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Not Winning in Legislature, Washington Governor Will Impose Emissions Cap

Frustrated by legislative inaction on climate, Gov. Jay Inslee plans to wield his administration's executive authority to impose a binding cap on carbon emissions in Washington state.

By Jim Brunner and Hal Bernton

Frustrated by legislative inaction on climate, Gov. Jay Inslee plans to wield his administration's executive authority to impose a binding cap on carbon emissions in Washington state.

Inslee on Tuesday directed the state Department of Ecology to step up enforcement of state pollution laws and develop the emissions cap -- aimed at enforcing greenhouse-gas-reduction targets that have been in state law since 2008.

"Carbon pollution and the climate change it causes pose a very real and existential threat to our state," Inslee said in a news release.

The first-term Democrat has made the fight against global warming a priority, but his agenda was stymied this year in the state Legislature. His signature cap-and-trade legislation to cut carbon emissions faced stiff Republican opposition and failed to pass even in the Democratic-majority state House.

Inslee's move Tuesday seeks to sidestep lawmakers and assert his administration's legal authority to seek "substantive emission reductions" under the state's Clean Air Act.

Though Inslee's office denied the connection, his announcement came less than two weeks after the governor met personally with a group of young climate activists who sued the state, arguing it has the authority to regulate carbon emissions without new legislation.

The scope of the forthcoming emissions rules was not clear, as Inslee asked Ecology Director Maia Bellon to launch a yearlong rule-making process. The governor's office said that process will be "open and transparent" and include public input.

Inslee's announcement was hailed by environmentalists and others who have demanded action on global warming that scientists link to greenhouse gases spewed by car tailpipes, fossil-fuel power plants and other human activities.

"If this is a comprehensive, well-designed carbon cap, that is really a massive step forward," said Gregg Small, executive director of Climate Solutions, a Northwest nonprofit.

But some critics questioned the legality and wisdom of Inslee's maneuver.

"I don't think he has the ability to do it via rule," said state Sen. Doug Ericksen, R-Ferndale, who predicted the regulations would push up gasoline and energy costs.

Todd Myers, environmental director with the business-backed Washington Policy Center, accused Inslee of being driven by "politics, not success."

He said the governor's cap-and-trade bill sank of its own accord because it tried to raise $1 billion in carbon-fee revenue for the state budget. "He couldn't even get House Democrats to agree to what was essentially a huge tax increase," Myers said.

State Sen. Kevin Ranker, D-Orcas Island, rejected that argument and said Inslee was left with little choice but to pursue executive action, given the staunch resistance he faced from the Senate GOP majority and oil interests.

"If Republicans want to keep their heads in the sand -- so be it. But now is the time for the governor to take these actions," said Ranker, who sponsored the Senate version of Inslee's cap-and-trade bill.

Absent legislation, the carbon-cap rule now under development would not charge polluters for permits and, aside from potential fines for violators, would not raise money for the state's operating budget, the governor's office said.

However, a powerful coalition of Democratic Party-allied environmental, labor and other groups says it is developing an initiative for 2016 that may seek to charge polluters and raise hundreds of millions for schools, affordable housing and other state needs.

A competing measure already gathering signatures, Initiative 732, would take a different approach: creating a carbon tax on fossil fuels but cutting other taxes by an equal amount.

Even as he pushed ahead on a carbon limit, Inslee announced Tuesday he was backing off another climate policy he's publicly favored -- a clean fuels regulation targeting carbon emissions from automobile tailpipes.

Inslee this month signed a $16 billion transportation package that included a "poison pill" provision demanded by Republicans that would have diverted hundreds of millions of dollars from bike, transit and pedestrian project funding if he moved ahead on the fuels regulation.

In recent days, Inslee had signaled he was considering pulling the trigger anyway, but he relented in the face of pressure from advocates who feared the loss of transit and other funding. Inslee's office announced Tuesday he would not pursue the rule, which would have raised gas prices.

The governor's carbon action announcement came less than two weeks after he met with a group of youthful climate activists who sued the Department of Ecology in King County Superior Court, arguing the state has the authority and obligation to regulate carbon emissions.

"We're thrilled that he has demonstrated the leadership skills to make this happen," said Andrea Rodgers, an attorney with the Western Environmental Law Center who is representing the plaintiffs. They have a settlement meeting scheduled Wednesday with the state.

Just last year, the Department of Ecology rejected a petition from the activists to start a rule-making process to control carbon emissions. But in June they gained an initial legal victory when a judge ruled the state had to reconsider the petition.

Inslee met with five of the plaintiffs and their attorney on July 17. The meeting was scheduled for 20 minutes but wound up going on for an hour and a half as the group made its case.

Rodgers said one key issue in the litigation is the scope of the statewide target for carbon emissions. The law passed by the state Legislature in 2008 calls for a 50 percent cut from 1990 levels by 2050.

Rodgers said the best science now indicates that the goal should be an 80 percent cut by the midcentury from 1990 levels.

A spokesman for Inslee's office said despite the timing of his announcement, the lawsuit did not prompt his actions announced Tuesday. Inslee's order does nothing to change the emissions targets in state law.

"They are not related," the spokesman, David Postman, wrote in an email.

(c)2015 The Seattle Times

Caroline Cournoyer is GOVERNING's senior web editor.
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