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State Senate Warms to Climate Change, Moves First on Carbon Reduction

Backers Say SB 5735 Fixes 'Flaw' in I-937, Opponents Push Back

Hailing it as the most significant energy bill to make it out of the upper chamber in years, a bipartisan group of Senators passed SB 5735, which would fundamentally revamp Initiative 937 to focus more on carbon emissions reductions and not just on renewable energy production.

The two could still go hand-in-hand under the legislation, which passed by a 26-23, mostly party line vote. Sen. Mark Miloscia, R-Federal Way, voted no, while Sen. Maralyn Chase, D-Shoreline, and Sen. Brian Hatfield, D-Raymond, voted yes, joining Sen. Tim Sheldon, D-Potlatch, who caucuses with the GOP in the Senate.

Sen. Doug Ericksen, R-Ferndale, is carrying the measure in the Senate, and said a key point in getting utilities throughout the state on board in supporting the bill is that it doesn’t strand investments that the larger, investor-owned utilities such as Puget Sound Energy and Avista – which also carry higher carbon profiles – have made in renewable energy. The association representing public utility districts in Washington state unanimously supported it.

The heart of SB 5735 involves giving the 17 utilities that fall under I-937, which voters approved in 2006, alternative options to comply with the measure, and not just by investing in renewable energy production – mostly solar or wind energy. Instead, they would be given credit for every half-metric ton of carbon saved or prevented from being released into the atmosphere.

State Sen. Doug Ericksen, R-Ferndale.

State Sen. Doug Ericksen, R-Ferndale.

Ericksen and other proponents contend this is the most cost-effective way of addressing Washington state’s carbon emissions, by creating incentives for the installation of electric vehicle charging stations, switching the state ferry system onto liquefied natural gas, or conservation, such as weatherization of low-income residents’ homes.

“We’re not going to tear out any of the windmills,” Ericksen said. “What we’re trying to do is keep energy costs low in Washington state, create manufacturing jobs, and help low income families.”

But before the floor debate on SB 5735 could unfurl, Senate Democrats attempted to attach an amendment stating that climate change was real, and the cause is man-made. Greenhouse gas emissions such as carbon dioxide are attributed to causing an increase in global temperatures in recent decades.

Sen. Cyrus Habib, D-Kirkland, attempted to introduce the amendment last Friday, but Republicans challenged. Lt. Gov. Brad Owen ruled Monday that the amendment was within the scope of the underlying bill. Ericksen then offered a compromise – language in the intent section of the bill saying climate change is real, and may be caused by human actions. These sections are typically not codified in the Revised Code of Washington if the legislation were to become law.

Rep. Cyrus Habib D-48

State Sen. Cyrus Habib, D-Kirkland

It was the word “may” that caused Habib, Sen. Kevin Ranker, D-Orcas Island, and others to fight to ward off the change, but were unsuccessful as Ericksen’s language was adopted 29-20, with a mix of Republican and Democratic support.

“Why have a bill?” Habib asked. “The whole point of reducing carbon emissions is to reduce the impacts of climate change.”

That vote and the subsequent approval of SB 5735 was lauded as a sign of an “unprecedented” breakthrough in bipartisan efforts at reducing carbon emissions by the Washington Business Alliance, which has advocated for the bill this legislative session.

“Policy makers need to offer solutions that recognize this shared commitment and return the greatest value back to Washington state,” the group said in a statement accompanying the bill’s passage. “Looking at the technology-focused policy ideas currently moving through the Legislature, we see the outline of a promising road forward.”

Habib also hit on a key point of debate over SB 5735 – opponents such as Climate Solutions and the Washington Environmental Council say it “guts” I-937, letting utilities off the hook before the steeper renewable targets take effect of 9 percent in 2016 and 15 percent in 2020.

Proponents argue it fixes a costly mistake from the original initiative, and that I-937 has been ineffective in cutting carbon emissions because of the intermittency of renewable energy generation, which requires carbon-creating natural gas to be burned as a backup.

I-937 has been credited with about $8 billion in investment within Washington state in the almost 10 years since it passed, but Ericksen and others argue that the majority of that money – more than 70 percent – has flowed out of state in the form of renewable energy credits or by investments in wind projects owned by companies based elsewhere. Utilities say the most cost-effective means of reducing carbon emissions has been through conservation, and the Northwest Power and Conservation Council forecasts that conservation can cover 85 percent of the regional load growth through 2030.

Ericksen said the Legislature should focus more of that money within Washington state, rather than forcing utilities to pay for unneeded power. Tacoma Power, for example, is projected to have an annual surplus of 169 megawatts, yet is forecasted to spend $2.65 million on renewable energy credits every year from 2016 through 2019. The utility says 80 percent of the credits purchased thus far have been in Idaho.

“Sometimes it takes a little longer to reel in a big fish,” Ericksen said. “This one of the most important pieces of legislation that will be brought forth this year.”

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