The Washington gubernatorial nominees are in the final weeks of campaigning. Republican Rob McKenna and Democrat Jay Inslee are touring the state for photo opps and debates. There’s usually a question thrown in about environmental issues, but overall, the environment hasn’t been a major focus in this election.
One expert in Washington politics says that’s because the economy is dominating the list of priorities for Washington voters.
“The other issues just sort of vanish after that,” says Stuart Elway, president of Elway Research, a Seattle-based polling company. Elway surveyed 400 Washington voters about issues ranging from education, to the budget.
“Energy and the environment are at the bottom of that list,” Elway adds. “One percent or less name that as the most important issue facing the Legislature.”
Substantially more of the voters surveyed believed that Inslee’s stance on the environment was an advantage over McKenna’s.
Inslee is the darling of the environmental community in Washington, says Brendon Cechovic, the executive director of the Washington League of Conservation Voters.
“Jay Inslee is probably one of the top two or three strongest environmental votes in the whole U.S. Congress,” he says.
The group has given Inslee a score of 100 percent for his environmental record, and is putting $750,000 into campaigning for him. That’s more than 10 times the amount they’ve contributed to any other political race.
“It blows away anything we’ve ever done.” Cechovic says. “The prospect of having Jay Inslee in the governor’s mansion is a once in a generation opportunity for the environmental community.”
In Congress, Inslee was a strong supporter of wilderness protection and renewable energy. He played a key role in getting his home state to commit to getting 15 percent of its energy from renewable sources by 2020.
McKenna is not as well loved by the environmental community.
During his time as a King County council member, McKenna opposed the construction of a light rail connection between Seattle and neighboring Bellevue.
His list of campaign contributors includes the oil giants ExxonMobil and BP, and forest products companies Georgia Pacific and International Paper.
Two years ago he refused to take on a legal case opposing new power lines in undeveloped sections of the Methow Valley. He said the case didn’t warrant an appeal.
But during his time as attorney general, McKenna also pushed for the removal of millions of gallons of hazardous waste from the Hanford Nuclear reservation, calling on the federal government to build the storage facility at Yucca Mountain in Nevada.
His office was also involved in litigation against a Canadian company that was leaching heavy metals into the upper Columbia River from its smeltering facility. The company has since admitted responsibility for the pollution.
McKenna has the support of a pillar in the environmental community. Bill Ruckelshaus, a Republican, was the first director of the Environmental Protection Agency under Nixon and has worked to improve the environmental health of Puget Sound.
Ruckelshaus has not contributed to McKenna’s campaign but says he believes McKenna will be a good steward of the environment if he’s elected.
“I’ve asked (McKenna) and he’s convinced me that he’s absolutely committed to doing that, cleaning up Puget Sound and continuing the effort that governor Gregoire started,” Ruckelshaus says.
Many in the environmental community believe that cleaning up Puget Sound means enacting stricter regulations on things like storm water runoff and shoreline development.
At the most recent debate held in Yakima, Wash. Jay Inslee accused Rob McKenna of intending to weaken environmental standards by adopting less stringent federal standards over state standards.
In response, McKenna said, “The fact of the matter is that when we’re talking about federal standards and state standards we should be looking for harmony between those standards. So if the federal standard is adequate why would we try to make the state standard tougher?
But “harmonize” to Inslee and many in the environmental community means “weaken.”
“We’ve got the most precious environment in the history of the solar system,” Inslee fired back. “And to protect it we’ve got to make our own decisions about our environmental standards.”
The next governor of Washington will face some tough environmental issues during his tenure. He’ll be taking the reins of the massive Puget Sound clean up effort. He’ll be involved in the review process for several proposed coal export facilities. He’ll face some major decisions about the future of public transportation in the region, renewable energy standards, and perhaps even a regional carbon emissions regulation strategy.
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