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Environment and Planning

Washington Joins Oregon, California, British Columbia In Passing Low-Carbon Fuel Standard

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CREDIT: Ruben de Rijcke CC BY-SA 3.0 bit.ly/3d2mZY6 via Wikimedia Commons
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Just ahead of the end of the 2021 Legislative session, Washington joined Oregon, California and British Columbia in passing a low-carbon fuel standard.

Changes may soon arrive at a gas pump near you thanks to new fuel standards that just landed on Washington Gov. Jay Inslee’s desk.

The state’s new fuel standards will slowly lower the amount of heat-trapping greenhouse gasses coming out of vehicle tailpipes through 2035. That means cleaner technologies biodiesel or renewable natural gas will get a boost over gasoline and diesel.

The new proposal is similar to others enacted in Oregon, California and British Columbia. Inslee has pushed for the new fuel standards in Washington, which he says will “make our air cleaner and give our consumers more choice at the pump.”

Inslee wrote Sunday on Twitter: “Today Washington advances on the path to cleaner transportation with the passage of HB 1091, the Clean Fuels bill. We join our West Coast neighbors—BC, OR, and CA—in decreasing climate pollution from our cars and trucks by boosting electric vehicles and lower-carbon biofuels.”

Several climate bills

The low-carbon fuels standard is one of several strong pieces of climate legislation that Washington lawmakers passed this session. Inslee also pushed for a cap and trade program, which will cap carbon emissions in the state.

This is the third attempt to get the idea through the Washington legislature. Previous versions of the bill got stuck in the state Senate. This time around, the bill’s passage took a lot of back-and-forth between both legislative chambers.

Lawmakers in the House didn’t want to agree to several amendments added in the Senate. After days of negotiations, members from both chambers got together and agreed on the final legislation hours before lawmakers wrapped up the 105-day session on Sunday, April 25.

Supporters say the Democratic caucuses in both chambers made the lower carbon fuel standards a priority, which helped it become law this year.

Transportation accounts for nearly 45% of Washington’s greenhouse gas emissions, according to the state Department of Ecology. Supporters say this new law will help reduce those emissions out of vehicle tailpipes.

The low-carbon fuels standard would limit the “carbon intensity of transportation fuels.” That would mean limiting the heat-trapping emissions in all stages of fuel use. Everything from fuel production to fuel transportation to its combustion in engines.

There are exceptions for boats, locomotives and aircraft. Military vehicles and equipment are also exempt, as is fuel that’s exported from Washington. Special fuel used in agriculture, mining, timber harvest and construction are exempt until Jan. 1, 2028.

By 2035, the “carbon intensity of transportation fuels” must be 20% below 2017 levels. Every few years after the program starts, fuel standards will become progressively stringent.

Another step needed

With this new standard, fuel producers must make cleaner fuels or buy credits from clean fuels producers to make up for their extra emissions.

“So you have, basically, oil companies are either having to clean up their act, or they have to pay those who are producing clean electricity or sustainable biofuels,” says Leah Missik, the Washington transportation policy manager for the advocacy group Climate Solutions.

A clean fuels program can’t begin until the state Legislature passes another transportation package, which Missik says is gaining support. The package must generate more than $500 million every two years. The new clean fuels bill says the standards (and therefore, the transportation package) must start no later than Jan. 1, 2023.

Oregon’s clean fuels program was up and running five years ago. This year, Portland General Electric was able to buy two electric school buses for the Beaverton School District through the sale of its clean fuels credits. In 2020, the program awarded grants to four other school districts for charging infrastructure and technology training for electric buses.

Lessons learned

The Washington initiative took lessons from Oregon and California.

“We’ve established a solid West Coast block for a clean fuels standard, which I’m hopeful puts us on a trajectory across the country to really address climate in a substantial way and make sure that this type of policy gets scaled up,” says Rebecca Ponzio, climate and fossil fuel program director for Washington Environmental Council and Washington Conservation Voters.

Other states, like New York, are also considering similar low-carbon fuel standards.

Republican lawmakers opposing the push labeled it the “high-cost fuel standard,” saying it will raise prices at the pump.

During earlier attempts to get a low-carbon fuel standard in place, local long-haul trucking companies worried fuel costs would increase. A Tri-Cities wine shipper said he has noticed fuel prices increase in California, which was the first state to enact a low-carbon fuel standard.

Low-carbon fuel supporters say prices won’t increase because there will be more competition in the market. If using electric vehicles, supporters say filling in Washington costs one-third as much as gasoline-powered vehicles. They also say the new standards will help bring biofuel and biorefinery jobs to the state.

“By creating market certainty for low-carbon fuels in our state, we ensure that technologies and fuel advancements directly benefit Washington communities – and are not simply exported out of state. But must move quickly to implement the program to maximize economic benefits,” says Matthew Hepner, with the Certified Electrical Workers of Washington. 

These new standards aim to reduce air pollution, especially in areas already hit hard by the transportation sector, Missik says, such as communities near ports or next to highways. 

“The transportation sector is the largest source of climate pollution,” Missik says. “It also contributes this really toxic air pollution that particularly harms communities of color and lower-income communities due to past racist practices of redlining  and building highways through communities of color.”

The Puget Sound Clean Air Agency estimates more than 1,100 people die in the state each year as a result of outdoor air pollution, which can lead to heart attacks, asthma and strokes.

“Finally, families living with air pollution day-in and day-out will get some relief,” according to Chris Covert-Bowlds with the advocacy group Washington Physicians for Social Responsibility