Washington voters may be the first to approve a carbon fee

If approved on November’s ballot, Initiative 1631 would set a precedent for states to take action on climate change.

The measure would make Washington the first state to put a fee on the carbon content of fossil fuels sold or used in the state and in the generation of electricity. The fee would be $15 per metric ton of carbon and would increase annually by $2 per metric ton.

Although about 80% of the states carbon pollution would be covered, several large polluters would be exempt. The TransAlta coal-fired plant in Centralia, which is scheduled to shut down in 2020 is an example. So, are several large manufactures.

Because it is a fee — as opposed to a tax where revenue goes into the general fund — all proceeds would be dedicated to three funds:

  • For clean energy infrastructure, such as solar and wind, public transportation and cleaner fuels.
  • For water quality and forest health, and
  • For community investments to ensure that the most vulnerable are not disproportionately harmed.

The funds will be overseen by a public board.

The Yes on 1631 campaign is supported by over 350 Washington organizations, representing environmental and clean-energy advocates, working families, businesses, communities of color, health professional, businesses, faith leaders, and tribal nations. It has raised over $5 million and is relying heavily on the mobilization of voters by its supporters.

The No on 1631 is sponsored by the Western States Petroleum Association and is very well funded by out-of-state energy interests, including oil companies, BP America, Phillips 66, Andeavor. With $26 million of contributions, the opposition campaign is likely to spend a record amount for any initiative in the state.

Proponents of the Initiative argue that I-1631:

  • Will put a price on carbon and is one of the best ways to combat climate change
  • Will help create 40,000 jobs and keep in the state much of the money that Washington now sends out of the state for energy costs
  • Will improve public health, save lives, and reduce billions in health care costs
  • Be overseen by a public board of experts in health, science, business and community leaders.

Opponents claim that I-1631:

  • Will impose a new tax on businesses and consumers, raising the price of transportation and electricity
  • Exempts 6 of the state’s largest polluters
  • Is unaccountable because it creates a new state bureaucracy under an unelected board with the authority to disperse billions of dollars
  • Is not coordinated with other states and that a national approach to carbon pollution is preferred.

With such a low price low carbon price, 1631 will rely a great deal on investment of carbon revenue to achieve emission reductions. “Frankly, this is an investment vehicle much more than a price signal,” says Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, who has publicly backed, and is raising money for, 1631. It’s a relatively low price signal, well below the real social cost of carbon.”

Washington’s vote will have impact well beyond Washington. If 1631 passes, it will be the first state to pass a carbon fee and the first government anywhere where the voters have imposed a price on carbon upon themselves. If it fails in the liberal state of Washington, it will raise the question whether significant state-level climate policy can be enacted in other states, such as Oregon.

Gordy Molitor is a Board Member of Solar Oregon and of Our Climate, an organization that mobilizes and empowers young people to work on climate issues in six states

Written by

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store