SEATTLE (AP) — Washington Gov. Jay Inslee has gained national attention for rolling out some of the most ambitious climate initiatives in the country, signing pacts with other Western states and speaking at an international summit.
But during the legislative session that ended recently, Inslee failed in his own state to pass bold carbon-reduction proposals, including the centerpiece cap-and-trade plan to charge emissions from oil refineries, power plants and fuel suppliers.
The Democratic governor also conceded to a Republican provision that set back another climate initiative: He is expected to sign a $16.1 billion transportation package Wednesday with a provision that would transfer money for bike paths and transit elsewhere if a state agency adopts a low carbon fuel standard before 2023.
Inslee, who has made climate change a key issue since taking office in 2013, blamed the Senate Republican majority, saying the party “is now in the stranglehold of the oil and gas industry.”
“I have proposed many, many proposals to reduce carbon pollution in the state,” the governor told reporters Friday. “The state Senate has acted on no meaningful carbon pollution.”
Sen. Doug Ericksen, R-Ferndale, who chairs the committee dealing with environment issues, said Inslee’s “remark disparaging Senate Republicans is misplaced.”
He noted that the Democrat-controlled House failed to pass the governor’s climate plan out of its own chamber.
“Unfortunately, the legislative agenda he pursued is more geared toward a national or international landscape than one small state with a low-carbon emission footprint,” Ericksen said.
The governor knew it would be difficult, but it didn’t dissuade him from trying, Inslee spokesman David Postman said. “He isn’t going to make it easy for lawmakers to avoid the discussion and debate,” he said.
Mark Stephan, associate professor of political science at Washington State University Vancouver, said Inslee is looking at the bigger picture.
“Yes, it’s ambitious today, but he’s setting the bar for what’s happening a year from now or two years from now,” Stephan said.
But his challenge became much harder when Republicans took control of the Senate after last November’s election. That’s despite big money pouring in from California billionaire Tom Steyer’s group to help a state environmental group unseat Republican senators.
“He put all his eggs into the election and when that failed, rather than change his policy, he double downed,” said Todd Myers, environmental director at the Washington Policy Center. He called the cap-and-trade program the most bi-partisan and least popular one the governor could have pursued.
“I think he pretty much failed across the board,” he said.
Inslee’s cap-and-trade plan was the centerpiece of a broader carbon-reduction package this year. He pitched it as a way to raise more than $1 billion a year for schools and other programs.
Republicans and some businesses balked, saying it would hurt consumers and raise gas prices.
Kerry McHugh, spokeswoman for Washington Environmental Council, blamed the influence of the oil industry, which lobbied against a low carbon fuel standard. “This is a disappointing session for anyone who supports action on climate change,” she said.
“It wasn’t a great year for climate,” agreed Rep. Joe Fitzgibbon, D-Burien, prime sponsor of Inslee cap-and trade bill. “You’ll see us continue to work on climate policy until we get it right. We’ll keep working on it.”
Fitzgibbon said he believed the House had enough votes to pass the cap-and-trade bill. But it was clear the Senate wasn’t going to consider it, he said, so they did not want to ask members to take that vote when there were other “heavy lifts” this session.
Lawmakers did extend a sales tax break for electric vehicles, approved $40 million for renewable energy technologies and funded a number of energy efficiency and climate-related research programs. But they didn’t take action on bills related to solar incentives, zero emissions vehicles and coal-fired electricity.
Inslee said Friday that there are three ways forward: the makeup of the Senate must change, those in the Senate have “an epiphany and come to understand that climate denial is something that is not acceptable anymore,” or for voters to go through the initiative process.
Postman said the governor isn’t planning to back away from his goal to reduce carbon emission. In coming months, he’ll work on setting the agenda for the next 12 to 18 months.
“Big ideas take time,” he added.
This story has been updated to correct that Gov. Jay Inslee is expected on Wednesday to sign the transportation package. It also clarifies the provision related to the low carbon fuel standard.