Gov. Inslee should not implement a low-carbon fuel standard by executive order.

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After three years of negotiations, state Senate transportation leaders recently announced bipartisan agreement on a $15 billion, 16-year funding plan. They say they’re ready to get the legislative process moving. That process has begun, as key elements of the proposal passed the Senate Transportation Committee last week.

The plan rests primarily on a phased-in, 11.7-cent-per-gallon gas-tax increase. Additional funding would come from various fee increases. Gas tax dollars are constitutionally dedicated to highway purposes. The other funding may be used for transit, bike lanes and the like.

Gov. Jay Inslee can help the plan along by removing an impediment of his own creation, his intent to implement a low-carbon fuel standard by executive order. The standard — a carbon-reduction tool, not a funding mechanism — would require a shift to lower-carbon-intensity fuels (think biofuel blends).

Last November, the Republican chairs of the state Senate transportation and energy committees wrote to Inslee, objecting to the proposed policy and the governor’s intent to bypass the Legislature. They question industry’s ability to meet the standard, insist on legislative consideration, and believe the regulation’s impact on fuel prices would place an unacceptable burden on families and the economy.

Republican negotiators reinforced those objections in the proposed transportation plan. If the governor moves ahead with the executive order, the legislation would redirect transit funding to roads. That “poison pill” survived Democratic opposition in last week’s committee vote.

The governor has set the regulatory process in motion, with public hearings on the proposed rule scheduled this month. He maintains that action is required now if the state is going to meet goals for greenhouse-gas reduction set by the 2008 Legislature to reduce emissions to 1990 levels by 2020.

The 2008 legislation is classic long-fuse politics, confusing aspiration for accomplishment. Lawmakers set goals years in the future, hold a festive bill-signing ceremony and light the fuse. When the spark hits the powder a decade later, it’s someone else’s problem. That’s what we’re dealing with now.

The fuel standard is neither the only nor the best strategy to achieve the state’s goals. Proposals to spur conservation and renewable energy have received bipartisan support this year. Outside the dome, Carbon Washington has drafted a revenue-neutral carbon-tax initiative (though I imagine they’d be happy to see lawmakers spare them the trouble).

Economists tend to be drawn to the carbon tax. It’s cleaner, administratively and environmentally. In an open letter to the Western States Petroleum Association, economist Yoram Bauman, a backer of the carbon-tax initiative, wrote, “A policy like the CarbonWA proposal would also make a low-carbon fuel standard unnecessary, which is great because to the best of my understanding it’s a pretty weak policy, producing questionable carbon reductions at relatively high cost.”

Bauman is likely correct, but others disagree. Competing claims about the economic consequences abound. There are reports suggesting the proposed fuel standard would boost gas prices from pennies a gallon to more than a dollar. Some research identifies compliance problems because of a shortage of low-carbon fuels. Other analysts say, no problem. But it’s safe to believe that when things can go wrong, they will. Believing in regulators’ best-case scenarios is a prescription for disappointment, if not worse.

In addition, an executive order from the governor would doubtless prompt prolonged, contentious litigation, with challenges to Inslee’s authority certain to come from the industries most immediately affected. That’s not all, however. Inslee’s attempt to impose unilaterally new regulatory standards flouts this state’s populist tradition, particularly our strong distrust of the imperial executive. Washington governors learn to persuade, not proclaim. Absent legislation explicitly granting the governor the authority to impose a low-carbon fuel standard, it’s doubtful such authority exists.

Legislators have legitimate questions about the standard. Can the targeted reduction be achieved reasonably? What economic consequences should we anticipate? Are there better alternatives? These are nontrivial questions — the proper substance of legislative debate. They should not be pre-empted by unilateral executive action.

Inslee has a choice to make, now. He can allow the threat of an executive order to linger over the debate, weakening his hand in legislative negotiations and fostering distrust. Or he can position himself as mediator and leader, willing to set aside one of his priorities to ensure final passage of critical legislation.