As Washington inks ‘most ambitious’ climate rules in U.S., lawmaker praises tech’s supporting role

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The electrification of Washington’s ferry system is one of the plans for cutting the state’s carbon emissions. (Brent Roraback Photo)

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee this week signed into law what many are calling the nation’s most ambitious package of climate policies. One of the key lawmakers behind the legislation gives the region’s tech and business sectors some of the credit for the state’s ability to lead in tackling climate change.

“We have an entrepreneurial spirit that allows us to think big,” said Sen. Reuven Carlyle, prime sponsor of the Climate Commitment Act, which puts a cap on carbon pollution in Washington.

Carlyle, a Democrat representing part of northwest Seattle, is himself an entrepreneur. He previously worked in telecommunications and aerospace, and has served on the boards of businesses in wireless networking, consumer electronics and energy.

Carlyle called out some of the state’s biggest corporations, including Microsoft, Amazon and Starbucks, as “real moral-authority thought leaders on climate.” He cited their bold, self-imposed carbon reduction goals — with Microsoft aiming to be carbon negative by 2030 and Amazon establishing The Climate Pledge and urging others to join it. Carlyle noted the importance of both tech companies’ funds for investing in clean energy innovation, as well as venture capital from Bill Gates’ Breakthrough Energy and others that’s flowing to next generation batteries and cleaner fuels.

“The entrepreneurial spirit and public policy spirit came together,” Carlyle said of the legislative successes, “and we found our groove.”

Sen. Reuven Carlyle, primary sponsor of a key piece of climate legislation that was signed into law this month. Carlyle is pictured on the floor of the Senate in March. (Washington State Legislature Photo)

Microsoft came out in support of the Climate Commitment Act, or Senate Bill 5126, as did BP America and Vulcan, the company created by the late Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen. Amazon backed House Bill 1091, which creates a clean fuel standard. Support for the policy is “part of our commitment to sustainability,” said Amazon general counsel David Zapolsky, in a blog post.

But even harder work is still ahead, and there’s been a hiccup with some of the climate legislation. When Inslee signed the legislation into law on Monday, he vetoed parts of SB 5126 and HB 1091. He nixed language that made the bills’ implementation dependent upon a yet-to-be-approved transportation package.

The governor’s vetoes riled Washington lawmakers who deemed it an executive office overreach, and Carlyle said he’d asked Inslee not to take that step. The state senator and others, however, are optimistic that the transportation package will be approved in an upcoming special legislative session, making the vetoes a moot point in some respects.

Here are some more details on the new policies, and their broader implications.

Suite of climate policies

Senate Bill 5126: Provides a playbook for reaching incremental carbon emission reduction goals set by the state last year, with a final goal of reducing emissions to net zero by 2050. The law covers roughly 75% of Washington’s emissions, and includes pollution from electricity generation, transportation, oil and gas, and landfills.

The policy puts a cap on carbon pollution that declines over time and creates allowances that polluters must pay for to cover their emissions, with some exceptions. The revenue generated by the sale of the allowances is spent in communities hardest hit by climate change and pollution. Supporters call the approach “cap and invest.”

Washington is the second state after California to cap carbon emissions, and this new legislation is considered stronger in many regards, including the fact that it doesn’t require reauthorization over time. (Check out David Roberts at Volts for an in-depth analysis of the climate policies.)

House Bill 1091: Establishes a Clean Fuels Program that limits the greenhouse gas emissions from transportation fuels, lowering their carbon intensity. California, Oregon and British Columbia have clean fuels standards in place. 

House Bill 1050: Puts tighter regulations on hydrofluorocarbons, a much more potent heat-trapping gas than carbon dioxide, that is used for air conditioning and refrigeration.

Senate Bill 5141: The HEAL Act creates an environmental justice council and builds on work to reduce the impact of pollution and other environmental harm on disproportionately affected communities.

Next steps

The special session for hashing out the transportation package could happen around September, Inslee told the The Seattle Times on Monday. Carlyle is confident that he and fellow lawmakers can pull off approval, saying there is “a fierce commitment to getting a transportation package done and done quickly.”

The proposed funding package includes an increase in the state’s gas tax, highway improvements, repairs to culverts that block fish passage, electrification of Puget Sound ferries, bridge construction and other projects.

WA vs. CA

California launched its carbon cap-and-trade program in 2013, so why has it taken so long for a second state to follow suit? Washington admittedly has been trying for years to get on a carbon diet, with two failed efforts led by Inslee and two failed voter initiatives. The most recent ballot measure was in 2018, which had backing from individuals and companies in the tech sector, including Microsoft.

With a massive economy and leaning strongly blue, California can be dismissed as an outlier, Carlyle said. Washington has the opportunity to be seen as a role model.

Rep. Joe Fitzgibbon, who sponsored the two climate house bills, agreed. His legislation along with SB 5126 “provide a road map for what robust climate action looks like at the state level for other jurisdictions in the United States and around the world,” Fitzgibbon said in a statement.

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