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Washington governor aims for tighter emissions standards

May 21, 2009 |  7:03 pm


Washington Gov. Chris Gregoire sidestepped her Legislature’s refusal to adopt a cap-and-trade program to limit greenhouse gases, signing an executive order Thursday to achieve similar reductions by ratcheting back coal-fired electricity and automobile emissions.

“I wanted cap and trade. I didn’t get it,” said Gregoire, whose order directs government agencies to expand public transit and other programs to meet auto emissions goals, and to reach agreement with the state’s only coal-fired power plant to reduce its carbon output at least 50% by 2025.

The order also calls for development of an even wider-ranging set of emission reduction strategies to achieve across-the-board greenhouse gas targets by 2020, and it sets the stage for working with California and Oregon to implement a West Coast “electric highway” accessible to electric and alternative-fuel vehicles.

The new order is the latest in a series of efforts by state governors to advance climate change goals while awaiting comprehensive nationwide legislation in Washington.

The U.S. House Energy and Commerce Committee voted 33 to 25  to approve a bill to impose the nation’s first limits on carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases, aiming to cut emissions linked to global warming 83% by 2050. The bill must now go to several other committees and then on to the House floor. Democrats have said they will use the bill as a starting point for introducing a climate bill in the Senate.

The Washington state Legislature in March had refused to impose a mandatory limit on carbon emissions, throwing a wrench into Washington’s participation in the Western Climate Initiative — established in 2007 among seven states and four Canadian provinces.

Governors in several regions are trying to set up a system of marketable carbon reduction credits that can be traded to industries unable to meet mandatory emission limits, the “cap-and-trade” concept. Gregoire's order is designed to realize similar carbon reductions by negotiation, incentive and administrative regulation.

“This readies Washington state to implement a federal cap-and-trade program immediately,” Gregoire said.

The order came as the federal Environmental Protection Agency held a second and final hearing in Seattle on its proposal to find that greenhouse gases pose a danger to humans and therefore are subject to regulation under the federal Clean Air Act — potentially one of the most far-reaching regulatory moves since the agency began overseeing air pollution in the 1960s.

The EPA also is poised to rule that carbon dioxide, in combination with other tailpipe emissions, contributes to the threat of climate change.

“It’s an important turnaround. The importance of these issues is finally rising to the top, where the EPA is paying attention to the seriousness of global warming and is not making decisions based purely on the politics as they have in the past,” said Janette Brimmer, staff attorney for the conservation group Earthjustice.

Outside the hearing, several hundred climate-change activists, many bused in from Oregon, batted balloons painted like globes and waved banners with such slogans as “For Our Children’s Future.”

“After eight years of wandering in the wilderness, we finally have a president who says global warming is real, it is human caused ... and we have a responsibility to do something about it,” Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels told the crowd.

In this city — where conservation has long been a mantra — the hearing was like handing the megaphone to the choir. During most of the day, not a single respondent testified against the idea. Industry representatives largely were relegated to the post-6 p.m. time slot.

Indeed, some businesses that have focused on green technology testified in favor of EPA regulation.

“We believe a paradigm shift in how we view energy costs in America needs to occur, rather than being paralyzed by a fear of the rising cost of a kilowatt hour,” said Ash Awad, senior vice president of McKinstry Co., a Seattle-based company that designs and builds “high performance” buildings with reduced energy, water and solid waste use.

 “Worrying about $5-a-gallon gas when we can get to 150-mile-a-gallon vehicles seems a little short-sighted.”

Gregoire and others told EPA regulators that Washington’s Cascade mountain range already has lost 20% of its snowpack, according to studies by the University of Washington, and could lose up to 60% of the snowpack by 2050 — threatening devastating consequences for farm irrigation, salmon survival and hydropower generation.

But some business groups are urging the EPA to stand down and allow Congress to adopt comprehensive regulation of greenhouse gases.

“Congress is better positioned than EPA in representing the interests of citizens nationwide, guarding against further harm to our already fragile economy and job loss,” Grant Nelson of the Assn. of Washington Business said in a prepared statement.

“We all know that reducing greenhouse gas emissions will be expensive, but how Congress decides to act could make or break our economy of the future,” he said, “and could mean the difference between job growth and job loss.”

--Kim Murphy

Photo: Hundreds of supporters of climate change regulation rallied outside an EPA hearing in Seattle. Credit: Andy Grow, Climate Solutions.