This was supposed to be the year that Washington Gov. Jay Inslee finally clinched a major climate victory on his home turf.
As the legislative session in Olympia draws to a close, the odds aren’t looking good for the Democratic governor, who ran for president as the self-styled "climate candidate" before withdrawing from the race in August.
In particular, it appears unlikely that a major climate bill will make it over the finish line before the Washington Legislature adjourns tomorrow, according to environmentalists, lawmakers and others tracking the measure’s progress.
The bill’s death, which comes after Republican lawmakers in nearby Oregon fled the capital to protest a cap-and-trade bill, showcases the difficulties of passing state-level climate policy opposed by the oil and gas industry.
And unlike in Oregon — where Democratic Gov. Kate Brown yesterday signed an executive order on climate change after the Legislature failed to take meaningful action on the issue — Inslee remains limited in his executive authority.
At issue is H.B. 1110, a bill aimed at establishing a clean fuel standard that would seek to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from transportation.
The measure has garnered broad support from environmental and public health experts, who say it would make a big dent in statewide carbon emissions. Transportation accounts for 42% of emissions in Washington state, where the electricity sector has seen an influx of clean hydropower.
Yet after passing the state House of Representatives in January, the measure stalled in a key Senate committee last week. It now appears unlikely to clear the full Senate before tomorrow.
A big reason? Opposition from groups tied to the fossil fuel and timber industries — including some familiar players from the standoff in Oregon.
"Nothing is ever completely dead until we adjourn. But I don’t see a path for the bill this year," Washington Rep. Joe Fitzgibbon (D), the lead sponsor of the bill, said in a phone interview this week from his office in Olympia.
Bill opponents appear to have "accepted the industry talking points that it would cause a massive spike in the price of fuel," he said.
Fitzgibbon was alluding to two groups that have fomented opposition to the bill in recent weeks and whose arguments have found sway with state lawmakers of both parties.
The first group, Affordable Fuel Washington, has been bankrolled by a trade association for the oil and gas industry. The second, Timber Unity, has received funding from a prominent timber magnate and was a leading voice in support of Oregon Republican lawmakers’ walkout.
The bill’s demise is poised to hand yet another defeat to Inslee on his signature issue.
In 2018, Inslee suffered a high-profile setback when voters rejected Initiative 1631, a ballot measure that would have implemented a gradually escalating carbon tax. A similar proposal failed at the ballot in 2016 (Climatewire, Nov. 7, 2018).
Following those failures, Inslee made a key pivot in his strategy on climate policy. Rather than championing an economywide approach to reducing emissions — such as a carbon tax — he focused on greening specific sectors such as transportation.
Yet recent events show the limitations of that strategy, said Reed Schuler, a top environmental policy adviser in Inslee’s office.
"Recently, Gov. Inslee has shifted his focus toward a series of sectoral measures to tackle emissions in bite-sized chunks. They’re big bites, but bites nonetheless compared to doing it all across the economy at once," Schuler said.
"Last legislative session, we were hugely successful in passing the governor’s sectoral agenda," he said, noting that lawmakers passed a 100% clean electricity bill and first-in-the-nation energy efficiency requirements for commercial buildings.
"Where we have been least successful to date is in tackling emissions from our largest remaining sector, transportation."
‘It’s just a front group’
If enacted, H.B. 1110 would direct the Washington Department of Ecology to develop a clean fuel standard, which would require fuel producers and importers to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions associated with burning gasoline and other fuels.
The goal of the standard would be a 20% reduction in the carbon intensity of transportation fuels by 2035. A similar program already exists in nearby California, Oregon and British Columbia.
The bill passed the Washington House of Representatives in January on a 52-44 vote. But it failed to clear the state Senate Transportation Committee last week.
The measure sparked broad concern from Republicans as well as state Sen. Steve Hobbs, a moderate Democrat who chairs the Transportation Committee. They argued that the program would significantly raise gas prices, pinching the pockets of low-income consumers.
That argument is a familiar one. It’s been made by a group called Affordable Fuel Washington, which was created for the express purpose of fighting H.B. 1110.
On its website, Affordable Fuel Washington portrays itself as a grassroots organization of "Washington citizens, employers, farmers, organizations and families." The group does not disclose its sources of funding online.
But in an interview, Affordable Fuel Washington spokeswoman Dana Bieber acknowledged the group is bankrolled by the Western States Petroleum Association, a powerful trade group that represents the oil and gas industry in the six Western states of Arizona, California, Hawaii, Nevada, Oregon and Washington.
"Our funding comes from WSPA, the Western States Petroleum Association," she said. "We are completely transparent about that."
Fitzgibbon has shown no restraint when it comes to calling out the group’s connection to the fossil fuel sector.
"I mean, it’s just a front group for the oil industry," he said. "They’re not a registered lobbying group, but they have aggressively campaigned against the bill with money from the oil industry."
Bieber rejected this characterization of the group. She said it represents "a broad coalition of farmers, working families and small businesses" who have genuine concern that a clean fuel standard is an "ineffective, costly and regressive fuel policy."
A spokesman for WSPA didn’t respond to multiple requests for comment in time for publication, including questions about how much money the trade group has provided to Affordable Fuel Washington.
A familiar fight
For Democrats and environmentalists in Washington, Bieber is a familiar foe.
In 2018, Bieber emerged as a leading opponent of Initiative 1631, the ballot measure that would have established a carbon tax. And she made similar arguments about how a carbon tax would raise costs for low-income consumers.
"Regardless of what you say about a carbon fee or a carbon tax, it’s intended to be paid by consumers," she told The Atlantic in 2018.
In addition to Bieber, another prominent figure who has opposed both climate policies is Rob McKenna, a Republican who served two terms as Washington attorney general. McKenna’s clients at the law firm Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe LLP have included Chevron Corp., which gave $500,000 to the No on 1631 campaign.
"I don’t think this is the right approach. It looks like a blank check to me," McKenna previously told The Seattle Times of Initiative 1631. He has since written multiple opinion pieces arguing that a clean fuel standard would hike gas prices.
"What you regularly get from this crowd is that they support climate action, just not this climate action," said Vlad Gutman-Britten, Washington director at Climate Solutions, an environmental group.
"And yet somehow it’s always not this one. It’s always the next one," he said. "The reality is this is a cohort of people who are engaged in predatory delay. And what they’re doing is preventing Washington from reducing emissions."
Gutman-Britten added that in California, which implemented a low-carbon fuel standard in 2011, the average price of gasoline has gone down compared with the national average, according to Biofuels Digest.
And in Oregon, which began fully implementing its Clean Fuels Program in 2016, the average price of the ethanol fuel mixture E10 rose by $0.0098 per gallon, according to data released by the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality.
Then there’s the curious case of Timber Unity, a group that was a prominent backer of the Oregon Republican lawmakers’ walkout.
Last week, Timber Unity took its cause from Salem to Olympia. About 375 group members showed up at the Washington State Capitol in 170 big trucks to protest the clean fuel standard bill.
As the state Senate Transportation Committee deliberated on the measure inside the building, Timber Unity led a noisy protest in the parking lot outside. Participants honked their horns and waved signs that read, "You work for us. It’s time you listen to what we are saying."
On its website, Timber Unity bills itself as a grassroots organization representing rural workers who worry that climate policy could kill their jobs.
"Even if you’re not a forester, logger, rancher, trucker, miner, fisher or farmer, when our jobs go away, it hurts every local business in our community," the website states.
But public records released by the Oregon secretary of state show that the group has received thousands of dollars from Andrew Miller, a prominent timber executive, and Knute Buehler, a failed GOP candidate for Oregon governor.
Mother Jones also reported last week that members of Timber Unity have been photographed alongside members of neofascist or militia organizations, and its social media channels feature messages supporting QAnon, the far-right conspiracy theory detailing a plot by an alleged "deep state" against President Trump.
In particular, Timber Unity Vice President Todd Stoffel has been photographed alongside Angela Roman, a GOP candidate for Congress, flashing a hand sign that is recognized in far-right extremist circles as a white supremacist symbol, according to the report.
"You’re going to get overt racists showing up to these protests, and if you don’t disavow those people, then you’re culpable in promoting those values," said Steve Pedery, conservation director at Oregon Wild, a public lands conservation group that has tracked Timber Unity’s activity in the region.
In an interview, Stoffel did not deny the accuracy of the Mother Jones report, but he pushed back on its characterization of group leaders as condoning racism.
"I’ve got a biracial daughter. I don’t care [about] the color of someone’s skin," he said. "I photo-bombed a photo of two people I happen to know. There’s a million other pictures they could go to that show an entirely different me. And they just chose that one to discredit what we’ve done."
As for why Timber Unity got involved in Washington politics after its success in Oregon, Stoffel said the group wanted to show support for embattled lawmakers who have stuck their necks out to oppose climate policy.
"In both Oregon and Washington, those lawmakers are just beat up," he said. "We showed up in Salem and let ’em know we had their back. And that’s what we did in Olympia."
‘A comprehensive failure’
As this year’s legislative session in Olympia comes to a close, climate hawks remain largely disappointed at the lack of significant progress on global warming.
In addition to the clean fuel standard bill, the Washington Legislature failed to advance a measure that would have given the Department of Ecology authority under the Clean Air Act to regulate fuel distributors.
Lawmakers did, however, pass a smaller measure directing the department to adopt California’s zero-emission vehicle program.
"This session was a comprehensive failure to act on climate," said Gutman-Britten of Climate Solutions. "The Senate has failed to pass anything meaningful that will do anything to substantially cut carbon emissions in Washington from transportation or anywhere else."
He added, "There were some good bills that passed in the energy space. But nothing substantial, and nothing that would change the oil monopoly that we face."
It was a similar story in Oregon, where the Legislature adjourned last week after making little progress on climate amid the GOP senators’ walkout.
Democratic Gov. Brown did, however, sign an executive order yesterday aimed at strengthening the state’s carbon reduction goals. The order includes a directive to more than double the state’s clean fuel standard.
"I’ve heard it loud and clear from young people across Oregon: Climate action is crucial and urgent," Brown said yesterday. "If we don’t take action right away, it is the next generation that will pay the price."
She added: "Last July, I committed to Oregonians that if the Legislature failed to take necessary action this year, I would use the tools available to me as the chief executive to address climate change. And that is exactly what I am doing."
After the Washington Legislature adjourns tomorrow, Inslee may not be able to take a similar executive action on climate as Brown.
That’s because the Washington Supreme Court ruled in January that Inslee had exceeded his authority under the Washington Clean Air Act when promulgating his 2016 clean air rule.
"One challenge for us is that we have this state Supreme Court ruling on the governor’s clean air rule, which resulted in a limitation of the governor’s authority on some executive actions," said Schuler, the environmental policy adviser in Inslee’s office.
"I think the most significant part of Gov. Brown’s executive order is likely to be in the transportation fuels space, where unfortunately we currently lack the authority to take action."
The road ahead
Climate hawks in Olympia said they hope next year will be better.
Fitzgibbon, the lead sponsor of H.B. 1110, said he plans to reintroduce a version of the bill next year, when the makeup of the state Senate could change following the November elections.
"I definitely plan on another effort next year," he said. "Certainly it will be back bigger and stronger."
Hobbs, the moderate Democrat who chairs the state Senate Transportation Committee, has expressed interest in passing a transportation revenue package next year without including a clean fuel standard.
But that idea is a non-starter for Fitzgibbon and other liberal Democrats. They say that if the Legislature passes a transportation package to encourage the construction of new roads, it must include provisions aimed at reducing climate pollution from those roads.
"We see passage of a clean fuel standard … as a precondition to the passage of a transportation revenue package," 13 Senate Democrats and 32 House Democrats wrote in a recent letter to Hobbs and his counterpart on the House Transportation Committee.
One encouraging sign for climate hawks is the shifting stance of BP PLC.
In 2018, the oil and gas major spent $13 million to help defeat the carbon tax, arguing that the proposal was poorly designed and exempted key polluters such as coal plants.
But BP recently withdrew from several trade associations that have spent decades attacking climate policies at the state and federal level, including the Western States Petroleum Association.
"Recently, WSPA has focused organizational capability and resources on stopping a state-wide low carbon fuel standard (LCFS) initiative. We disagree with this position," BP said in a report last month.
A spokesman for BP referred E&E News to that report and noted that the company has not taken a formal position on the clean fuel standard.
Schuler, the Inslee adviser, said the development is significant for climate action in the Evergreen State next year.
"It’s not new that the oil industry broadly is not helping us pass our climate agenda," he said. "But [BP’s announcement] shows that the industry is becoming a little less monolithic. And we hope that it continues to move in the right direction."