Washington Governor Jay Inslee says he admires two Canadian provinces that are partnering with California to reduce their carbon footprint. But he's seriously concerned about a big fossil fuel project that's been approved to go through another province next door to his own state.
In an interview with National Observer, Inslee said he was open to joining California, Quebec and Ontario's cap and trade market, but he raised concerns about endangered orcas, potential oil spills and too much fossil fuel infrastructure involved in Texas energy giant Kinder Morgan's plans to expand its Trans Mountain pipeline from Alberta to the west coast of British Columbia.
Inslee made the comments at the end of his trip to Bonn, Germany where he was part of a rogue U.S. delegation promoting action on climate change at the annual United Nations summit on global warming.
The delegation was a broad coalition of more than 100 leaders from states, cities and businesses. Their message was that the U.S. was "still in" the Paris agreement on climate change, in defiance of President Donald Trump's White House, which has announced plans to withdraw from the international deal reached in 2015.
The Washington governor is also co-chair of the U.S. Climate Alliance, a group of American politicians banded together to oppose Trump on the issue.
A Quebec politician was among conference participants, observers and reporters lined up to meet Inslee before he left.
“I heard him speak and I found his remarks were inspiring,” Sylvain Gaudreault, a Parti Québécois member of Quebec's National Assembly, said with a smile as he approached the front of the line on Wednesday evening.
'They're going to solve the problem if we give them a chance'
Moments later, Inslee pointed to three young people nearby. He told National Observer that he was inspired to see these bright faces who bring their energy to confront the gloomy challenges posed by climate change.
“Somebody talked about how daunting this is and the challenges we have,” Inslee said, with his wife and high school sweetheart Trudi listening in. “These kids are so smart. They’re going to solve this problem if we give them the chance.”
In terms of cap and trade, he said he hoped to advance a plan in the Washington legislature in 2018 that would make polluters pay for carbon emissions. His Democrats recently gained control of the state Senate following an election on Nov. 7. They already had a majority in the state House of Representatives.
Those combined majorities open the door for Washington to join Quebec, Ontario and California in a cap and trade system.
Such a system manages industrial emissions by requiring companies to buy and sell permits on an open market for each tonne of pollution produced from a smokestack or removed from the atmosphere.
“I think it’s admirable that Quebec and Ontario are joining California. I think that the larger the markets are, the more efficient they are,” said Inslee, echoing some comments made earlier in the week by Oregon Governor Kate Brown, who was also among the U.S. leaders at the Bonn summit.
He also said Washington's plan might be similar to the carbon tax implemented by Alberta and British Columbia and proposed in Manitoba.
“I actually may have some authority in that regard but we have not yet exercised it to date. So we’re going to make an effort to adopt some carbon pricing system. It may be just a carbon charge, it may be a cap and trade system. So I’m working with legislators to try to design that now," Inslee said.
“If at some point we became allied with multiple jurisdictions, those systems work better, the bigger they are, for everybody. It reduces the cost of compliance. So we would certainly be open to that opportunity.”
Rogue American delegation defied White House
As co-chair of the U.S. Climate Alliance, Inslee ranks among the leaders of the rogue American delegation that set up its own tents and a pavilion called the U.S. Climate Action Center on the conference grounds.
While the White House staged an event at the summit to promote fossil fuels and nuclear power — an event interrupted by a singing protest — the rogue U.S. delegation did something different.
It staged 44 events and panels that attracted large crowds and prompted cheers and visible optimism as high-profile guests, including former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg and former California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger discussed how to tackle climate change and move beyond fossil fuels.
Earlier in the week, American governors also allied themselves with Canada and Mexico, agreeing to strengthen their own climate change policies and distance themselves from the direction Trump was taking.
The U.S. Climate Alliance includes 15 governors from 14 states as well as Puerto Rico. They represent what would be the world’s third largest economy if it were a separate nation — not that anyone is openly suggesting separation for the moment, the governor joked at an event on Monday with Canadian Environment and Climate Change Minister Catherine McKenna.
His main message in Bonn was that Trump won't stop action to promote clean energy and fight climate change.
“The world has not been slowed down one half mile an hour by Donald Trump’s going AWOL on this,” Inslee said in the interview. “In fact, if anything, it has had a positive impact, which is really a surprising phenomena, but I actually believe that his withdrawal from Paris, is almost even a kickstart to the rest of the world. If anything, we’re increasing our efforts. So that’s really, really positive news that we’re moving forward.”
'Very serious concerns' about Kinder Morgan
Aside from the opportunities, Inslee is also eyeing a potential threat — coming from Canada.
Texas-based Kinder Morgan is planning to the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion project linking Alberta's oilsands producers to Burnaby, British Columbia on the west coast. This is directly above the state of Washington and it has the governor worried about the risk of spills and threats to endangered killer whales.
“I have very serious concerns about it because it does have a significant potential (to cause) damage to our waters and not just from a spill issue, which has a great concern, but there’s an increasing concern about the acoustics from ship traffic that we have to find some mitigation of for our orcas, that are so stressed," Inslee said. "The orcas are on the edge right now. So, both from the catastrophic spill concern and the omnipresent acoustic concern, we have a lot of concern about that."
The pipeline expansion project would triple the capacity of an existing oil pipeline, allowing it to transport up to 890,000 barrels of oil per day to the coast, which would in turn generate a significant increase in oil tanker traffic through waters populated by the endangered orcas.
"And we also have a lot of concern in general about building fossil fuel infrastructure of this capacity, given the need to wean ourselves off of fossil fuels," Inslee continued.
"And frankly, the ability to start going to an electric transportation system. Norway is at 50 per cent — 50 per cent of the cars in Norway today are EVs (electric vehicles). We’re increasing our sales of EVs by about 20 to 25 per cent a year on the Pacific coast. So I think there should be a serious question about whether you want to do infrastructure of that capacity."
Kinder Morgan declined to respond to Inslee's comments but a spokesperson emailed National Observer a statement saying that safety was its "first priority" as it builds the new pipeline infrastructure.
The office of Canadian Natural Resources Minister Jim Carr, the lead federal minister on the file, noted that the project was subject to 157 legally-binding conditions to protect the environment and ensure it moves forward in the safest and most environmentally-sound manner.
Spokesman Alexandre Deslongchamps also touted the Trudeau government's plans to invest $1.5 billion over five years to beef up federal efforts to protect Canada's coasts with what it is calling an Oceans Protection Plan.
"Canada has a strong marine safety record," said Deslongchamps. "Through the support of the Oceans Protection Plan, the government is developing measures that aim to reduce underwater vessel noise caused by ferries, commercial shipping, whale watching and pleasure crafts."
Washington state officials have previously raised concerns about the lack of information available to them about the components of the diluted bitumen that is to be shipped on Trans Mountain. Without that information, they say it's difficult to prepare for a spill.
Trans Mountain has said that it has been transparent about what flows on its pipelines.
In Ottawa, Deslongchamps added that federal officials have also been working with the state and other partners to help protect the orcas.
"Our colleagues at Transport Canada have been working with domestic and international partners, including the State of Washington, to explore ways of limiting vessel interactions with whales," he added.
Inslee said he sees signs the Canadian government has tried to reduce the risks, but he's still skeptical about the pipeline.
"We’re appreciative that the prime minister has proposed some ideas to try to reduce the risk of maritime accidents — we’re appreciative of those things. British Columbia is doing some things to try to get the shipping industry to voluntarily change their noise profile. That’s good. But I still think that increase of that traffic should give us real pause.”
Meantime, Inslee is going back to Washington state expressing optimism about this month's elections.
He said he knows he can’t count on help from the White House. But this wouldn’t stop him from proceeding with policies such as cap and trade as well as incentives for renewable energy and electric vehicles.
“Trump can't stop us... We had a good electoral result to open the doors to some of these good things. We also had two governors win on climate change messages in New Jersey and Virginia," he said. "So we think the public, when they start seeing ash on their cars from the Cascade mountains burning — ash covering your hood in Seattle — people are ready for action on this.”