The 2009 Washington State legislature came to a close last month and talk of a special session has dissipated. So how did the environment—and opportunities for efficiency, transportation and smart energy choices—fare during this latest gathering of law makers?

Overall the 2009 session was a mix of defeats for larger more comprehensive measures but wins for smaller, more focused legislation. 

Let’s start with Priorities for a Healthy Washington, a legislative agenda put together by The Environmental Priorities Coalition. The Coalition had 4 items on its list this year.

  • HB 1819/SB 5735Cap and Invest—this session’s cap and invest bill died at the closing bell, though much of the important substance (especially authorizing the state to participate in the Western Climate Initiative) had been stripped out of the bill weeks earlier. As a result of failing to join a regional cap-and-trade program, Washington is left with statutory commitments to reach certain emissions targets but no clear way to achieve its targets.  

    HB 1490/SB 5687Transit-Oriented Communities—these bills would have allowed more and bigger buildings around light rail transit stations being built by Sound Transit, to help create compact communities. This legislation died quite early in the session and was opposed by the City of Seattle and other cities based on their interest in preserving local control in zoning and development. Seattle neighborhoods and some homeless advocates also campaigned early and hard to stop the bill. They opposed the legislation because they felt it would promote development out of scale with surrounding single-family neighborhoods and demolish existing affordable housing in favor of expensive condominiums. (We thought otherwise.)

    HB 1614/SB 5518Invest in Clean Water—this legislation would have levied a per-barrel fee on petroleum products that contribute to stormwater pollution including gasoline, diesel, lubricants, industrial fuels and asphalt and road oils. The revenue from the fee would have been dedicated to fund projects to restore Puget Sound and Washington’s rivers and lakes by investing in stormwater infrastructure, toxics prevention and other clean water programs. And if it had succeeded it would have created green jobs, implementing numerous capital projects around the state. It died.

    HB 1747/SB 5854Efficiency First—these bills were approved and will gradually raise energy efficiency standards in the state.  Specifically the bill will:

    • tighten the state’s building code requiring increased energy efficiency
    • require utilities to maintain energy use data for commercial buildings and disclosure by the owner of energy use to prospective buyers, lessees, or lenders.
    • require disclosure of energy scores when a building is leased or sold.

    There were some other wins.

    The legislature extended the renewable energy sales tax credit. The credit was scheduled to sunset at the end of June. The legislature saved it as part of a compromise brokered by the Governor concerning proposed alterations to the state’s Initiative 937—the ballot measure approved by citizens that mandates that utilities get 15 percent of their electricity from new renewable resources such as solar and wind by 2020 and requires that they implement energy efficiency and conservation measures as well. Some members of the legislature attempted to broaden the definition of renewable energy sources that utilities can count toward their 15-percent goal. Somewhat surprisingly, the sales tax credit was extended, even though other parts of the compromise never got enacted. I-937 remains intact for now.

    The legislature gave permanent funding to the rescue tug on the Strait of Juan de Fuca. This legislation was 20 years in the making and requires the shipping industry to pay for a tug boat that would prevent disabled ships, especially those carrying oil, from running aground and spilling their cargo, fouling beaches. and hurting wildlife.

    Representative Hans Dunshee added a provision to a relatively noncontroversial bill —HB2010–concerning adaptation to climate change. The provision requires that localities receiving money from the state capital budget must consider the climate impacts of their project. This bill means that the $4 billion overseen by the state’s Department of Community, Trade and Economic development won’t be able to pay for local projects—sewers for example—if they contribute to climate change by increasing greenhouse gas emissions.

    SB5433 provides King County with authority to generate funding locally to support transit-related investments. This act includes a local-option $20-per-vehicle fee and a 7.5-cent $1,000 of assessed valuation property tax levy in King County.

    Certainly, the legislation I’ve described here doesn’t encompass the full range of policies affecting sustainability that were under consideration during the 2009 session in Washington. But in terms of our natural heritage and launching a clean-energy economy, Olympia made some important progress, though less than we had hoped. State leaders boosted energy efficiency and renewables (Efficiency First and tax credit extension) and did a little to reduce greenhouse gas emissions (Dunshee’s amendment to HB 2010). Transit Oriented Communities legislation failed but King County, the state’s biggest transit operator, landed another tool for funding transit infrastructure.

    The rescue tug for the Strait of Juan de Fuca is a common-sense proposal funded by the shippers whose vessels might need rescuing. This win took 20 years—much longer than we can afford to wait for a strong climate policy, like the Cap and Invest bill would have delivered. Let’s hope next year is better.

    UPDATE 2:SB5649 was signed into law by Governor Gregoire with one veto.  The bill’s provision for one point of contact for energy efficiency programs was eliminated.  We wrote about this excellent legislation back in April as par
    t of our Economic Turnaround series. 

    UPDATE: 5/12/2009 The Efficiency First bill as it finally passed had the audit and score requirement changed to a data collection by utility and disclosure.