Our approach is the first of its kind in the country, Department of Ecology director Maia Bellon told reporters on Thursday.
"Our approach is the first of its kind in the country," Department of Ecology director Maia Bellon told reporters on Thursday. ECY

After years of trying and failing to get the state legislature to take carbon emissions seriously, the Washington State Department of Ecology has released the final version of its much-debated carbon cap rule.

The rule, which was retracted as a draft back in February, tweaked, and then re-released in June, now just covers emissions from 24 businesses in Washington State. (The original draft covered 70 companies and facilities.)* The final rule demands that these businesses reduce their emissions by 1.7 percent a year starting in 2017, either by directly reducing emissions, funding projects that reduce emissions elsewhere in Washington State, or buying carbon "allowances" from other carbon markets.

The rule also includes leeway for "energy-intensive and trade-exposed" businesses like aluminum smelters and pulp mills. Instead of directly reducing their carbon emissions, those facilities will be graded on efficiency improvements. The same businesses will also be allowed to enter the program starting in 2020, and issue their first compliance reports in 2023.

Maia Bellon, the director of Ecology, told media at a press conference Tuesday afternoon that she was proud to present the rule in its final form. "Our approach is the first of its kind in the country," she said.

For businesses that refuse to comply with the new rule, Bellon noted that the maximum penalty for a single violation under the state's Clean Air Act is $10,000 a day.

Bellon may have been celebrating, but there remain a number of controversies** around the rule. Perhaps the biggest controversy has to do with what the rule intends to accomplish. Bellon said that Ecology's rule is meant to push the state into compliance with existing targets for controlling carbon pollution that the legislature set back in 2007. But many, including Ecology, agree that those targets fall short of what's actually considered responsible.

The original targets said that the state should reduce its carbon emissions to 1990 levels by 2020, 25 percent below 1990 levels by 2035, and 50 percent below 1990 levels by 2050. But the science has grown considerably since 2007, and it shows that the consensus around what constitutes "dangerous" climate change may be happening sooner than once thought.

"Washington State's existing statutory limits should be adjusted to better reflect the current climate science," Ecology wrote in a recommendation report to the state legislature in 2014.

Last year, eight Washington teens and pre-teens sued the Department of Ecology over these regulatory targets, arguing that the state was shirking its constitutional responsibility to protect its citizens by not controlling carbon pollution. In April of this year, a judge agreed with the kids, and ordered that Ecology release a final carbon rule this year and make recommendations to the legislature to update the carbon targets next session. (Governor Jay Inslee's administration is now appealing that decision.)

"In effect, [the rule] is legalizing dangerous amounts of greenhouse emissions, and it's not taking responsibility for Washington's fair share of the climate problem," Andrea Rodgers, lawyer behind the kids' climate suit, told The Stranger. "It's alarming to see that our policy makers are not requiring the radical reductions that need to be made."

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Bellon acknowledged that some people may feel that the rule doesn't go far enough. "I would encourage those who may feel that that's not going far enough or not aggressive enough to engage with our legislative representatives to have that kind of a dialogue," she said. "But at this point we feel very comfortable that we are making a downpayment on our fair share of solving the climate problems that are not just happening in the state of Washington, but having global impacts."

*The new rule will also cover 70 facilities by 2035.

**Another controversy related to the carbon cap rule has to do with putting a price on carbon. Now that Ecology has instituted a cap, it's up to voters or the state legislature to put a price on carbon. One group of carbon policy wonks have an initiative on the November ballot that would create a "revenue neutral" carbon tax that would cut the sales tax by one percent. The idea behind I-732 is that it's something even conservatives might get behind because of the net tax cut idea. But while the state's biggest environmental and progressive groups initially supported I-732, they've since come out in opposition to the initiative, which they say doesn't do enough to invest in communities that climate is already impacting the most.