by Warren Cornwall and Ralph Thomas
Climate change moved onto center stage in Olympia on Wednesday, as leading state politicians, including Gov. Christine Gregoire, for the first time put their clout behind a comprehensive effort to tackle global warming.
Gregoire's new executive order calling for the state to turn back its greenhouse-gas emissions to 1990 levels by 2020, a goal endorsed by several leading Senate Democrats, raises the prospect of a united West Coast campaign against global warming. It follows similar initiatives in California and Oregon.
But how to achieve these reductions is the tricky part, and those hard questions probably won't be answered for at least a year. Gregoire and Senate Democrats say they want a task force to come back in 12 months with a plan. It's almost sure to involve regulations limiting emissions from factories or other major sources of climate-changing gases such as carbon dioxide.
The announcements, from Gregoire, Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown, D-Spokane, Sen. Erik Poulsen, D-Seattle, and King County Executive Ron Sims, excited environmentalists.
"Our leaders are now beginning to rise to the occasion in a concerted way," said K.C. Golden, policy director of the local environmental group Climate Solutions.
On the Republican side, Sen. Jim Honeyford, R-Sunnyside, Yakima County, worried that these initiatives could hurt Washington businesses and that Washington could be shouldering more of the burden than other states, or countries such as China.
Meanwhile, the immediate focus in Olympia may be on the most detailed and potentially most controversial idea.
Poulsen said he will introduce legislation effectively barring Washington utilities from building new coal-fired power plants or from signing new long-term contracts for coal power, thereby preventing them from buying dirtier power from out-of-state power plants. That could mean higher rates for some power customers, as utilities are steered away from the cheap coal. (see "Energy Plant Costs Soar from Estimate")
Poulsen said the key question is, "Are we willing to pay a little bit more to get serious about climate change? ... I hope that we are."
It could pose particular challenges for utilities, such as Energy Northwest, that are contemplating new investments in coal power. That coalition of Washington public utilities wants to build a power plant in Kalama, northwest of Portland, that would burn either coal or petroleum coke.
Response from utilities was mixed. Avista, the Spokane-based utility with 340,000 electricity customers in Eastern Washington, north Idaho and a sliver of Montana, is backing the legislation.
But its support hinges on changes to state law that would let utilities raise rates to pay for additional conservation measures and give utilities more certainty they could recoup power-plant investments, said Collins Sprague, Avista's manager of state government relations.
"This is going to rock our world," Sprague said of how the restrictions would reshape the utility industry. "But that's not necessarily a bad thing." Energy Northwest spokesman Brad Peck, however, questioned whether such regulations would ever become law. "I doubt that will happen any time soon," he said.
Gov. Christine Gregoire, Senate Democrats and King County Executive Ron Sims announced climate-change initiatives Wednesday. Gregoire's initiative would:
The Senate Democrats' plan would:
- Cut statewide greenhouse-gas emissions to 1990 levels by 2020, 25 percent below 1990 levels in 2035 and 50 percent by 2050.
- Increase Washington jobs in the clean-energy sector from 8,400 to 25,000 by 2020.
- Cut spending on imported fuel by 20 percent by 2020.
- Create a task force to advise state leaders about how to achieve these goals.
King County Executive Ron Sims' plan would:
- Make emissions cuts and job goals similar to Gregoire's.
- Bar utilities from long-term contracts or major new investments for dirtier energy sources such as coal.
Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels
- Make deeper greenhouse-gas cuts in the region, with reductions of 80 percent by 2050.
- He also released a detailed plan to cut emissions and deal with the impacts of climate change.
- Nickels made no announcement Wednesday, but he has issued a plan to get Seattle to cut greenhouse gases 7 percent below 1990 levels.
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