Legislative Recap, Climate Edition: Why 2020 Was A Mixed Bag for Climate in Olympia

Lobby day participants standing on the steps of the Washington state capitol

By Jesse Piedfort, Chapter Director of the Washington State Chapter and Kelsey Hamlin, Volunteer Outreach and Development Coordinator

The 2020 legislative session saw important climate advocacy for Washington State. The brief 60-day session resulted in the passage of some important bills, but also some significant disappointments. 

We pushed for bills in Olympia that would help reduce climate pollution in our transportation system, our homes and buildings, and our energy sector. Here’s how they fared:

The Good News

  • Zero Emissions Vehicles: Sen. Joe Nguyen’s bill requires automakers to provide a certain number of electric vehicles (EVs) based on total car sales, which will encourage automakers to have newer, more affordable EVs available for buyers. Assuming the policy (now adopted by 12 states) survives a Trump Administration assault in the courts, Washingtonians will have more clean car choices--a necessary step to reducing climate pollution from our transportation sector. 

  • Financing for Efficiency Retrofits: C-PACER, which stands for Commercial Property Assessed Clean Energy and Resilience financing, will provide low-cost loans for building owners to make improvements and retrofits, encouraging more energy efficiency and long-term renewable energy improvements. Rep. Davina Duerr (Bothell) was crucial in passing this bill.

  • Affordable, Efficient Housing Choices: Thanks to dogged advocates like Sightline Institute and Rep. Joe Fitzgibbon, homes like backyard cottages, mother-in-law suites, and basement apartments (collectively known as accessory dwelling units) across the state will no longer require the construction of additional parking if they’re near frequent transit service. Eliminating this costly requirement will make it easier for homeowners to build these efficient and often transit-accessible housing options. 

  • Methane Emissions: In 2019, we supported Rep. Gerry Pollet’s proposed bill that would require an accurate assessment of all methane pollution (a powerful greenhouse gas) from proposed gas projects. Then this December, a directive from Gov. Jay Inslee went even further, requiring the Department of Ecology to adopt rules creating accountability for all greenhouse gases attributable to any newly proposed fossil fuel project throughout its full life cycle, including extraction, transportation, leakage, and burning. This is a big climate win, and Sierra Club will engage in the upcoming rulemaking process. Another bill that passed (this one by Rep. Sharon Shewmake) will require gas utilities to disclose methane leaks in their pipeline systems, which should lead to more repairs and less climate-damaging methane leakage. 

  • Transportation Project Evaluation: Thanks to legislative advocacy by our partners in the Climate Alliance for Jobs and Clean Energy and Transportation Choices Coalition, the State Department of Transportation will conduct a feasibility study on performance-based evaluations of transportation projects. It sounds boring, but revamping how we evaluate prospective transportation projects--and making sure they make sense for our climate goals--would be an important change from the status quo. 

Clean Fuels, A Big, Missed Opportunity: 

The transportation sector accounts for nearly half of Washington State’s climate pollution. That’s why we’re so disappointed that for the second consecutive year, the State Senate failed to pass a Clean Fuels Standard. While many senators and representatives worked hard for this bill, a handful of Senate Democrats stalled the legislation, handing the oil industry a big win. Once again, Washington State has failed to join Oregon, California, and British Columbia in the adoption of cleaner transportation fuels. 

To make matters worse, the State Legislature missed another opportunity to reduce transportation pollution by failing to extend regulatory authority on tailpipe emissions under the state’s Clean Air Rule. In late-session negotiations, a few Democrats even tried delaying cities’ abilities to regulate climate pollution through clean electric, rather than fracked gas, appliances in new buildings.

We need these legislators to take the climate crisis seriously, and we expect to be working on a Clean Fuels Standard again in 2021. 

Looking Ahead 

By the 2021 legislative session, we hope the COVID19 pandemic that has impacted so many lives will be behind us, and individuals, families, and communities will have the opportunity to rest and heal. 

Yet, even in this best-case public health scenario, our state government will still face daunting challenges. We will have a funding shortfall exacerbated by the economic impacts of COVID19, the 2019 passage of I-976 that cut state transportation funding, and our state’s extremely regressive tax system. 

That’s why we’ll not only advocate for stronger climate leadership--particularly on transportation pollution--but also expect our elected officials to advance structural solutions to mend the broken systems further exposed by the current crisis. Our state government remains the place where we can win transformative change, even as the federal government falters. 

To our members, volunteers, and funders: Thank you for all of your good work and support. If you’re interested in getting more involved--we hope you’ll join us

Picture credit to Fuse WA 

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