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As climate proposals move through Legislature, offset provisions are causing controversy

The Space Needle is seen in view of still standing but now defunct stacks at the Nucor Steel plant in Seattle, seen in 2016. Rates of heart disease and asthma are higher near big polluters such as this plant.
Elaine Thompson
The Associated Press file
The Space Needle is seen in view of still standing but now defunct stacks at the Nucor Steel plant in Seattle, seen in 2016. Rates of heart disease and asthma are higher near big polluters such as this plant.

The pressure is on to pass climate bills in Olympia. Attempts to get policies through that limit carbon pollution by putting a price on it have often failed here – including two statewide voter initiatives with broad or bipartisan support.

The state has seen some recent successes, moving forward despite gridlock in the Capitol with a patchwork of polices, including the Clean Energy Transformation Act and the Clean Buildings and Healthy Homes legislation. These are laws that other states look to as they aim to reduce their emissions. But Washington still lags behind its statutory goals, set to prevent environmental disaster and keep pace with targets set in the Paris Agreement that the Biden administration just rejoined.

Now, a bill called the Climate Commitment Act is moving forward. Commenters from numerous industries and a spectrum of environmental groups packed the 90-minute hearing to give comments after the first reading.  

The act would authorize the state to put a price on carbon emissions and make big polluters pay unless they ratchet down their emissions. The money raised would be invested in cleaner transportation and other key projects, using a cap-and-trade market model, similar to California’s.

“It is a well-crafted, market-based program with a firm cap and reductions of emissions,” said Sen. Reuven Carlyle, a Democrat from Seattle’s 36th District who is known as a climate champion among his peers. As he introduced the bill before the hearing, he touted it as a solid improvement over carbon capping bills in the past, because of extra care taken to avoid certain pitfalls.

The bill has “regulatory oversight that puts environmental justice at its core and invests the money wisely in transportation and other key investments,” Carlyle said.

But a number of environmental groups reject this approach because it allows companies to buy permits to keep polluting, often in places where people live. 

Jill Mangaliman, who uses the plural pronouns they/them, grew up next to the Nucor Steel plant in Seattle and says the area sees high rates of cancers, asthma and heart disease.

“Frontline Communities don't want cap and trade or any program of carbon markets. We don't want to be sacrificed so that Washington can prove that cap and trade can work. That is environmental racism,” Mangaliman commented in the hearing.

Mangaliman is executive director of the environmental justice group Got Green, which is part of the statewide coalition of similar groups, Front and Centered. Both organizations were instrumental in preventing Initiative 732, the bipartisan tax swap, from passing in 2016. They said it did not do enough to rectify harm done by polluters in the past. And they are wary of climate bills that garner support by generating revenue – which communities and lawmakers come to depend on, even when the policy isn’t working. They point to California as an example of that kind of failure.  

Mangaliman and other environmental justice groups are more supportive of policies such as the Washington Strong Act, which would put a per-ton charge on carbon and use that money to finance “green” bonds for direct investments in communities and climate action.

That bill is co-sponsored by Sen. Liz Lovelett, a Democrat from Anacortes who says she grew up in the shadow of several of the state’s oil refineries and her father retired from that industry.

“I can see the refineries from my house,” she said.  “I’m acutely aware of what can happen to those guys working in these kinds of plants, the people who live close by.”  

Lovelett says the Washington Strong Act, which is identical to a similar measure being prepared in the House by Rep. Debra Lekanoff, a Democrat from Bow, will allow bold, front-loaded investments.”

“I think the strength in this policy is the fact that we can utilize it to be both an adaptation measure for mitigating climate change over time as well as an economic recovery tool coming out of COVID,” Lovelett said.

And call them what you will, Lovelett says these attempts to limit carbon are essentially new taxes on the industry.

If we are going to go through the political crucible of enacting a carbon tax, we ought to have the capability to bring forward some of that revenue, to make more immediate investments, particularly in our frontline communities and rural areas that tend to recover much more slowly in an economic crisis,” she said.

Clifford Traisman, longtime lobbyist with the Washington Conservation Voters and the Washington Environmental Council, says momentum for climate action is mounting and there’s no time to waste in getting good policies in place.

“It’s rock ’n’ roll time. This is not the time to have excuses. D.C. is beginning to act, and the state of Washington has to follow suit immediately this session,” he said.

His organizations also coordinate an Environmental Priorities Coalition that represents more than 20 groups statewide.

Traisman says he is still studying the Washington Strong Act and that, at this juncture, the Washington Environmental Council is still looking for proposals that achieve the equity and justice they’re willing to support. They’re not opposing the Climate Commitment Act. But Traisman says there is widespread agreement: Offsets are a problem.

We would not support a bill that allows a preponderance of offsets, where companies would be allowed to pollute in these frontline or fence-line communities, and then just sell offsets elsewhere to offset their pollution,” Traisman explained.

That perpetuates systemic racism, he says. “That does not serve the citizens of Washington state.”   

Bellamy Pailthorp covers the environment beat for KNKX, where she has worked since 1999. From 2000-2012, she covered the business and labor beat. Bellamy has a deep interest in Indigenous affairs and the Salish Sea. She has a masters in journalism from Columbia University.
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