A group of 20 Western students traveled to the state capital in Olympia Monday, Feb. 17, taking part in the first Associated Students-sponsored environmental lobby day.
The students spoke with legislators about four issues relating to the environment: reducing tax loopholes on oil companies, supporting the oil transportation safety act, pressuring lawmakers to take action on climate change and speaking out against a bill that would allow private energy companies to count federal government energy efficiency upgrades on dams as an upgrade to renewable energy sources.
This event was inspired by previous Viking Lobby days, said Nina Olivier, the AS associate director of the environmental and sustainability program.
The goal of the event was to give students an opportunity to learn more about environmental policy and to speak with legislators about issues important to Western students, Olivier said.
Reducing tax loopholes
The first issue on the agenda asked lawmakers to eliminate tax breaks on oil companies operating in Washington state. Eliminating these tax breaks would create between $41 million and $63 million in additional tax dollars per year, according to a fact sheet released by the AS.
The money could then be used to make up for shortfalls in education spending, and could allow the state to direct more money toward financial aid for higher education and help lower tuition costs.
Under current law, oil companies are not taxed on the oil they burn at the site of oil production, Olivier said.
Western student Matt Petryni — who also works for ReSources, a Bellingham nonprofit — worked with the AS to develop the agenda for lobby day.
“We would like to see this money invested in something that benefits our state over the long- term, rather than continue to subsidize oil companies that clearly don’t need it,” Petryni said.
Reducing the tax loopholes on oil companies was the issue that seemed to resonate most with the legislators she talked with, Olivier said. There seemed to be bipartisan support for the issue, she said.
Oil Transportation Safety Act
Students also lobbied in support of improving the safety and transparency of transporting oil through Washington. A set of proposals up for vote in the state legislature would place restrictions on how oil companies can transport oil — both on railroads and through waterways.
The proposals would require oil companies to disclose how much oil is being transported through communities in Washington.
If passed, the act would increase safety procedures on the transport of oil and provide increased transparency about where and when oil can be shipped, Olivier said.
The proposed bill has four main components, Petryni said. The first focuses on disclosure, giving citizens knowledge about what kind of oil is being transported and by what method.
The next portion of the bill increases regulations on how oil tankers are piloted through Washington waterways.
The third requires oil tankers be accompanied by a tugboat to help steer the tankers.
The final provision is a study about the best way for first responders to deal with accidents related to transporting oil by rail.
This would direct more resources to local firefighter and police departments to give additional training and resources in responding to an oil spill, Petryni said. The fourth provision would also seek to identify communities that are most at risk for an oil spill, he said.
Western student Maia Hanson, a biology and math major, never lobbied state legislature before Monday’s trip.
Hanson believes student opinion can persuade legislators. Students should have a say in the decisions lawmakers are making, she said.
Hanson was also motivated to support the oil transportation act because her father is a firefighter, she said.
“Our communities need to be informed about the risks being placed on [first responders],” Hanson said. “They have a right to know that in order to be able to respond to potential risks.”
Giving first responders more information about the quantities of oil being moved through communities will help with risk analysis and allow more resources for training, Hanson said.
Action on climate change
Students asked lawmakers to take action in reducing climate change, specifically reducing the amount of carbon emissions released in Washington each year.
The state already has targets to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, Petryni said. Under a 2008 law, the state is supposed to reduce emissions by a set amount.
The first goal of the 2008 law is returning greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels. This is intended to be done by 2020. Next, the law states emissions must fall below 1990 levels. In 2035 emissions need to be 25 percent lower than 1990 levels, and by 2050 emissions must be 50 percent lower than 1990 levels.
However, the state is not on target to meet any of these goals, Petryni said.
Lessening the incentive to buy wind and solar power
Under legislation called I-937, Washington is required to obtain 15 percent of its electricity from new renewable resources, including solar and wind, by 2020. This law excludes hydroelectric power.
I-937 also requires that utility companies implement cost-effective energy conservation.
Currently, energy efficient upgrades to dams do not count as an increase of renewable energy.
This encourages the development of alternate renewable energy sources, such as wind and solar, to meet the 15 percent target.
HB 2676 would amend this law by making energy efficiency upgrades to hydroelectric power facilities count toward the state goal of 15 percent. This could create disincentives for wind and solar energy.
HB 2676 is a step backward, Petryni said. If enacted, it would lessen the standards on renewable energy, he said.
Rejecting HB 2676 would encourage state legislators to go beyond levels set by the federal government and meet a higher standard in clean energy funding, Petryni said.
Student impressions of lobby day
Carolyn Bowie, a senior environmental science major, was partly motivated to attend the environmental lobby day because of a climate change class she is taking this quarter.
Learning about the overwhelming scientific evidence supporting climate change inspired her to speak with legislators about environmental policy, she said.
“It is crucial for constituents to talk to their legislators and show that citizens care about these issues,” Bowie said.
Sophomore Maddie Gavigan Martin, an environmental science major, was impressed by how receptive and engaged legislators were.
Martin works in Western’s office of sustainability, and being surrounded by highly motivated people making a difference on Western’s campus inspired her to seek change on a statewide level, she said.
Hopefully, the environmental lobby day was a learning experience for students, Olivier said. Part of the goal for the trip was for students to learn about environmental policy and how laws are made in state legislature, she said.