Northwest legislative gridlock is no accident
June 25th - Oregon and Washington are in the midst of a drastically contentious legislative session. Both states need to come together on budget agreements. Both state's rifts are centered on transportation funding. But most bizarrely, each state has tied budget negotiations to clean fuels programs.
Washington State is approaching a government shutdown. If lawmakers cannot agree on a budget by midnight June 30th, park rangers, corrections officers, health inspectors, all none essential government employees will be furloughed, leaving vital services unavailable for residents.
Much of the divisiveness has been over the potential addition of a clean fuels standard. The details of the program have not been revealed (since it hasn't officially been proposed). But most believe it would mirror programs in California, British Columbia and most recently Oregon. Oregon's just passed Low Carbon Fuel Standard would reduce the carbon content of transportation fuels by 10% over the next 10 years.
Governor Inslee attempted to break the deadlock with a letter to legislative leaders that (among other things) agreed to delay any clean fuels program until 2018.
This was a dramatic concession from a Governor who still needs to solidify his environmental record as an executive. But even this wasn’t enough for some lawmakers. State Senate Transportation Chair Curtis King (R District-14) rejected the offer demanding a delay on clean fuels until 2023, beyond when even a potential second Inslee term would end. Earlier in the session clean fuel opponents attached a poison pill to the senate’s version of the transportation package. The amendment would divert all funding not designated for roads (bus system, bike lanes, light rail, etc.) to highway construction/repair if the state implemented a low carbon fuel standard.
This all mirrors what’s currently being debated in Oregon. After passing clean fuels just weeks before, legislative leaders and Governor Brown presented a deal that would repeal it in a grand bargain to garner support for, you guessed it, the state’s transportation package. That bill died in the senate Thursday June 26th after legislators felt tremendous pressure to not kill the program. This was exemplified best by the American Lung Association delivering pairs of flip-flops to state senators considering repeal (completely returnable if they don’t vote for repeal of course). Road blocks beyond the senate looked even steeper as nineteen representatives sent a letter to Governor Brown explaining that they would not sign a transportation bill that repealed clean fuels.
This entire scenario is no accident. Oil interests have orchestrated a minority of legislators to hold both state’s budgets on transportation hostage until clean fuels is off the table in the Northwest. On May 20th, just weeks after the clean fuels program became law, oil companies filed 3 separate ballot measures to dismantle the program in Oregon. One boiled down to these few sentences:
“They include using an existing biofuel blending program to cut carbon emissions from fuel by five percent over ten years, as long as the biofuel is commercially available, technologically feasible and cost effective.”
Inexplicably, this same phrase appears in the new proposed transportation package. This left many questioning how involved the oil industry was in writing and planning this repeal.
That notion was made very clear when a spokesperson for the Western State Petroleum Association admitted to the Statesman Journal that they were deeply involved in writing the transportation draft. "We were asked to provide an outline for a program... Hull said. "And that's now being considered."
Oil industry representatives have even testified in favor of the transportation package, you can read some of their testimony in a recent OPB story.
Last year, fossil fuel interests poured millions into both state’s (combined around $5 million) to influence politicians. For several years they’ve consistently spent upwards of seven figures, bending political ears to their issues. Oregon and Washington have ground to a standstill legislatively and its due to a collective effort to tie clean fuels with our state’s most basic functions. This type of scorched earth diplomacy is usually reserved for national level politics. But as the West Coast continues to drive towards a fossil fuel free future, oil interests are becoming increasingly desperate to keep state's locked into the economy of the past.
Unfortunately, for those hoping to preserve the status quo, slow down and gridlock are the same as a win.
Nick Abraham - Editor and Lead Contributor Oil Check Northwest