Ahead of the Democratic debates, Washington Governor Jay Inslee releases another slew of climate policies targeting fossil fuel production.
More than any other Democratic presidential candidate in the crowded field, Washington Governor Jay Inslee has made climate change the centerpiece of his campaign. He’s already introduced climate-focused proposals calling for 100 percent carbon-free electricity and outlining an investment plan that would put $9 trillion over 10 years toward clean energy and infrastructure, creating some eight million jobs in the process. Inslee’s latest proposal, out this week, is his most radical yet: Dubbed the “Freedom From Fossil Fuels” plan, it would end subsidies to the industry, block the development of future oil infrastructure, and ultimately result in a complete phase out of fossil fuel production.
Environmentalists and climate scientists have been warning for some time that the fossil fuel reserves left in existing oil and gas wells and coal mines are enough to push global warming well beyond 1.5 degrees Celsius—the threshold after which experts expect the consequences of climate change to become catastrophic. That means that all new fossil fuel infrastructure, from single wells to pipelines to refineries, will make it that much more difficult to address climate change.
That’s what makes Inslee’s latest proposal targeting fossil fuel production so exciting for climate advocates. A big part of the governor’s proposal outlines policies that would block future fossil fuel infrastructure using a “climate test” that federal agencies would use to “evaluate the lifecycle climate pollution and climate change impacts and vulnerabilities associated with all new major infrastructure projects.” His plan would also give tribal communities more control over their land, limit the Federal Energy Regulatory Committee’s ability to approve pipelines against state regulators’ and stakeholders’ wishes, reinstate the crude oil export band, block the export of other fossil fuels, ban fracking, and end leases for fossil fuel extraction on public lands.
None of these policies on their own necessarily breaks the mold for a climate plan from a Democratic contender, and many of Inslee’s fellow candidates have proposed or voiced support for similar policies. Eighteen other Democratic candidates, including Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, California Senator Kamala Harris, and Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, have said they would put an end to fossil fuel leases on federal lands; five others—Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey, Representative Tulsi Gabbard from Hawaii, author and spiritual counselor Marianne Williamson, Sanders, and Warren—would ban fossil fuel exports; and all but one, Montana Governor Steve Bullock, would eliminate fossil fuel subsidies.
The real difference from his competitors’ proposals is that Inslee’s climate plan includes all of them. Altogether, it’s a drastic proposal that experts and advocates have described as “bold” and even “visionary.” David Turnbull, a communications director for the non-profit Oil Change U.S., called the governor’s latest proposal “yet another barnburner that should put both the fossil fuel industry and other candidates on notice.”
One of the pillars of Inslee’s policy is holding polluters accountable with a “climate pollution fee,” which would start low and increase “steadily and aggressively.” It’s essentially a carbon tax—much like the ones that the governor tried and failed to pass twice in his home state—which have the support of both climate economists and, more recently, the oil industry itself. Major oil companies including BP and Royal Dutch Shell have thrown their might and money behind a carbon tax plan from the Climate Leadership Council, a right-leaning policy institute.
Crucially, the industry-backed tax plan contains a provision protecting fossil fuel companies from climate-related lawsuits—of which oil companies are already facing several. Inslee’s climate plan would give oil companies no such leeway. Indeed, it takes the extra step of creating an Office of Environmental Justice within the Department of Justice with the goal of holding fossil fuel companies accountable for damages to the environment and public health.
The plan would also end the $26 billion per year in tax breaks that oil and gas companies enjoy, according to Oil Change U.S. A report from the International Monetary Fund out earlier this year, which looked at both the direct and indirect subsidies for coal, oil, and gas, found that subsidies reached $649 billion in 2015—about $50 billion more than the government spent on the defense industry that same year.
The plan is sure to provoke the ire of the country’s oil and gas industry, which would be destabilized just as it was gearing up for a massive expansion in production. There are currently tens of thousands of Americans employed in oil and gas extraction alone. Critically, Inslee’s phase-out plan would be accompanied by the creation of a “Presidential Commission on Energy Transition,” which focuses on a “just transition” for workers to find a way to end fossil fuel extraction without economically devastating the families and communities that still depend on the industry.
“Governor Inslee has laid out the most comprehensive and coherent plan I’ve ever seen from a political candidate, in any jurisdiction anywhere in the world, to phase out fossil fuel supply,” Fergus Green, a climate policy consultant at the London School of Economics, told Earther. In other words, Inslee is hardly the only Democratic candidate who has called for the United States to reduce its dependence on fossil fuels, but he’s the first to provide a comprehensive plan to do so.