OLYMPIA — Washington Senate Democrats passed two climate measures Thursday night — putting a price on carbon emissions and pushing for cleaner transportation fuels — signature priorities sought for years by Gov. Jay Inslee and many environmentalists.
The fates of the bills remain unknown as lawmakers race to finish their work by the April 25 scheduled end of the legislative session. But Senate approval represents a substantial step forward for big-ticket climate policy that Democrats pushed for years.
House Democrats in the past have approved clean-fuels legislation, only to see the measures stall in the Senate. Neither chamber has voted on a carbon-pricing bill, such as Senate Bill 5126.
That bill would chart a course deep into this century, requiring the state to achieve net zero emissions by 2050. It would make Washington the second state — after California — to have a comprehensive carbon-pricing law that would stretch across much of the economy. But to get there, it faces challenges.
Among those challenges is a desire by some lawmakers for it to provide more in the way of environmental justice; some Democrats have expressed interest in an alternative bill, and there’s disagreement on how any carbon revenue should be spent.
After debating SB 5126 Thursday for about five hours — driven by fierce opposition from Republicans — lawmakers approved it 25-24, the minimum needed to pass the Senate.
Shortly before the debate, sponsor Sen. Reuven Carlyle, D-Seattle, hailed its move to the Senate floor as “nothing short of a historic effort.”
Carlyle, who sponsored the bill at Inslee’s request after putting forth a similar proposal of his own last year, called it a way to “grow our economy with a lighter footprint in terms of carbon emissions.”
Its passage Thursday underscored the hard work before Democrats if they want to get it to the governor’s desk. Zero Republicans supported the bill. Three Democrats voted against it, including Sen. Liz Lovelett, a Democrat from Anacortes who is sponsoring a competing proposal.
A fourth Democrat, Sen. T’wina Nobles, D-Fircrest, voted yes — essentially putting the bill over the top — but made clear she doesn’t support the current version.
Nobles said the bill must be strengthened, describing her vote as “a plea” that a final version raise more revenue and do more for environmental justice and communities of color, among other things.
SB 5126 would establish a “cap-and-invest” program that sets steadily lower limits for pollution from carbon and other greenhouse gases, and requires polluters to steadily decrease their emissions, or purchase pollution allowances.
Under the version approved Thursday, revenue raised would go to an investment account that could be spent on transportation, energy conservation and assistance for a transition to clean energy, among other things.
Washington’s political schism was on display as Republicans from rural districts on both sides of the Cascades blasted the bills and the impacts they forecast on their constituents.
Deeply opposed to SB 5126, Republicans sponsored about 40 amendments to highlight their critiques and show how they thought it could be improved.
“It makes no sense for Washington to have a policy like this, which will simply drive jobs out of Washington to other countries,” said Sen. Doug Ericksen, R-Ferndale, during floor debate.
“Don’t kid yourself, this policy will have zero impact on global climate,” said Ericksen, a climate-change skeptic and longtime opponent of Inslee’s clean-energy agenda.
After its close Senate vote, the bill faces a number of questions in the House.
On Tuesday, House Speaker Laurie Jinkins, D-Tacoma, pointed out that it generally takes time — often months or years — for lawmakers to get used to the idea of big new proposals before they ultimately pass them.
“How would we get our body up to speed on a bill like cap and invest in enough time to move it?” Jinkins said in a question-and-answer session with reporters. “Again, doesn’t mean it’s impossible, but … it’s challenging.”
In Washington, putting a price of some sort on greenhouse-gas pollution has been a persistent and elusive goal of Inslee and environmental allies.
As far back as 2014, in the first of his three terms as governor, Inslee laid out an ambitious plan for a cap-and-trade proposal that would have raised nearly $1 billion a year for transportation projects, schools and other programs.
But such legislation failed to make much headway in Olympia, where Republicans controlled the state Senate through 2017.
Even under unified Democratic control since then — and as lawmakers approved other climate-related bills — subsequent efforts to put a price on carbon and forms of pollution that contribute to climate change stalled.
Meanwhile, voters by wide margins rejected two carbon-pricing ballot measures in 2016 and 2018.
At the same time, fault lines persist among Democrats on how to structure carbon pricing and how to spend revenue, which could stymie the passage of any legislation this year.
Some state Senate and House members have rallied behind an alternative, Senate Bill 5373, which establishes a carbon tax that rises over time and dedicates 15% of carbon tax receipts to a “Just Transition Account” with spending that would include reducing the energy burden for lower-income state residents.
That bill has drawn some support in the House, and could make it more difficult for House Democrats to muster enough votes to pass SB 5126, the one that passed Thursday.
But the bill also has some powerful allies in business not on board in years past.
BP, which operates the state’s largest oil refinery, is backing the legislation even as the Western States Petroleum Association remains neutral.
“We are focused on the cap-and-invest policy. Making sure that what passes is, economy-wise, sustainable work,” said Tom Wolf, a BP senior government relations manager based in Bellingham, in an interview this year.
House lawmakers are expected to make changes to SB 5126.
“It does have a path in the House but that doesn’t mean I’m sure it will pass, and I think we will have a pretty tight timeline to bring our members up to speed on this bill, and that is something that I’m going to work a lot on over the next two-and-a-half weeks,” said Rep. Joe Fitzgibbon, D-West Seattle, chair of the House Environment & Energy Committee.
He said one change he expects would narrow how transportation dollars generated by the bill could be spent to focus on projects that would reduce greenhouse-gas emissions.
The second major clean-energy bill approved Thursday, a proposed low carbon-fuels standard, has passed the House. It remains unclear whether lawmakers can agree on a final version of House Bill 1091 before the session’s scheduled end.
The goal is to use progressively cleaner fuels in cars, trucks, boats, trains and aircraft that in Washington generate more than 44% of total carbon emissions. Those fuels could include electricity.
Senate lawmakers Thursday night voted 27-20 to approve HB 1091.
Opponents have argued the legislation would increase fuel prices, piling what amounts to an extra tax on top of a gas tax that is one of the highest in the nation.