An initiative filed Friday would create an escalating Washington carbon “fee” on fossil fuels, and invest the revenue in clean energy, clean water, forests and other projects that seek to slow or help cope with climate change.
The initiative was filed with the Secretary of State one day after a carbon-tax bill died in the Legislature. It is backed by the Alliance for Jobs and Clean Energy, a coalition of labor, environmental and tribal groups that are hoping their measure can make it onto the November election ballot.
“This is the broadest coalition I have been involved with in my over 30 years of work,” said Jeff Johnson, president of the Washington State Labor Council. “And I will be going all around the state over the next two months talking to unions about this.”
By crafting a carbon fee — rather than tax — it is possible to tie the revenue to expenditures that will help create a low-carbon economy, said Johnson who helped to draft the initiative.
The fee would start at $15 a metric ton of carbon, which would add an estimated 14 cents to the cost of a gallon of gasoline, and rise annually by $2 plus the rate of inflation.
According to the initiative, 70 percent of the fee money would be set aside for clean air and clean-energy investments, 25 percent for clean water and healthy forests, and 5 percent for communities.
The 57-page initiative carves out exemptions for some trade-sensitive industries, such as aluminum producers who face foreign competition.
A coal-fired generation plant in Centralia operated by Transalta would be exempt from the tax until it’s scheduled closure in 2025. That exemption reflects a deal that environmental groups made with Transalta over the terms of the closure, Johnson said.
Utilities also could gain credits for certain types of investments.
But creating a fee does not allow rebates or exemptions for low-income residents, Johnson said. Instead, low income residents could benefit from new investments in their communities for conservation, solar, clean-energy, job training and other efforts, he said.
The spending would go through the legislative-appropriation process, and a public-oversight board would be established to help watchdog the investments.
To get on the ballot, the alliance must collect signatures from at least 259,622 registered voters by July 6, according to the Secretary of State’s office.
In recent years, federal action in Congress to price carbon has been at a standstill. Meanwhile, Washington has emerged as a kind of ground zero for state-level efforts to assign pollution costs to carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases from fossil fuels that scientists say are driving climate change.
Currently, along the West Coast, California and British Columbia have both put prices on carbon.
In Washington, even with a strong environmental movement, there are plenty of skeptics who question whether such state action will make much of a difference. Others are wary of an additional tax state residents would have to pay.
So far, Gov. Jay Inslee, who has made climate change a key issue in his administration, has repeatedly failed to muster enough votes for in the Legislature to pass carbon-pricing measures.
Also, in 2016, Washington voters rejected a measure that would have coupled a carbon tax with cuts in sales and other taxes, and offered tax credits to some 460,000 low-income households. That initiative was seriously hampered by a bitter divide within the climate-activist community, with the Sierra Club, labor groups, the state Democratic Party, social-justice groups and others failing to endorse the measure.
In 2016 interviews, Yoram Bauman, co-chairman of the carbon-tax campaign, said it was important to craft a revenue-neutral measure so that as the price on fossil fuels rose there would be tax relief in other areas. He also hoped that approach could help gain support from Republicans wary of growing government. Three Republican state senators did support the measure.
Critics of the 2016 measure, such as Johnson, thought was important to create a pool of money that could help quicken the shift toward a low-carbon economy.
“We are trying to offset the burdens that those (greenhouse-gas) emissions have caused both on individuals and economies,” Johnson said.