Jay Inslee entered the presidential race as the climate candidate and on Monday, he released his most aggressive plan to deal with the crisis yet.
His so-called Freedom from Fossil Fuel plan shows how the U.S. government could go toe-to-toe with the fossil fuel industry and start to wind it down. The plan includes ending subsidies for the industry, banning oil exports and phasing out fracking, and putting a fee on greenhouse gas emissions as well as supporting states and cities suing Big Oil for damages. It also includes a strong commitment to support fossil fuel workers and frontline communities. The plan is radically politically, but it’s broadly in line with what science says needs to happen to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius, which requires cutting carbon pollution 50 percent by 2030 and achieving net-zero emissions no later than 2045.
“The laws of physics and thermodynamics are not negotiable and my plan recognizes those,” Inslee told Earther. “[It aims] to achieve compliance with those laws.”
To do that requires taking on the fossil fuel industry. Just 100 fossil fuel companies are responsible for 71 percent of the world’s carbon emissions. Building the rest of the fossil fuel infrastructure the world has planned will fry the climate. Despite all that, the fossil fuel industry receives billions in direct subsidies and accrues trillions in indirect subsidies globally in the form of more sick people, a worsening climate, and local environmental degradation.
Any effort to combat climate change without holding these companies accountable and putting a moratorium on building fossil fuel infrastructure is essentially worthless. That the Inslee plan acknowledges this reality is a huge leap in climate policy thinking.
“The only person who has really waded into that is Elizabeth Warren with her public lands plan,” Julia Brave NoiseCat, director of Green New Deal Strategy at the progressive think tank Data for Progress, told Earther. “In the same way you can’t have Medicare-for-All without taking on the pharmaceutical industry, you cannot have comprehensive climate policy without taking on Big Oil.”
Like Warren’s plan, Inslee is calling to stop leasing public lands for fossil fuel production. But his plan pushes things much further by banning new offshore drilling and exporting crude oil. More dramatically, Inslee’s plan would ban fracking with the assistance of Congress. That extraction process has turned the U.S. into the largest oil and gas producer in the world. But while the Trump administration may call that freedom, burning natural gas is still eating through the carbon budget the world has left to avoid dangerous climate change. It’s unclear how Inslee would garner the political will in Congress but he said there’s “substantial executive authority” to achieve that part of his plan.
To further tamp down the supply of fossil fuels pouring out of American soil and seas, the plan also calls for a “Climate Pollution Fee” on carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases; essentially a carbon tax. The plan recognizes that this is not a “silver bullet,” which is both a nod to reality and possibly the fact that Washington voters twice rejected a carbon tax during Inslee’s tenure as governor of the state.
Big Oil both funded the anti-carbon tax campaign in Washington and has called for a carbon tax nationally. That’s come with one big stipulation, though: that oil companies receive immunity from current and future lawsuits which seek to hold them to account for peddling denial while knowingly ruining the climate and misleading investors about climate risks.
Inslee’s plan, meanwhile calls for the creation of an Office of Environmental Justice within the Department of Justice that’s purpose would be “ensuring legal accountability for the climate and health damages caused by fossil fuel companies.”
“As far as compliance, I would consider it an American tradition that everybody has to comply with the law,” Inslee said. “Right now, we’re not requiring these industries comply with regulations.” Indeed, Environmental Protection Agency fines are at their lowest point in 20 years and regulations are being further rolled back and watered down under the Trump Administration.
Inslee’s approach would represent a complete 180, muscling up regulations and going after polluters to ensure they pay their fair share. And it would throw support behind the lawsuits attempting to get Big Oil to pay the huge bills coming due filed by state attorneys general, cities, and others dealing with climate change.
“The way in which we have thought about environmental law since the 70s really has been very protection and litigation focused,” NoiseCat said. “The move toward an investment and accountability framework is a very notable paradigm shift. The notion that corporations should have to pay for damages to the public health of frontline communities or to industries impacted like fishing, agriculture, and those types of very climate-leading indicator sectors is out ahead.”
While the Inslee plan would go toe to toe with polluters, he said he would not let industry workers be stuck holding the bag. A thread throughout this and other portions of his platform has been the vital role fossil fuel workers have paid in helping the U.S. develop into a global superpower, and it would ensure they have access to pension funds, healthcare, and job training. Ditto for indigenous and frontline communities that have often been steamrolled by fossil fuel companies and the federal government in the pipeline permitting process and saddled with the consequences of local pollution from fossil fuel infrastructure.
“I’m standing with them against their bosses who want to shirk their pension or retirement benefits,” Inslee said.
Inslee entered the presidential race as the climate candidate from the get-go. He kicked off the platform with a 100 percent clean energy plan and followed with plans have focused on mobilizing $9 trillion to remake the economy and climate diplomacy including staving off a climate refugee crisis. While he’s a long-shot candidate, his plans are an indication of what policy needs to look like to avert catastrophic climate change.
“Governor Inslee has laid out the most comprehensive and coherent plan I’ve ever seen from a political candidate, in any jurisdiction anywhere in the world, to phase out fossil fuel supply,” Fergus Green, a researcher at the London School of Economics who studies pathways to fossil fuel phaseouts, told Earther.
These plans, however, will face stiff headwinds. Fossil fuel state Democrats like Joe Manchin have opposed far more moderate policies, like simply rejoining the Paris Agreement, demonstrating that Inslee’s plan will be an uphill battle in Congress even if Democrats win both the House and the Senate in 2020 (itself another uphill climb). The fossil fuel industry, of course, would fight a plan like this at every turn.
But that doesn’t mean the principles in the plan aren’t worth rallying around.
“This is an example of cancel culture coming into the policymaking realm,” NoiseCat said. “Last year we were talking about abolishing ICE. I hope this year we start talking about what it would look like to take on the fossil fuel industry.”
This story has been updated with comments from Fergus Green.