OLYMPIA — Gov. Jay Inslee’s campaign to clamp down on greenhouse gas emissions from the state’s transportation fuels, a high-profile goal throughout his two terms in office, faces a difficult road as the Washington state Legislature heads into the final two weeks of its session.
Legislation passed by the House of Representatives calls for a 20% reduction of the carbon intensity of these fuels by 2035 over 2017.
The bill is being championed by a coalition of Inslee allies that includes many statehouse Democrats, environmental groups, health care workers, the Port of Seattle and some local governments. They argue that the legislation can pay dividends to rural Washington by encouraging the development of new biofuel plants that will increase competition in state fuel markets where the oil industry now enjoys high retail margins. These fuels, as well as electric vehicles, would combine to bring down state greenhouse gas emissions to meet the legislative targets.
But for a second year in row, the House legislation risks dying in the state Senate Transportation Committee, where the chairman, state Sen. Steve Hobbs, D-Lake Stevens, has been hostile to this clean-fuels standard. And dozens of log truck drivers, who had parked their rigs on the capital grounds, as well as farmers, construction and other critics, showed up at a Monday hearing to urge the committee to kill a bill they fear would add to fuel costs that they now shoulder. Overall, more than 100 people testified at the state Senate Transportation Committee hearing, many opposed to the bill.
“We want to put a face to the people that they are hurting and the businesses that they are hurting,” said Justen Katzer, of Timber Unity Washington, an outgrowth of Oregon’s Timber Unity that has been staging protests for the past two years in Salem to try to prevent climate legislation from passing into law.
In Oregon, Republican legislators have walked out of the Legislative session for the second year in a row to prevent a climate measure from being put to a vote that under the state Constitution requires a quorum to be present.
There is no such requirement for a quorum in the Washington legislature. But even with Democrats in control of both the House and the Senate, the passage of a low-carbon fuel standard has been tough to accomplish because of opposition from Republicans and several Senate Democrats.
In Olympia, Democrats who champion the low-carbon fuel standard call it a key component of a broader state-level effort to combat climate change. They include Rep. Joe Fitzgibbon, D-West Seattle, who sponsored the legislation, House Bill 1110.
“The atmosphere is unforgiving. It will exhibit the same response to physical stimuli regardless of how our politics are going here in Olympia or in Washington, D.C.,” testified Fitzgibbon at the hearing held by the state Senate Transportation Committee. “And basic physics tells us that with the trajectory we are on, the impacts will be severe.”
And as the session heads toward a March 12 adjournment, Fitzgibbon and other advocates of legislation to lower greenhouse gases are trying to find new ways to pressure the Senate Transportation Committee to pass HB 1110.
Hobbs has talked about a carbon tax on fossil fuels as one possible alternative. But in a Feb. 20 letter, 32 House Democrats wrote that they “see passage of a clean fuel (low-carbon fuel) standard as a precondition” to passage of any transportation revenue package.
The House also is considering another piece of climate legislation that would give Inslee more executive power to develop — through the Ecology Department — a separate program to regulate state carbon emissions from petroleum fuels. This bill could make its way through the Senate without going through the Senate Transportation Committee, but it is still uncertain it could garner enough votes to send on to Inslee for signing.
During the Senate Transportation Committee hearing, the question of costs of the clean-fuel standard loomed large.
At the hearing, committee staff noted some projections for the cost of a low-carbon fuel-standard program that California had in place since 2011. One estimate by the California Air Resources Board put the added cost at 18.3-45.8 cents per gallon to achieve a 20% reduction in carbon intensity, which is the amount called for in the Washington House bill by 2035.
Proponents of the legislation note that in California, the average retail price of gasoline now is lower than nine years ago, when a low-carbon standard in that state first took effect.
They say new biofuels might actually help drive down fuel prices in Washington state, where a trade publication called OPIS noted mid-January retail margins in Washington were among the highest in the nation for both gasoline and diesel.
Dennis McLerran, a former regional EPA administrator in Seattle who represents the Port of Seattle, said that one biodiesel company, Propel Fuels, is injecting new competition into California with retail sales of 100% renewable diesel in southern California.
In Washington, McLerran is optimistic that the legislation would spur the development of new operations that produce methane from dairy manure, and encourage investment in plants that could produce transportation fuels from forest products.
There now are some exemptions for uses of vehicles off of the state road system by the timber industry and farmers.
But log truck drivers who testified at the hearing said much of their fuel costs would not be exempted. They said they should not be made to bear an increased financial burden to lower carbon emissions.
Their arguments got some sympathy from State Lands Commissioner Hilary Franz. She testified in favor of the legislation but suggested that the loggers have a transition period to shield them from financial impacts.
“I would listen to their cries … but it doesn’t mean we don’t act,” Franz testified.