Are lawmakers reviving I-1631?

Are lawmakers reviving I-1631?
Although I-1631 was defeated, several bills introduced this session if passed would enact similar provisions, including increased gas prices and a state task force consisting of governor-appointees and public agency directors. Photo: freepik.com

Last November voters turned down Initiative 1631, which would have created a $15 per-metric-ton carbon tax and an oversight board composed primarily of governor-appointees to decide how the revenue would be spent. However, several bills introduced this session in the House and Senate now sitting in their respective Rules Committees would enact provision similar to those that voters rejected, 56-44 percent.

Prior to the legislative session, Governor Jay Inslee unveiled his green energy package that included a low carbon fuel standard (LCFS), requiring utilities to be 100 percent carbon neutral by 2030, a ban on hydrofluorocarbons and converting the state transportation system to electric. At a Mar. 7 press conference, he compared the proposals to I-1631, arguing that combined they would reduce the same carbon emissions as the initiative.

However, other proposals have been offered by lawmakers that evoke provisions in the 2018 carbon tax initiative. SSSB 5489 introduced by Sen. Rebecca Saldaña (D-37) would create a task force consisting of state agency directors, environmental activists, governor-appointees and business representatives. The task force would make recommendations on how to “incorporate environmental justice” into state agency policies and regulations, including potential revisions to the State Environmental Policy Act (SEPA) process.

The original version of the bill would have mandated state agencies to adopt any recommendations made by the task force without any required legislative oversight or public input; that provision was later removed by the Senate Committee on Environment, Energy & Technology after pushback from business groups during its Feb. 13 public hearing. Steve Gano with the Building Industry Association of Washington told lawmakers that the process would run contrary to the state Administrative Procedure Act and “amounts to regulation without representation.”

However, the revised bill now requires that state agencies include the “cumulative impact analysis” for identifying “highly-impacted communities.” State agencies must also submit reports on reducing “environmental burdens” and reaching “environmental health targets,” while the state Department of Health must create model policies to implement task force recommendations.

The bill also defines “environmental justice” as “the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income with respect to the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations and policies.”

If passed under its current version, the task force would be authorized to make recommendations on how to reduce “environmental health disparities” for Washington communities and “ways in which state agencies may focus their work towards meeting those goals,” which can include any procedures, processes, permitting, applications, inspections and enforcement actions.

They would also be authorized to make the following recommendations:

  • Adding an “environmental burden” analysis into the SEPA process;
  • Incorporating an “equity analysis” into all significant planning, programmatic and policy decision making and investments;
  • Identifying factors that may impede the achievement of “environmental justice”; and
  • Adding “environmental justice” principles into state agency priorities.

At the Feb. 13 public hearing on the bill, Saldana told committee members that the intent of the bill is “to heal some of the wrongs and consequences from our very thriving economy here in Washington state. We need to really think about the impacts, unintended impacts, of pollution and the unintended impacts of our choice to use fossil producing fuels to fuel our economy.”

Testifying in support of SSSB 5489, Matthew Lang with Seattle Transit Riders Union drew parallels between it and I-1631. “We often make the bold claim that Washington state is a climate leader, that we are on the leading edge of environmental justice. But after the defeat of Initiative 1631 in last year’s election, I’m not sure we’re all on the same page.”

He added the proposal would “codify what it means to be a climate leader. It is the just and responsible thing to do.”

If passed, I-1631 would have set up something similar to the task force via an oversight board consisting of 15 voting members and six co-chairs. The chair and four at-large positions would have been appointed by the governor; two of them would have been required to be tribal and “vulnerable population” representatives.

However, one of the chief differences between I-1631 and SSSB 5489 is that the initiative had a direct revenue source via the carbon tax to pay for projects approved by the oversight board. An added provision to SSSB 5489 make the task force’s recommendations “subject to the availability of amounts appropriated for this specific purpose” by the legislature. I-1631 was also intended to reduce carbon emissions, whereas there’s no specific mention of carbon emissions in SSSB 5489.

The other side of I-1631 could come in the form of SSHB 1110, which would create a LCFS requiring that fuel intensity be reduced so that greenhouse gases are 10 percent below 2017 levels by 2028, and 20 percent below 2017 levels by 2035. Entities that don’t comply with the standards must buy credits from those that generate a surplus through clean energy. Like I-1631, the LCFS program is expected to raise gas prices; California’s partially-implemented LCFS program has already added $.13 per gallon. Although Inslee described the California program as a success at the during the Mar. 7 press conference, it has generated credit deficits since 2017; a nonpartisan analysis estimates the state’s program could raise gas prices by as much as $.46 by 2030.

As part of the LCFS program under SSHB 1110, half of revenue generated by electric utilities from electricity supplied to retail customers for the purposing of generating credits must be spent on “transportation electrification.” However, the state Department of Ecology would be allowed to adopt rules limiting how the other half of revenue can be spent.

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