Washington Voters to Decide on Historic Carbon Fee

OLYMPIA, Wash. (CN) – Depending on the will of voters, Washington state could lead the nation in enacting the country’s first direct carbon fee – a move the scientists behind the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change say is the best way to prevent global climate catastrophe.

If passed, the law would charge only “large emitters” based on carbon pollution from selling or using fossil fuels and generating or importing electricity. The fee would start at $15 per ton of carbon emissions on Jan. 1, 2020. After that, it would increase by $2 per ton each year until the state’s 2035 greenhouse gas reduction goals are met and the state appears to be on track to meet its 2050 goals.

That could add up to nearly $1 billion per year by 2023, according to state estimates. The state would be required to use that money for green energy investments or helping the citizens hardest hit by climate change.

Globally speaking, carbon pricing is nothing new. But Measure 1631 is seen as a test of the prevailing attitude in U.S. politics that says such a measure is too extreme to be enacted stateside – and a chance for voters to take a step to stop climate change that has so far been imposed in other countries only by government leaders.

According to a study released Oct. 8 by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the world has a little over a decade to the make major changes in energy infrastructure that would avert the worst effects of climate change.

The study’s authors say we have until 2030 to reorganize our energy systems and need to achieve net zero carbon emissions by 2050. Though that kind of quick change would be unprecedented, the authors say, it would still allow global temperatures to rise half a degree from where we are now.

But limiting warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-Industrial levels would reduce extreme weather and sea level rise and give coral reefs a shot at survival. The Oct. 8 study argued for the importance of limiting warming to half a degree lower than the 2-degree Celcius goal set by the Paris Agreement.

It would mean immediately scrapping policies that subsidize fossil fuels and launching carbon pricing systems across the globe – a move the authors said will be a critically important part of averting disaster.

If the law passes, Washington would be the first state in the U.S. to adopt a carbon fee. That’s in part because politicians have repeatedly declared such an action a non-starter, while some still declare climate change a hoax.

But the idea is a popular one around the globe, and has been adopted in Sweden, Australia and just across the border from Washington in the Canadian province of British Columbia. There, conservative politicians instituted a carbon tax in 2008. Not only did it pass, but the law and the politicians who introduced it survived a political cycle afterward when left-leaning politicians campaigned based on their promise to “Axe the Tax.”

In interviews with Washington voters three weeks before the Nov. 6 election, few had heard of the measure. But the majority of the two dozen registered voters in two major Washington cities who spoke with Courthouse News said they support carbon pricing in theory and would likely vote in favor of the initiative.

Karis VanDehey, a 48-year-old geologist, said she’s all for a carbon fee, even if it did make her bills more expensive.

“We need to encourage people to not use as much and I’d be willing to take on a little responsibility for that,” VanDehey told Courthouse News.

Scott Harrison, 52, and Julie Armstrong, 46, had not heard of the measure either. Both said it would be fair for products to cost more if they directly cause pollution. The couple struggled with the question of who was responsible for pollution that creates products that individuals need.

“It’s just that people should not have to pay for other people’s pollution,” Armstrong said.

“But they’re polluting it for us, that’s the problem,” Harrison said.

“But are they really polluting it for us?” Armstrong asked. “No, they’re polluting for economic gain for themselves.”

In the end, Armstrong said she would only support such a fee if it was paid by industrial polluters and did not get passed on to individual people.

If Washington gets a carbon fee, California would still have a stricter system with the cap and trade program it launched in 2012.

Under the policy, the state allocates or sells a limited number of permits that allow pollution. Polluters must either limit emissions to the permitted amount or buy permits from others. Similar systems are used in China, New Zealand, South Korea, Quebec and parts of Europe.

Because the language of the initiative specifically labels the actions as a “fee” and not a “tax,” the money generated cannot go into the general fund. Instead, it is earmarked to be used only on projects to clean up pollution, fund clean air and energy investments and help those hardest hit by climate change.

Such projects would be intended to “ensure a successful and just transition” to a society that “prioritizes clean air, clean energy, clean water, healthy forests, and healthy communities,” according to the measure.

Money generated from the fee could also be used to protect “vulnerable community members” from the impacts of climate change – like potentially funding the move of the Quinault Indian Nation’s main village, Taholah, which regularly floods due to rising sea levels.

The state’s sole coal plant would be exempt from the fee, since its owners have already agreed to shut down production by 2025. The plant’s workers would be another group eligible for help from the money generated by the fee.

Predictably, oil and gas companies are the measure’s main opponents, claiming it will increase fuel prices for consumers without reducing emissions.  At most, supporters say, the measure will increase fuel costs for the average family by $10 per month.

Those who oppose the measure put that monthly average closer to $35. Oil and gas companies banding together under the name Western States Petroleum Association have collectively raised nearly $26 million to fight the initiative – including a last-minute cash infusion on Oct. 19 from Koch Industries, more than double the amount raised by supporters.

But most of the Washington residents who spoke with Courthouse News said they support the measure. Its language calls the effort “a pollution fee,” intended to “offset and alleviate burdens to which those emitters directly contribute.”

And that’s exactly what needs to be done, according to Kathleen DuPriest, an 82-year-old resident of Olympia.

“They’ve got to do something about this global warming,” DuPriest said. “They’ve got to do something, and soon.”

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