The Carbon Tax – Washington Initiative 1631

Fellow Washingtonians! Are you uncertain how to vote on I-1631, the carbon tax initiative, which is easily the most controversial referendum on the November ballot this year? I’ve done some extensive Googling and I have some thoughts on the matter!

Normally I don’t blog about politics but a very long Facebook post seemed like the wrong format to tackle a ballot referendum like this. So let’s dive in.

What is the gist of the measure?

If the measure passes, the following changes will be applied in the state of Washington, beginning on January 1, 2020:

  • Enact a carbon emissions fee of $15 per metric ton of carbon emitted.
  • Increase the fee by $2 annually until the state’s greenhouse gas reduction goals are met.
  • Use the revenue from the fee to fund various programs and projects related to the environment.

Source: BallotPedia

The full text is available if you have time to read 38 pages of legalese, but you might consider reading the ten-page summary instead.

The grand idea of the bill relates to existing laws in Washington state to reduce greenhouse gases in Washington; namely to reduce emissions in the state to 1990 levels by 2020, and to reach 50% of 1990 levels by 2050. This initiative is an attempt to, you know, actually try to do something to reach these goals instead of just hoping things will work out for the best.

The reason it’s called a fee and not a tax is a technical distinction under Washington law; essentially it means that the revenue cannot be spent on government expenses or public programs, but the revenue is dedicated to specific accounts related to investing in climate and environmental projects. So the revenue can’t be used on other forms of government spending unrelated to this measure.

Who supports the measure, and who opposes it?

The top donors for the YES campaign are two committees: Clean Air Clean Energy WA and Fuse Voters. Among their largest donors are the Nature Conservancy, League of Conservation Voters, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and a handful of other donors. They’ve raised about $15 million to support the measure.

In terms of endorsements, it’s supported by The Stranger and the Progressive Voters Guide, The Olympian, the American Lung Association, REI Co-op, Microsoft, Virginia Mason, Union of Concerned Scientists, and dozens of other local groups. You can find a full list of endorsements here.

The opposition is (surprise!) largely funded by large corporations in the oil and gas industry, namely BP America, Philipps 66, Andeavor, Valero, Koch Industries, and American Fuel & Petroleum Manufacturers. Suffice to say, these industries have a vested interest in maintaining the use of fossil fuels for Washington’s energy needs. They’ve collectively raised $28 million to oppose the measure, much of which hasn’t even been spent yet.

The Seattle Times and a local professor of Atmospheric Sciences at the University of Washington, Cliff Mass, also oppose the measure. The former isn’t too surprising considering the Times is a strangely conservative newspaper in an overwhelmingly liberal city. But the fact that a professor of atmospheric sciences opposes the measure might give you some pause. I’ll come back to that later.

What’s the history? Are there alternatives?

In 2016, there was a similar initiative called Washington Carbon Emission Tax and Sales Tax Reduction, or I-732. The idea was a carbon emission tax on the sale and use of certain fossil fuels and electricity generated from fossil fuels, and its aim was to be revenue neutral. There a really great article on Vox about how and why that initiative failed to pass, and how I-1631 is different. In fact, you should stop what you’re doing right now and go read it. Seriously. I’ll wait.

Done? Okay. So basically I-1631 is a new attempt at a carbon tax, this time with broader political appeal, due to its commitment to invest the fee revenue in projects that will fund additional programs and projects that will further accelerate the goal of investing in clean air, energy, water, and healthy forests.

What kind of programs would it fund?

Did you read that Vox article?

  • 70% goes to clean air and clean energy programs; 15% of that goes specifically to easing the burden on low-income families. Some $12m will also go into a fund designed to help fossil fuel workers transition into new jobs.
  • 25% goes to clean water and healthy forests. Remember all those wildfires we’ve been having? Some of that money could be used for controlled thinning of at-risk forests.
  • 5% goes to healthy communities, which mainly means assisting rural communities affected by climate change.

These projects are estimated to create some 40,000 new jobs in clean energy, forest health, and manufacturing.

Who oversees the programs?

The measure would establish a public oversight board to implement the new law. The board would have fifteen voting members: the chair; the Commissioner of Public Lands; the directors of the Department of Commerce, the Department of Ecology, and the Recreation and Conservation Office; four at-large positions; and six co-chairs of three investment panels. The three investment panels would be created by the measure and would provide advice and recommendations to the board and assist in developing criteria for approving spending on certain projects. There would be certain requirements for the at-large positions and the six co-chairs.

The board would have numerous powers and duties. It would make decisions about which projects and programs to fund with the moneys raised by the pollution fee. It would review and approve rules developed by other agencies that set guidelines for the various programs required or funded by the measure. The board would consult with other agencies and government bodies, Indian tribes, and others in developing projects. It would report to the Governor and Legislature regarding progress and challenges in implementing the measure.

Source: Voters’ Guide

So basically there will be a board of 15 members who are in charge of overseeing the projects and programs.

My Opinion

I plan to vote FOR the measure, and here are some reasons why:

Climate change is real – and is mainly caused by human activity

If you don’t agree with me on this one, then my persuasive power might be limited. But the scientific consensus is clear – not only has climate change accelerated greatly in the past couple of decades, it’s largely due to man-made pollution, and unless we change course, global warming could have devastating effects on our planet. The time to act is now – before things get much, much worse.

Investing in Clean Energy is a better path forward

The fact that the opposition to this measure is almost exclusively Big Oil companies is very telling. I don’t blame them – they have a vested interest in protecting their industry. But a dependence on coal, oil, and other “dirty” energy sources causes pollution and exacerbates global climate change. Meanwhile, there’s a near-infinite amount of free energy in the form of solar radiation that we haven’t yet fully capitalized on. Investing in clean energy could allow us to harness this energy for cheaper than extracting a limited supply of fossil fuels, and with a lot less pollution. That’s a win-win outcome!

The exemptions aren’t a big problem

One of the main ads against I-1631 states, “Big corporations get a free ride, while Washington families, consumers and small businesses pay billions.” Of course, the ad fails to mention exactly who these “big corporations” actually are – why is that? In truth, the fee will apply to 80% of state emissions, and the most notable exemption is the TransAlta power plant in Centralia – which is already scheduled to be shut down by 2025. So much for a free-ride for big corporations. Here’s (part) of the ad.

Some of the other “polluters” exempted include pulp and paper mills – and according to state law, wood emissions are carbon neutral.

It’s not that expensive for consumers

According to this article in The Atlantic, gas prices are likely to rise about 13 cents per gallon in 2020, and 15 cents per gallon for home-heating oil. Which will end up costing most residents in Washington $10 extra per month, at worst. That price is far, far less than the eventual cost of catastrophic global climate change; in fact most consumers probably won’t notice at all. And the fact that the oil industry is so adamantly against this tax means that they will be unlikely to be able to pass all of the fee on to consumers – because there are other options, such as solar power, especially as solar panels become less expensive and more prevalent in the coming years.

This is a positive step in the right direction

Cliff Mass, the Seattle Times, and the oil industry want you to believe that this is a flawed measure that exempts some of the state’s largest polluters, has too many loopholes, and isn’t the nationwide solution we need. While I agree that we do need a nationwide solution to help combat global climate change, sometimes you have to lead by example – and this measure is a positive step in the right direction, both in terms of using a tax (fee) as an incentive to drive down consumption, and because the revenues from the fee will be used to invest in the future.

Cliff’s main reasons to vote against the measure seem to be the fact that it’s a left-leaning (partisan) approach, and that there’s no concrete spending plan written into the bill for the billions of dollars of revenue the fee will generate. The idea that we shouldn’t vote for this bill because it doesn’t explicitly list all of the programs it should fund is ridiculous – such language would prevent thoughtful and meaningful investments in the future by artificially limiting them to what is written in the bill. Instead it sets up an oversight board tasked with finding and funding projects based on a number of authorized uses and requirements, which are written into the bill.

As for the partisan approach, surely Cliff is aware that the bipartisan, revenue neutral approach to a carbon tax (I-732) already failed two years ago? Is he proposing we put that back on the ballot and allow it to fail again? Cliff’s anti-partisan (anti-liberal) stance seems to stem from a certain narrow anti-government and anti-Native ideology that really makes you wonder – is it enough to believe in climate change, or do we also need to believe that we should do something about it instead of simply letting oil companies continue to pollute the only planet we have?

Conservatives and libertarians rarely believe in environmentalism and taking action to protect our planet. That’s because large-scale solutions to negative externalities like pollution and global climate change require government solutions and international cooperation, which are two things conservatives and libertarians are ideologically opposed to. Many won’t even consider this kind of solution because they believe – wrongly – that free-market forces are sufficient to clean up the planet on their own. This is a dangerous myth that prevents us from taking any real action, until it’s too late.

It’s true, this bill is probably not 100% perfect. But that’s not an argument to vote against it, unless your argument is really just a way to pretend you care about the planet while letting oil companies get away with murder. Don’t fall for it – guys like Cliff are simply trying to waste our time chasing legislative unicorns.

The bottom line is, we have a real chance to make a meaningful policy change in the state of Washington to meet our commitments to reducing greenhouse gases via a emissions fee on the state’s largest carbon polluters, which will drive down carbon consumption while raising money for additional clean energy, clean water, and healthy forest projects, while creating thousands of new jobs. The initiative is supported by a broad coalition of concerned citizens and local businesses, and is really only opposed by large oil corporations who want to continue polluting our planet while making as much money as possible. Let’s do the right thing for our state and our future – vote YES on 1631.

Additional Links / Editorials

Yes on 1631

Mark Higgins – Seattle Times: Forget Big Oil Scare Tactics

HeraldNet – Even with flaws, I-1631 provides climate solutions

Bill Gates – Why I’m for Washington state’s carbon fee

The Olympian: If no carbon fee now, when?

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Seattleite. Climber. Snowboarder. Traveler. Party rocker. Technologist. Spanish enthusiast. Fun-seeker.

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