Ahhh, the crisp smoky aroma of low gas prices.
Ahhh, the crisp smoky aroma of low gas prices. Daniiielc / Getty Images

It ought to be a slam-dunk: A bill that would require statewide standards for lower-pollution fuels, forcing oil companies to reduce carbon emissions from gasoline? And it’s supported by two-thirds of Washingtonians, along with labor groups, medical groups, and various seaports? And similar legislation passed the House for the last two years in a row? Sure, yes, that sounds great, unless you actually ENJOY wearing a gas mask every summer.

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So then why did five Democrats vote against it?

Pat Sullivan, Amy Walen, Alicia Rule, Sharon Shewmake, and Larry Springer were the lone Democrats who voted nay on HB 1091, the “Clean Fuel Standard” bill, alongside about 40 Republicans last week.

What gives? Democrats are supposed to be the good guys on climate, so I emailed them to find out what they were thinking. Sharon and Alicia emailed statements; Larry and Amy called; Pat was … I dunno, maybe he was too busy thinking about the upcoming third season of Fruits Basket.

“I don’t want the Earth to be burned to a crisp,” Amy told me. (Bold!) “I’m an environmentalist. … I’m going to be pro-climate on every other thing.”

Just not … you know … this thing.

Amy’s objection to the bill, she said, is that it doesn’t make sense to consider in isolation. “There's a bunch of potential carbon measures coming forward,” she said, adding that she wants it to be considered as part of a larger overhaul of environmental policies.

Larry represents a district with a lot of agriculture — a source of air pollution — and offered an explanation similar to Amy’s. “I’m not convinced that if you want to reduce emissions, this is the best way to do it,” he said, claiming that “the cost to consumers and the administration of the program as a ratio of what you gain in emissions is not very efficient.” (His source, he said, is a consulting group called Stillwater Associates — a company that was formed to provide consulting services to the oil industry.)

Rather than approving a clean fuel standard by itself, Larry is one of the few Democrats who voted no because he wants to consider clean fuel standards against a cap-and-trade proposal, or a carbon fee. “I would rather see them all on a piece of paper in front of me, and say ‘this is the one I’m voting for.’”

Is that likely to happen, I asked, that every option is on the table at once? “No,” Larry said, “never is.” But, he added, “we do the best we can, and so far I don’t think we have the information with the vote that says, ‘this is best I could do.’ I haven’t seen the other proposals yet.”

Amy’s also concerned about the bill imposing new costs on regular folks, instead of on the filthy rich. “Wealthy people get to buy electric vehicles,” she said. “I always think in my heart about people who can’t afford to live by transit … They have no choice but to drive, and they’re driving old cars that don’t get good mileage, and those people are the people who get hit the hardest by increases to fuel costs.”

(Maybe; but low-income people are also hit the hardest by premature death due to toxic air. Walen is also, it should be pointed out, the manager of a Kirkland car dealership.)

Proponents of the bill say that it won’t add costs; after California passed similar legislation, the price of gas actually went down. In that state, the cost of the clean fuel standard accounted for 1% of the price, according to the nonprofit Climate Solutions; manufacturing and transportation costs made up most of the rest.

Still, broader reforms than just clean fuel standards are needed, Walen claims — building more housing near transit, for example, and giving tax breaks to transit riders instead of Tesla-buyers. (Okay, sure, why not all of the above?)

Representative Alicia Rule’s response was a bit more succinct, but also boils down to anxiety about the price of gas.

“I am always concerned about the impact on the consumer,” she wrote. “Many people who choose to live in our more rural areas do that because of the cost of housing being lower and I worry they will be disproportionately impacted by this potential cost increase.”

Representative Sharon Shewmake also echoed Amy’s concerns. Sharon does not run a car dealership; instead, she serves as a professor of Economics and Energy Policy at Western Washington University.

“If you only focus on the fuels, that’s all you’ll get,” she wrote. “There are lots of ways to reduce CO2 emissions from transportation including transit, walking, bicycling, carpooling, working from home and generally taking fewer single occupancy vehicle trips.” (Again, why not all of the above???)

After voting no on the clean fuel standard bill, Sharon is calling for “better land use policies, as well as support for active transportation.” She’s also working on a bond measure to fund projects that cut CO2 emissions, such as improving “forest health, green transportation infrastructure, and broadband.”

Amy acknowledged that her vote was unlikely to win her many friends, and pointed out that The Stranger in particular hasn’t been the kindest when it comes to her record. (We did endorse her, though!)

“I knew I was going to face getting chewed-out,” she said. “And there’s people in my district who are unhappy. … I want to vote for it. I just want to vote for it in context.”

The bill is currently scheduled to get a hearing in the Senate Committee on Environment, Energy & Technology on Wednesday, March 10.