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Banning gas cars? It’s a ‘fringe crazy bill’ no longer

Author: Danny Westneat, Seattle Times columnist

Originally Published: Feb. 5, 2020 at 6:00am

“Remember me, and my crazy idea? It’s happening,” read one of my emails the other day.

One of my favorite genres of column over the years has been to profile Seattle’s ‘windmill tilters.’ These are the many dreamers we have here, who have far-fetched, starry-eyed ideas, of the kind that when you first hear them you say “that’s crazy.”

So it was three years ago with Matthew Metz. In his regular life he’s a high-end tort lawyer with an office on the 71st floor of Seattle’s Columbia Center. About three years ago I featured what has become his singular obsession, with the key word right in the headline:

I might as well have added: “Hint: it’ll never happen.”

Except increasingly, it’s looking as if it might.

Through a group he heads called Coltura, Metz has been relentlessly agitating behind the scenes that efforts to combat climate change with things like carbon taxes or cap-and-trade plans may be too complex and confusing to the public. His notion for what to do about fossil-fuel powered cars, borrowed from other countries like Norway, is simple enough to print on a T-shirt: Just get rid of them.

It’s the kind of plan that will earn you a headline at the right-wing Drudge Report. Followed by mass online mockery — which is what happened to Metz a few years ago.

But now it has led to real legislation to do the previously unthinkable: Ban gas cars.

Last month in Olympia, 10 legislators introduced a bill to ban the sale or registration of any new gas-powered passenger or light-duty trucks, starting ten years from now, in 2030. The measure would exempt emergency response vehicles and anything weighing more than 10,000 pounds, such as farm equipment. People could also keep driving and reselling gas-engine cars that are already in use as of 2030.

The point, Metz says, is to start forcing a transition away from gasoline, potentially eliminating the largest single contributor of carbon emissions.

The proposal, House Bill 2515, is a heavy lift for a short session. But notably it has been co-sponsored by seven different chairs of House committees — including the green committee, Energy and Environment; the money committee, Finance; and the economy committee, Innovation, Technology and Economic Development.

“Ending our love affair with gasoline has gone mainstream,” Metz says.

The prime sponsor, Rep. Nicole Macri, D-Seattle, said when she first floated the idea a year ago, she mostly got back the wide-eyed look.

“People would say ‘oh my goodness that’s so big and radical, we can’t talk about that right now,’ ” she said. “It was in the fringe crazy bill category.”

But two things happened. One was the presidential campaigns, including that of Gov. Jay Inslee, which for the first time got serious about climate change and cars. The second was that the car industry itself began signaling that 2020 could be a tipping point for electric-car technology.

During the Super Bowl the other day, nearly half the car ads were for electrics. There was an ad, unbelievably, for an electric Hummer. Another featured an all-electric sports car and the Frozen anthem “Let It Go” — so even the industry that infamously killed the electric car is now signaling it might be OK for America to “slam the door” on oil.

Macri said much of the bill would set up a technology advisory committee and a study of how the state can ramp up to going electric (the charging needs, for instance). Even if the bill passed, there would still be gas cars driving around for at least another 25 years, she said.

“We’re not taking away anybody’s gas car,” she said. “The point of this is to send a signal to the market, and to the public, that change is coming.”

Metz insists that as crazy as banning gas cars has always sounded, it’s one of those cultural changes that, once it happens, we’ll wonder what all the fuss was about.

I asked Metz what else he’s working on. The answer: An ordinance to ban the development of any new gas stations in Seattle.

You can’t do that, we’re still driving gas cars, it’s crazy, I started to say. But I’ve learned my lesson with Seattle and its windmill-tilters. So you can expect to see that proposal rolled out sometime later this year.

Danny Westneat:; Danny Westneat takes an opinionated look at the Puget Sound region's news, people and politics.

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