The Washington State Capitol Building.
The Washington Statehouse in Olympia. Credit: cmh2315fl / Creative Commons

The following commentary was written by John Dannan. Dannan is a principal at Generate Capital, where he leads the organic waste team. He also serves on the ReFED Advisory Council and the American Biogas Council Board of Directors. See our commentary guidelines for more information.

Washington has long been a global leader in zero-emissions energy production. It generates a whopping 81% of its power from wind, water and sunshine.  

Now, state lawmakers and Gov. Jay Inslee finally have the chance to make Washington a hub of clean transportation, too — and not a moment too soon. 

The state ranks No. 12 in the nation in pollution production from cars, trucks, airplanes and other vehicles — up there with New Jersey, New York, and Louisiana. Transportation emissions are now the largest source of climate pollution in both the state and the country: 47.2 million metric tons of carbon dioxide in Washington in 2017 alone, not to mention toxics, particulates and other lung-damaging pollutants.  

The state Senate on Thursday passed a bill that would establish a Clean Fuel Standard that, if approved, would slash the state’s transportation emissions by 20% by 2035. It would simultaneously unlock massive investment in clean energy infrastructure, supporting thousands of new jobs — especially in rural communities — and robust economic growth. Best of all, fuels would remain virtually the same price, or even cheaper, than what people are paying now. That’s because this law will make the polluters pay, not the taxpayers.   

The law, HB 1091, is now being considered by the House, which had previously passed a separate version of the bill. If approved, it will go to Gov. Inslee, who has long been a supporter of this effort — and for good reason.  

The measure would compel companies to finally reduce the carbon intensity of the fuel supply — but empowers them to do so in the most cost effective way possible. They can either deploy their own carbon-saving technologies or pay clean-fuel innovators to deploy them, thus accelerating innovation and driving down costs as clean alternatives scale up.  

There are plenty of options — tested, economical, and ready to deploy now — to sharply reduce pollution from the transportation sector: Oil refiners can invest in efficiency upgrades and pollution control equipment. Fuel distributors can blend renewable diesel, biodiesel, or ethanol with conventional fuels. Vehicle fleets fueled by compressed natural gas can replace fossil gas with renewable natural gas. And municipalities and other property owners can use Clean Fuel Standard credits to help pay to install charging infrastructure for electric vehicles and upgrade their vehicle fleets.  

These cleaner options have been scaling up rapidly in California, Oregon and British Columbia, where clean fuels standards have already been successfully implemented. Each program has generated billions of dollars in funding from the oil majors for clean energy and infrastructure investments and reduced transportation-sector pollution, resulting in a broader choice of clean fuels and vehicles for consumers and cleaner air.  

Take California: Local transport companies, station owners and other fleet owners have become major beneficiaries of the state’s clean fuel program. Gasoline in the state is roughly 40 cents per gallon cheaper than when the state’s Clean Fuel Standard was enacted in 2011, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. Over that same time period, it has driven a 70% increase in the use of cleaner fuels. That’s become a jobs creator in California, as many of the fuels are produced in the state.  

Contrast this with Washington, which has not yet enacted a clean fuel standard, and as a result has seen multiple clean fuel refineries shut down or relocate to low-carbon fuels markets, where there is more demand for their products. That’s billions of dollars in investments and close to 1,000 good-paying jobs lost to other states.  

Enacting a clean fuel standard would help bring jobs to rural communities that haven’t benefited from the urban tech boom, as well as new investment to Washington. It would also give Washington area fuels providers a choice to either more quickly implement cost-effective climate technologies and get rewarded; or continue to take things slowly and pay a penalty. Washington residents get cleaner fuels and cleaner air while keeping the cars they already own, simply by making fuels providers compete behind the scenes at little to no extra cost to them. At the same time, it’ll support those who do choose a zero emission electric vehicle by helping fund a more convenient charging network regardless of where you live. 

The Clean Fuel Standard would also help address emissions from other sectors, namely waste disposal. While often not the first source of greenhouse gas emissions that comes to mind, the waste sector is a significant source of climate pollution, with the majority of the impact coming from organic wastes. Organic wastes that would otherwise end up in landfills, lagoons or other disposal sites, where they then generate methane — a powerful greenhouse gas — can instead become inputs for renewable fuel production. 

As with previous efforts, existing dirty fuel providers have been funding opposition groups with names like Affordable Fuel Washington, claiming that what they have been doing for decades is working just fine. In reality, these companies are just trying to run out the clock on infrastructure they paid off years ago. Every additional year they can make profits off of that old infrastructure is “found money:” Multinational oil companies enjoy an average profit of 70 cents per gallon in the Central Puget Sound region — after expenses. That makes Washington their most profitable market in the United States, according to the Oil Price Information Service.  

Washington once set the global standard in zero-emissions energy production. It now has the chance to once again lead the transition toward cleaner transportation — with enormous benefits for the state’s economy, its workers, and public wellbeing. The Clean Fuel Standard is the vehicle to get there. 

Correction: This submitted commentary has been updated to correct the date on which the state Senate passed the bill, and to clarify the bill number in the House.