Sunday, December 02, 2007
BY KATHIE DURBIN, Columbian staff writer

OLYMPIA – A climate change panel appointed by Gov. Chris Gregoire is leaning toward recommending that Washington become part of a regional cap-and-trade system for carbon emissions rather than impose a tax on polluters who emit carbon dioxide.

The panel, which will meet Tuesday in Seattle to unveil its initial recommendations, also wants local governments to analyze how new projects would contribute to Washington’s greenhouse gas emissions under the State Environmental Policy Act.

The Climate Action Team’s most dramatic initiatives will wait for the 2009 legislative session, said Jay Manning, director of the Washington Department of Ecology and co-chairman of the climate team. That’s because a separate effort of which the state is a part, the Western Climate Initiative, will announce its own strategy for dramatic reductions in greenhouse gas emission reductions next August. Six states and three Canadian provinces are part of that regional effort.

“2009 will be a significant year for climate change legislation,” Manning said Friday at a briefing for the Senate Water, Energy and Telecommunications Committee. “It’s the biggest issue we face by far. There’s nothing remotely close to it.”

A cap-and-trade system that allows polluting industries to buy credits from clean industries within an overall carbon emission cap will be as effective as a tax on carbon emissions and will give industries and other carbon emitters more flexibility, Manning said.

“There are companies who will really have trouble meeting that cap and, in fact, can’t meet it,” he said. “A carbon tax may be more specific, but won’t be very popular. The consensus is that the flexibility of cap-and-trade outweighs the certainty of a carbon tax.”

“The cap will ratchet down over time,” he added. “Meeting those reductions will be hard.”

The Climate Action Team is expected to ask the 2008 Legislature to pass an emissions reporting bill that will give the state more data about what kinds and amounts of greenhouse gases are being emitted now, Manning said.

His agency also will issue guidelines to state and local governments and private-sector industries, letting them know that they are expected to describe the potential impact on the climate of proposed projects as part of their SEPA documentation.

“This won’t require legislation,” Manning said. “We think the statute already requires this.”

Committee Chairman Phil Rockefeller, D-Bainbridge Island, asked how the Climate Action Team is addressing the challenges the state will face in adapting to climate change, from rising sea levels to shrinking snow packs.

“Slowing it is critical,” he said. “How will you be able to forecast what our climate impacts will be around the state?” he asked.

Manning said it’s clear from work done by the University of Washington Climate Impacts Group that the loss of snowpack will be extreme, and will have a major impact on Eastern Washington farmers, who depend on runoff from winter snowpack for irrigation water. “We don’t know whether it’s going to be 30 percent or 70 percent. Either one of those is going to be a big deal,” he said.

Similarly, whether sea levels rise one or two feet, the impact on coastal areas will be great, he said.

Sen. Jim Honeyford, R-Sunnyside, wanted to know what reducing greenhouse gases will cost the residents of Washington.

“Washington contributes three-tenths of one percent to global warming,” he said. “Is it really worth the cost for this minuscule benefit?”

“That is a fair question,” Manning responded. But the costs of adapting to changes already under way, like the diminishing snowpack, also will be significant, he said.

“If you care about salmon recovery, clean water, recreation in streams, you’re going to have to replace that storage capacity with something,” he said. Aquifer storage high in the mountains is one possibility. “Well-designed, multiple-benefit water storage will be part of our future.”

The team’s report to the governor is due Feb. 7.

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