Gov. Jay Inslee signed a package of bills Tuesday to combat climate change headlined by legislation to rid Washington’s electric grid of fossil-fuel-generated power by 2045, a move that makes the state a leader in the national clean-power movement.
Other parts of the green agenda now embedded in state law create new conservation standards for energy use in large new buildings, require new efficiency standards for appliances and phase out “super pollutant” hydrofluorocarbons used as refrigerants.
“From this day forward, let the word go out: Washington state is leading in the effort to combat climate change … It’s been a long time coming,” said Inslee, who signed five bills in a park by the Rainier Vista housing development in South Seattle.
Even with these bills’ passage, Washington still is projected to fall short of the emission targets set by state law.
Inslee initially hoped his legislative agenda would meet that goal. But lawmakers did not approve a clean-fuels standard that would have required continuous reductions in carbon pollution from gasoline and other transportation fuels. That proposal was projected by the governor’s staff to account for 4.3 million of the 18-million-metric-ton reduction in state greenhouse-gas emissions needed to reach a 2035 target, according to the governor’s staff.
But, as a whole, the package is a substantial victory for Inslee, a longtime clean-energy evangelist who is running for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination on a platform of making climate-change defeat the federal government’s No. 1 priority.
During the bill signing, Inslee took a swipe at President Donald Trump, who has called climate change a hoax and recently claimed the sound from wind turbines causes cancer. “Wind turbines don’t cause cancer. They cause jobs,” Inslee said.
Amid increasingly dire scientific projections about a looming global-warming catastrophe that could kill off 1 million species, Democratic primary voters have told pollsters climate change is a crucial issue in the 2020 election. So far, that concern has not translated into much support for Inslee, who consistently sits near the bottom of the pack in national and early primary state polls.
In Washington, Inslee’s state climate agenda got a big boost from the 2018 midterm election results that gave Democrats control of the state Senate, and bolstered the party’s majority in the state House.
The recently concluded legislative session came in the aftermath of a hot, dry year when forest fires repeatedly pushed smoke into Western Washington and helped raise the regional profile of climate change, which scientists say is driven by the buildup of fossil-fuel emissions that are pushing up average global temperatures.
Inslee called the clean-power legislation, Senate Bill 5116 , cornerstone of his climate-change agenda that passed the Legislature. Proponents hope it will set the stage for zero-carbon electricity to play a much bigger role in transportation as internal combustion vehicles give way to those that plug into the electric grid.
On Tuesday, the new law was cheered by environmental and labor supporters.
“Today isn’t just a victory celebration: it’s the beginning of a transformation,” said Gail Gatton, executive director of Audubon Washington.
The law sets a 2025 deadline for utilities to end all reliance on coal, and a 2045 deadline to end use of natural-gas-generated electricity. The new energy standards will have a major impact on investor-owned utilities. Puget Sound Energy (PSE), which serves more than 1.1 million electric customers, got nearly 60 percent of its electricity from coal and natural gas in 2017.
PSE leaders were involved in intense negotiations with legislators and environmentalists over the shape of the bill. In the final version, legislators yielded to utility concerns that an early House bill contained too harsh of a financial stick should the fossil-fuel-powered electricity not be phased out by 2045.
“We took out specific aggressive punitive penalties and put in strong regulatory oversight,” said state Sen. Reuven Carlyle, D-Seattle and a sponsor of Senate Bill 5116.
The final bill also created offramps sought by PSE on the road to 100 percent clean power, should the costs of getting there prove too large or should the reliability of the grid be put at risk.
“I don’t know that you can say we supported this, but this (clean-power) legislation looks as good as any of the bills we have seen,” said David Mills, PSE’s senior vice president-policy and energy supply. Mills said the utility has put out bids for new sources of power, and the vast majority were for renewables, some “at fairly attractive prices.”
For PSE, the clean-power law will add new urgency to the task of ending a decadeslong reliance on a major coal-fired plant in Colstrip, Montana, which the utility partially owns.
Two of the plant’s four units will close by July 2022. PSE had forecast that it would stop drawing power from the other two units by the early 2030s, and hinted in planning documents that it could happen sooner.
The new legislation means that within six years, PSE needs to be done with delivering Colstrip power to Washington.
That is going to be an economic blow to southeastern Montana, where the plant enjoys fierce support for the family-wage jobs it creates.
Those tensions were on display last month, when Inslee testified at a congressional hearing.
Rep. Greg Gianforte, R-Montana, took the opportunity to attack the governor’s clean-power push as “devastating” to thousands of families in Colstrip. He challenged Inslee to visit the town “to meet the people whose livelihoods you are extinguishing…” Inslee replied by inviting Gianforte to Washington state to see people “having trouble breathing because of coal-fired electricity pollution.”
PSE is still working on plans for phasing out of delivering Colstrip power to Washington customers.
“Everything is to be determined,” Mills said.
Inslee, in his remarks Tuesday, said he’s not finished with his state climate agenda.
“We know we are not done yet,” Inslee said. “This is a great start.”