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Talking climate policy, transit, and high-speed rail with Washington Gov. Jay Inslee

The governor is willing, but the legislature … not so much.

SEATTLE, WA - APRIL 22: Washington state Governor Jay Inslee speaks at a rally during the March for Science at Cal Anderson Park on April 22, 2017 in Seattle, Washington. Participants were advocating for science that upholds the common good and for politi
Washington Gov. Jay Inslee at Seattle’s Science March, April 22, 2017.
(Photo by Karen Ducey/Getty Images)

The role of governor of a progressive West Coast state has taken on a somewhat different resonance since Jay Inslee was first elected in 2012. Comfortably reelected in 2016, he now finds himself part of a symbolic rebellion against the Trump Empire. (Sorry, just watched the Star Wars trailer.)

With carbon policy moribund at the federal level, more attention than ever is focused on the west coast states that are making climate progress. California recently adopted some of the world’s most ambitious carbon targets. Oregon recently banned coal. British Columbia has a carbon tax in place.

Washington … keeps falling on its face. The story of climate policy in the state has been almost entirely dismal, culminating last year in a divisive and ultimately fruitless battle over the right kind of carbon tax. The Alliance for Jobs and Clean Energy, a state coalition of green, low-income, and labor groups, is trying again in the legislature this year, putting forward a carbon-tax bill and promising to run it as a ballot initiative in 2018 if it doesn’t pass.

In the meantime, Inslee’s Department of Ecology has put in place a legally binding cap on carbon, under the authority of the state’s Clean Air Act. It’s a bit of a no-win situation for Inslee — greens say it’s too weak; industry groups are suing anyway — but it is all the state has at the moment.

Meanwhile, in 2016, Washington voters approved Sound Transit 3, a $53.8 billion package of rail and transit improvements. But even that has left a sour aftertaste.

seattle link light rail
Link light rail in Seattle.
(Wikipedia)

First, Senate Republicans immediately held transit funding hostage. Inslee had been threatening to pass a low-carbon fuel standard (LCFS) like California’s, which would have mandated reductions in the average carbon intensity of the state’s liquid transportation fuels. He held out in hopes of trading up to more comprehensive legislation; instead, Senate Republicans inserted into law a “poison pill” stating that if Inslee implemented the LCFS, transit funding would be redirected to roads. (Yes, it really was that crass.) The governor acquiesced in order to get ST3 funded.

Second, Washington voters recently discovered, when their yearly car registration fees rose, that they were actually going to have to pay for ST3. That has prompted a bout of political hysteria, egged on by the very same legislators who passed the bill funding ST3. (They now claim they didn’t notice the car-tab fees.) There are bills afoot in the legislature to address this alleged injustice, some at the expense of ST3 money.

I spoke with Gov. Inslee about all this and more at a recent event on sustainable transportation at Western Washington University. (Check out WWU’s Institute for Energy Studies, which has pulled together an excellent inter-disciplinary energy program for undergrads. More schools should follow suit!) An edited transcript of our conversation follows.

David Roberts

What lessons do you take from the LCFS process? Would you do it differently if you reran it?

Jay Inslee

I don’t drive in the rearview mirror, so I usually don’t like to answer questions like that.

Look, we’re committed to having some legal policy that will drive down carbon. We have it today in our carbon-cap rule, pursuant to the Clean Air law. We have a concrete, legally enforceable rule that reduces carbon emissions, which includes transportation fuels. This is something people have not paid enough attention to — the carbon cap applies to transportation fuels.

I think it’s a fair rule and it’s legally justified. So, we have that.

Obviously, I wasn’t pleased that folks wanted to tell people you had to make a choice between breathing and having a bus to ride to work. I never understood why you were forced to make that choice.

seattle bus
A Seattle bus, a.k.a., King County Metro Transit.
(Shutterstock)

David Roberts

Do you think the carbon-cap rule will have comparable effects to an LCFS?

Jay Inslee

I do not talk about them in combination. They stand alone on their own two feet. I do think it will be an effective and well-balanced rule.

I can tell you that our state needs to amp up its game. The science is becoming so much more compelling, the damages are occurring so much more rapidly than we would have anticipated.

David Roberts

And the national scene…

Jay Inslee

The national scene is void of any particular hope at the moment. So I do believe our state needs more tools against this threat than we have right now. It’s clear.

David Roberts

What do you think of the carbon-tax bill that’s being put forward in the House [HB 1646]? It’s allegedly going to become a referendum if it doesn’t pass this year.

Jay Inslee

I haven’t seen it in detail, but those concepts I have supported in the past. If it comes to an initiative — people have done good things in our state in the past, including the renewable portfolio standard.

We’d rather the legislature act. They’re going to have an opportunity in the next few weeks.

But we’re serious about considering the carbon tax because, to me, any time you get two things for a dollar, that’s a good thing. For a dollar, if you can buy part of a textbook and also get cleaner air? Why would you not do that?

It is a leveling of the economic playing field, because a system where you have two competing industries, and one industry is getting a giant subsidy — it’s not fair. And the fossil fuel industry has a giant subsidy right now, which is that they get to use the atmosphere as a garbage dump. We don’t allow the solar-cell industry to dump their stuff in Whatcom County Garbage Dump for free, and make the fossil fuel industry pay a charge. This is a capitalistic system of embedding the real cost of externalities of this product.

David Roberts

The other half of any carbon pricing system is the revenue. Do you have personal preferences about what to do with it?

Jay Inslee

Well, we proposed a mix, which included education, clean energy investments, and ways you could ameliorate any cost impact on lower-income people.

I don’t have any ideological fixation. When you talk to the public, they seem to be more comfortable with a connection between the revenue and particular spending. That’s attractive to them. So, on an initiative, that might be something you want to pay attention to.

support for clean energy research
From a 2014 poll. Not bad!
(NSEE)

But there are other needs, if we can fashion something through the legislature. There’s a need for water infrastructure, both for improved fish and irrigation supplies and flood control. There’s a connection, because it’s related to climate change. There’s multiple things you can do that, in my mind, would have a connection.

David Roberts

But you don’t have any particular line to draw?

Jay Inslee

I don’t. Well, my line is: Don’t waste money. Don’t buy something that’s not necessary. But we have needs for education funding, for infrastructure spending, for a variety of things.

David Roberts

Some bills bouncing around the Washington legislature would revise the motor vehicle excise tax — the car tabs — and take out a chunk of money that was going to Sound Transit 3. A) How do you feel about those bills? Do you plan to sign them? Veto them? And B), if that chunk of money is lost, are you going to try to remedy that in the budget?

Jay Inslee

We don’t have a black or white answer to that yet, because we haven’t seen the bills. There are two things, though, that I think the legislature should try to accomplish, if they can.

One is to maintain the integrity of the project, which is to get from Everett to Tacoma — to maintain what the voters voted on. They voted for that project, they ought to get that project. Maintaining a revenue base that will support getting to those ends of the line is vital.

But the second is: I do believe, particularly given public reaction to this, if there can be some accommodation on “sticker shock,” to ward off something more draconian that could eliminate the whole project, that’s something the legislature ought to do. I’m amenable to things like that, as long as we don’t mortally wound our ability to actually finish the project.

David Roberts

The race in Washington’s 45th District could put the Senate in Democratic hands. Are you getting involved in that race at all? And if the Senate were controlled by Democrats, what do you think its first priority should be?

Jay Inslee

I’m really excited about that race. Manka [Dhingra] is just a tremendous candidate. She’s so well-rooted in the district, great experience — nonprofit work in mental health, a prosecuting attorney. You don’t get that high quality of a candidate, as a first-time candidate, that often. She’s great and I intend to do anything I can to help her.

I do think if she wins, and Democrats have control, we’ll have a really great shot at additional ways to reduce pollution and advance clean energy. I can’t predict in exactly what way, but I think at least a door will be opened.

Right now, the Republicans have shut the door. I mean, they have just slammed the door shut. They don’t want to talk about climate change. I’m sure they’re quite proud of Don Benton being the guiding light of environmental policy in the Trump administration, for a while anyway.

So, yes, it will open up doors.

I lead with a message about job creation. A lot of people are talking about how Democrats need a more compelling economic message — if this isn’t it, I don’t know what is. I can go around the state and point to the jobs we’re creating because of clean energy policy, because of research. These kids may be CEOs of companies, hiring people here in a few years.

I think it’s a perfect thing for the Democratic Party to be connecting with people on. It speaks to the innate optimism of our people; we create whole new industries here.

David Roberts

There are rumors floating around about a Seattle-Vancouver high-speed rail line. Do you think that’s realistic? Will your budget fund a study?

Jay Inslee

I think it’s viable. I’ve ridden bullet trains in China and Japan and they’re unbelievable technology. It seems to me our geography fits pretty well, looking at our economies booming on both sides of the border.

vision for high-speed rail
Obama’s vision for high-speed rail. Sigh.
(White House)

Yes, I think this should be explored. We’re trying to get seed money for researching this into the budget. We’re going to do everything we can.

David Roberts

There’s lots of energy on the West Coast to work together, especially given what’s going on at the federal level. What do you think of Washington joining the Quebec-California carbon trading market? What are the prospects?

Jay Inslee

The larger any system of trading, the better for all concerned. So it’s something I would certainly be open to. I think we have a fairly rapidly emerging group interested in this — Canada and our multiple states. And don’t forget the RGGI [Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative] states as well, eight Northeast states.

Now, you have to have your own system first, which takes some political changes. But I think those are realistic possibilities, if we get a change here in the State of Washington.

David Roberts

If Washington passes a tax, does it foreclose joining a carbon-trading system?

Jay Inslee

Not necessarily. You can convert it. None of these are permanent. If a legislature passed a carbon tax this year, it would be a pricing system, which could be converted to a cap-and-invest system at a later date, if the state wanted to go that route.

I don’t believe [a tax] would shut any doors. The biggest door to open is to realize it’s time to stop allowing polluters to use the air we breathe as their waste dump. Once you cross that barrier, the next steps are a lot easier.

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