What the Washington Legislature Expects to Tackle on Climate and Environment in 2023


In recent years, Olympia lawmakers passed ambitious laws intended to largely eliminate by midcentury most state greenhouse gas emissions from human-caused sources.

In the new session underway Jan. 9, legislators shaping the environmental agenda will be focused on follow-through.

They need to decide how to spend money raised through putting a price on greenhouse gas pollution, and are expected to wrestle with tasks — such as speeding up the siting of new transmission lines — that will aid in the energy transition.

"This is where the rubber meets the road," said Rep. Beth Doglio, a Thurston County Democrat who will chair the House Energy and Environment Committee. "It's a super exciting time. The climate policy framework is in place ... Now, we have to figure how to make it work."

The lawmakers also will consider a major measure to reduce plastic pollution and improve recycling, and a House bill that seeks to ban toxics from cosmetics sold in Washington.

But the wide-ranging effort to shift away from fossil fuels will remain center stage.

The 2021 Climate Commitment Act created pollution allowances that will be reduced over time for nearly 100 of the state's largest emitters. Many emitters will have to buy allowances at quarterly auctions that will kick off in February. During the next two years, these auctions are expected to generate about $1.7 billion.

Some of this money already is budgeted for transportation. Most will need to be appropriated following guidelines detailed in the law for projects that can include alternative transportation, climate resiliency and assistance to communities that suffer from some of the worst air pollution.

Rep. Mary Dye, R-Pomeroy, says she will propose investing in projects to improve irrigation and reservoir systems, the treatment of wastewater flowing into Puget Sound and forest-health projects that can reduce wildfire risk and help finance new mill technology.

"We can rebuild those timber-town economies that have been devastated ... we have a lot of good ideas to come forward," Dye said.

Democratic Rep. Joe Fitzgibbon, who will be the House majority leader, wants to keep a focus on investments that will help meet the 2050 pollution-reduction goals by clamping down on greenhouse gas emissions. "I think we're less likely to prioritize projects that don't have any kind of ... emissions-reductions benefit," Fitzgibbon said.

Considerable uncertainty remains over just how much revenue the carbon-allowance auctions will bring in. It is also hard to forecast how much putting a price on this pollution will ripple through to consumers, including motorists. Some predict gas prices might jump as fuel distributors pass on the cost of their allowances. The minimum bid could add more than 18 cents to each gallon of gas sold in Washington if fuel distributors passed on the full costs. And one report contracted by the state Department of Ecology forecasts auction allowances in 2023 could bring more than double the minimum bid.

"If the prices are much higher than expected, there will be lots of political repercussions," said Todd Myers of the Washington Policy Center, who noted legislators' options could include lowering a cap that sets the highest allowable bids.

"We are going to just need to let this first auction happen, right? And see how that unfolds. And figure out, you know, where the tweaks are that need to be made," Doglio said.

Speeding up solar, wind

East of the Cascades, another key part of the state's climate agenda — a dramatic expansion of renewable energy — already is igniting a political backlash from those who bridle at the prospects of large new solar farms and an expansion of wind turbines in their region. Opponents have taken aim at the Energy Facility Site Evaluation Council, which has the power to review and recommend projects for approval to the governor even if local county commissions are in opposition.

This year, Rep. Mark Klicker, R-Walla Walla, says he and Rep. Dye plan to introduce a bill that would require the commission to negotiate with local governments and tribes in the siting of these projects.

"This gives us a say ... to help us protect what we worked so hard for instead of just coming in and ramrodding things through," Klicker said.

Doglio, the Democratic chair of the House Energy and Environment Committee, says she expects to see legislation to "tighten up" the timelines for project siting. "I think that's probably the biggest piece. We got to get this stuff built quickly but we want to make and give the public an opportunity to weigh in."

Doglio also expects a bill to speed up development of the expanded transmission network needed to bring electricity from solar and wind farms to Washington's population centers west of the Cascades.

The Northwest has an underbuilt and aging electricity grid that is not able to handle a vast expansion of wind and solar, according to a report released in October by Emily Moore, a senior researcher with the Seattle-based Sightline Institute, which seeks to make the region a "global model of sustainability."

Moore, in her report, wrote that absent a plan for building out the grid, "the region's ambitious decarbonization commitments will amount to so much hot air."

Gov. Jay Inslee is expected to propose legislation, as well as funding, to "streamline transmission siting," by routing larger projects of statewide significance through the Energy Facility Site Evaluation Council, according to a December 2022 policy brief from the governor's office.

Doglio said she expects the Inslee-backed bill will get a hearing early in the session.

Recycling, plastics and toxics

In the new session, the Legislature will once again consider a bill to increase recycling and reduce consumer plastics by shifting more responsibility to the packaging industry.

In 2016, Washington state companies exported more than 790,000 metric tons of recyclable materials to China, but that market imploded in 2017 as new restrictions imposed by the Chinese government sharply limited the amount of contamination that could be included in the imports.

Since then, many recyclers have struggled, with some requesting permission to send their material to landfills, according to a report prepared for the Ecology Department by the University of Washington's Daniel J. Evans School of Public Policy & Governance.

Some states already have passed producer-responsibility laws, including California, where legislation passed in 2022 would require all single-use packaging be recyclable or compostable by 2032.

The new Washington legislation will be called the Washington Recycling and Packaging Act, or WRAP, and will create producer-responsibility cooperatives — funded by packaging manufacturers — that will invest in improving recycling to meet targets set by law.

"We're basically putting the producers in the position of needing to figure out what to do about their garbage, the garbage they are producing in our state," said Sen. Christine Rolfe, D-Bainbridge Island, who will be a lead sponsor in the Senate.

Rolfe said there are plans to include a provision modeled after an Oregon law that places a deposit on plastic and other beverage bottles. That could boost bottle recycling to 80% if Washington is able to match what Oregon has achieved, according to Rolfe.

The Legislature in recent years has taken some high-profile steps to combat toxic pollution, including a 2019 law that directs state agencies to restrict the use of products containing hazardous chemicals as alternatives are identified. In the new year, the Legislature will consider a bill that seeks to ban some chemicals — including lead, formaldehyde and per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances — from cosmetics.

In 2023, some of the action on the toxics front will play out in rule-making by the state Ecology Department as it implements the 2019 law. Four classes of chemicals in 10 product categories would be restricted, including flame retardants, under an Ecology Department proposal.

"The flame retardants may be used in the casings of electronic equipment, and over time can contaminate indoor air and dust. They can also contaminate groundwater as they leach out of landfills," according to Erika Schreder, science director at Seattle-based Toxic-Free Future, which backs the Ecology Department proposal.

The flame retardant restrictions are opposed by the American Chemistry Council, which sent a Dec. 9 comment to the Ecology Department noting that flame retardants have important safety benefits and can help stop a small ignition from turning into a larger fire.