Former congressman Jay Inslee hit the Harbor on Friday for his first visit as a Democratic gubernatorial candidate, talking about energy jobs at a summit in Elma and meeting with officials at the Port of Grays Harbor in Aberdeen.
Inslee said he understood the Harbor is going through tough times. The county has had double-digit unemployment since 2008 and is once again the highest in the state with 13.8 percent.
“I have a particular appreciation and empathy for a community like this facing these challenges,” Inslee said.
The hallmark of the former congressman’s campaign has been building an economy on clean energy, which played right into his participation at the 7th Annual Energy and Construction Best Practices Summit at the Satsop Business Park Friday morning.
Republican gubernatorial candidate Rob McKenna was invited to debate Inslee on the issue during a gubernatorial forum, but the state attorney general couldn’t attend the event. Instead, Republican strategist Todd Myers filled in.
AT THE PORT
At the Port of Grays Harbor, Inslee listened as Port staff and Port commissioners Jack Thompson and Chuck Caldwell talked about the incredible growth at the Port, from helping Cosmo Specialty Fibers ship its products oversees to the development of an automobile export facility.
Deputy Port Director Leonard Barnes said that Pasha is on track to export at least 70,000 cars this year to China, Korea, Japan, Singapore, Hong Kong and other nearby nations. That’s an increase from the 37,000 cars exported last year with plenty of growth potential still on the horizon.
“You make me feel even better about my vote to make sure we have an auto industry in this country,” Inslee said. “I don’t think those cars would be shipping out had we not kept the auto industry in this nation. People fail to understand the tie between our local economy and the midwest and the auto industry and agricultural industry.”
Port Executive Director Gary Nelson told Inslee that the most important help the Port is going to need from the next governor is help implementing a strategy on what to do with the 55-acre pontoon construction project. The project is expected to be finished building pontoons for the 520 floating bridge in 2014.
“Post-pontoons, what’s the state’s plan?” Inslee asked.
“There isn’t one,” Nelson said. “It’s permitted for that use and that’s all. Our biggest concern is you get out in 2014 and nobody’s put any thought for alternative use and it sits dormant. … The critical thing is the time. To permit another use probably needs to get started next year to hopefully fit in 2015.”
Inslee said he is “exquisitely sensitive to the potential and the needs here.”
“If I’m elected governor, I look forward to working with you on this,” Inslee said.
Inslee also asked about the potential of a coal terminal at the Port of Grays Harbor. RailAmerica proposed a terminal in Hoquiam to export 5 million tons of coal, although just an access agreement exists and no permitting has been done. It’s one of six proposals across Washington and Oregon to export coal mainly to China.
“I think everybody in the industry has stepped back to evaluate where they’re at, where they want to go,” Nelson explained. “They’re taking a hard look at what the other alternatives could be. At the end of the day, do you want to spend four or five years trying to permit something if you can permit it, or is there something else that maybe is not quite as lucrative that you could do?”
Inslee told The Daily World that he’s not “in a position to say yay or nay” to coal export facilities right now.
“We need to look at these through the lens of job creation,” Inslee said. “And there are some positive job creation impacts for coal ports but there are also potential negatives for coal ports, particularly the trains that bisect a lot of communities on the route.”
Inslee said he’s also not ready to join others, including U.S. Sen. Patty Murray and Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber, in asking the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to do a cumulative assessment of the impacts of coal moving through the entire region.
Inslee said he’s “not convinced” that’s the way to go, although he didn’t offer up specifics on what should happen.
“I think there are other ways to do this,” he said. “But, clearly, we do look at the impacts on these communities. If one community is going to have three coal ports’ worth of train traffic go right through town 20 to 40 times a day, then they need to be assessed of the impact on those communities. And I think that’s reasonable.”
The Port meeting was open to the public since two commissioners were in attendance. In the audience were a half dozen opponents to a local coal terminal. Mary Kaye Riley gave Inslee a home-made button that read, “The only good Coal Train is John Coltrane,” the musician. Arnie Martin pointed out on a map the dangers the facility could pose to shorebirds at nearby Bowerman basin.
The gubernatorial energy and construction forum between Inslee and Myers, the McKenna stand-in, was moderated by Phil Jones, the chairman of the state Utilities and Transportation Commission.
The event was the last panel of the three-day summit that originally drew about 200 people. Just a few dozen stuck around for the forum. Only Jones asked questions.
“I believe in the power of energy to create jobs,” Inslee said. “I wrote a book about the power of an energy policy to create jobs and I’ve beeen engaged in this battle to create jobs for several years.”
Myers countered that he had read Inslee’s book and was not impressed.
“He said that Grays Harbor was the model that we should look at,” Myers said. “And he gave two examples: Imperium Renewables and Grays Harbor Paper. Unfortunately, in the three years since he wrote the book, Imperium Renewables has been running consistently under capacity and Grays Harbor Paper, as you may know, closed down last year. The result is that Grays Harbor’s economy is suffering. Just two days ago it was announced that Grays Harbor’s economy has the highest unemployment in the state. Just three years ago, Congressman Inslee tried to say that Grays Harbor was the model of the green economy and we’re seeing the results of that. The problem is that when you focus on one sector and try to pick winners and losers, you sometimes get it wrong. There is a better way. Education, diversification and figuring out a way to make all sectors work is the way forward for Washington. … Trying to predict where we’re going to be 10 or 20 years from now or, even as in the congressman’s book, even three years from now, is very difficult.”
Inslee said after the forum that he felt that there is always the potential for businesses to fail, but that the state must support the industry’s efforts to succeed.
“What I heard from my opponent’s spokesperson today is they want to give up and let the rest of the world lead this revolution and I think that’s very shortsighted,” Inslee said.
Inslee said that Myers’ thoughts were a “very ideologically consistent opinion” from the Republicans, whom he says are against “our obvious economic opportunities in clean energy.”
“There is a difference in the candidates … because my opponent is pretty much non-existent on energy issues,” Inslee said.
Inslee outlined a plan to create incentives for utilities to work more with homeowners and businesses to do energy efficiency upgrades.
”We would suggest that we have utilities have an option to pay for energy efficiency upgrades and pay for that over time on a homeowner’s utility bill,” he said. “Allow the utility to become an enetity to help finance those improvements.”
He would like to see cities and counties take out special Property Assessed Clean Energy (PACE) bonds to help their community pay for green initiatives with residents paying those bonds off on their property tax bills. He said such bonds would provide a boost for “people in the trades to work in efficiency upgrades for homes and businesses.”
Inslee said he also remains a steadfast supporter of Initiative 937, which mandates utilities obtain 15 percent of their electricty by alternative energy sources by 2015. He said he wouldn’t want to change much in the initiative unless there was consensus between all parties.
Myers said that the initiative is causing utilities to raise the average homeowner’s utility bills and has created needless harm when utilities get so much of their energy from hydropower, as it is.
Myers said that McKenna is also against “inflexible regulations” and potential energy efficiency mandates, noting that a 2005 law requiring public schools to have green energy standards was supposed to save money. But a state audit found that five out of nine schools examined were less efficient than the average school in those same districts because the schools were already good at finding efficiencies.
PUD Commissioner Tom Casey, who attended the forum, said after listening to Inslee, he’s unsure of Inslee’s exact stance with Initiative 937.
“Most of what he said could mean anything,” said Casey, who is a Democrat.
Casey added that the Grays Harbor PUD already offers no-interest loans for energy efficiency upgrades.
“I was scratching my head over his idea to pay for energy efficiency upgrades because of what we already do,” he said.