FILE — Olympia Pacific Northwest Wildfires

Smoke from wildfires in Oregon and California creates hazy skies as the sun is seen above the Washington state Capitol, Saturday afternoon, September 12, 2020, in Olympia, Washington. Numerous air quality warnings were in place for most of the West through the weekend.

(The Center Square) — Washington state lawmakers want polluters to pay for pollution, but environmentalists and companies alike question whether a cap and trade program would bring cleaner air.

Like many states, Washington has been embroiled in a years-long debate over how to reduce toxic greenhouse gases brought on by carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions. That debate centers around two concepts—carbon taxes, and cap and trade.

Carbon taxes involve the government setting the price of CO2 emissions and allowing the market to decide the quantity of emissions. Cap and trade allows the government to limit the quantity of CO2 emissions and lets the market figure the cost of meeting those limits.

Two state carbon taxes proposed in the past five years, 2016's I-732 and 2018's I-1631, failed by double digit margins in Washington.

In 2020, lawmakers updated the statewide limit on greenhouse gas emissions set in 2008 to 40.5 million metric tons of CO2—or 45% below 1990 levels—by 2030 with the goal of seeing the state achieve net zero carbon emissions by 2050.

A 2019 report from the Washington Department of Ecology found the state’s total emissions reached 97.6 million metric tons of CO2 in 2016 before falling slightly in 2017 to 97.5 million metric tons. 

The agency attributed this marginal dip to electric utilities adopting more renewable energy sources like wind and biomass in compliance with the 2006 Washington Energy Independence Act requiring that 15% of the state's energy must come from renewables by 2020.  

For Washington to meet its 2030 emissions benchmark, it would have to cut the CO2 equivalent of 12,314,483 passenger cars, according to the EPA's emissions calculator.

CO2 reduction is a big part of Gov. Jay Inslee's two-year proposed budget which requires all new buildings constructed in Washington by 2030 to be carbon neutral.

A Washington State Academy of Sciences presentation shows Washington has spent an average of $150 million per year fighting wildfires and in 2020, wildfires burned some 800,000 acres, destroyed 298 homes, and took the life of a one-year-old boy.

Keeping skies clean have become even more urgent for state lawmakers in light of increasing wildfires and a pandemic that will likely leave a number of Washingtonians with lung damage.

Senate Bill 5126, The Climate Commitment Act, would create a cap and trade program to help meet the state’s goal of reaching net zero CO2 emissions by 2050. It is sponsored by Washington Senators Reuven Carlyle, D-Seattle, and Rebecca Saldaña, D-Seattle.

The program has a start date of January 1, 2023 and a deadline of December 31, 2026 for emitters to meet standards which will be reviewed in 2045.

Emitters required to register with the proposed program include facilities or fuel suppliers whose annual emissions equal or exceed 25,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide.

The Climate Commitment Act also offers allowances and other credits at auction for emitters engaged in projects with undefined environmental benefits and no hard deadline for completion. All money raised would be put towards renewable energy projects including clean public transit and wildfire preparedness.

Given California’s current price of around $15 per metric ton, selling 46 million allowances would bring in $690 million for Washington.

Mary Streett, a spokesperson with petroleum giant BP America, testified in favor of the bill on Tuesday. 

BP donated more than $13 million to the political action committee against I-1631 in 2016, which aimed to raise $2.2 billion in carbon tax revenue in its first five years.

Other testifiers, mainly utility company spokespeople, worried that accelerated CO2 caps could put many essential services out of business, leaving customers with no immediate alternatives.

According to Deb Geiger, regional solid waste manager for Spokane County, at least nine landfills and one incinerator in Spokane County exceed the bill’s CO2 threshold and would likely face closures.

“Our local governments have the primary responsibility to provide the state-mandated solid waste services and programs,” Geiger said. “We do not make money doing this. Whether it’s a landfill or an incinerator, we have no choice but to emit and we also have very limited to no options to emission control. Under this bill, it would create a significant unfunded mandate for our county systems that we simply cannot afford.”

Cap and trade has also been criticized by environmentalists who liken the approach to sin taxes that fail to substantially reduce carbon emissions and can see emitters offset costs onto consumers.

Instead, environmentalists often recommend stricter fuel efficiency standards for automakers, expanding public transit, and renewable energy investments to compete against and replace fossil fuels.

Many of them point to California’s cap and trade program, which prices CO2 at $15 per metric ton, as a prime example of the concept's failure.

In 2020, five of the nation's smoggiest cities—Los Angeles, Visalia, Bakersfield, Fresno-Madera-Hanford, and Sacramento—called California home, according to the American Lung Association.

Studies also point to pollution as a health crisis disproportionately impacting communities of color who live closer to high-pollution areas such as airports.

Jill Mangaliman, executive director of the environmentalist group Got Green, testified in opposition to the bill which they described as a kind of “trickle down environmentalism” that gives too much leeway to corporate emitters.

“Growing up next to the Nucor Steel Factory, I had to live with smokestacks outside my window, my family and neighbors dying from cancer and having heart disease, and many suffering from asthma,” Mangaliman said. “We have no interest in creating offsets or markets or trading credits. We just want to live long, healthy lives.”

University of California Berkeley researchers concluded in a 2018 study that most of the state did not see any improved air quality from presumed reductions in pollution.

In addition, a 2019 report by ProPublica found California’s biggest oil and gas companies emitted more CO2 since cap and trade began.

Such concerns reportedly stopped President Joe Biden from picking California Air Resources Board Chair Mary Nichols from leading the Environmental Protection Agency.

In January 2020, 24 major companies including Microsoft, Adobe, and Nike signed a joint letter to "legislators of the Pacific Coast" in support of cap and trade legislation.

Staff Reporter

Tim Gruver is a politics and public policy reporter. He is a University of Washington alum and the recipient of the 2017 Pioneer News Award for Reporting. His work has appeared in Politico, the Kitsap Daily News, and the Northwest Asian Weekly.