Lying under a tree one unseasonably warm and dry March day, Jay Inslee writes, he realized why more people hadn’t woken up to the danger of a changing climate.
“As I luxuriated in the sun, it was easy to see why there is a siren quality to the warming we see around us,” Inslee wrote in the 2008 book he co-authored, “Apollo’s Fire.” “ There is a chance that the same solar lust that drives us to the beach drives us away from facing the threat of global warming.”
Climate change has faded as an issue nationally, but it’s front and center in the Washington governor’s race. Renewable energy is a key piece of the Democrat’s jobs plan. Environmentalists plan to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to help elect him.
Inslee made reducing greenhouse-gas emissions his signature issue as a congressman, saying it should be an all-out effort in the style of the Apollo project that put a man on the moon.
Environmental advocates also praise Inslee’s Republican rival, Attorney General Rob McKenna, for legal work in support of regulations on greenhouse gases. He parts ways with national Republicans, whose party platform condemns some of those same regulations.
But when it comes to incentives and regulations to help green-energy producers, the two candidates see things differently.
Inslee pitches green energy as an investment Washington can’t afford to pass up. The industry is booming, he said at a recent news conference beside the Duwamish River in Seattle, where a Seattle company, General Biodiesel, is turning used cooking oil into fuel.
“The question is, are these jobs going to be in China, Germany, Texas or in Washington?” Inslee said.
‘LEERY OF TAX POLICIES’
McKenna is critical of Inslee’s plan to target green-power companies and other industries for aid. The Republicans said all businesses need help and a level playing field.
“I’m leery of tax policies that pick winners and losers in the economy,” McKenna said in an interview. And he added: “Government has a very poor track record at getting those decisions right.”
He gives the example of the Toyota Prius, which as a hybrid didn’t qualify in its early days under California’s mandate for production of electric cars. The mandate was updated after the debut of the Prius. And McKenna has compared Inslee’s plan to federal loan guarantees for the failed solar company Solyndra.
The state Republican Party has relished pointing out where Inslee’s own predictions have fallen short. He was bullish in his book on a host of clean-energy entrepreneurs, who have had a mixed record since the book’s publication.
For example, Inslee spotlighted the hope he said was building in Grays Harbor that a biodiesel plant and other green industries would boost the fortunes of the former “dying timber town.” Republicans point out that jobs remain hard to come by, with Grays Harbor County reporting 12.8 percent unemployment, among the highest in the state.
In his book, Inslee addresses stumbles in the industry and compares them to Thomas Edison’s many failed attempts along the way to his light bulb. The long road to making successful wind turbines, he writes, “shows that when it comes to technological development, failure is an option. In fact, it’s a certainty, and we can’t let it become an excuse for inaction.”
If some companies don’t succeed, Inslee says, look at the overall success of green energy. A study by the Brookings Institution found the nation’s wind-energy jobs had increased nearly 15 percent per year between 2003 and 2010, while the average yearly growth was nearly 9 percent in biofuels and biomass and more than 10 percent in solar power.
“My opponent does not get it when it comes to clean energy,” he said at the news conference, addressing McKenna’s criticism of government picking favored industries. He added: “We haven’t picked any of these businesses. We’re picking innovation in general.”
Inslee calls for tax incentives for startup, research-based companies.
MONEY FOR INSLEE
The environmental group Washington Conservation Voters has raised more than $700,000 for this election. The group will devote the vast majority of it to an independent effort to help Inslee, executive director Brendon Cechovic said. That’s vastly more than the group spent four years ago to help Democratic Gov. Chris Gregoire.
“I’ve never seen the environmental community so united around a candidate and so politically organized,” Cechovic said.
BOTH PROUD OF RECORDS
In Congress, Inslee was able to aid clean-energy producers in the form of grants and loans, including some that landed in the $787 billion Recovery Act or stimulus. Among the beneficiaries are makers of electric-car batteries.
Ross Macfarlane of environmental group Climate Solutions, which doesn’t endorse candidates, called Inslee “one of the two or three members of Congress from any state who is most informed and most (accomplished) in developing specific policies to drive the clean economy in really every relevant sector.”
Inslee’s more comprehensive goal wasn’t achieved: a cap on carbon emissions that would force companies to trade limited rights to emit greenhouse gases. Macfarlane called Inslee one of the chief architects of the cap-and-trade proposal that passed the House before foundering in the Senate.
Inslee says that without a cap on emissions, industry won’t have the incentive to adopt cleaner methods. McKenna opposes cap-and-trade, saying it would harm the economy by driving up energy prices.
But McKenna has often lined up with environmentalists on climate change in his role as the lawyer for Gregoire’s Department of Ecology.
Gregoire, as attorney general, joined other states led by Massachusetts seeking to force the Environmental Protection Agency to regulate greenhouse gases as pollutants. McKenna joined other states in appealing to the Supreme Court, which decided the EPA had authority to act. Macfarlane said the decision was “very critical in terms of establishing national policy.”
McKenna also joined other attorneys general in defending state standards for car emissions that were pioneered by California and adopted by Washington. Under the Obama administration, the tougher standards have become national.
GREEN POWER MANDATES
Inslee’s major foray into state policy came in 2006 when he championed a requirement for large utilities to generate 15 percent of their power through new kinds of renewable resources by 2020.
Voters approved the initiative, and the standards started phasing in this year.
Both candidates say it has been a success in stimulating new kinds of energy production. The law is one of the factors that has brought billions of dollars worth of investment into the state and made wind turbines a common feature of Eastern Washington wheat fields.
McKenna, though, wants significant changes.
He calls for relaxing rules that have placed utilities on the hook for buying renewable power or credits regardless of whether they need them.
Tacoma Public Utilities, for example, says it already has an adequate supply of power to meet demand – mostly hydropower, which is not considered a renewable resource in most cases.
“I think we have to be careful not to require our public utilities to buy power before they need it,” McKenna said.
TPU says it at least wants more options for what it can do with the money it is required to spend.
Inslee said he wants to figure out a way to allow some utilities’ money to be spent on local environmental goals rather than on energy credits. For example, he said, Tacoma could use it to subsidize replacement of woodstoves for those who can’t afford a different source of heat. Wood smoke has helped drive Pierce County’s air quality to levels that violate federal standards.
“The Port (of Tacoma) is going gangbusters, but there are issues about citing additional facilities here because of the air-quality issues,” Inslee said on a recent stop in the city. “So there’s an economic motivation for trying to get cleaner methods of heating our homes.”
McKenna has more ambitious goals. He also wants to expand the circumstances in which hydropower is considered renewable, to deal with the kind of seasonal gluts of power seen in the past two years. And he said the renewable standards should give credit for conserving energy, which is covered under a separate standard.
Macfarlane said the initiative is properly designed to separately encourage both new sources of power and more-efficient use of current sources, and shouldn’t allow utilities to meet standards solely through efficiency.
Todd Myers, a consultant advising McKenna on energy, said environmentalists’ promotion of green energy at the expense of efficiency shows their goal is to help politically popular or trendy industries.
“When push comes to shove,” Myers said, “politics trumps the environment. Image trumps the environment.”
Washington, thanks to its dams, is ahead of many states in the shift to sources of power that don’t produce heat-trapping gases and warm the earth. The state’s last coal-fired power plant, near Centralia, is due to shut down by 2025.
But the dispute over traditional fossil fuels isn’t going away. The next governor might have to wade into a dispute over coal exports to Asia.
Neither candidate has given full support or opposition to proposals to build coal-shipping facilities near Longview and Bellingham. Both say they should receive full environmental review from the federal government.
McKenna has said that if they pass the review, Washington should accept the projects and their jobs because coal trains will be running through the state either way – on the way to British Columbia ports if not Washington’s. Inslee disputes that it’s a done deal that terminals will inevitably be built in the Northwest.jordan.schrader@ thenewstribune.com 360-786-1826 blog.thenewstribune.com/politics @Jordan_Schrader