Opinion: In 2023, private environmental innovation accelerated while government policy became more absurd

Todd Myers of the Washington Policy Center hopes that 2023 was a transformational year for environmental policy, when the failure and dishonesty of government-run environmental programs became clearer.

Todd Myers hopes that 2023 was a transformational year for environmental policy, when the failure and dishonesty of government-run environmental programs became clearer

Todd Myers
Washington Policy Center

This was an eventful year in environmental policy in Washington state and around the world. As with most every year, there was good and bad. Let’s start with the good news.

Todd Myers, Washington Policy Center
Todd Myers, Washington Policy Center

In 2023, the public and media began to recognize that the 1970-style, bureaucratic approach to environmental policy is failing to solve important environmental challenges.

Susannah Frame, the Chief Investigative reporter for KING 5 TV in Seattle, revealed that Washington state was missing virtually all of its self-imposed environmental goals. When they attempted to question Governor Inslee about these failures, he ducked the interview and refused to talk with the station.

There were also some high-profile examples at the national level of the failure of politically guided environmental programs. For example, after two years, a $7.5 billion program to install charging stations for electric vehicles had not installed a single charger as of the beginning of December 2023.

In any recovery program, the first step is to admit you have a problem. Washington state and the country must recognize that existing, government-heavy environmental policies aren’t working.

The good news is that in 2023 an increasing number of people are innovating alternative environmental solutions.

For example, PERC, a market-based environmental organization in Montana, launched their Conservation Innovation Lab to use property rights and technology to protect wildlife and compensate landowners who create habitat. Unlike the Endangered Species Act, which punishes landowners for creating habitat for threatened species, the innovation promoted by PERC creates incentives to protect wildlife while using land productively.

Here in Washington state, some utilities are beginning to engage customers using technology and transparent pricing in order to cut costs and stabilize the electric grid.

And across the globe innovators are using technology to find solutions to problems where governments have failed. The most dramatic example is Plastic Bank, which uses simple technology to collect plastic trash that would otherwise end up in the ocean. They have kept nearly a quarter-of-a-billion pounds of plastic from entering the ocean.

Groups like WILDLABS and the Earthshot Prize are helping support and fund these innovations, meaning that many more environmental solutions are on the way – filling the gap where politicians and bureaucracies are failing.

By way of contrast, the first year of Washington’s new climate law, known as the Climate Commitment Act, demonstrated how corrupted government-run climate policy has become.

The absurdity of Washington’s climate policy was best exemplified by the extraordinary lengths of Governor Inslee, the Attorney General’s office, state legislators, utilities commissioners and staff at the departments of Ecology and Transportation (WSDOT) to deny the impact the state’s new tax on CO2 emissions had on gas prices. A short list of the ways the administration attempted to hide the cost impact:

  • Department of Ecology staff claimed the climate tax would increase gas prices only about 5 cents per gallon. When that turned out to be extremely inaccurate, they scrubbed the agency’s web page of that claim.
  • When it became clear that gas prices were rising, Governor Inslee denied his new tax was to blame, pointing the finger at the closure of the Olympic pipeline for maintenance. He had to retract that claim when he was informed that the maintenance closure had ended the previous month.
  • State Senator Joe Nguyen made a similar claim, saying the increases were due to the closure of the Olympic Pipeline, which he called a “pipeline in the Olympics.”
  • The Washington State Department of Transportation prohibited their economist from estimating the cost of the climate tax on gasoline and diesel – which he said would increase prices between 45 and 50 cents per gallon. They also instructed him not to discuss the issue on email because the discussions would have to be disclosed to the public.
  • The Office of the Attorney General and state utility commissioners approved an increase in Puget Sound Energy’s rates for natural gas, specifically noting it was due to the climate tax. However, they prohibited PSE from listing the reason for the increase, writing that it would be confusing for customers.

After all of that, Governor Inslee finally admitted that prices had increased more than he had claimed, blaming Department of Ecology staff for the mistake, saying he only passed along their bad information. That, of course, was also not honest. Long before Ecology staff released their badly inaccurate projections, the governor had claimed that the tax on CO2 emissions and the low-carbon fuel standard wouldn’t increase gas prices. Blaming his own administration for his error was just the culmination of Gov. Inslee’s pattern regarding his climate policies – make baseless claims and then blame others when those claims turn out to be wrong.

Let’s hope that 2023 was a transformational year for environmental policy, when the failure and dishonesty of government-run environmental programs became clearer and the creation of innovative environmental alternatives began to accelerate. I’ll drink to that.

Todd Myers is the director of the Center for the Environment at the Washington Policy Center.

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