Regulatory overlap, uncertain timelines threaten jobs in Washington state

By Lew Moore

Driving down I-5 or along I-90, it doesn’t take long to see where the information economy starts and the manufacturing economy stops.

Lew Moore, Washington Research Council

Lew Moore,
Washington Research Council

Washington has, essentially, become two Washingtons. In the big cities like Seattle, construction cranes dot the skylines. In outlying rural areas, it is a very different picture, where unemployment is double that of the big cities. Our rural communities continue to lag economically. We should be welcoming responsible economic investment throughout our state.

In the past five years, three large energy infrastructure projects have been proposed in Bellingham, Longview and Vancouver — each potentially bringing thousands of family-wage jobs. Interestingly, all three projects are proposed for port cities, cited at existing industrial and manufacturing sites. Yet because of our state’s prolonged regulatory review, the permitting process is not complete for any of them. Millennium Bulk Terminals in Longview has been waiting for almost five years for its permits; Vancouver Energy for more than three. Thorough environmental reviews should be part of any project. But in Washington state, the trend is toward reviews that are often redundant and lack any specific timelines for completion. This expansion of the State Environmental Policy Act (SEPA) regulations poses a threat to future investments because of the lack of regulatory certainty.

In 2013, the state Department of Ecology arbitrarily expanded the scope of review for the purposes of SEPA beyond state borders in applying it to energy projects. For the first time ever, commodities were considered based on their lifecycle, from creation to consumption, outside of Washington’s borders.

There are several problems with this approach. First, the expanded SEPA creates uncertainty for investors thinking of creating jobs in Washington — and for those already here. This unprecedented new rule, and the arbitrary nature by which it has been applied, raises concerns for business and labor leaders alike.

Our state’s trade economy, which relies on a strong network of ports, rails and roadways to move commodities through our state to foreign and domestic markets, is also at risk. Investors like Millennium and Vancouver Energy would bring millions of dollars of private investment for our rail lines, upgrading them to increase shipping capacity for all varieties of goods and commodities. Politicizing the review process here, while other states eagerly court  investors and the infrastructure dollars they bring with them, makes it more difficult for Washington state to compete for this beneficial investment.

The expanded SEPA review impacts family-wage jobs where they are needed most. Projects like Millennium and Vancouver Energy would provide employment construction and building trades jobs outside of the metropolitan Seattle area, and provide important training needed for skilled workers.

Finally, there is no evidence the expanded SEPA review will reduce greenhouse gas emissions, a worldwide issue. Commodities that can’t be transported from our state will be re-routed elsewhere, along with quality jobs.

Washington state needs economic diversity that will bring prosperity to all areas of the state. We need updated infrastructure. We benefit most from trade of any state and should want that to continue. But a politicized regulatory process, creating uncertainty for export terminal proposals in Longview and Vancouver can only delay or even prevent new investment that brings trade opportunities — and jobs for Washington state.

[panel title=”About Lew Moore:” style=”info”]
Lew Moore is the president of the Washington Research Council in Seattle.

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