Just when US federal climate policy looks like a possibility, Seattle’s prospects take a turn for the worse. The Washington supreme court justruled that Seattle City Light—the first (and only?) major utility in the nation to achieve climate neutrality—can no longer use ratepayer money to buy emissions offsets.

Luckily, I think this problem can be fixed fairly easily. But before I get to fixing things, I have a small rant to get off my chest.

According to the court’s reasoning, offsets are not sufficiently related to the utility’s core business of generating electricity. I’ll leave the legal parsing to be debated by the lawyers, but I will make two remarks.

First, almost all of City Light’s power comes from hydroelectricity, which in turn comes from dams that rely on rivers that are fed by snowmelt. And—I think you know where I’m going here—climate change is very bad for snowpack. It’s like this: no snow, no electricity.

So here’s a simplified version. Global warming reduces the city’s access to electricity. So the utility zeros out its contribution to global warming. But then the courts say that the activity is not sufficiently related to supplying electricity.

That noise you just heard was my head exploding.

Of course there are heaps of other sources of climate changing emissions too. But City Light can’t very well do anything at all about those. All it can do is bring its own contributions to zero and thereby create a national (and even international) model of sustainable power generation. In fact, its leadership was probably much more important than its emissions cuts. But no more.

The rant continues after the jump.

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  • Second, there is something philosophically bizarre about the ruling. City Light is unique in that it is “municipally owned.” That is, it’s actually owned by the city of Seattle. Its chief is appointed by elected officials and its operations are likewise overseen by elected officials. So it’s not as if some nefarious external force is imposing itself on city ratepayers. Quite the opposite: citizens have chosen, via their elected representatives, to reduce their utility’s greenhouse gas emissions to zero. That’s a laudable goal; and the cost, roughly $750,000, is actually fairly small in the context of the utility’s operations.

    Moreover, the citizenry’s commitment to reducing emissions has been affirmed in plenty of other ways too, not least of which is Mayor Nickels’ pledge to bring the city into compliance with Kyoto. So, again, it’s not as if the City Light offset program is some strange and oppressive aberration. No, it’s precisely in line with how the citizens of Seattle—the owners of the utility, that is—want to conduct their business.

    I will allow that it’s painfully obvious these days that democratically elected officials may sometimes overstep the law and require judicial oversight (even if they’re carrying out the will of the majority). But this ruling against City Light seems more like an instance of the law thwarting the public good than protecting it.

    So I hereby propose a reform: policymakers should get busy changing the law governing City Light’s operations. We simply need a narrow new stipulation that minimizing greenhouse gas emissions is, in fact, sufficiently related to the utility’s fundamental purpose.

    Easy, no?

    Or am I missing something?