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Updated Saturday, November 3, 2012 at 05:28 PM

Candidates for governor differ in approach on environment

By Brian M. Rosenthal
Seattle Times staff reporter

Democrat Jay Inslee and Republican Rob McKenna have spent the past year debating how to stimulate job growth and boost public-school funding, but Washington's next governor will also face some of the biggest environmental challenges the state has seen:

Should we become the country's largest exporter of coal to Asia? How can we spur more fuel-efficiency? What can we do to improve the health of Puget Sound? Or push the federal government to make good on the promised cleanup of Hanford?

While Inslee and McKenna agree on some environmental issues, their backgrounds suggest they would take very different approaches to these questions and more.

Inslee, a former congressman from Bainbridge Island, made a name for himself in Washington, D.C., pushing clean energy and has used that same issue as a centerpiece of his campaign.

His jobs plan is meant to encourage more employment in the natural gas, wind, solar and geothermal power industries. Inslee would maintain and build on the efforts started by departing Democratic Gov. Chris Gregoire, directing more money toward cleanup projects and pushing for more mass transit.

McKenna, the state attorney general from Bellevue, also has a relatively strong record on environmental issues, including a lawsuit to push the Environmental Protection Agency's regulation of greenhouse gases and his role in helping force a Canadian mining company to clean up pollution in Lake Roosevelt, the 150-milelong reservoir behind Grand Coulee Dam.

McKenna says he will take a pragmatic approach to environmental projects, emphasizing efficiency and looking to "harmonize" federal and state regulations, which some environmentalists fear could weaken standards.

As attorney general he joined a multistate appeal a year ago to the U.S. Supreme Court in a bid to overturn a ruling requiring logging-road owners to get permits under the Clean Water Act if their roads channeled stormwater runoff into streams. And he has taken donations from companies that are big polluters, which has made some environmentalists leery.

"I honestly just don't trust Rob McKenna," said Brendon Cechovic, executive director of the Washington Conservation Voters, a group that endorsed Inslee last summer after McKenna refused to fill out their questionnaire.

The group is putting $750,000, its biggest political investment ever, in ads boosting Inslee.

More conservative groups criticize Inslee for being obsessed with clean energy at the expense of the rest of the economy.

Political observers do not expect the candidates' positions on the environment to significantly affect the race. A recent Washington Poll found that just 3 percent of voters view it as their top issue. Most instead chose the economy (37 percent) or jobs (24 percent).

But that doesn't make it meaningless, observers said.

"While not 'most important,' green issues can be highly popular here," said Todd Donovan, a political-science professor at Western Washington University.

Jobs plans

When Inslee talks about global warming, he's quick to cite the "tremendous economic opportunity" it provides the state, he said in a recent interview on TVW.

To take advantage of the rush for less environmentally harmful energy sources, Inslee wants to increase tax credits, including for research and development, to the clean energy, biomedical and information-technology industries, among others.

McKenna, who acknowledges humans are a factor in global warming, wants to make the state more business friendly for all industries.

"We should create a level playing field in which all businesses have an opportunity to succeed and not adopt the congressman's approach of letting politicians pick winners and losers," McKenna said in a debate last month.

Inslee dismisses that line of reasoning, arguing the worldwide thirst for these types of green jobs is inevitable.

"People who don't understand (competition) are going to be left in the starter's gate," he said in an interview. "It's not picking winners and losers. It's picking science and economics."

Standards, regulations

Inslee also supports maintaining state environmental standards, including those in Initiative 937. That measure, which Inslee helped organize and worked to pass in 2006, requires large utilities by 2020 to obtain at least 15 percent of their electricity from renewable resources such as solar and wind.

McKenna says he would consider making exceptions for some smaller utilities. He also would review other standards and consider issuing waivers to the Growth Management Act, which protects natural resources.

In general, he wants to remove unnecessary environmental regulations and streamline the process for companies and projects to obtain permits. In some cases, he says, that would include examining the difference between state and federal standards in areas like water, air and toxicity.

"Many environmental projects are actually delayed by redundant, overlapping regulations," he said at a recent news conference. "We want to harmonize federal and state requirements in order to make it easier to comply with them."

Inslee argues that would weaken existing state standards, which often are higher than federal regulations.

"My opponent has said that federal standards are good enough," he said at a conservation-voters breakfast. "Washington state is not Louisiana. What's good enough for Louisiana is not good enough for us."

Puget Sound restoration

Both candidates agree that restoring Puget Sound should be a major priority of the next governor.

In fact, it's the first and only detailed item included in McKenna's recently released white paper on the environment.

McKenna says the best way to protect the Sound is to let local environmental organizations and government groups take the lead on projects. He's also vowed to stop the Legislature from taking funding from the Public Works Trust Fund, which provides low-interest loans to cities for water and sewer projects but has been dipped into in the past.

"Olympia doesn't have all the answers," he writes in his white paper.

Inslee wants collaboration and would take a more hands-on approach to a problem he says will take 100 years to fix.

He emphasized looking for ways to evaluate whether individual restoration projects are being effective and only allocating money to effective projects.

To date, he said, there haven't really been any truly effective cleanup projects.

Transportation

With a tax-and-tolling proposal for transportation investments expected as early as next year, both candidates have different views on transit.

Inslee is known as a longtime supporter of light rail, which McKenna has occasionally opposed.

Instead, McKenna would focus on more fuel efficiency, in part, by promoting higher fuel standards and the "electrification" of cars.

Among other moves, he wants to expand recharging stations for electric cars.

He also wants to shift the Washington State Ferries fuel system from diesel to something cleaner and cheaper, such as natural gas.

Hanford and coal trains

Both candidates acknowledge federal funding is critical to cleaning up the Hanford nuclear reservation, and they say they are uniquely qualified to get it: Inslee said his connections from serving in Congress will help, while McKenna points out that he worked as attorney general to get the feds to commit to more funding.

Each says a proposal to let coal trains unload in Longview, Bellingham and other sites must undergo a thorough environmental review to see how much the expanded rail operation would pollute.

McKenna is generally more supportive of the idea, while Inslee said long trains may slow productivity more than they would spur jobs.

Brian M. Rosenthal: 206-464-3195 or brosenthal@seattletimes.com. On Twitter @brianmrosenthal.


ELAINE THOMPSON / AP
Democratic gubernatorial candidate Jay Inslee.




ELAINE THOMPSON / AP
Republican gubernatorial candidate Rob McKenna.




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