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Concerns remain about passage of a bill that paves way for natural gas ban in WA

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(The Center Square) – One of the most controversial bills passed by the Washington State Legislature this session has yet to be signed into law by Gov. Jay Inslee.

Engrossed Substitute House Bill 1589, dubbed by critics as the “natural gas ban bill,” would allow utilities – that is, Puget Sound Energy – to start planning how to move away from natural gas.

Inslee is expected to sign the bill, a cornerstone of Inslee’s agenda to fight climate change, into law.

Sen. Andy Billig, D-Spokane, is a staunch defender of ESHB 1589.

“The state is moving away from natural gas, and consumers are making that choice,” the Senate Majority Leader told The Center Square on Wednesday. “The question is are we going to plan so we can make that an orderly transition, or are we going to not plan for it? I think it makes a lot more sense to plan for an orderly transition.”

Billig dismissed any potential energy rate hikes related to the legislation should it become law.

“The idea that rates will go up in the short term is simply scare mongering by anybody that says that,” he said. “Rates have to be approved by the [Washington] Utilities and Transportation Commission, which is a bipartisan group of regulators who receive applications from the utilities, and then they evaluate that.”

The commission, he explained, does not simply acquiesce to PSE.

“We the public have an advocate from the AG’s [Attorney General’s] Office that advocates to keep rates low and after hearing the arguments on one side or the other, the UTC makes a decision,” he said.

The process will take take time, he noted.

“We are a long way from seeing any rate impacts up or down from this bill, and in the long run this is much better for consumers to have the transition be orderly, rather than to have utilities have their hands tied and not be able to make the choices that are potentially better for customers, but also better for the Earth,” Billig said.

Some Republicans have suggested the UTC is simply a rubber stamp for whatever PSE requests.

“That’s just not true,” Billig retorted. “The UTC reviews rate cases made by the utilities, and then there’s a representative for the public that then advocates for the public interest and the UTC listens to those arguments and then makes their decisions. They have a long history of denying requests from the utilities if the requests are too high, and that happens regularly.”

Others aren’t so sure the would-be law won’t raise energy prices.

The Building Industry Association of Washington voiced strong objection to the bill during public hearing testimony during the session.

“Make no mistake,” BIAW Executive Vice President Greg Lane said. “This bill will ultimately ban natural gas for all current and future Puget Sound Energy customers.”

A March 6 news release from BIAW asks, “Do you prefer to cook with natural gas? You will no longer have that option. Do you rely on a natural gas fireplace when the electricity goes out? Now you will have no source for heat. Does your house have a natural gas furnace? Now you will have to pay to convert your entire system to electricity — at a cost of $40,000 to $50,000 per household.”

BIAW estimates power bills will more than double as a result of ESHB 1589.

Republican leaders say the timing for any rate increases is unclear and legal challenges loom.

“I think it’s going to take a few years before anyone who has been harmed and has standing can challenge, but once that happens, it will most certainly be litigated,” Sen. John Braun, R-Centralia, told The Center Square.

The Senate Minority Leader went on to say, “I think it may take a while for PSE to develop its plan and submit to the UTC, but as soon as UTC approves it, rates go up.”

Braun says he’s heard from some people that could take a year, while others say it will take up to three years.

“I would say we end up somewhere in the middle,” Braun predicted.

He noted there’s another way this could go.

“There’s a quicker way to make this go away and that is to repeal the Climate Commitment Act,” Braun said, a reference to Initiative 2117 to repeal the Climate Commitment Act and prohibit state agencies from implementing any type of carbon tax in place of the repealed CCA. Majority party Democrats declined to give the bill a public hearing during the legislative session, so the measure will be decided by voters this November.

Braun pointed out what he sees as the irony of the situation.

“Gov. Inslee spent so much timing complaining about how oil companies were passing CCA costs onto drivers at the pump, then he backs this legislation to allow PSE to pass CCA costs onto consumers,” he said.

Rep. Drew Stokesbary, R-Auburn, noted Inslee is under some pressure regarding signing the bill into law.

“There is a growing chorus of voices from the left asking him to veto key sections of the bill, and I hope he does,” the Minority Floor Leader said. “Those sections are bad policy and disproportionally impact lower income Washingtonians.”

Vetoing certain sections of the bill could have consequences.

“If he does that, it will represent absolute political malpractice on the Speaker [Laurie Jinkins] for forcing her members to vote on this bill when the governor could end up vetoing the most problematic parts of it anyway,” Stokesbary explained.

The Center Square reached out to the Governor’s Office for comment on Inslee signing the bill into law.

“It hasn’t been scheduled yet, and I don’t think the governor has been briefed on the final version of the bill yet or any veto requests we’ve received,” Inslee spokesperson Mike Faulk said in an email. “We don’t speculate on bill actions prior to then.”