Like polar ice, the environmental movement has receded since I first took office in 2005.
That year, over opposition from the business community (and, later, the Bush Administration’s Environmental Protection Agency), the Legislature adopted California’s vehicle emissions standards – the nation’s toughest – effective 2009. The legislature also took a first stab at banning toxic flame retardants.
In 2006 voters passed renewable energy Initiative 937. The Legislature passed an electronic waste recycling program that charged manufacturers with responsibilities. In 2007 the Legislature created the Puget Sound Partnership with the goal of restoring the Puget Sound by 2020. Washington was leading in environmental protection.
What’s happened since?
In part, environmentalists may have placed too much hope in the Obama Administration, which halfheartedly tried to address climate change only to abandon the American Clean Energy and Security Act of 2009– and many House Democrats who imperiled themselves voting for it (a 219-212 arm-twister) – in the face of Harry Reid’s intransigence.
Following Obama’s election, Senate Democrats here immediately introduced a bill attempting to gut I-937 – a bill only killed through procedural fancy footwork on the House floor by a handful of foes. Environmentalism devolved into transactional politics, largely pursuing a dumbed-down agenda that could be achieved, not one that challenged legislators into voting for substantive change. An example was a 2010 bill banning Bisphenol-A (BPA) in “sippy” cups, beginning in 2012, even though manufacturers of such cups were already removing BPA by 2007.
Indeed, almost comically, the Food & Drug Administration in 2012 banned BPA in baby bottles and sippy cups at the request of the American Chemistry Council itself just so no one would think BPA was being used in them (the far greater danger, BPA used as an epoxy liner in baby food jars, is legal and banned only in Maine). When far-right Rep. Matt Shea (R-4, Spokane Valley) was honored following the 2010 session for his support of our already-moot BPA bill, you knew environmentalism was in trouble.
Since then, environmental progress has been measured by banning the use of things market forces already have made obsolete. But toxic toys have stayed toxic. And the Puget Sound remains a cesspool—the Puget Sound Partnership became known for spending $3,650 on lip balm and $12,000 on jackets, while failing state audits.
With faux-environmentalist Sen. Steve Litzow’s (R-41, Mercer Island) re-election key to handing them control, this year the Senate majority picked the member in their caucus who's the most hostile to environemtnalism, Sen. Doug Ericksen (R-42, Ferndale). In gutting Governor Inslee’s priority environmental bill on assessing climate change impacts, Second Substitute Senate Bill 5802 (from which all language about the perils of climate change was removed), Ericksen claimed the bill as a victory for climate change denial.
Transactionalism, including “greenwashing” of major polluters, may help account for why the environment does not register in the American public’s top policy priorities – even as climate change wreaks havoc and our nation weathers one storm-of-the-century after another. Where is the politician who will speak passionately about environmental protection while the Earth burns?
Senate Bill 5297, which passed the Senate 38-11 and the House 83-14, may someday be looked at as the death knell of Washington environmentalism.
Sponsored by Sen. John Braun (R-20, Centralia), a Lewis County Republican, SB 5297 allows utilities to bypass I-937 by purchasing energy from the TransAlta coal plant. While the bill elicited sympathy of those wishing to preserve living-wage jobs in a poor county during the transition to the plant’s 2025 scheduled closure – sympathy I share as someone who benefitted from support from those workers – no reasonable person can now believe the plant will close by 2025. 2025 was too late anyway; Greenland will be Palm Springs by then.
Juxtaposed against the coal train controversy, it’s obvious we only have the courage of our convictions in denying China access to coal, not ourselves. Addressing climate change will bring with it pain along with opportunity, and the pain could be accommodated by subsidizing a soft landing for workers—not by erasing past environmental gains.
Conceding the jobs vs. environment argument is exactly where Republicans like Braun and Ericksen wish to lead us. It is what reportedly motivated the state to capitulate to Boeing on rulemaking to protect fish from toxic industrial water and stormwater discharges—a capitulation completely at odds with the state’s proclaimed Puget Sound cleanup aims.
As we were during the Bush Administration, we are confronted with a federal government that cannot lead on the environment. It’s up to our state to. SB 5297 is a step back, not forward. What's the next concession?
Sierra Club Life Member Brendan Williams is an inconsolable former legislator who had a 100% environmental voting record, as well as an occasional Publicola contributor.
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