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The Climate Failures of Jay Inslee

In 2020, Jay Inslee ran a quixotic single issue campaign for president (on the dime of Washington taxpayers) that never got off the ground, dropping out before Iowa, singularly focusing on climate change and his record as governor of Washington in fighting it. After Biden’s election, speculation swirled around whether he’d resign as governor of Washington to become the head of the DOE or EPA.

Inslee’s record as governor of Washington State tells a very different story from the rosy reputation he sold in his stump speeches in Iowa and New Hampshire. It’s a tale of policy failures, flip-flopping in stances on carbon intensive projects, an inability to stop rising emissions, and the destruction of hundreds of homes to build highways.

They’re failures that have largely escaped national scrutiny, as Inslee never polled high enough to merit deep dives into his tenure as governor from national media outlets.

The North Spokane Corridor
Arguably the worst urban planning disaster of the 20th century was America’s urban freeway construction destroying disproportionately nonwhite neighborhoods to make room for White commuters from the suburbs. America’s era of highway building ended in the 1970s, as the devastating social impacts of highway construction became apparent and local opposition to construction grew.

Even states with conservative governments have seen the need to stop highway construction and promote infill development in recent years. Greg Abbott has stated publicly that Texas “is finished building highways.” However, Jay Inslee never got the memo.

In the late 1990s, Washington State decided to pull the trigger on a long planned freeway construction project called the North Spokane Corridor, with the intended goal of alleviating traffic issues in North Spokane. The final environmental assessment was completed in April 1997, and construction began in 2001. The first segment of the highway, one completed in a largely rural area north of the city, was completed in 2009, before Inslee took office. Inslee took office as governor in 2012, after which time the project began to be constructed in the middle of eastern Spokane’s neighborhoods.

The first environmental impact assessment of the project predicted the freeway would force the seizure of and destruction of over 500 homes and 100 businesses, displacing over 1,000 residents, all to promote car centric sprawl development north of Spokane. Predictably, the slicing of the freeway through urban Spokane has impoverished the disproportionately nonwhite neighborhoods near it.

This isn’t a story from the 1950s or 1960s, there’s no Robert Moses, it’s happening now.

The project has been plagued by delays. While its first environmental impact study was conducted in 1997, the freeway won’t be fully completed until 2029. Inslee had every opportunity to scuttle the project. Instead, in 2015 he approved a transportation bill that allocated $879 million towards completing the project. The North Spokane Corridor will cost Washington taxpayers $1.5 billion in total.

Even ignoring the atrocious environmental justice implications of the freeway, the project serves as a further commitment to automobile usage and by extension inefficient high carbon suburban living in the Spokane area. The investment in the freeway was an allocation of public transportation dollars that could have been spent on transit, pedestrian infrastructure, and bike paths. That appropriation is particularly egregious, given that transportation is the greatest single source of emissions in Washington State.

Blocks of homes demolished for the North Spokane Corridor.

Has the high cost of the project, countless delays, climate impact, or impacts on marginalized communities fazed Inslee? No. In fact, Inslee’s promoted highway construction as a form of economic stimulus from the Coronavirus recession, supporting an expansion to Washington Highway 526 as well as expansions to highway connections between ports and Interstate 5, infrastructure that will continue to induce greater automobile usage in the state of Washington.

Renewable Energy White Lies

Inslee’s signature climate achievement as governor, mandating utilities in the state get 100% of their electricity from renewable sources by 2025 is far less impressive than it seems. For most of the past century, Washington State has been overwhelmingly dependent on emission free hydropower from Bonneville Power Administration dams on the Columbia River, which make up 70% of the state’s electricity. Another 8% of the state’s electricity comes from one single nuclear power plant. Coal and gas power generation respectively make up single digits of Washington’s electricity grid. Inslee’s great transition away from fossil fuels is anything but revolutionary, with carbon free electricity powering the state for decades before his election.

Inslee’s near singular focus on electrical generation emissions may have given him national media attention, but it has resulted in myopia regarding the true sources of emissions in Washington State. Electricity generation makes up under 20% of the state’s emissions, roughly the same as it did pre-Inslee.

Carbon Pricing Failures

Washington State is well known as a solidly “Blue” state that Republicans haven’t won at the presidential level since 1984, a state Trump lost by 16 and 19 points in his two elections.

During Inslee’s reign as governor, there have been two separate failed attempts to price carbon on the ballot during high turnout years.

The first one was in 2016, when I-732 was put before Washington voters. It was a relatively conservative ballot measure promising to create a revenue neutral pro-growth carbon tax that would compensate a carbon tax with a reduction in sales taxation. It was modeled after British Columbia’s carbon tax, which successfully reduced the province’s emissions by double digits, reducing emissions from both point and non-point sources.

However, it failed by nearly 20 points, even as Inslee won re-election. Why? Environmental groups including 350.org refused to support the measure, arguing it didn’t go far enough to mitigate carbon emissions, demanding that any carbon pricing dedicate revenue to reinvesting in clean tech. Joining the voices against the measure? Jay Inslee, who apparently decided that cutting carbon emissions wasn’t as high of a priority as budgetary concerns.

In 2018, Washington voters tried again to pass carbon pricing through I-1631, this time with Inslee’s support and the support of major environmental groups, as the measure heavily invested generated revenue into climate change resilience, environmental restoration, and transit. Despite Inslee’s support, the measure failed by 17% during a Democratic wave year, highlighting the inability of Inslee to obtain broad public support for climate action, even in his blue state.

Additional Missteps

Local environmental activists have had a rocky relationship with Inslee for years, from his flip-flopping on support for a methanol refinery, his administration’s tacit support for an oil refinery, to his support for $2 billion in Sea-Tac airport expansions, investments that will double the airport’s capacity. The governor has very clearly been opportunistic in his decisions whether or not to support carbon intensive projects, focusing more on political pressures than environmental impacts. The emissions impacts of an airport expansion receive far less attention than a petrochemical refinery.

Placing ambitious caps on carbon emissions for industry mean little if action is not taken to combat emissions from nonpoint sources such as automobiles. The face of emissions in the US is changing, and Inslee has failed to realize and act on it. Emissions are not rising because of large new power plants, they’re rising because of increased adoption of gas stoves in homes, increases in vehicle miles traveled and vehicle size, and the heating and cooling burdens of suburban McMansions. While opposing a refinery that hasn’t been built yet may politically endear Inslee to his voters, it doesn’t stop the state’s rising emissions.

Rising Emissions

Inslee’s failures in climate leadership have had consequences.

Washington State’s emissions are rising, as air travel and natural gas heating within the state become more popular and vehicle emissions remain flat. Since 2013, when Inslee took office, Washington’s state’s emissions have risen by 6%. Although that rise is lower than the state’s population growth, indicating that emissions per capita are falling, the state’s overall emissions are nevertheless traveling in the wrong direction, particularly in relation to the rest of the United States. The Pacific Northwest, famously a hotbed for sustainable living, is bucking national trends of falling emissions.

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Andrew Damitio

Andrew Damitio

Environmental Economics and Policy alum of Oregon State University

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