Whatcom County oil refineries will have to limit carbon pollution under new state rule

Washington state caps carbon pollution to tackle climate change

In an effort to tackle climate change, the Washington State Department of Ecology adopted the state's first-ever rule to cap and reduce carbon pollution.
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In an effort to tackle climate change, the Washington State Department of Ecology adopted the state's first-ever rule to cap and reduce carbon pollution.

Washington state adopted a new rule Thursday to limit greenhouse gas emissions from large carbon polluters, including Whatcom County’s two oil refineries and a power plant near Sumas.

State environmental regulators finalized a rule requiring large industrial emitters to gradually reduce carbon emissions over time, joining a handful of other states in capping emissions to address climate change. The change will cover power plants, oil refineries, fuel distributors, pulp and paper mills, and other industries.

“When we consider the challenges our communities face from climate change, we are compelled to act,” state Ecology Director Maia Bellon said at a news conference on Seattle’s waterfront.

Critics say it will hurt families as costs are passed on to consumers; limit the state in attracting and retaining businesses; and hamper the ability of energy-intensive businesses to compete globally.

Sen. Doug Ericksen, R-Ferndale, a frequent critic of Gov. Jay Inslee’s environmental policies, said the move would have a “chilling effect” on the state’s economy.

“This rule will not lower sea levels, increase snowpacks, prevent forest fires or help our shellfish industry,” Ericksen said in a news release. “It will put hardworking Washingtonians out of their jobs and force families to pay more to heat their homes, drive to work and take their children to school.”

But Bellon says consumers likely won’t feel the impacts. Using worst-case scenarios, the state estimates that by 2020 electricity prices would go up by $16 a year and gas prices would increase by 1 cent.

Under the new rule, large polluters will be required to reduce carbon emissions by an average of 1.7 percent annually.

State officials and others say limiting heat-trapping gases linked to global warming is needed to protect human health and the environment, and that the state faces severe economic and environmental disruption from long-term climate changes such as rising sea levels and more intense wildfires.

Several environmental groups on Thursday applauded Inslee for pushing ahead on climate action, saying it’s an important first step.

“We must continue to work toward a comprehensive climate policy” that puts a price on emissions and reinvests the money in clean energy programs and communities most impacted by climate change, Sasha Pollack with the Washington Environmental Council said in a statement.

Under the new rule, large carbon polluters will be required to reduce carbon emissions by an average of 1.7 percent annually. The rule would apply to those that release at least 100,000 metric tons of carbon a year. More facilities will likely be covered by the rule as the threshold is lowered over the coming decades.

Another Whatcom County industry that could be impacted is Alcoa’s Intalco aluminum smelter near Ferndale. In previous discussions about the new rule, regulators were open to the idea of delaying the cap rules on energy-intensive plants such as Intalco if it has taken significant steps to reduce emissions.

Intalco has reduced its greenhouse gas emissions by more than 75 percent when compared with 1990 baseline levels, said Josh Wilund, spokesman at Alcoa. He added that the company is in the process of evaluating the rule adoption and will continue to discuss it with the Washington State Department of Ecology.

Businesses would have different ways to comply with Washington state’s rule. They could lower their emissions, invest in projects that permanently reduce carbon pollution or buy credits from others in the program or from other approved market-trading carbon markets.

A state economic analysis indicates the costs for all businesses to comply over 20 years range from a low of $410 million to a high of $6.9 billion, depending on the way they comply. The measure is also estimated to provide $9.6 billion in benefits over 20 years by improving environmental, health and other conditions.

Two dozen businesses likely will be covered when the rule takes effect in October 2017. They include all five oil refineries; several Puget Sound Energy facilities, including those in Longview, Goldendale and Sumas; the Grays Harbor Energy Center in Elma; Frederickson Power facility in Tacoma; and Spokane’s Waste to Energy facility.

Inslee sought the rule last year after failing to gain legislative support for a more ambitious plan to charge polluters a fee, similar to California’s cap-and-trade program. A coalition of Northeast states also has a cap-and-trade program that applies to power plants.

Unlike the cap-and-trade legislation Inslee sought last year, the rule adopted Thursday won’t charge emitters a fee for carbon emissions. Inslee had previously pitched a polluter fee as a way to raise more than $1 billion a year for schools, transportation and other state needs.

In November, Washington state voters will consider an initiative that would impose a direct tax on carbon emissions from fossil fuels burned in the state while lowering state sales and business taxes.

Initiative 732 would set the tax at $15 per metric ton of carbon dioxide in the first year and raise the amount to $25 per ton in the second year. Automatic increases would follow each year, but the rate would be capped at $100 per ton.