Washington Gov. Jay Inslee on Friday promoted a statewide low-carbon fuel standard during a visit at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, saying the policy would increase access to biofuels for the aviation industry, a portion of the economy that’s particularly challenging for reducing greenhouse gases.

Aviation fuels are exempt from the proposed statewide policy, but airline fuel suppliers could opt into the program and earn credits, and potentially money, from the program.

Inslee thinks the policy’s financial incentives would push fuel suppliers to develop supply chains for biofuel.

“It’s the fastest way to get biofuels in the aerospace industry,” Inslee said, adding that it would also be incentive for the airport to “scale up” biofuel infrastructure.

The fuel standard sits atop the governor’s climate change policy agenda this legislative session, but the measure has stalled several times before in the Legislature and faces some skepticism in the Senate, including from at least one influential Democrat.

With a short legislative session ahead, gaining support for the bill could test Inslee’s political influence and ability to deliver on climate proposals in his home state.

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How would the low-carbon fuel standard work?

The policy would assign a carbon-intensity score for transportation fuels and set requirements for those scores, which would become more stringent over time.

Fuel producers and importers receive credits for fuel that produces less greenhouse gases than the requirement, and deficits for fuels that emit more. To stay in compliance with the law, fuel suppliers could buy or trade credits with others. Like aviation fuel, fuels for military vehicles, railroad and boats would also be exempt from the law.

Lawmakers this session face additional pressure to enact a low-carbon fuel standard. The Puget Sound Clean Air Agency, which regulates air quality in the state’s most populated region, has proposed its own fuel standard for King, Kitsap, Pierce and Snohomish counties. Allowing the measure to die in the Legislature could open the door for different policies in different places. 

Proponents of the low-carbon fuel standard say these policies will reduce greenhouse gases released into the atmosphere by ratcheting down the carbon intensity of fuels over time and phasing in greener options, like electricity or biofuels. They say the policy will reduce air pollution, which will provide health benefits.

Opponents warn that costs would be passed to consumers and that the measure could cause harm to the state’s economy.

“It would add to the cost of gasoline significantly,” said Dana Bieber, a spokeswoman for Affordable Fuels Washington, an advocacy group funded by the Western States Petroleum Association. Bieber said the policy is “regressive and ineffective.”

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Bieber points to a technical analysis that examined the Puget Sound Clean Air Agency’s proposed standard, which is more aggressive in reducing carbon intensity than the statewide measure. The analysis says gasoline in 10 years could cost $0.22-$0.57 more per gallon than it would otherwise in a worst-case scenario and assuming refiners kept current profit margins.

Challenge at the airport

The governor and his allies hope the fuel standard could help reverse the trajectory of Washington’s greenhouse gas emissions, which continue to trend higher, according to the state ecology department’s latest tally.

Transportation emissions represent nearly 45% of statewide emissions. Jet and aviation fuels make up more than 9.5% of the state’s overall emissions.

As governments around the world look to decrease their contributions to global warming, aviation emissions are considered one of the most difficult areas in which to make headway.

From 2008-2016, the overall emissions from residents of Seattle decreased slightly, despite a soaring population, according to a report from the city’s sustainability office. Meanwhile, the emissions from those residents’ air travel increased some 40 percent.

Port of Seattle commissioners in 2017 approved a measure to create goals for sustainable fuel. By 2028, 10% of jet fuel at Sea-Tac Aiport should be “produced locally from sustainable sources,” the motion says. That number jumps to 25% by 2035. Thirteen airlines in May 2018 agreed to work with the Port on sustainable fuels. The Port has studied where it could source and store aviation biofuels.

What’s missing, according to port officials and airline executives, is supply.

“We want sustainable fuels locally we can purchase and use,” said Diana Birkett Rakow, vice president of external relations for Alaska Airlines. “We all want to make sure there’s the incentive for the supply.”

Inslee said biofuels created in Washington are being transported to Oregon and California, which have adopted low-carbon fuel standards.

For some climate activists, the airport’s rapid growth has been the subject of concern.

Sarah Shifley, a volunteer with the advocacy group 350 Seattle, is skeptical that biofuel or other technology could make enough impact on the airport’s greenhouse emissions, and worries that increases in air travel will cancel out other emissions gains.

“Even if we do have a different fuel standard for passenger vehicles, any gains from reducing those emissions will be erased with the growth of aviation with Sea-Tac,” Shifley said. She said 350 Seattle supports the low-carbon fuel standard, and said people “shouldn’t be flying as often.”

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Political showdown

Prospects for passing the statewide low-carbon fuel standard rests in the state Senate.

Lawmakers in the House passed the bill last session and plan no changes this year. 

“We’re just going to pass the bill out as it went through last year,” said State Rep. Joe Fitzgibbon, D-Burien, who sponsored the bill.

In the Senate, a companion bill faces two obstacles: a short timeline and skepticism from Senate Transportation Committee Chairman Steve Hobbs, D-Lake Stevens.

“I am not too keen on this policy,” Hobbs said, arguing other carbon policies, like a cap-and-trade system or a carbon tax would be more effective at cutting emissions.

With the Legislature already facing a potential transportation funding cut due to the passage of the $30 car-tab Initiative 976, Hobbs said adding low-carbon fuel into the mix may be too much to wrestle with in the short, 60-day session.

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“Climate change is real. It is happening. I want to do something about it,” Hobbs said, pointing to a $15 billion transportation package he proposed last year, which was funded by a carbon fee. “What I am saying, there is an alternative to doing what the environmentalists want and what the governor wants.”

Last session, the low-carbon fuel standard bill died in Hobbs’ committee, as Democrats focused on other environmental priorities, like ridding Washington’s electric grid of fossil-fuel-generated power by 2045.

Now that the fuel standard is the governor’s top environmental priority, Fitzgibbon said he expects the politics to be different. 

“If we’re going to see a transportation package move forward anytime in the future, the house and the governor want to see this happen first,” Fitzgibbon said. “We’re not going to double down on a polluting mode of transportation unless we can clean it up.”

Seattle Times staff reporter Jim Brunner contributed to this story.