Dealing a setback to Gov. Jay Inslee’s climate agenda, a judge has invalidated major portions of a state rule requiring greenhouse-gas cuts by refineries, fuel distributors and dozens of other major industrial emitters.
In an oral ruling Friday, Thurston County Superior Court Judge James Dixon sided with employer groups who sued last year, contending the state Department of Ecology lacked authority to impose the Clean Air Rule without legislative approval.
Dixon agreed the state cannot force emission reductions on gasoline and natural-gas distributors and similar businesses that do not burn fuels themselves, according to business and environmental representatives on hand for the ruling.
“We’re obviously disappointed,” said Camille St. Onge, an Ecology Department spokeswoman. “Our environment and infrastructure and economy are dependent on us reducing our greenhouse gases. A decision like this does threaten our progress.”
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St. Onge said the state might appeal but is awaiting Dixon’s final written order, which will spell out whether the agency still can partially enforce the rule for power plants and manufacturers for fuels they burn on site.
The ruling means the state cannot target a leading cause of emissions — gasoline burned in automobiles, said Mary Catherine McAleer, a lobbyist for the Association of Washington Business, which challenged the state over the rule.
“For the purposes of carbon reduction, the rule has lost its relevance,” she said, calling the judge’s ruling a “useful clarification” on the limits of state authority.
She said it was a shame government and businesses have spent so much time and money preparing for the rule.
The Ecology Department received a $4.5 million appropriation and authority to hire 20 full-time employees to help roll out the new regulations, St. Onge said, but not all of those jobs have been filled.
The Clean Air Rule required dozens of affected industries to cap and gradually reduce their carbon emissions by an average 1.7 percent a year — or pay for equivalent reductions elsewhere. It initially targeted facilities releasing at least 100,000 metric tons of carbon emissions annually, expanding to others over time.
The rule sought to ease the burden on some industries, such as aluminum producers, by delaying compliance and giving credit for past energy-efficiency investments.
Inslee has made combating climate change a signature issue, flagging an “existential threat” posed by rising global temperatures attributed by scientists to human activity.
He joined other governors and local officials in vowing to meet the goals of the 2015 Paris climate accord despite President Donald Trump’s decision to pull the United States out of the agreement.
Inslee first ordered the Ecology Department to pursue the new clean-air regulation in 2015 after unsuccessful efforts to convince the state Legislature to pass a carbon tax or cap-and-trade program.
Jaime Smith, an Inslee spokeswoman, called Dixon’s ruling “disappointing,” and said in an email the governor’s office is talking with the Ecology Department about “options they can pursue.”
The Association of Washington Business, which was joined in challenging the rule by major private utilities, including Avista and Puget Sound Energy, long has criticized Inslee’s efforts to impose new taxes and regulations to reduce carbon emissions.
“We are pleased with the judge’s decision,” association President Kris Johnson said in a news release, adding that employers “will continue to reduce carbon emissions through innovation and private investment.”
Marisa Ordonia, an attorney for the Washington Environmental Council and other groups who helped defend the Clean Air Rule in court, said the organizations disagree with Dixon’s ruling.
Ordonia said state agencies were granted broad authority to regulate emissions under the state’s Clean Air Act, first adopted by the Legislature in 1967.
“We will be appealing the decision,” she said. “We’ll continue fighting.”
Meanwhile, Inslee, bolstered by Democrats who now hold majorities in the state House and Senate, has said he’ll propose a carbon tax to the 2018 Legislature, which convenes in January.