Two years ago, The Herald Editorial Board reluctantly advised a no vote on Initiative 732, which would have imposed a tax on carbon emissions of $25 per metric ton with the trade-off that its revenue would have gone toward a penny reduction in the state sales tax to 5.5 cents on a $1 purchase, from the current 6.5 cents.
The flaw, as we saw it then, was that there was no guarantee that the revenue from the carbon tax would sufficiently offset the expected losses to the state’s general fund, coming at a time when lawmakers still had not figured out how to amply fund K-12 education.
Two years on — with tens of millions more tons of carbon pumped into the air of Washington state, and the recent release of a United Nation’s scientific report on climate change — we now must weigh the need for immediate action to reduce carbon emissions against the potential flaws and consequences in the latest citizen initiative, I-1631.
The U.N. report: The United Nation’s report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change — compiled by 91 scientists from 40 nations from more than 6,000 scientific studies — lowered the temperature threshold at which the world will see dire environmental effects from sea level rise; occurrence of drought, floods, wildfires and other severe weather events; loss of habitat and species; and reduction in crop harvests, predicting those effects at only a 1.5 degree Celsius (2.7 degree Fahrenheit) global increase rather than 2 degrees (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit), and hitting as early as 2040.
Offering some hope, the report concludes that it’s possible to achieve in relatively short time the reductions in carbon emissions that will slow and even begin to reverse the rise in temperature and the resulting impacts. To get there it recommends a near end to the use of coal and a reduction in fossil fuel consumption and a price on carbon to encourage that reduction.
What’s proposed: Initiative 1631 proposes just such a fee on carbon. It would charge some of the state’s largest polluters a fee of $15 per metric ton of carbon, increasing $2 each year, plus inflation, until the state’s existing goal for reducing greenhouse gases for 2035 is met and is on track to meet the 2050 reduction goal.
The revenue from the fee, estimated by the state at $2.3 billion in the first five years, but eventually reaching as much as $1 billion a year, would be used to fund a range of projects that themselves are intended to reduce carbon emissions through cleaner transportation options; promotion of solar, wind and other renewable sources of energy; work to improve the health of forests; projects that capture and store carbon; and programs to help disadvantaged communities make the adjustment away from fossil fuels.
Those projects would be selected by a 15-member public oversight panel, including governor appointees and state officials.
In a state where hydropower provides the greatest share of electrical energy, most of the carbon emissions in Washington state are the result of transportation and the vehicles that we drive. And among the pollution sources most effected by the carbon fee will be the refineries that produce the fuel we use.
Fatal flaws? The No on 1631 campaign — supported through more than $20 million from the oil industry — has pointed to a host of what it says are fatal flaws in the initiative, even as the campaign admits the need for a reduction in carbon emissions. Among the flaws, it says, I-1631:
Would result in increased costs for gas — it predicts a 14-cent-a-gallon increase in 2020 when it goes into effect — and for home heating, imposing what amounts to a regressive tax that will disadvantage lower-income and working families and those in rural areas who must make long commutes and small businesses moving products;
Unfairly exempts some of the state’s heaviest polluters;
Would allow an unelected board to chose which projects would receive financing with no accountability to the public; and
Provides no guarantee that it will result in meeting the goal of reducing annual carbon emissions by 20 million tons by 2035 and 50 million tons by 2050.
I-1631 supporters and others have answered those allegations.
Defending I-1631: Regarding the exempted industries, the state’s single top polluter, a coal-fired power plant in Centralia, which emitted more than 5 million metric tons of carbon dioxide in 2016, was let off the hook because it had already agreed to stop burning coal as of 2025. The state’s pulp and paper mills were exempted because they chiefly burn wood waste to power operations, a resource that, while it emits carbon dioxide, is considered renewable by the state through the replanting of timber which naturally captures carbon.
As to the board’s accountability to the public, legislators supportive of the initiative say that the final decision on project funding will rest with lawmakers.
What of the everyday costs to the public? Opponents, last week, released a study that predicts that because of the increase in gas and other energy prices, the most families in the state can expect to pay about $440 more a year.
I-1631 supporters were quick to point out that the study’s authors have long provided questionable numbers for both the oil and tobacco industries.
Both sides will debate how much of an increase will result, but it’s fair to assume that transportation and energy costs will increase. How else to discourage the use of fossil fuels than to increase their cost and make alternatives a more attractive option?
It’s also fair to admit that for too many years we have been paying an uncounted cost for the pollution created by fossil fuels that has contributed to health problems for those with asthma, emphysema and other lung diseases; habitat and other environmental losses; and climate change itself.
The initiative’s effectiveness in reducing carbon emissions also is hard to judge without knowing how motorists will adjust to an increase in fuel costs and what alternative energy projects and programs will be proposed and accepted. Truthfully, a starting point of more than $15 a ton might have resulted in quicker carbon reductions.
There likely are flaws and unspecific language in the initiative, but none that can’t be addressed by the Legislature after two years or with two-thirds approval. The Legislature has next year to address problems in the language before fees are first assessed in 2020.
A diamond in the rough: Even with its flaws and uncertainties, Initiative 1631 could have positive effects for the state, the nation and the globe:
As the first such carbon-reduction program in the nation, it could foster similar efforts in other states.
By encouraging development of solar, wind and other renewable resources, the state could become a hub for development of those technologies, creating tens of thousands of jobs that would offset job losses elsewhere, even without the investment the initiative pledges to make in job-retraining for displaced workers.
It will simply clear the air for all residents but particularly those who live in communities with clogged highways, fostering the development of cleaner and healthier transportation options.
And, after years of rejected proposals to address carbon emissions, I-1631 will begin to make an honest effort at reducing carbon emissions and taking seriously the threat of climate change.
We are past the point where we can wait for perfect; Washington voters should put us on the path toward good.