In 2019, Jay Inslee bet that Americans fed up with catastrophic disasters and a Republican administration axing virtually every regulation meant to curb planet-heating pollution might be ready to send a “climate candidate” to the White House.
The Washington governor authored a book-length stack of policy ideas to transform the U.S. economy away from fossil fuels, and pushed a crowded field of rivals to run on increasingly detailed and creative climate platforms. While his campaign failed to take off, Inslee made it to the debate stage that August, where he delivered some memorable jabs at the eventual winner, Joe Biden.
Almost exactly three years later, Biden on Tuesday signed legislation containing an unprecedented $369 billion in spending meant to vastly expand how much of the United States’ economy is powered with low-carbon energy sources.
Reached by phone Tuesday morning at his Bainbridge Island home, where the third-term governor recently installed new solar panels, Inslee, 71, was in a triumphal mood.
“I’m just happy as a clam at high tide here,” he said. “We’ve got a good climate bill. It’s a nice day in Washington state. My grandkids are available to play today, so I’m goofing off today. It’s a good day.”
He asked me how I was doing. New York City’s heat wave had broken, the air conditioner finally got a day off, and a breeze was coming through my open window. So, I said I couldn’t complain.
“Well, you can,” the governor said. “You’re an American.”
But criticism needs to be timed right, he said.
“It’s not entirely polite on a day of celebration to talk about more work that needs to be done,” he added. “You like to pop the champagne. But then it’s back to work the next day. So you’re 24 hours too early.”
After learning that HuffPost planned to publish this interview Wednesday morning, he opened up about the problems he saw ahead.
U.S. miners and refiners won’t be able to churn out enough steel, iron and lithium for manufacturers and developers to all cash in on the new federal law’s generous Buy-American incentives, Inslee said.
State and county bureaucracies with final say over local construction could block federal dollars from flowing into new projects, he warned.
And while he said federal permitting reform is needed to speed up energy deployment and restrict the not-in-my-backyard types’ ability to veto vital infrastructure, any deal to do so that comes with new fossil fuel megaprojects would struggle to earn his vote, were he still serving in his previous role as one of his state’s U.S. congressmen.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity, and hyperlinks have been added.
On the day it passed in Congress, you called the Inflation Reduction Act “historic,” but said, “We need more if we are to fully meet America’s commitments under the Paris Climate Accords.” You said President Biden should take executive actions. What are three of the most important executive actions you think he should take first?
First, to free the states to adopt the zero-emission rule where we all join California and actually require certain vehicles in the years to come. That’s the first order of business. Second, adopting a clean-air rule as quickly as humanly possible.
[Note: Washington’s Clean Air Rule regulates greenhouse gas emissions from power plants and factories. While the state’s Supreme Court decided in 2020 that the law the rule was based on did not give state regulators the authority over “indirect” emitters such as gas utilities and oil refineries, a spokesman for Inslee said later in a text message that “the governor was saying the president does have that kind of authority under the federal Clean Air Act.”]
Third, looking at all the regulatory mechanisms to deal with coal-fired electricity. There are multiple ones available even under the horrific Supreme Court ruling, which I don’t believe this Supreme Court could touch. Those things are everything from particulate matter to NOx to coal ash to water quality, where if we follow the new science, we have a secondary benefit of reducing carbon.
I’d say those are the three, and then there are dozens thereafter.
Senate Democrats announced a separate “side deal” on permitting reform, in hopes of reducing how easily opponents can stop certain infrastructure projects from going through. Do you agree that this should be a priority? If you were still in Congress, what would you look for in such legislation to decide whether it earns your vote?
I haven’t seen the details of that, so I will hold my powder a little bit. But I do believe that we need to have particularly more rapid siting of clean-energy infrastructure. It is necessary. We don’t have the luxury of time that we had in the past. There are problems for siting things like wind turbines and battery storage, where we can, I believe, have expedited decision making by our local authorities.
This is very important because the federal act is only as good as the implementation, which is to a significant degree at the local level. You can have all the Senate support in the world, but if you can’t find a way to spend a dollar, you haven’t done much good. So I do believe there are quite a number of things you can do to have more rapid, local decision-making.
Now, that shouldn’t be confused with the fact that I do have concerns. The first rule of thermodynamics is when you’re in a hole, stop digging. If there’s some side deal that allows massive fossil fuel infrastructure to be developed, that’s problematic. We just can’t build 50-year investments that lock us into increased fossil fuel usage at this point. I would be concerned if that becomes part of some deal, but I’m not privy to the backroom conversations of the Senate cloak room right now.
States cannot and should not be limited by this federal legislation. We need a host of more ambitious state action to accelerate this. This is a great step, but it’s only the first step.
States need to move faster. States need to join my state in what we’ve done, where we do have a regulatory approach. We have a cap-and-invest bill that caps CO2 through a regulatory mechanism. We have a low-carbon fuel standard, which by law will give consumers less-polluting fuels. We have a prohibition on new dirty gas hookups after 2023 for commercial buildings and soon for residential buildings.
We need states to do all of those things on top of and faster than this federal legislation. It’s not just implementation of this federal legislation. States need to be masters of their own destiny. And they have to be much more ambitious if we have any hope of meeting our goals here. That’s absolutely clear.
As far as implementation of this — this maybe is not so much what states can control — but I do think there is concern about the domestic-content rules.
Correct. We know the supply chains will be struggling to meet the domestic content requirements at the pace we need to move, and that is a concern. That’s something we’ll have to watch.
States need to work through some of the siting issues that will be a challenge, and to try to build as much consensus in local communities to get facilities sited. That takes a lot of great listening to communities and trying to accommodate local concerns. But ultimately it answers to the larger needs of the community to get these jobs done.
Is there an experience you’ve had that you can think of that offers a good example of how you can get that buy-in without delaying important infrastructure?
We’ve certainly had some successes here.
I went out to this giant solar farm in Lind, Washington, a small, very red, conservative place. We were successful in Kittitas County, where we sited some solar. There was originally some concern about ag land. But we worked through this by showing our commitment to the agricultural industry. We worked through good listening to the community so you can show the visual impact is much more modest than people are concerned about. We successfully sited our wind farms in eastern Washington, an enormous expansion, by embracing the local community and local labor unions as well.
We’ve been pretty successful here by being good listeners of local concerns, and then working through people’s concerns. It’s kinda shoeleather.
What about when outside influences come into those communities? I’m thinking specifically about the race for Washington’s 40th legislative district, which covers the San Juan Islands. Gas companies and their unions have been flooding the election there in a bid to oust state Rep. Alex Ramel, a progressive who championed electrification.
If the industry-backed challenger prevails, are you concerned it may be seen as a referendum on electrification? Or that other state lawmakers might be dissuaded from taking on climate issues that might incur the wrath of deep-pocketed national donors? And with that in mind, do you plan to endorse in this race?
I’m not concerned about that because Alex has been a very effective leader in clean energy, and the people honor it. That’s why he’s going to crush his opponent, and did in the primary. He won something like 80% of the vote. And I’m very confident he will be reelected in a landslide. It’s not even a contest. A bunch of people squandered a lot of money on a doomed effort to try to kick out a clean-energy leader. And he’s going to get reelected very handily.
So, if it is a referendum, it’s a referendum with a really good moral to the story. People want clean energy, they want clean air to breathe, they recognize the economic future creating jobs in their communities around clean energy and electric cars, and Alex is providing that. It’s going to be a happy ending in that district.
Do you see that as something that’s specific to that district, or to Washington, or is there a bigger lesson there from Alex’s success so far for local lawmakers in other parts of the country?
Clean energy is winning races now. I have believed that for some time. I was the first governor candidate who ran really on a climate and clean-energy message predominantly — and was elected — back in 2012. We’re winning races on clean energy and climate now. It used to be a peripheral issue. Now it’s a central issue because people understand it’s central to their lives.
We had flooding somewhere close to Alex’s district, where the river was going into people’s homes last year. We had fires where people couldn’t go outside because of the smoke, kids couldn’t play.
People are winning races on the climate now, and Alex is a perfect example. His primary win is not just a win. It was a crushing landslide. He’s going to go on to recreate that in the general. Alex is very talented, he’s done a great job, and he’s a good listener to his community. But it’s not totally unique to that district.
Are you concerned about how the bill might incentivize some more debatably-clean infrastructure, like with the big 45Q incentives for carbon capture?
They’re much less likely to be successful. Billions of dollars have been lost in carbon capture technology. I was at the Schwarze Pumpe station in Germany — what, 12 years ago? — when $1 billion was being spent. Carbon capture is just last on the list of stuff that could actually end up being cost-effective.
It’s more of a cost loss than it is necessarily a CO2 loss. It’s an unwise investment. I wouldn’t consider it evil, because if in fact it proves out. But I would not advocate it at this point when the losses are in the billions of dollars. So it’s more of an economic loss than anything.
I’m more concerned about the side deals for huge new fossil fuel infrastructure to go on, like giant pipelines. When you’re in a hole, stop digging. We should not be doing massive new infrastructure for fossil fuels at this point. To lock 50 years of future disaster is not a good idea right now.
Are there other parts of the bill that you find particularly exciting?
Everyone has a favorite part. Mine might be the green bank provision that I advocated in 2010 [when Democrats last held Congress and the White House, and Inslee was a U.S. representative].
Basically it’s just using a banking strategy to make capital available to startup companies with new technologies that might be a little riskier than the private sector is willing to take, but imminently needed given the pace of innovation that we need.
That is something I fought for and got into the 2010 legislation, and now they have a multibillion-dollar investment to help some of these startup technologies and companies. I think that’s a really great investment for the country, and greatly needed. When we see the success of some of these new companies, looking forward to that being replicated is very exciting. To adopt that type of strategy, we’re going to need new technology, we’re going to need new small businesses to develop some groundbreaking systems. I think we can do it.
To see that seed, planted in 2010, come into flower is very exciting to me.