Washington Gov. Jay Inslee supported the march for science in Seattle in April.Washington Gov. Jay Inslee has been an outspoken supporter of climate action, but his state has lagged behind his words, groups say. Photo credit: Karen Ducky/Getty Images

By Ucilia Wang

An advocacy group plans to renew its legal fight over climate action against the state of Washington, which despite priding itself as a leader in addressing climate change, has been slow to mandate stricter limits on greenhouse gas emissions.

The group, Our Children’s Trust, said it will file the suit, similar to one it filed on behalf of eight children in 2014, when it contended that Washington was failing in its duty to regulate carbon dioxide emissions.

That lawsuit forced the state to create a clean air rule last year to regulate emissions from certain large polluters. But it didn’t achieve another goal: to compel the lawmakers to tighten the emissions limits set by the legislature in 2008, which the state’s own environmental agency concedes are outdated.

The state isn’t even on track to meet the first of those targets: cutting emissions back to 1990 levels by 2020.

“We are seeking a climate recovery plan for the entire state that will require science-based reduction. We are looking for a court order to come up with a plan,” said Andrea Rodgers, a senior staff attorney for OCT, though she declined to specify when.

“Everything they’ve done is in piecemeal,” she added.

The state is already seeing the impact of manmade emissions. Its coastal waters, crucial to a thriving seafood industry, are becoming more acidic and less habitable for fish and other wildlife, according to the state Department of Ecology.

“Climate change is one of the most significant issues we face today. Ecology is working hard to protect our fish, farms and waters,” said Camille St. Onge, spokeswoman on climate change and air quality at the ecology department.

Gov. Jay Inslee, an outspoken proponent of climate action, joined several other state leaders at the recent United Nations climate talks in Bonn, Germany to discuss regional efforts to tackle climate change even as the federal government withdraws from the Paris climate agreement.

St. Onge declined to comment on OCT’s plan to file a new suit.

The struggle of the state’s environmental agency to win over lawmakers isn’t surprising, said Pat Parenteau, an environmental law professor at Vermont Law School.

“Washington, like Oregon and other states, are schizophrenic,” Parenteau said, explaining that the state’s voters are largely divided between the heavily Democratic population of Seattle and the predominance of conservatives in the state’s smaller communities.

Rodgers said state agencies aren’t doing enough to protect the health and environment even though it considers the impact of climate change when it reviews applications for infrastructure permits. Washington needs to come up with a comprehensive plan that addresses a broader set of climate impacts, not just air quality, she said, and it should be more difficult for projects with a heavy carbon footprint to secure approval.

One example is a controversial $680 million proposed coal shipping terminal that could increase U.S. coal exports by 40 percent.

The state ecology department concluded in its environmental impact report, which includes a section on climate change, that the impact of the project’s emissions aren’t considered “unavoidable and significantly adverse” because there are ways to reduce them over time. That means the emissions can’t be the reason for denying the project, said Stu Clark, air quality program manager at the ecology department. In comparison, some pollutants, such as toxic chemicals, pose more immediate health threats that can’t be quickly minimized or eliminated, he added.

“There’s an unfounded belief by the environmental community that we can deny permits because of a large amount of greenhouse gas emissions,” Clark said.

The state’s environmental impact report said the project developer, Millennium Bulk Terminals, could cut emissions in different ways, from using more energy-efficient technology, such as electric vehicles, to buying carbon credits.

But the project’s opponents call that absurd.

“The notion that you can’t mitigate emissions to protect people is preposterous,” Rodgers said. “An agency has a wide discretion to deny permits. For them, it’s a political question. They don’t want to get sued, so they don’t want to assert their authority.”

The state is resisting the project through other means, however. It has denied a water quality permit and refused to approve a sublease or an improvement plan for the site of the proposed shipping terminal, prompting lawsuits from Millennium. The company recently won a court order that requires the state to reconsider the sublease.

The state Department of Natural Resources denied the sublease and site improvement plan because it didn’t receive all the necessary information from the applicants, said Joe Smillie, spokesman for the natural resources department. The department didn’t consider the impact of climate change in its decisions, Smillie said, adding that the responsibility for overseeing the state’s effort to cut emissions belongs to the ecology department and the governor’s office.

The company has also been chronicling its fight with the state on its website and contends that “some regulatory agencies have invented special rules and a unique and unprecedented process for its evaluation.” Millennium didn’t respond to requests for comment.

The legal fights over Washington’s climate policy reflects a growing movement to force state and federal governments to cut emissions aggressively, Parenteau said. OCT has filed suit against states such as Alaska and the federal government. A federal suit, Juliana v. United States, is underway, and awaiting an appeals court hearing in San Francisco in December.

“There’s a recognition among federal and some state courts not just the problem of climate change but also that courts should examine agency decisions,” Parenteau said. “They are beginning to take a harder look at how the agencies are interpreting their authority when it comes to carbon and requiring a more rigorous analysis of the problem.”