Gov. Jay Inslee is doing an outstanding job staying on message in his presidential campaign, making climate change his signature issue and a focus of the primaries.
But Inslee went too far last week when he pulled support for a project in Tacoma that will cut emissions and create jobs.
Early in his governorship, Inslee championed the Tacoma liquefied natural-gas (LNG) facility. That pragmatic, nuanced approach provided certainty for local companies to commit more than $500 million to a project that will substantially reduce emissions from ships sailing between Puget Sound and Alaska.
That stance no longer jibes with the current mantra of his far-left environmental base, which now advocates for halting additional fossil-fuel consumption. It also had put Inslee in conflict with one of the state’s wealthiest tribes, the Puyallup Tribe of Indians, which opposed the project.
Moving goal posts late in the game may discourage companies from innovating and investing in cleaner ways of doing business, at least in Washington. Asked about this risk, Inslee told this board that “we’ve got to give them the goal posts that are guided by science, and the science in this case is pretty clear that we have to reduce CO2 faster than we thought.”
Inslee said he cannot support facilities enabling fossil-fuel consumption for decades, potentially after fossil-fuels are no longer necessary. But in this case, he’s actually accepting higher emissions to make a statement of principles.
The next president must aggressively reduce harm people are causing the environment. This will require give-and-take because there is no simple solution to climate change — every path forward requires trade-offs and consideration of relative cost and net benefits. In such negotiations, those who insist on meeting purity tests of their extreme supporters are marginalized.
Inslee is adept at sailing these waters. His latest environmental policy win is the 100 percent clean-electricity mandate recently approved by the Legislature. It passed after negotiations with utilities and industry, to ensure it provided flexibility for them to grow and succeed.
Fossil fuels are harmful. But there is no viable alternative now for cargo ships, which will continue to operate and play a key role in the state, national and global economies.
Given that reality, the choice is not whether to use fossil fuels, but which fossil fuel to use. Here, the family-owned TOTE shipping company took the initiative to convert ships serving Alaska from dirtier marine fuels to natural gas. To support that effort, Inslee helped secure tax breaks for Puget Sound Energy to build a facility that will draw gas from an existing pipeline along Interstate 5, then liquefy and store it on Tacoma’s industrial waterfront. Some stored gas will also provide a reserve supply for other customers.
Inslee’s newfound opposition may be token. PSE expects to receive permits and have the facility operational by late 2020. TOTE is converting ships and will have to barge gas from Canada, further increasing emissions, if the Tacoma depot is blocked.
Opponents and the Puyallup tribe — a major fuel-seller itself — sought further analysis of project impacts. That review, published in March, concluded that greenhouse-gas emissions will decline if the facility is built, saying “the greater the replacement of other fuels with LNG, the greater the overall reductions in GHG emissions.” It noted that natural gas production “is projected to grow significantly” in coming decades regardless of the Tacoma project, which will have little impact on the overall gas market.
Inslee is right to make climate-change a top priority in the presidential campaign. But perfect cannot be the enemy of the good — and ambitions for tomorrow shouldn’t halt progress today.