President Donald Trump’s effort to pull the feds away from carbon regulation pushes efforts by Washington state to the forefront. But tough choices lie ahead as coal plants phase out.

Share story

With or without former President Barack Obama’s Clean Power Plan in place, Washington state still is likely to meet the target for reducing power-plant carbon emissions set by the landmark federal rule that his successor now seeks to undo.

“With today’s executive action, I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulation,” President Donald Trump declared in a signing ceremony Tuesday at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for his latest executive order.

The rule he seeks to dismantle became final in summer 2015.

By then, Washington state was well on its way to compliance through an agreement that calls for a two-phase shutdown of the Trans­Alta coal plant near Centralia that is scheduled to be completed by 2025.

Another key element of state compliance is an energy-efficiency standard that has helped to reduce power consumption. “In the last 30 years, we have saved enough electricity to power five cities the size of Seattle,” said Chris Davis, an adviser to Gov. Jay Inslee.

Trump’s executive order also calls for a broader pullback of the federal government from combating carbon emissions. If successful, it will push state and local governments to the forefront of U.S. efforts to reduce carbon and other greenhouse-gas emissions. Inslee and other West Coast governors have claimed high-profile roles in that movement as they network with other states as well as regional governments elsewhere in the world.

“Our progress in Washington state is not going to be stopped by anyone at any time,” Inslee said last week in a speech in New York City at a United Nations climate-change meeting.

Inslee views Trump as setting out on a three-pronged effort to undermine federal climate policy that also includes a move to weaken federal automotive standards and a proposal to slash the EPA budget.

Still unclear is whether Trump will try to remove the U.S. from the 2015 Paris Agreement that sets global targets for reducing carbon emissions. And the country as a whole is not expected to be able to comply with the agreement if Trump succeeds in undoing federal carbon-reduction efforts.

In Washington state, Inslee, who attended the December 2015 Paris talks, has set ambitious goals that exceed those called for in the federal Clean Power Plan.

Inslee has proposed that the state, by 2050, reduce greenhouse-gas levels by 80 percent from 1990 levels. That is the scale of emission cuts scientists say is needed globally to head off the most severe effects of climate change, and a big step up from current state law requiring a 50 percent cut.

Yet even as he champions the new 2050 target, Inslee has not had much success in the Legislature on major climate-change bills to put a price on carbon pollution.

In 2015, he could not gain passage for a bill to cap emissions by major polluters and allow trading of pollution allowances granted by the state. This year in the Legislature, the fate of a proposed carbon-tax measure is uncertain.

Inslee also has pushed for action on the executive front as the state Department of Ecology finalized limits on carbon emissions from large polluters. But that faces a legal challenge in federal and state courts.

And to meet Inslee’s goals for 2050, some tough choices lie ahead.

The coal plant near Centralia is scheduled to shut down, as well as two units in Colstrip, Montana, that provide power to Puget Sound Energy customers.

It is unclear what sources of electricity will replace this power.

One option is natural gas, a fossil fuel that generates fewer carbon emissions than coal but still emits at levels that likely would keep the state from meeting 2050 goals.

Natural gas currently is cheap, and has plenty of supporters as a reliable replacement to coal. On Tuesday, a state House committee heard testimony on a bill that would offer tax breaks to TransAlta to encourage the conversion of the coal plant to natural gas.

According to Davis, Inslee has not taken a position on the bill.

Meanwhile, the Sierra Club and other environmental groups are trying to steer the state away from more natural-gas plants. They are pushing for coal to be replaced by a big increase in wind and other renewable-energy production combined with more aggressive conservation.

“The argument that natural gas is a bridge fuel is going way fast. If we built all the proposed natural-gas plants, we won’t reach our (2050) goal,” said Doug Howell, a senior campaign representative with the Sierra Club.