The Washington State Department of Ecology (Ecology) has taken the first steps toward new rules for reducing emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases by proposing to adopt a new Clean Air Rule and amend two existing rules. Ecology’s rulemaking is in response to a July 28 Executive Order from Gov. Jay Inslee directing Ecology to strengthen existing state pollution laws and set limits on greenhouse gas pollution. The Governor’s order, which came after the legislature in the last session did not pass his climate bills, said the state cannot wait any longer for legislative action: "Carbon pollution and the climate change it causes pose a very real and existential threat to our state. Farmers in the Yakima Valley know this. Shellfish growers on the coast know this. Firefighters battling Eastern Washington blazes know this. And children suffering from asthma know this all too well and are right to question why Washington hasn’t acted to protect them."

The specifics of Ecology’s proposed rules will be developed through the rulemaking process under the state Administrative Procedure Act, but the agency’s announcement was accompanied by a list of 35 companies who are the initial targets. Those companies have annual greenhouse gas emissions that exceed 100,000 metric tons. The list of entities potentially affected is smaller than previous proposals. In 2014, when Gov. Inslee proposed a carbon tax, approximately 130 companies would have been affected and his 2015 legislative package had reduced the affected entities to 90 facilities. Depending on what Ecology ultimately adopts as the rule, the list of 35 companies may be enlarged or some entities may be deleted.

The Governor and Ecology are relying on the Washington Clean Air Act, RCW 70.94, and a 2008 statute, RCW 70.235.020, which set specific statewide greenhouse gas reductions:

  • By 2020, reduce overall emissions of greenhouse gases in the state to 1990 levels.
  • By 2035, reduce overall emissions of greenhouse gases in the state to 25 percent below 1990 levels.
  • By 2050, reduce overall emissions of greenhouse gases in the state to 50 percent below 1990 levels or 70 percent below the state’s expected emissions that year.

The Washington Attorney General’s office issued an informal opinion on September 1, which concluded RCW 70.235.020 does not impose a specific requirement on the legislature to create a program to achieve the specified greenhouse gas reductions. Sen. Doug Ericksen (R-Ferndale) requested the opinion and says it confirms that the statutory reductions are goals and that the Governor is not required to pursue a carbon-emissions cap. Ecology, however, also has cited its existing authority under RCW 70.94.331(2), which allows Ecology to adopt rules establishing air quality objectives and standards, and to adopt minimum emission standards statewide after consideration at a public hearing held in accordance with the Administrative Procedure Act and Open Public Meetings Act.

Regardless of what Ecology’s final rule looks like, it likely will be the subject of challenges from parties who believe it doesn’t go far enough and those who think it goes too far. In the meantime, Ecology is soliciting public input, beginning with educational webinars it has set for September 28-29 and October 1; and outreach meetings scheduled on October 8 and 26. The agency also has set up a website and an email list for interested parties to remain up to date on the process.