned in China. If that’s the new standard, he argued, “Boeing’s gone, Paccar’s gone — you can’t pick and choose.”

Wes Kentch, president of the cattlemen’s association, agreed with Ericksen, saying the coal will find its way to China regardless of whether the local terminal is built. “I know they’re going to use the coal and if they can’t buy it here, they’re going to buy dirtier coal,” he said.

So far, Ericksen, who is seeking a second term in the Senate after 12 years in the House, enjoys a cash advantage in the campaign. Most of the $250,000 he’s raised has come from business interests and PACs, including many related to oil and coal, insurance and telecommunications industries, according to state Public Disclosure Commission filings.

Fleetwood has raised about $190,000, including donations from tribes, environmentalists and labor unions.

Meanwhile, Ericksen’s critics say he’s consistently taken the oil industry’s side in tax and regulation debates. For example, he organized a public hearing on oil-train safety in Spokane in June that was dominated by testimony from industry representatives.

“He’s basically marinated in oil,” said Matt Petryni, a Bellingham climate activist, who has raised concerns with the increasing number of oil trains passing within yards of local schools, and even past a natural-gas-fired power plant on the city waterfront.

Ericksen also has come under scrutiny for accepting gifts from lobbyists, including those representing the oil industry.

He accepted more meals, drinks and golf paid for by lobbyists than any other state legislator during a three-month period examined last year by The Associated Press.

In all, Ericksen received 62 meals worth $2,029 during that period, the AP reported.

State ethics law says legislators can accept free meals only on “infrequent occasions.” Ethics watchdogs have proposed to clarify the law by limiting the number of lobbyist-paid meals a legislator can accept to a dozen per year.

Ericksen makes no apologies, saying meeting with lobbyists and other groups — including oil-industry representatives ­— is an important part of his job in a district where so many jobs are tied to refineries.

“It makes me mad when people attack me for standing up for the people I represent — which is you,” he told the cattlemen.

Jim Brunner: 206-515-5628 or jbrunner@seattletimes.com On Twitter @Jim_Brunner