A bill that would give large electric utilities an alternative way to comply with a state law requiring more energy from renewable sources passed the Washington Senate on Monday night after a protracted fight over whether climate change is real and if humans contribute to it.
Senate Bill 5735, sponsored by Republican Sen. Doug Ericksen, passed the chamber on a mostly party line 26-23 vote and now heads to the Democrat-controlled House, where it is likely to face resistance. The measure would allow utilities to meet their targets under Initiative 937 by investing in carbon reduction.
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The current state law requires nearly a third of the state's utilities — those with at least 25,000 customers — to get 15 percent of their power from wind, solar, geothermal and certain woody biomass by 2020.
Under the bill that passed the Senate, anything that reduces carbon would qualify, such as the installation of electric vehicle chargers. Utilities could also spend 1 percent of their retail revenue on carbon reduction in order to meet the initiative's requirements.
Supporters say it gives utilities more flexibility and reduces energy costs while reducing carbon emissions.
"Conservation is important," said Sen. Linda Evans Parlette, a Republican from Wenatchee. "This bill allows a choice. If you want to continue to rely on windmills, you can do that. But there's a real incentive to improve conservation, to make choices, and that's what the free market is all about."
Critics say the bill is too broad and undermines the intent of the law.
"We should listen to the voters' will," said Sen. Kevin Ranker, a Democrat from Orcas Island. "And companies who did the right thing and invested shouldn't get to see their colleagues step off an off ramp here."
Before lawmakers even voted on the bill, they first battled over wording of an amendment adding an intent section to the bill. Last week, Senate Democrats had tried to pass an amendment saying that climate change is real and humans contribute significantly to climate change. Lt. Gov. Brad Owen ruled Monday that the amendment, proposed by Democratic Sen. Cyrus Habib, was not outside the scope of Senate Bill 5735, following a challenge by Republicans on Friday.
But before senators voted on Habib's amendment, Ericksen succeeded in amending it to say that human activity "may contribute" to climate change, rather than that it "significantly contributes" to it.
That set off heated debate on the floor, with some Democrats arguing for unequivocal language.
"I appreciate the fact that reasonable people can disagree on Initiative 937. I appreciate the fact that reasonable people can disagree on the steps that we ought to take to reduce carbon emissions," said Sen. David Frockt, D-Seattle. "But I think there can be no reasonable dispute that human activities contribute to climate change."
Ericksen responded that "we can spend all night going back and forth with regards to my study vs. your study."
"That's the problem with this particular issue," he said.
The Senate ultimately approved Ericksen's amendment on a 29-20 vote.
Associated Press writer Phuong Le in Seattle contributed to this story.