MYNORTHWEST POLITICS

Controversial ‘Clean Energy Bill’ drops ban on natural gas, may face challenge

Mar 6, 2024, 6:23 PM

Photo: The State of Washington's Capitol Building in Olympia....

The State of Washington's Capitol Building in Olympia. (Photo courtesy of the Washington State Government)

(Photo courtesy of the Washington State Government)

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee will be facing a difficult decision — whether to sign the “Clean Energy Bill.” The bill aims to transform the state’s biggest utility, Puget Sound Energy (PSE).

House passes ‘Clean Energy Bill’

Early Wednesday, at 2 a.m. to be exact, the House passed House Bill (HB) 1589, known as the “Clean Energy Bill.” But not before the Senate did a near-total rewrite of key provisions Friday. (A PDF of the passed bill can be viewed here.)

More background of the bill: End of PSE’s obligation to provide natural gas service closer to passing legislature

The most hotly contested topic was the future of natural gas service to its customers.

The original bill, written by House lawmakers, included a provision that would prohibit new residential and small commercial natural gas services after June 30, 2024.

The Senate version eliminated the prohibition on new hookups and contained provisions. It stated gas service to existing customers would continue.

Simultaneously, it included language that would merge Puget Sound Energy’s natural gas and electric into a combined rate structure. Critics said the combination would raise rates.

It was a move that the bill’s original sponsor in the House, Rep. Beth Doglio, D-Olympia, approved of just before the early morning vote.

“I want to make it clear — the gas ban has been removed and any person who lives in the state’s largest dual fuel utility will be able to get a hook up with new construction,” she said during a speech on the House floor. “And the obligation to serve remains intact.”

She said gas service will not be removed from homes and businesses that currently have gas service.

Rep. Doglio: ‘This is a big step for our state’

“This is a big step for our state. It sets our largest utility on a path to decarbonize in a way that protects our low-income families,” Doglio said. And at the same time ensures our children have a sustainable planet to live on, as well as their children and their children.”

But House Minority Leader Drew Stokesbary, R-Auburn, in a carefully scripted legal exchange with the Democratic House Speaker Pro Tem Tina Orwell, said the Senate rewrite of the bill is constitutionally flawed.

Last Thursday, the President of the Senate, Democratic Lt. Gov. Denny Heck, called the Senate version of the bill a “hot mess.” He brought up some of the same constitutional issues that Stokesbary brought up.

Eventually, Orwell disagreed with Stokesbary’s challenge and let the vote proceed.

During the floor debate, Rep. Greg Cheney, R-Battle Ground, addressed the constitutional challenge.

More on bills in Olympia: Guns, strippers and bans on book bans

“The added language in this version of the bill, to expand very expensive fees for ratepayers that were never included in the House version, is a fundamental constitutional failure baked right into this bill,” Cheney said.

Why people are criticizing the bill

Critics said rate increases baked into the bill will hurt Washington families who are already “overburdened” by utility prices.

It also incentivizes PSE to accelerate the depreciation of its natural gas equipment, thereby allowing the utility to collect more money from ratepayers to retire its natural gas equipment early.

“The working people of this state are tired of hearing big promises of decarbonization, but then having to live with the effects of bureaucratic fees that drive up the cost of living,” House Minority Floor Leader Jim Walsh, R-Aberdeen, said. “We must stop this bad policy.”

The House approved the Senate bill and its controversial changes 50-45, with seven Democrats joining all Republicans in voting against it.

Next, the bill will go to Inslee for his approval. It may be a bill he has to think twice about because it’s not what he had hoped for originally.

Matt Markovich often covers the state legislature and public policy for KIRO Newsradio. You can read more of Matt’s stories here. Follow him on X, formerly known as Twitter, or email him here.

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