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Federal climate and inflation bill to bolster wave of new laws in WA

Nicholas Turner, The Seattle Times  


    Aug. 17—The landmark climate change and health care bill signed by the president Tuesday will unlock a wave of federal funding just as Washington prepares to launch a number of pivotal state programs.

    The new law will begin to funnel billions of dollars into green technology and infrastructure, making 2023 a potentially monumental year in the state's fight against climate change.

    Washington is preparing to roll out a spate of programs that will put a price on greenhouse gas emissions, require electric utilities to phase out coal and reduce the carbon intensity of transportation fuels. An influx of money could streamline and expedite state efforts to decarbonize.

    But the legislation's success or failure will depend largely on how effectively federal funding complements state programs on the way.

    During a news conference Tuesday, U.S. Sen. Patty Murray hailed the Inflation Reduction Act as "the largest-ever investment in climate action in our country's history."

    "It is going to help supercharge a clean energy economy right here in Washington state, while lowering everyday energy costs and promoting real energy independence," she said.

    It remains unclear how much money will make its way to Washington, and how the federal law will mesh with state programs.

    "If problems arise, we're happy to work with folks," Murray said.

    The Inflation Reduction Act will provide around $375 billion over the next decade to incentivize and subsidize technology like solar panels, improve home energy efficiency, help reduce power-plant emissions and reduce air pollution in low-income communities, among other things. There are tax incentives for electric cars which, effective in January, will provide eligible buyers up to a $7,500 tax credit for new models that qualify and $4,000 for used.

    Polls show broad support for renewable energy and high levels of concern for climate change in various degrees among Democrats, Republicans and Independents alike, but climate policy remains heavily partisan in Washington state and in Washington, D.C.

    "It is inconceivable that my colleagues on the other side of the aisle can stand behind a package that is so clearly detrimental to the American people while lying about the climate and economic benefits it will provide," Rep. Dan Newhouse, R-Wash., said in a statement last week. "I am adamantly opposed to this bill and will vote 'no' while continuing to work on solutions that will provide actual relief to the American people."

    No state Republicans voted for the state Climate Commitment Act, which was signed into law by Gov. Jay Inslee last year, nor did any Republicans in Congress vote for the Inflation Reduction Act.

    "We can't only hope for progress on fighting climate change in states that are controlled by Democrats, and when the federal government is controlled by Democrats," said Rep. Joe Fitzgibbon, D-Wash. "That's just not good enough."

    Beginning predominantly with the Trump administration, the dearth of federal climate policy had advocates pining for a nationwide tax or cap on carbon emissions. Now that the Inflation Reduction Act has been passed, such laws could remain a pipe dream.

    During her first visit to Washington last week, U.S. Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm said a federal carbon tax is "not on the agenda at the moment."

    "The Biden administration wants to incentivize the private sector," she said.

    Biden aims to achieve 100% clean electricity by 2035 and net zero carbon emissions by 2050. Granholm said the federal government must work with states to reach that goal.

    "All of this has to happen on the ground," she said. "Many states already have a very robust renewable portfolio standard or goals."

    Meanwhile, Washington is writing the rules of several laws, each designed to incrementally reduce carbon emissions in specific industries and increase investment in clean energy, several of which are set to take effect in January.

    The state is required by law to eliminate or offset all of its carbon dioxide emissions by 2050.

    The Climate Commitment Act will establish a cap on fossil fuel emissions and require almost a hundred of the state's biggest polluters to participate in a carbon market. The program is facing criticism over how large polluters in competitive industries are handled.

    The Clean Fuel Standard, which targets the transportation sector, will require suppliers to reduce the carbon intensity of the fuels they provide by 20% within the next 16 years. Transportation accounts for almost half of the state's greenhouse gas emissions. Residential, commercial and industrial indoor heating accounts for almost a quarter of statewide emissions while electricity, industry, agriculture and waste make up the rest.

    The Clean Energy Transformation Act targets the energy portfolios of electric utilities by requiring them to phase out coal by 2025, become carbon neutral by 2030 and carbon free by 2045.

    While these laws have provisions for equity baked in to varying degrees, the HEAL Act in 2021 made environmental justice a legal mandate for several key state agencies, including the Washington state departments of health, agriculture, commerce, ecology, natural resources and transportation while other entities can opt in voluntarily.

    Fitzgibbon said federal funding will make that transition easier and faster for many.

    Before the president signed the Inflation Reduction Act into law on Tuesday, there was plenty of criticism that, as an exclusively partisan bill that opts for tax incentives over regulatory measures, it was "all carrot and no stick."

    Fitzgibbon agreed, but pointed out that states like Washington, specifically those with policy frameworks in place, are in a good position to take advantage of federal money.

    "The [Inflation Reduction Act] is almost all carrot," he said. "It's great for us in Washington because we already have the sticks in place."


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