Washington’s Governor Jay Inslee, stymied by Republican opposition to putting a price on carbon, is flexing his executive power. Like President Obama using his Clean Air Act authority to order the Environmental Protection Agency to formulate the federal Clean Power Plan, Governor Inslee has invoked his authority under existing pollution laws. Last year, a group of Washington young people petitioned the Department of Ecology to use its existing authority to take action on climate change.

In July, Governor Inslee ordered the Washington Department of Ecology to make a plan that will cut climate pollution down to the limits in state law.

Ecology’s rulemaking could:

1. Create a plan and some policies to start Washington down the right path until the legislature takes action.

By using his executive authority, Governor Inslee might be able to keep Washington on track, despite this year’s legislative gridlock.

Comprehensive climate action requires comprehensive public process. California took two years of public rulemaking to develop its “Scoping Plan”—the blueprint for the state’s climate action. Governor Inslee directed Ecology to conduct a one-year rulemaking where “all stakeholders will have ample opportunity to express their ideas, options and concerns as the rule development process unfolds.” Ecology will “assess which sectors and facilities should be covered” and will offer a “variety of compliance options” for those facilities and sectors.

This rulemaking could result in a sweeping state plan describing policies aimed at overcoming market barriers to cutting pollution, policies aimed at sectors that would not likely be included in a cap-and-trade program, and policies aimed at achieving additional benefits, beyond reductions in greenhouse gas emissions.

  • With this plan in hand, the Evergreen State will be two steps down the path to climate action.

    First, by holding a public rulemaking and writing a rule now, the agency will be able to quickly implement a climate bill once the legislature passes one. By having Ecology create a plan by summer 2016, Inslee could cut an entire year off the implementation schedule of a future carbon cap law.

    Second, the agency can start portioning out chunks of a bigger climate package. For example, Washington might implement policies to reduce high global warming potential gases like sulfur hexafluoride and hydroflourocarbons by limiting their use in applications where there are safe and cost-effective alternatives. Or it might find a way to ensure vehicle tires are inflated to manufacturer specifications, maximizing vehicle efficiency. Once the legislature enacts a comprehensive statewide program, some pieces will already be in place.

    2. Start the public vetting process for a carbon cap.

    The governor’s July 28th statement and his August 13th letter to Ecology dance around the issue of cap-and-trade. Governor Inslee directs Ecology to create a “regulatory cap” on climate emissions, possibly including “credits” and “trading.” Inslee stops short of ordering Ecology to develop a cap-and-trade as part of its rule.

    But the rule could make a start on it. Ecology may not be able to implement a full cap-and-trade program, but the agency could move forward on critical questions such as choosing which facilities should be covered, identifying energy-intensive trade-exposed businesses, putting in place reporting and verification standards, deciding how to track allowances, and developing guidelines for acceptable offsets. By holding a public process, Ecology will get a head start on sussing out concerns and crafting policy responses.

    3. Prompt businesses and their legislative champions to push for a price.

    Businesses in Washington state, across the United States, and around the world are urging governments to act on climate change. Unfortunately, the “just regulate them” approach is more complicated and more expensive than a policy with a price at its center. Faced with the prospect of complying with a suite of more heavy-handed regulations, climate-conscious businesses in Washington might step up their efforts, and businesses that have so far stayed on the sidelines might join the fray to convince the legislature to enact a statewide or region-wide price.

    A rulemaking is a start, but Washington needs legislative action.

    Governor Inslee and the Washington legislature are engaged in a game of climate chess, and the Governor just made an important move. Legislature: you’re up soon.