The Department of Ecology, working under a court-ordered deadline, pushes to finalize a carbon-reduction rule that has critics weighing in from all sides.
Environmentalists say a proposed state rule to force cuts in carbon emissions is too weak to combat the escalating impact of climate change.
Biofuels producers are upset because they view their products as green alternatives, and the rule released last month would treat their products the same as gasoline and diesel.
Meanwhile, petroleum refiners say the rule is poorly crafted, costly and may face a legal challenge.
“There are way, way too many problems,” said Frank Holmes of the Western States Petroleum Association. “What we have seen so far is not well designed.”
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During a seven-week comment period that ends Friday, the state Department of Ecology is hearing feedback on the Clean Air Rule. Scheduled to take effect next year, the rule eventually would require carbon-emission cuts of 1.7 percent a year through 2035 for the state’s largest emitters.
Initially the rule would cover 24 emitters, with dozens more added over time, including aluminum smelters, pulp mills and a food-processing plant in Othello, Adams County.
The rule is not as ambitious as failed legislation that Gov. Jay Inslee introduced in Olympia in 2015. But it is a cornerstone of the governor’s broader effort to push the state to the front lines of the global campaign to limit carbon emissions generated by the use of fossil fuels.
The rule is a reworked version of an earlier draft withdrawn this past winter.
State officials say that legal restraints prevent more aggressive carbon cuts.
They also are working under a deadline.
A King County Superior Court judge, in response to a lawsuit filed by climate activists, ordered the state to come up with a final rule by year’s end. To keep on that schedule, there can be no major changes to the draft, only minor tweaking that would not require a new round of public comment.
“We are moving at a rapid pace, but that’s because of the urgency of the issue and also we are under a court-ordered deadline,” said Camille St. Onge, climate communications manager at the Department of Ecology.
State targets passed by the Legislature in 2008 called for carbon cuts that by 2050 would put total emissions 50 percent below 1990 levels.
Climate activists say the cuts should be steeper to keep in step with the science that outlines the risks of climate change.
Vlad Gutman, of Climate Solutions, called the rule a good first step that needed more work.
But at a July 14 public hearing in Olympia that drew more than 200 people, speakers lambasted the state rule as too timid.
“This is a business-as-usual rule — not a climate-crisis rule,” said Patrick Mazza, one of 19 people who fasted on the Capitol steps in the run-up to the hearing to protest the rule.
The rule is moving forward at a time of a deepening political divide nationally over climate change. The Republican Party platform and nominee Donald Trump reject government regulation of carbon emissions, while Democrats embrace an international climate agreement reached in Paris in December.
In Washington, some climate activists have rallied around Initiative 732, an alternative approach to paring back carbon emissions that will be on the November ballot. The initiative would phase in a tax on carbon-based fossil fuels and reduce state sales and business taxes.
Regardless of the initiative’s fate, the state’s Clean Air Rule is scheduled to take effect next year.
The rule is structured so that refiners bear much of the burden for reducing emissions. They are required to reduce carbon and other greenhouse gases generated at their plants and also through the combustion of their fuels in Washington state.
If they can’t find a way to make those cuts, they must invest in projects to offset that pollution such as financing a dairy-farm digester that harnesses energy from manure.
Two of the state’s major refiners, BP and Shell, both have acknowledged climate change driven by fossil-fuel combustion, and declared their support for action to reduce carbon emissions.
But the Western States Petroleum Association, the major regional trade group for refiners, has opposed major state initiatives on climate change, including Washington’s rule to cap carbon emissions.
“We believe that something has to be done at the national level to be effective,’’ said Holmes, the Olympia-based regional director of the petroleum association. “Washington state is a very energy-efficient state with very low emissions, so this would not make much of a difference.”
Holmes said the association has made suggestions for improving the rule, but many were rejected.
St. Onge said Department of Ecology officials have met repeatedly with refiners and others industry groups.
“There were plenty of good ideas, and we incorporated changes,” she said.
State officials also are taking heat from biofuel producers, whose products are generally derived from plants such as corn or soybeans.
The carbon footprints of their fuels, through the life cycle of their production and use, can vary greatly. Many ethanol and biodiesel products can generate from 20 to 60 percent less carbon emissions than their petroleum counterparts, according to a federal Environmental Protection Agency analysis.
But the state rule doesn’t view the biofuels as lower carbon alternatives. Biofuel producers think that’s not fair and have asked that their products be excluded from the rule.
“Biofuels are part of the climate solution,” wrote Jay Manning, a former state director of Ecology, in a May 3 brief sent to Inslee’s policy office on behalf of the Renewable Fuels Association.
But Chris Davis, an Inslee adviser on carbon markets, said there would probably need to be new legislation to allow for such an exemption.
“We are working under existing authority, and doing the best we can,” Davis said.