Washington Fuel Distributors Avoid Clean Air Rule

After ruling quashes greenhouse gas cuts, governor looks to carbon tax

OLYMPIA, Wash. -- A recent ruling means fuel distributors in Washington do not have to cut their greenhouse gas emissions, but they may face the potential of a carbon tax down the road.

Washington’s Clean Air Rule requires several industries to cap and decrease their carbon emissions by an average of 1.7% annually. Fuel marketers had been included among these industries, along with refineries, power plants and paper mills. To comply, the obligated parties could cut emissions, invest in carbon-offset projects or buy credits from other participants or carbon markets.

But on Dec. 15, Thurston County Superior Court Judge James Dixon sided with groups who sued the state over Gov. Jay Inslee’s (D) order that the Department of Ecology enforce the state’s Clean Air Rule, The Seattle Times reported. Opponents argued and the judge agreed that the department did not have the legislative approval to do so. Dixon ruled that the state cannot force gasoline and natural-gas distributors to reduce emissions on fuel that they do not burn themselves. 

A spokesperson for the Department of Ecology told the Times that the state may appeal, pending Dixon’s final written order, which would specify whether the department could still enforce the rule against refineries and power plants that burn fuel on site.

“For the purposes of carbon reduction, the rule has lost its relevance,” Mary Catherine McAleer, a lobbyist with the Association of Washington Business (AWB) and one of the rule’s challengers, told the newspaper. She described Dixon’s ruling as “useful clarification” on state authority’s limits.

In 2015, Inslee tried but failed to get the state legislature to pass a cap-and-trade program or carbon tax. In 2016, Washington voters rejected a carbon-tax ballot initiative; however, the political environment may soon prove more favorable to some type of action. In the next legislative session, the governor, who has joined other state political leaders in committing to greenhouse gas reductions as part of the Paris climate agreement, will have the benefit of Democratic majorities in the House and Senate. He plans to propose a carbon tax when it convenes in January 2018.

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