May 10, 2021 • 1HR 10M

Volts podcast: Washington Rep. Joe Fitzgibbon on the Evergreen State's excellent new climate laws

A millennial legislator talks about the challenges of getting stuff done.

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David Roberts
Volts is a podcast about leaving fossil fuels behind. I've been reporting on and explaining clean-energy topics for almost 20 years, and I love talking to politicians, analysts, innovators, and activists about the latest progress in the world's most important fight. (Volts is entirely subscriber-supported. Sign up!)
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Greetings! Last week, I wrote about the ambitious slate of climate and energy policies that the state of Washington has put in place over the last two years — culminating, a few weeks ago, with the passage of the Climate Commitment Act, which would cap the state’s emissions and reduce them 95 percent by 2050.

It’s a dizzying amount of progress in a short period of time.

As I talked to those involved about how it happened, one name came up again and again: Rep. Joe Fitzgibbon (D) of the 34th District, which encompasses West Seattle and areas southwest of the city.

Rep. Joe Fitzgibbon (D) (Wikimedia)
Rep. Joe Fitzgibbon (D) (Wikimedia)

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Fawn Sharp, president of the National Congress of American Indians, had this to say: “Representative Joe Fitzgibbon is now a living legend for his miraculous legislative diplomacy and pure, selfless heart; he deserves to win every legislator of the year award in existence.”

This is not the kind of thing one typically hears about legislators after years of difficult negotiations, but in this case, it was a fairly typical sentiment. So I knew I needed to talk to Fitzgibbon — about his entry into politics, his approach, and what enabled this burst of progress.

Please enjoy our conversation. And please consider becoming a paid Volts subscriber, so that I can continue to do this work.

David Roberts:   

Hello, welcome to Volts. I am your host, David Roberts. 

As longtime listeners know, Volts is headquartered in Seattle, in the great state of Washington, on the superior of America's two coasts. As it turns out, this is the place to be for climate policy. Over the last few years, the Democratic legislature in Washington has been engaged in a veritable frenzy of activity, cranking out climate and energy bills, a 100 percent clean electricity bill, bills on hydrofluorocarbons, bills to decarbonize buildings and boost electric vehicles – bills, bills, bills. 

Most recently, the legislature passed what are arguably the two key remaining pieces of the carbon policy puzzle. The first is a clean fuel standard, or CFS, like the one in place in California, Oregon, and BC, which will slowly ratchet down the carbon content of liquid fuels in the state. The second, the big kahuna, is the Climate Commitment Act, or CCA, which puts in place a cap and invest system that will ratchet down economy-wide greenhouse-gas emissions from 1990 levels 45 percent by 2030, 70 percent by 2040, and 95 percent by 2050. With the passage of the CCA, Washington now has, in my opinion, the most comprehensive and ambitious climate policy plan in the country – and yes, I have heard of California. 

I just got done writing a big story on this, and according to everyone I talked to, one legislator was particularly important in shepherding the CCA and some of the other bills in question through the House, while ensuring that they remained ambitious: Representative Joe Fitzgibbon of the 34th Legislative District containing West Seattle and Vashon Island.

Fitzgibbon was elected to the legislature in 2010, when he was just 24 years old. Yes, he's a bona fide millennial. But instead of moping around his parents’ basement and eating avocados, which is what I'm told millennials do, he has been immersing himself in the wonky details of climate policy, and pushing his state into the future. So I'm happy to have him with me today to discuss climate policy and state progress. Representative Fitzgibbon, welcome to Volts.

Joe Fitzgibbon:  

Thanks for having me, David.

David Roberts:   

Let's start with a little bit of your history. I was thinking back on what I was doing when I was 24. I was in grad school, snowboarding a lot, smoking a bunch of pot, definitely not fit for running anything. What drew you to politics at such a young age? Is it the people aspects or the policy aspects?

Joe Fitzgibbon:  

To your credit, you went to grad school. I'm a grad school dropout.

David Roberts:   

Oh, I dropped out eventually. But I just stayed longer.

Joe Fitzgibbon:  

I've always been really motivated by environmental issues, and that included a general concern for the direction things were going. I don't know how much of that can be attributed to Captain Planet and media when I was a kid. But as the climate crisis came into focus for me, probably in college, I realized, whatever I'm going to do with myself, whether that's nonprofit work or government work or something else, I want it to be about doing the most I can to make progress on the climate crisis. 

When I got out of college and looked around to figure out where I could do the most, state or local government seemed much more appealing to me than going to DC and being a really, really small fish in an enormous ocean. I had enough friends who had gone and done that and become disillusioned that I thought state seemed more exciting to me, so I'm happy that's where I landed. 

I started out as a staffer; I worked in the legislature for my predecessor in the House. She went on to serve in the Senate as Senate Majority Leader, and when she ran for the Senate, I ran for her seat in the House in 2010. It definitely was not part of some ambitious long-term plan that I was going to run for office when I was 24, but it turned out that was when the seat opened up, and I had just enough experience by that point that I thought I could make a case that I was a credible candidate. It was clear to me at that point that we weren't going to be making climate progress or other environmental progress at the state level unless we had more people in office for whom that was their motivating thing. 

The good news for me was there were few enough other legislators at that time for whom that was their main issue that I got to carve out a space for myself as one of the experts – not that I was or am an expert, but in the legislative context, the bar is grading on a curve. The downside was nobody else cared about those issues, so we didn't make a lot of progress for those first couple years. For five of the 11 years I've been in office, we had a Republican Senate, and we had absolutely no climate progress during that time. But it did mean I had the time to become a committee chair and become what counts in the legislature as an expert, so that when the time was right for us to strike with some climate legislation, I was ready to go.

David Roberts:   

You were around from 2010 to 2018, which were pretty bleak years in Washington climate-wise; there are long-standing complaints about the Washington legislature and climate during those years. Then you were here from 2018 to 2021, which has been a veritable renaissance of activity and motion. What explains this? What happened in the legislature that uncorked this burst of activity?

Joe Fitzgibbon:  

The most important thing happened in November of 2018, when we gained a substantial number of seats for the Democrats in both chambers of the legislature. Washington has 98 House members and 49 senators, so a majority in the House is 50, and a majority in the Senate is 25. We have a comfortable working majority, more in the House than in the Senate, but increasingly in the Senate as well. We don't quite have a supermajority, so we can't pass a constitutional amendment, for example, with Democratic votes alone. 

But we went into the 2018 election with a one-seat majority in each chamber; we had 50 in the House, 25 in the Senate exactly. So we couldn't get a lot done then, but we weren't negotiating bad budgets with Republican senators anymore. In 2018, we picked up seven seats in the House and we picked up three seats in the Senate. That broke a logjam and meant that we had enough breathing room in both chambers that things that seemed like pipe dreams just a short time before, like our 100 percent clean electricity law, were actually within reach. 

There's nothing that changed in the wider political environment. Governor Inslee obviously has elevated climate to a central role in our discourse, but the thing that mattered the most was picking up those seats for the Democrats in both chambers. I rue the day that climate became this partisan of an issue, but it is, and that's made me a very partisan legislator, because it feels like climate progress is more correlated to the size of our majorities than to just about anything else.

David Roberts:   

Has all that the legislature has done over the last two years – on climate and energy, but also prison reform, capital gains tax, a million other things – been an entirely partisan affair? At any stage, did you get help from any Republicans? Or have they just opted out? 

Joe Fitzgibbon:  

On climate, the answer is no. There have been good bipartisan working relationships on issues like behavioral health funding, some of the things that I don't work on as much. Land use is an area where there are some unusual alliances with Republicans. On climate, it's not that way. 

In 2019, we passed four big climate bills. We passed the 100% Clean Electricity bill, we passed the Clean Buildings bill, we passed my hydrofluorocarbon bill, and we passed an appliance energy-efficiency bill, which is honestly the most no-brainer of all of them. No Republicans in the House voted for any of those bills. One Republican in the Senate voted for the HFC bill. Then that, again, was true this year. The Clean Fuel Standard, which has been my baby that I worked on for years and finally got over the finish line this year, never got a Republican vote in either chamber, any of the times we passed it. The Climate Commitment Act got no Republican votes, with one asterisk: the Democratic senator who caucuses with and normally votes with the Republicans ended up voting yes on the bill. On the HFC bill, again, the same one Republican senator who voted for it two years ago voted for it this time. 

So these are Democratic achievements. We don't hear as much straight-up climate denial in the Washington State legislature as you hear in DC; there are some fringe Republican legislators who will deny climate science, but their leads on these issues say different things. They say things like, Washington's only 0.2 percent of global emissions; you're going to hurt our economy; this isn't going to do any good, you should focus on more cost-effective solutions like buying carbon offsets – just things that we would never do. So it's essentially a partisan exercise as much as anything. As much as taxes. There's not really an issue that I could say is more partisan in the Washington legislature than climate.

David Roberts:   

You might think that once Democrats have a sufficient majority that these things become inevitable that Republicans might want to get at the table to affect the outcome, to have some say at all. But just to be saying no, and then be shut out of the negotiations, doesn't seem even particularly smart on a self-interested basis.

Joe Fitzgibbon:  

I keep waiting for that to happen. You see this in legislatures, and Congress as well: when the Democratic majorities grow, the Republicans we’re beating are the ones in the most moderate districts, so the ones who stick around are not the ones who are most motivated to come to the table. When California reauthorized their cap and trade bill in 2017, I think it was, either the Assembly or the Senate Minority Leader for the Republicans ended up supporting the compromise, and the next day, there were RNC people flying out from DC to California to find his primary challenger. There's not a lot of breathing room, especially if you're in one of those dark red districts, to be collaborating with Democrats on climate.

David Roberts:   

It's not as though having a Democratic majority is entirely the key to the kingdom, either. Even this time around, the CFS and the CCA were arguably weakened in the Senate by Democrats. Presumably there are not climate denialists among the Democratic caucus, but there are issues that cause tensions, areas they push back, and things they tried to take out of the CFS and CCA. What are the internal tensions to the Democratic caucus? What are the issues that surface disagreements?

Joe Fitzgibbon:  

In both the House Democratic Caucus and the Senate Democratic Caucus, we lost votes on the Climate Commitment Act on both the left and the middle. We had two House Democrats from pretty moderate districts vote no, and one very progressive member from South Seattle vote no. Then the bill passed the House with 54 yes votes, which is a lot for a bill like this. In the Senate, they lost two votes from more progressive senators and one vote from a more moderate senator. 

On that bill in particular, the dynamics were multifaceted, because you have opposition from some of the environmental justice organizations like Front and Centered or Puget Sound Sage, and you also had, of course, opposition from the Chamber of Commerce, the Association of Washington Business, the Farm Bureau, and organizations like that. So it's taking fire from both directions, which is part of what makes it feel miraculous that it passed.

David Roberts:   

Let's focus for now on the fire coming from the right. For the Chamber, is it just, “This will cost a lot of money and we don't like stuff that costs a lot of money?” Or is there something more specific than that?

Joe Fitzgibbon:  

The fire from the right is stronger in the Senate, generally. The Senate has an organized caucus of moderate Senate Democrats who tend to stick together if they think that the progressive Senate Democratic center of gravity is overreaching. The Clean Fuel Standard did not have opposition on the left; all the opposition was coming from the middle and the right and from the oil industry. Their argument on that was all about costs: How much is this going to make a gallon of gas more expensive? Every argument they had stemmed from that. 

The hard thing about that critique is there's not a crystal clear answer. It's a speculative answer based on a lot of factors that go into how much gas costs. It tends to be that the price of gas is much more influenced by the political situation in Venezuela or Saudi Arabia than it is by what kinds of emission standards are in place for gas and diesel. So that was the main one there. 

The criticisms mostly revolve around energy-intensive, trade-exposed manufacturing. I've always felt like in carbon pricing debates, it's about 10 percent of the emissions and about 90 percent of the pain.

David Roberts:   

Which is why so many systems exempt them just to avoid that. But you didn't exempt them. They're getting free allowances that ramp down over time to nothing, is my understanding. Is that a compromise? Was that hard-fought?

Joe Fitzgibbon:  

It was hard-fought, and it was hard-fought in the sense that we actually don't want them to leave. It is a legitimately economic and environmental failure for the steel mill in my district to close and us to import all the steel from China or Ohio instead. That will also serve as a political failure, because every future climate bill will be critiqued based on the closure of the steel mill. 

The pulp and paper industry in particular in Washington is politically influential, because it’s a legacy industry. They're not new high-tech mills; they're operating on fairly old, fairly inefficient technology, and they tend to be located in parts of the state that are economically struggling more than the Seattle area is. Losing 500 pulp mill jobs in Longview or Port Angeles would be a huge blow to those communities. So there's a lot of political sensitivity around those folks in particular. I would say it was a victory to have them covered at all. The last couple carbon pricing efforts, including the cap and trade bill I sponsored in 2015 and the carbon tax initiative that the progressive left, including labor and environmental justice and environmental organizations, rallied around in 2018, Initiative 1631 – both of those efforts totally exempted EITE manufacturing. So the fact that we were able to keep them under the cap was a big deal that they weren't thrilled about. They accepted that they were going to be under the cap, but they essentially wanted free allowances that didn't decline in perpetuity. So getting allowances to decline at all was the compromise that the EITEs grudgingly accepted toward the end. 

This is somewhere where actually playing industry against each other was impactful, and that's because most of the rest of the coverage under the cap – essentially electric utilities, gas utilities, and oil refiners – felt that EITEs were getting too good of a deal and that the EITEs were getting a treatment that was more generous than they really deserve. They recognized that as the cap comes down, if the EITEs are still getting free allowances, that means there's that many fewer, and it's going to be that much more expensive for those who have to buy allowances, essentially oil refiners, to have to go to the market and buy theirs. So that was somewhere where it was useful to be able to say, well, every other industry thinks that they should maybe not complain quite so much.

The other element of that, and I know that linkage with California is a controversial prospect for this program in the future, but if we don't cover the same sectors that California covers, California won't link with us. So BP, our largest oil refiner, Puget Sound Energy, our largest electric utility: their worst-case scenario, as they said many times, would be a cap and trade program that cannot link with California. If we exempted the EITEs entirely, we'd be looking at a program that was an island, where allowance prices actually probably would get more expensive than we could really bear. That is where being able to play some of the direct emitters against the EITE manufacturers came in really handy. 

David Roberts:   

To clarify, EITE industries are industries that are thought to be particularly sensitive to changes in energy prices, and particularly mobile, such that a boost in energy prices in Washington could either shut them down or send them to a different state. So if we exempted them entirely, we couldn't link with California because California doesn't exempt them entirely? Is that what you're saying?

Joe Fitzgibbon:  

Pretty much. California doesn't have really clear rules about this, but probably the most important consideration that they would take into account when evaluating whether linkage was practical is, are you covering the same sectors as us? They don't have pulp mills in California, so there maybe is a question of whether we could have exempted pulp mills, but by and large, aerospace, steel, aluminum, cement, which are the other main sectors besides pulp and paper, California would almost certainly have said, we can't link markets if you exempt them.

David Roberts:   

So for them, the loss of having to pay for allowances is more than offset by the benefits of linkage. 

Joe Fitzgibbon:  

Yes, particularly for BP and Shell, who were the oil majors who were in a largely supportive position.

David Roberts:   

You mentioned that fire came from both right and left within the Democratic caucus. Let's talk a little bit about the left and the pushback you got from them. I’m curious how productive you felt the climate movement was throughout this process. There are a lot of discussions within climate circles about the demand for ideological purity that comes from some quarters, and whether that's appropriate, whether that’s activists’ role, and whether it actually helps politicians. What was your relationship with the climate left as all this came together?

Joe Fitzgibbon:  

Big question. To start with, you learn very quickly with a bill this expansive and this controversial how much the climate movement is not monolithic. That seems self-evident, but it was really true in this case. Part of our task in the House was to take a bill that came over from the Senate in a more business-friendly posture, and the Sierra Club was one step away from coming out in opposition to the bill. The Washington Environmental Council, which is like the center of gravity of the environmental movement in Washington, was not willing to say that they supported it, but they weren't opposed to it, they were just asking for some specific changes. So part of our challenge was to try to reel those folks back in, keep the Sierra Club from coming out in opposition.

The most troubling piece, to them, that came out of the Senate was provisions exempting from environmental review law any ability for local governments or state agencies to deny a project a permit based on its greenhouse-gas emissions. The theory there was, if we're covering greenhouse-gas emissions under cap and trade, then we shouldn't also be evaluating it on a project-by-project basis. Now – and they were somewhat right, I largely agree – some of this concern was that not all emissions are covered under the cap. What if they're exporting fuel to China? That's not going to be covered by our cap. For example, the methanol plant, which is very controversial and is strongly opposed by the environmental movement, would have had to be cited under the bill that came out of the Senate, even though all of the methanol they were going to export to China was not going to be under our cap. So that, in particular, was something that we had to work a lot in order to rein in that provision, and in doing so, keep Sierra Club, Washington Environmental Council, tribal nations comfortable with the bill. 

The other part was, there's a fundamental rejection of cap and trade from environmental justice organizations, particularly if they have close ties with environmental justice organizations out of California. I think a lot of this comes from the fact that when cap and trade passed in California, it was oversold as, “This is going to solve air pollution. We're going to see huge improvements in air quality in the most polluted parts of our state.” That isn't actually what it is designed to do. It's designed to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions. If I can cut emissions by 5 million tons over here, but then they grow by 2 million tons over here, that's a win for the climate, but it's not a win for the co-pollutants that are emitted in the place that the 2 million tons are increasing, and the neighbors of that plant. 

So the people focused on protecting environmental justice as a part of this bill decided, we need a separate policy for air quality. We need a policy that says, here's how Department of Ecology is going to focus its Clean Air Act authority, monitoring, enforcement tools on the communities that are most overburdened with pollution. That's on top of cap and trade, that's not a part of it. It was in the same bill, but it's not doing justice to environmental health disparities to just claim, trust us, it's all going to get better over time. I do think it actually will, in the long term, get better over time as the cap comes down, but that's not a satisfying explanation to a community that's currently experiencing much worse fine particulate matter than a wealthy community down the road.

David Roberts:   

California's cap and trade system doesn’t have anything like this in it, right? They have air quality regulations elsewhere in law, but nothing meant to integrate with the cap and trade system.

Joe Fitzgibbon:  

That's my understanding. California also just has much dirtier air than Washington, and that's a baseline problem. Washington, other than one tiny little community next to an oil refinery, is in attainment with the national ambient air quality standards everywhere in the state. Los Angeles County is in non-attainment for all six criteria air pollutants. So we have a little different context there already. But the California experience colors how everybody showed up to this debate, whether from the oil industry saying, “This actually worked better than we thought it would,” to EITE manufacturers on the right and environmental justice proponents on the left saying, “This did not work as well as we thought it would.” From beginning to end, we had to be asking, how are we going to do better than California on this particular question?

David Roberts:   

It ended up with air quality standards that say to air regulators that every community either has to be in accordance with NAAQS or equal to the best air quality of neighboring communities, whichever is more protective. As you say, all of Washington more or less meets NAAQS standards, which means that a lot of these communities, even if they meet NAAQS standards, are going to get help getting better air if they are close by other communities with better air than them. It really seems like it's specifically targeting racial and class disparities in air quality. That's the first I've heard of that kind of policy, and it struck me as pretty bold. Were you involved in that particular bit?

Joe Fitzgibbon:  

I wasn't involved in coming up with the idea, but I was involved in trying to make sure it was worked in the best way possible, that communities worried about health disparities were going to see some benefit there. One of the things that some of our community-based environmental justice groups have been asking for for a long time is more monitoring. They just want to know, what are the air pollutants that are harming our community? Where are they coming from, so that we can then think about, what do we do about them? That was where this provision started: Let's get more resources into monitoring in communities that we know are experiencing heavier pollution burdens, but what are those pollution burdens? 

What I think we're going to find there is that the pollutant that we can improve people's health the most by targeting is fine particulate matter, because that's one for which there's no safe level. Many of the NAAQS standards are probably too high, for ozone, and others, but fine particulate matter is the one that there's no amount that you can breathe that doesn't harm your health. That's also one where the communities that are experiencing the greatest pollution burdens tend to be in proximity to transportation infrastructure. This is not, largely, in Washington, coming from large stationary sources. It's highways, seaports, airports, diesel-burning trucks. So I think that's part of what we're going to find. There was a lot of fear about this provision from the same EITE manufacturers, until they understood that this was not really about, how are we going to ratchet down on you stationary sources even more than we already do. They're largely not producing a lot of fine particulate matter. The pollutants that they're most regulated for are NOx, SOx, ozone to some degree. 

We're going to have to watch how Ecology and the local area authorities implement this to make sure that this is not just a cosmetic thing, not just new data that goes into a hole somewhere, but actually guides some policymaking. I do think it was really critical in taking some of the intensity down from the environmental justice standpoint, even if those same organizations didn't necessarily get to a neutral or supportive posture.

David Roberts:   

I read the Front and Centered essay against this bill, and it was a little weird, because it would say, cap and trade harms local air quality – but there's a specific provision in the bill addressing that. Then it would say, environmental justice communities have traditionally been locked out of these processes and not been at the table when these things are decided – the bill has a specific provision saying environmental justice communities have to be at the table when these things are decided. It seemed to me as though all their specific objections had been answered directly by the bill, and yet it hadn't seemed to change their orientation toward the bill at all. The overwhelming impression I got from that is that I must be missing something, or there must be history, or something going on here that's not clear on the surface. Do you have any understanding of why they have stuck to their position despite efforts to address those things?

Joe Fitzgibbon:  

I would not presume to speak for Front and Centered, their coalition members, or their steering committee members. I had a lot of conversations with Front and Centered in the runup to session about, what would it take to get you guys to feel good about this policy? Their answer was basically, “Nothing.” It was a respectful conversation. It was like, “We have very clear directions from our board that this is not a policy that we are engaging on, but thanks for asking,” essentially. 

So the approach that I took there – recognizing that they had legitimate concerns, not all of which I agreed with – was a similar outlook to how I thought about some of the business groups: How do we address as many of their specific objections as are addressable? Knowing that they're still not going to get to yes, and they're not going to get to neutral, but that to the legislators who are responsive to those concerns, we can say: if you are anxious about allowance trading with California, or if you are anxious about air quality getting worse in disproportionately overburdened communities, here's what I can point you to in the bill that we've done to address that. But to be clear, that doesn't mean Front and Centered is okay with this bill. Ultimately, the legislators are the ones who are making those decisions, and we answered those questions to the satisfaction of enough legislators that were motivated by environmental justice that we got the bill.

David Roberts:   

Another thing that has seemed weird to me is they seem to really view carbon taxes as fundamentally different in some way than cap and trade. But all the same dynamics are there: you're still paying to pollute, you still have to do something with the revenue, you're still exempting some businesses and not others. 

Joe Fitzgibbon:  

I can’t fully explain that one. That was a frustration of mine as well. Does a cap and trade allow polluters to continue to pollute? Well, carbon tax does that even more.

David Roberts:   

I've been in dialogue with far-left activists for 15 years now, and there's this tension between being productive and helpful and being the loyal opposition always pushing further. I’ve talked to a lot of people who think, it's our job to say, “This isn't good enough” and to demand more, no matter what. Often I talk to legislators who say, “When you complain about X,Y, and Z, and we respond by doing stuff that addresses those complaints, it would be nice to hear a kind word, or get some support occasionally from the movement, instead of just an immediate pivot to ‘this isn't good enough’ and demanding more.” Is that resolvable? Is it healthy, the net effect the climate left loyal-opposition approach is having on the legislative process?

Joe Fitzgibbon:  

At a problem of this magnitude, the answer always has to include “and you need to do more.” We're not close to having solved the problem. I do think it is helpful to creating a positive feedback loop to take a breath and say, “It's good that we're moving this direction.” That's what has happened with the passage of the Climate Commitment Act; 350 Seattle was very strongly opposed to this bill, and I think some of that was out of fidelity to environmental justice values and Front and Centered’s position, but some of it was an anticapitalist, “We don’t trust this program.” I had a lot of conversations with constituents who were activists with 350, and said, “I'm sorry, I disagree with you about this. But I think we share an intensity of feeling around climate.” Since the bill’s passage, I haven't seen that much in the way of, “You all are sellouts. Why did you pass a market-based system?” I did expect a little more of that, so that's good. I think that it is important for people who care about climate change to take a minute to say, this is good progress – and we have to do more. That's largely what I've been seeing around this. 

It's my experience that the most successful social movements are the ones that know how to declare victory sometimes. I'd see this in the labor world: the unions who are able to go to their members and say, “You won this victory through your hard work,” create an empowering feeling of “we can change things and let's do this again.” That’s the lesson that I think the climate left should internalize: If we never declare victory on anything, we're going to lose momentum, and we're going to lose followers. It’s not actually the goal with climate change to feel good about how pure we are.

David Roberts:   

Another conventionally problematic constituency in climate and energy matters is labor. This is subject to some anguish among various people in the Democratic Party, because, of course, the Democratic Party wants to be, and is, pro-labor, and wants to be, and is, pro-climate. But then there are some elements of labor that are, to put it frankly, big impediments to action on this; specifically the building trades, especially in California, and here, too. How do you navigate that tension? Do you think that tension is resolvable; going to be resolved; on its way to being resolved? What's your forecast for how that plays out?

Joe Fitzgibbon:  

The tension is maybe not resolvable, but I think it's manageable. On each of these individual issues there's going to be some suspicion, particularly among the building trades, around, what's this going to do to our jobs? What's this going to do to our cost of gas, in particular? Not all, but many of the building trades unions remained opposed to the Clean Fuel Standard right up until the end. That was too bad. There was not the same intensity among labor around the Climate Commitment Act, and that, I think, was largely because so much of the revenue was booked for transportation purposes. For them, more investment in transportation, which is good-paying jobs for their members, superseded any concern, at least as far as I could tell, about what this was going to do for the cost of gasoline or the cost of natural gas or so forth. 

It's a good tradeoff, because legislators also want to see investments in transportation. One of the big changes we made to the bill when it moved from the Senate to the House was the Senate allowed the transportation dollars to be spent on anything; we amended it so they had to be spent on transportation stuff that reduces emissions, like transit, or electrification. It's a huge bucket of money. This is maybe underappreciated on some parts of the climate left: we essentially have cracked the code on being able to use gas tax for transit, which is prohibited under the Washington Constitution to use the motor vehicle fuel tax for anything other than highway purposes. By some measures, this is a 14- or 15-cent gas tax that's going to be required to go to transit or electrification; that's an enormous thing. I'm just waiting for that to sink in for folks a little bit. 

Anyway, with labor, I think building trades cared more about seeing those dollars invested than they did other things. They were opposed to Clean Fuels until the end, in part because “clean fuels,” they interpret that as going to raise the price of gas, and it's not generating money for the state, actually, it's generating money to lower the cost of other fuels. That was what they were reacting to there. 

The other thing, which is probably more true in Washington than in a lot of states, is the bigger part of our labor movement is not building trades, it's service employees, public sector workers. So SEIU, AFCSME, were resolutely in support of this throughout, and that largely comes from their members saying, “We want this to be part of our union's legislative agenda this year.” Those are the unions that have the most clout in Olympia. So it wasn't possible for anybody to say, “Labor doesn't support this.” Some building trades labor was skeptical to varying degrees about either bill; the unions with the most membership and the most political clout, like the nurses and the teachers and the public sector workers, were resolutely in support of these bills.

David Roberts:   

In the clean energy transition, one of the things that unions have said, generally speaking, is, “We have these good, high-paying, union jobs. We'll acknowledge that transitioning our entire energy infrastructure will create a lot of jobs; we just think it's going to create a bunch of crappy jobs.” If you look around at the clean energy industries today, across the country, it's true: they pay, on average, less than the jobs they're replacing, and are less unionized. So how important is this labor standards piece? I know it was a big part of the Clean Energy Transformation Act, and it's in here too. Is that something that unions trust, and should trust? How confident are we that those things are going to work to really create good jobs?

Joe Fitzgibbon:  

That was a big part of it, too. I probably should have emphasized that at the outset, that having provisions to say that the new stuff that's funded by all the dollars that are going to be generated from this program is not going to be spent on projects that don't provide health care or pensions to their workforce. In actual experience, many renewable energy developers are not signing project labor agreements, do not have unionized workforces. I think it is highly, if not motivating, at least comforting to know the clear direction that those dollars be spent in ways that maximize economic benefits for local workers and diverse businesses, and have paid sick leave and pay practices in relation to living wage indicators. Those belts and suspenders, which very closely parallel the things that we included in the 100% Clean Electricity law two years ago, went a long way toward alleviating the legitimate fears from some of the construction trades.

David Roberts:   

Does the business community push back against that? Because it's them who will have to raise their labor standards, which will, of course, raise labor costs, etc.

Joe Fitzgibbon:  

Yes, they do push back against that, but it's not in their top five list of concerns. So we're able to say no.

David Roberts:   

The theme that I noticed as I'm reading through the bill and reading the coverage is, “Let's do California's thing, but better than California.” So what were the specific features of the California system that y'all consciously designed around, or designed differently?

Joe Fitzgibbon:  

So, we talked about the air quality monitoring and air quality improvement piece. Within the framework of the cap itself, a couple of key things: One, our cap is going to decline quite steeply relative to California’s. We're on a trajectory toward net zero by 2050; that's going to be a steep decline. I do think a legitimate criticism of California's program is that the cap was set high enough in the early years that it didn't do that much, and it generated an oversupply of allowances that could then be used for compliance in later years. Other policies in California were doing the heavy lifting, like their RPS and their low carbon fuel standard, and so forth. As the cap has come down in the last couple years, it's pulling its own weight more, but it took a while. Ours is going to be pulling its weight from the start. 

Another important lesson was the inclusion of offsets under the cap. I know that you wrote about this. This is a critical piece in the legitimate fear around offsets and what offsets are going to do, particularly if there are bogus offsets. There was reporting this week about questionable offset verification protocols in California, which is timely, because Ecology hasn't adopted any of those protocols yet for our law, so they can learn from some of those mistakes. But including offsets under the cap is critical. 

The regularity of the reviews that Ecology is required to do to ensure that the allowance budget is set in the right place to achieve the statutory limits gives not just an opportunity, but a directive to Ecology to course correct if we do find that the allowance budget is too generous. Those are probably the things that are most, but none of them are more impactful than the steep decline that the cap is going to experience.

David Roberts:   

The California system places really an enormous amount of discretion on the California Air Resources Board (CARB), the regulators behind the scenes. I don't think the Washington bill puts quite as much discretion in the Department of Ecology, but it does put a lot: the Department of Ecology is supposed to be evaluating whether the environmental justice targets are being met, whether the offset protocols are good. A lot of the quality of the system presumes good decisions on the part of the Department of Ecology for the coming decades. Should that make us nervous? I go back and forth about this all the time, whether it's better as a general matter for more decisions to be made democratically through the legislature, or by purported experts behind the scenes. Do you have a position on that? How much confidence do you have in the Department of Ecology to maintain quality?

Joe Fitzgibbon:  

This is an example of where it's good to have Jay Inslee as governor. Jay Inslee’s Department of Ecology is not going to be making a more generous decision around offset protocols or allowance budgets than the Washington State Legislature would. They are more insulated from the political pressure that we the legislature would be under to keep allowance prices low and to allow the broadest ranges of offsets possible. I also think, as it is, the bill pushed the limits of our expertise; the more layers of detail we get into, the less confidence I have that I know enough to make an informed decision about these things. 

We're also up against an extremely tight clock. The Senate passed the bill out two and a half weeks before the end of session; we had two and a half weeks to get it through two committees and off the floor of the House, and then it had to go back to the Senate for a final concurrence vote. We didn't have time to make really well-informed decisions; this is just a function of a part-time legislature and the very strict clock that we operate under. Ecology is going to have 18 months under the Administrative Procedure Act to undergo their full rulemaking process. That's going to lead to a little bit better decisionmaking than we were really capable of. 

Now, do I have any fear that a potential future Republican governor’s Department of Ecology might make bad decisions? Well, that would be bad. We're lucky in Washington; we have the longest run of Democratic control of the governorship in the nation. In my entire life, we’ve only had Democratic governors. Our last Republican governor lost reelection in 1984. It helps that we elect our governors in presidential years; most states do not. But if something changed, and we elected a Republican governor in a future year, then I would be nervous about the Department of Ecology’s latitude in making decisions around this program, and you'd probably see an intensification of legislative oversight about some of these key decisions. We're certainly going to be conducting a lot of oversight into this, but there's just a degree of trust with the expertise that Ecology has to make a rational decision about, say, offset protocols.

David Roberts:   

Something of passionate interest to many in Washington, particularly in Seattle, is the connection between land use and climate. Lots of people on the left these days are saying, electric vehicles are great and all, but what we really need is more public transit, better urban design, more density, more livability, walkability; we need to get people out of their cars. There isn't really a ton in the CCA along those lines. There was a Growth Management Act floating around Congress this session, but it died in the Senate. So I'm curious: What killed it in the Senate? Having talked to a bunch of your fellow legislators about this now, what's your sense of whether they connect those issues? Do you think the Growth Management Act has a chance if it comes back? What would you like to see done on these lines? 

Joe Fitzgibbon:  

I think that legislators are certainly understanding that connection better than they used to, that land use decisions are very impactful in emissions – generally on a longer time horizon, though. Land use policy is important because you're building a built environment that's going to look that way for a lot of decades. But it doesn't reduce emissions a lot in the near term, and we need to be doing both. So I don't see the land use stuff as a silver bullet, because it just doesn't change the urban form fast enough. Also, it doesn't matter how much you increase density if you're not also increasing access to non-polluting modes of transportation, like transit and walking and biking, which the CCA does help do by providing new dollars for that. 

The bill this year was an awesome effort, and it's amazing, actually, that it made it as far as it did. We have the existing state Growth Management Act, Washington's 30-year-old planning framework, which requires cities and counties to have a very robust set of things that they think about when they adopt their zoning and development regulations and all that. It includes protection for forest lands and wetlands and critical areas and housing supply and transportation; think about your capital facilities; restrict urban sprawl; if you're a county draw an urban growth boundary, etc. Very fundamental to how local governments have to do things in our state. 

This bill would have required that climate considerations be a part of that planning: that when a local government is doing their zoning updates, require that they use that process to reduce their emissions, and also that they increase their resiliency to changing climate, whether that's increased wildfire risk or rising sea levels or more floods or whatever. It didn't say this super explicitly, but it was clearly the intent that the regulations that the Department of Commerce was going to adopt – that cities would have to at least look at as part of their inclusion of this consideration – were probably going to include things like more density around transit. 

The bill made it out of the House. That was one of our livelier floor debates this year, because the Republicans don't just hate climate policy: they really hate the Growth Management Act.

The bill seemed to be doing well in the Senate. Unfortunately, after it passed out of two Senate committees, it was referred to a third committee, which is unusual. It was referred to the Senate Transportation Committee, which is often where climate things go to die. It's where the Clean Fuel Standard died in 2019 and 2020, because the chair there is our most moderate, least constructive on climate and environment, Democratic senator, and he killed the bill. 

The good news, though, is that we got into the state budget a provision directing the Department of Commerce to do the same things that they were going to have to do under the bill. We're going to try to come back and pass it first thing next session, and hopefully with a little bit more coordination with the Senate about how to stay one step ahead of that problem in the Senate Transportation Committee. But it would have been a big step forward. 

The other good news, particularly for folks in Seattle, is that the central Puget Sound counties are already doing this; maybe not at quite the level of detail that the bill would have required, but King, Pierce, Snohomish, and Kitsap have already agreed as part of the multi-county planning process that climate is something that they look at in their comp plan. So it's not like the work isn't happening. It's just not going to be mandated everywhere in the state until we get that bill passed, hopefully next year.

David Roberts:   

Wasn’t that a key part of the way the CCA passed this year, by not getting referred to the Transportation Committee?

Joe Fitzgibbon:  

It did help. That senator, Senator Hobbs, did vote for the bill; part of his price was all the money for transportation stuff. I don't want to speculate too much about the internal workings of the Senate, but I do think it would have been a scarier prospect if it had had to go to that committee. 

More broadly, on land use: A lot of legislators used to be city council members or county commissioners, so the tension that we have on the Democratic side is people who want to see density and housing supply and climate incorporated into big giant upzones around light rail stations, and people who either came from local government or just really sympathize with their local governments who say, “Don't tell us what to do.” That's our problem. On the Republican side, we try to make common cause with the Republicans from a property rights standpoint, saying, “Wouldn't you like to deny your city the big government telling me I can't build a duplex, because that's big government?” Sometimes we can get somewhere with that. But then there's also the base Republican “you're trying to make everybody live in a townhouse” suspicion too. So both parties have a little different dynamic around this one than on the other issues. We've gotten some good land use stuff through from time to time, but it's a much less linear debate than you see on the other climate stuff.

David Roberts:   

The clean fuel standard and the CCA have passed, but their implementation is contingent upon the passage of a transportation package that has to contain a gas tax of at least 5 cents a gallon. Some Seattle urbanists are upset about this because they think the transportation package is full of highway spending and highway expansions. As someone who hates highway expansions, what is the proper level of freakout for me about this? Should I worry about this transportation package? How much can it change before it passes? Does this bother you at all, that this contingency got stuck on?

Joe Fitzgibbon:  

Yes, I don't like the contingency, for more than one reason. I just think it's bad lawmaking to say this law only goes into effect if this unrelated law also passes. I think it's questionable whether it's even allowed under the state constitution. But it's what we had to accept in order to get the votes in the Senate. 

I don't think a 5 cent gas tax increase is a bad thing, though. We have enough transportation needs, even highway needs, that we could spend 5 cents easily without adding a new lane anywhere. We're supposed to spend $4 billion fixing fish passage barriers on state highways between now and 2030; you could spend all 5 cents on culverts alone and not expand a single lane mile anywhere. We're also significantly behind on maintenance and preservation of the existing road system.

David Roberts:   

The bill could theoretically boost the gas tax more than that, though, right?

Joe Fitzgibbon:  

Absolutely. We probably will have to. I think a lot of people look at Senator Hobbs’ transportation package in the Senate, which is the one that made it the furthest, and think, that must be the template for what you guys are going to do. We're a long way away from what that package is going to look like, and there are a lot of opportunities for people to weigh in along the way to say, this project is bad, and please don't pass a transportation package that builds a new 12-lane highway in East Snohomish County; that, we're also not going to do. 

Sometimes a highway project is actually a safety project. Sometimes there are actually dangerous roadways that it does cost a couple hundred million dollars to make a highway safer, and in some parts of that roadway that might involve adding a lane. But that's not the same as, we're going to go now open up huge swaths of farmland to suburban sprawl with a giant new freeway. So it's a legitimate thing for urbanist climate champions to keep their eyes on, but also, it's not something that I would say that folks should feel like they need to freak out about quite yet. Because we actually do need a lot more money for transportation in the state, even if we don't expand highways, and if we are going to expand highways anywhere, just look at that contextually, look at that actual project, and if it's actually the thing that you're most worried about.

David Roberts:   

I have to say, even as someone who hates highways and wants to ban cars, it would take a lot of new highway lanes to offset the benefits of 95 percent carbon reductions locked in through 2050.

Joe Fitzgibbon:  

Even if we were going to spend it all on giant new highways, there's still a cap. If a bunch of people were going to try to move to rural places and drive a bunch more, well, then transportation emissions would presumably eat up all the remaining allowances and all the other pollution would have to decline in an even greater amount. Or maybe there's a shortage of allowances and the allowance prices get so high that people in those rural areas actually just have to carpool or drive electric cars. That's not a likely outcome, but even if it were, it doesn't change the fact that the cap isn't going up.

David Roberts:   

You mentioned earlier that this being climate change, the work is never done. It's never good enough. But on the flip side, right now, Washington is specifically regulating electricity, transportation, and buildings, and there’s this economy-wide cap in the background, reducing emissions. So what are the pieces left? When you come back next session, in terms of climate and energy, is there a next big thing, or is it just mostly little things filling in gaps at this point?

Joe Fitzgibbon:  

We're going to have to do more big things. I don't know that the crystal ball is quite clear enough this soon after the end of session to know what all the next big things are, but the biggest thing that we didn't get done this session is a law around residential buildings. The buildings law that we passed two years ago was really awesome; it was the first of its kind in the country regulating the energy performance of large commercial buildings. We don't really have a policy in place for residential heating, particularly water heating and space heating. I think a lot of people worry we're going to come for their gas stoves.

But the bill that was introduced this year – it passed out of my committee, it died in the Appropriations Committee – would have tried to put the state on track toward decarbonizing space heat and water heat in residential buildings. As often with an ambitious bill, it didn't make it the first session; we're going to have to do more work on that. That one ran into a hot storm of opposition from both building trades and gas utilities. 

We did get some pieces of it incorporated into other bills: one piece of it into the operating budget, one piece of it into a different bill about utility ratemaking. But we have to think more about what policies we need in order to accelerate the decarbonization of residential buildings, recognizing that that's not going to change the cap either. Essentially, if you're going to lower carbon emissions from residential buildings, that just means that many more allowances for other sectors. But it's still something that, of course, the faster we do it, also probably provides some breathing room for Ecology to lower the cap more.

David Roberts:   

Are you worried about backlash to this? Because when you talk about people being forced to do things about the way they heat their home, it's very personal, and people have very strong feelings. Do you feel like the climate movement, or politicians, or anyone has done the education work to prepare people for this? Are you worried about citizen backlash, if a regulator in the end comes to your home and tells you to get rid of your furnace, which is not totally implausible?

Joe Fitzgibbon:  

I don't think that is something the public is ready for, even in Seattle. I don't think that Seattle homeowners more than anyone else want to have someone come say, “Turn off your gas.” The bill that we considered this year wouldn't have done that. But I think that we need to learn from how it was communicated. Most of the proposals that I've seen, both at the local level and at the state level, involve stopping new gas hookups, not forcing current gas users to turn off their gas. We need to be really good about talking about that aspect, so everybody knows, nobody is going to be told you have to go get rid of your furnace and buy a heat pump. 

At some point in the future – our energy codes probably are going to require this already, without new legislation – new construction is probably going to have to be electric only. How do we ensure that we're ready for that? How do we ensure that utilities are ready for that? How do we ensure that the gas utilities are not building new gas lines that are going to be obsolete in 10 years? Those are the policy choices we have to make, and we have to be really, really clear about what we're doing and what we're not doing. Because that is a recipe for backlash, if people do think we're going to be coming in and telling them to have cold houses.

David Roberts:   

What about your personal political plans? Are you happy doing your work in the House, or do you have your eye on other things?

Joe Fitzgibbon:  

I don't see myself running for office at a different level of government. I feel good about the work where I am in the House right now. I don't see the federal government as a really rewarding or productive place for me to be; I'm glad that good people are there doing what they're doing. I had an open Senate seat in my district three years ago that I chose not to run for because I felt like I was just getting the hang of things in the House, and I was committee chair – and I think that turned out to be the right decision. So I plan on doing this until I get a little more burned out on it, and that's as far into the future as I can see.

David Roberts:   

Well, you're passing bills and seeing actual changes made – why anyone on Earth would want to go from that situation to the US Senate is utterly mysterious to me. I don't even know why it's viewed as up anymore. It's more like lateral or downward.

Joe Fitzgibbon:  

That's a more clear way of saying that, for sure.

David Roberts:   

Thanks so much for taking all this time, and thanks for all the work you're doing. 

Joe Fitzgibbon:

Thanks, David.