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May 5, 2014 at 6:13 AM

Gov. Jay Inslee climate-change effort should let critics speak

Gov. Jay Inslee.

Gov. Jay Inslee.

Gov. Jay Inslee is a believer in the idea that green programs can fix a world of problems, environmental and economic. But as he crafts his bold new climate-change program, he might be smart to let a few doubters in the room.

He doesn’t need to admit all of them. There are still many who doubt global warming, man’s role in it, and the idea that something ought to be done. Science has gone against them.

But there is a legitimate, more specific kind of skepticism that is hard to dispute. Many in the Legislature and the state’s business community question proposals that could drive up fuel prices, increase manufacturing costs or raise electricity rates. They say if Washington does anything, it ought to be able to prove that it will accomplish something. The state should know how much it is going to cost, what sort of impact it will have on the economy, and whether it offers the best bang for the buck.

The governor’s new climate-change executive order ought to make Washington wonder if there is any room for that healthy sort of self-examination. His order Tuesday abandoned a legislative process known as the Climate Legislative and Executive Workgroup, under which lawmakers had been asking those tough questions. Instead it directs the development of a raft of policies, as if someone had made a formal decision somewhere along the line that they are a good idea. Inslee appears to have made that choice, in some implied fashion, when he issued his executive order. “Let’s not wait for anybody,” he said Tuesday.

That eagerness to do something, and a rather relaxed attitude toward checks and balances, is reflected throughout the plan. For instance, the executive order calls for some sort of market-based pollution-taxation scheme – most likely cap and trade, which Inslee has advocated in the past. The Inslee administration has assembled an advisory panel to develop that part of the plan. Members include progressive and environmental groups that most likely will cheer, and a handful of businesses with narrow and particular interests.

But Inslee’s staff did not invite the Association of Washington Business, the state’s leading business organization, which has demanded a rigorous cost-benefit analysis. Nor are there any transportation-sector groups like the Washington Trucking Associations, which yelps whenever a government mandate threatens an increase in the price of diesel. Perhaps their objections would have slowed down the meetings.

Now consider this. The governor is directing the state Office of Financial Management to assess the potential of low-carbon fuel standards, a state mandate that gas and diesel be blended with low-carbon fuels. How much it will cost is a matter of dispute. A study sponsored by the oil industry, from the Boston Consulting Group, concluded a similar mandate in the state of California will cost 33 cents to $1.06 a gallon. The California Air Resources Board estimates 17 cents.

A Washington-state consultant this year predicted that if the California program were implemented here, it would cost six to eight cents, for reasons that are unclear – the assumptions were not mentioned in its brief report. But an earlier state analysis reached an equally rosy conclusion by assuming sufficient low-carbon ethanol would be available to serve the Washington state market – it isn’t. OFM is under the governor’s thumb. Would it use optimistic numbers or realistic ones?

Similar questions can be asked regarding other portions of the executive order. At this point the concerns are a matter of process, but they will become much more important when policies are finalized and Inslee turns to the Legislature in 2015.

Most will require some sort of legislative approval, with the significant exception of low carbon fuel standards – the Department of Ecology maintains Inslee can impose them without asking the Legislature. For its part, the governor’s office promises a thorough vetting of everything it proposes, though it is hard to imagine its promise will allay any fears. A process that shuts out criticism strengthens the opposition. Significantly, a coalition of skeptical business-community groups that have been excluded from Inslee’s process, Washington Consumers for Sound Fuel Policy, announced its formation Thursday.

No one questions the governor’s good intentions. Washington produces two-tenths of one percent of the world’s greenhouse-gas emissions, and of course it ought to do its share in solving a worldwide problem. But the best policy is made when all parties participate. Inslee should distinguish between the two types of skepticism, invite business interests to the table, ensure objective analysis, and show the work.

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