I wonder how energy-efficient the Capitol building is?
I wonder how energy-efficient the Capitol building is? YINYANG / GETTY

As early as this weekend, Democrats in the Washington state Senate plan to move on massive, long-overdue, and controversial climate and transportation bills that would cap carbon and clean up transportation fuels while also (at least, for now) literally paving the way for car culture to potentially sabotage progress toward the state's goal of net-zero emissions by 2050.

The Senate will link the fates of Seattle state Senator Reuven Carlyle's cap and trade bill, some version of Senator Steve Hobbs's “Forward Washington" transportation revenue package, and West Seattle Rep. Joe Fitzgibbon's low carbon fuel standard in what some have called a "grand bargain." (Environmental advocates and some progressive lawmakers balked when I used the phrase. For them, the climate bills stand on their own, and they must pass very soon or else we're all doomed.) But all three of those bills need to pass, according to a Senate source, or else the Senate will likely stick with the "no frills" transportation package the body passed earlier this week and potentially punt on the climate bills again.

Today Senate leadership sent the low carbon fuel standard bill to the Rules committee, bypassing Sen. Hobbs's Transportation committee and setting up the first stages of the play.

At a press conference last Monday, Senate Majority Leader Andy Billig said "we do want to pass [the cap and trade bill] off the Senate floor." Another senator said Carlyle's bill "probably has the votes," at least within the context of this "grand bargain."

Leadership could put that cap and trade bill *ahem* The Washington Climate Commitment Act on the floor at any moment. The proposal would establish an ever-declining cap on greenhouse gas emissions, and also set up a carbon market where polluters can buy "allowances" and "offsets" to keep polluting as they (hopefully) work to clean up their acts over time.

As the bill is currently written, money from those purchases, which would raise several billion through 2040, dump into two state accounts; one basically for renewable energy projects, and one basically for roads and transit projects. Right now, judging from the fiscal note on the current bill, it looks like more of that money goes into roads and transit.

Hobbss transportation committee would have a heavy hand in where that Forward Flexible Account money would go.
Hobbs's transportation committee would have a heavy hand in where that Forward Flexible Account money would go.

I'm going to write a much more detailed piece about the cap and trade bill for early next week, but in the meantime I'll quickly summarize the debate around the proposal.

The dusty idea of "cap and trade" has lost favor with environmental justice advocates, who point to California's arguably failing program (which launched all the way back in 2013), the program's insufficiently strong air pollution standards, and British Petroleum's heavy influence on the bill as reasons for withholding their support.

Rather than rely on a market system—i.e., the same system that got us in all this climate trouble in the first place—they'd prefer quicker and more direct regulation on polluters, which they find in the Washington STRONG Recovery Bond Program. (It's worth noting, though, that a Washington State Supreme Court ruling early last year limited Inslee's ability to regulate "'indirect emitters' that don’t directly burn fossil fuels" through the Department of Ecology's Clean Air Act.)

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Nevertheless, cap and trade supporters point to the inclusion of an environmental justice review process (complete with air pollution sticks that can target local polluters near fence-line communities hit hardest by pollution), and an environmental justice advisory board, which will advise the Legislature on where to put the money to achieve the most equitable results. They also argue that establishing a cap and trade system to help reduce greenhouse gasses while also establishing a low carbon fuel standard, which would reduce transportation emissions and incentivize the production of alternative fuels within the state, would finally allow Washington to catch up with the rest of the west coast on climate policy.

And then there's the politics of it all. BP, which helped bring down a statewide carbon fee initiative in 2018, supports the cap and trade bill—which means the company probably won't spend millions of dollars (again) supporting an inevitable referendum if the proposal makes it.

But even if this "grand bargain" passes, don't expect the House to just roll over for whatever the Senate sends them. As far as the cap and trade bill is concerned, for instance, over the phone, Rep. Fitzgibbon said, "We're going to be looking at it with fresh eyes, and with no expectations from us or the Senate that it’s going to be passed straight into law unamended. We’re absolutely going to be looking at ways to strengthen the bill."