Looking To Clean Air Act, Washington Finally Gets A Cap On Carbon

Sep 15, 2016

It’s been eight years in the making, but Washington state finally has a rule that places limits on carbon pollution from its largest sources. It comes in response to reduction targets on greenhouse gas emissions first called for by the Legislature in 2008. That law called for limits that would get the state back down to 1990 levels by 2020, to 25 percent below the 1990 level by 2025 and 50 percent below it by 2050.

A New Cap

In an effort to meet those targets, starting next year, regulators at the Department of Ecology are requiring large industrial emitters to gradually reduce their carbon emissions over time. The rule will cover industries including power plants, oil refineries, fuel distributors, pulp and paper mills and others.

Ecology Director Maia Bellon announced the new regulation saying pressures from climate change compel the state to take action, with its effects showing up in everything from record heat and forest fires to drought, ocean acidification and sea level rise.  

“It’s about the air we breathe, it’s about the health of our families. All of this is why we’re here today, to adopt Washington’s first-ever rule to cap and reduce carbon pollution,” she said.

Gov. Jay Inslee sought the action last year after failing to gain Legislative support for a more ambitious plan to charge polluters fees and allow them to exchange credits, similar to California's cap-and-trade program. But Inslee’s initial plan didn’t pass the Legislature. So Bellon says her department had to get creative.

“Because we did not get that authority from the Washington State Legislature, we’re using the authority of our almost 50-year-old Clean Air Act, that says we can manage pollution in Washington state. Carbon is a pollution,” Bellon said.  

And Trade  - Through Unofficial Exchange

The rule they based on that authority is just a cap, with penalties for non-compliance. There is no official state exchange. But Bellon says polluters who have to cut back their emissions, such as power plants or oil refineries, can trade independently. An overachiever for example, might sell credits to those having a harder time with compliance.

“And so they’ll be able to have a flexibility in how they move those carbon credits around, based on their engagement with each other,” she said.

Credits could also be earned through projects that reduce emissions, such as a digester at a dairy farm that converts methane from manure into energy instead of releasing it into the atmosphere. Independent auditors would validate those exchanges with oversight from the Department of Ecology.

The biggest polluters must report on their compliance starting next year, showing that they are reducing their carbon emissions by an average of 1.7 percent annually. The targets become more stringent over the next 20 years.

Mixed Reaction

Supporters say the rule is needed to protect human health and the environment. A coalition of environmental groups issued a joint statement calling it an important first step and emphasizing the need for even more action to ensure that Washington meets its sustainability goals. These include additional reductions of greenhouse gas emissions and more support for jobs in new a clean energy economy.

But some businesses and others say the new rule is unnecessary and will harm the state's ability to attract and retain major employers and could hurt consumers if businesses pass on new costs. Senator Doug Ericksen, a Republican from Ferndale, sent out a statement saying it will do nothing for the world climate but will devastate Washington’s economy and burden working families. Ericksen chairs the Senate Energy and Environment Committee.