A new name for carbon tax, for which prior initiatives have failed in Washington

Supporters need to obtain 259,622 signatures by the submission deadline of July 6 to get the initiative on the November ballot

From Daily Energy Insider

Activists in Washington state are gathering signatures on a petition to ask voters to put a price on big carbon emissions.

In a state where prior efforts to impose a carbon tax have failed, critics say this latest effort would launch a government program with no assurance of success.

Rather than enacting a “carbon tax,” the initiative would establish a “pollution fee.”

Supporters said that designating it a fee would require that the revenue be used for environmental remediation and could not be spent on general state expenses.

Funds would have to be invested in clean air, clean water, clean energy and programs in affected communities. But Todd Myers, director of the Center for the Environment at the Washington Policy Center, criticized the proposal, saying it sets no standards for performance.

“That’s the problem with these heavy-handed approaches. In many cases they don’t help the planet. They simply cause economic harm,” he said. “They can spend the money on almost anything they want and then if they fail there’s not accountability for that failure.”

Myers, who advocates for market approaches to pollution control, contends that environmental activists often push “trendy” concepts that are expensive and allow people to feel good about their efforts but aren’t necessarily effective.

Supporters, on the other hand, argue that putting a price on carbon emissions helps the environment. By establishing a dollar value for the harm caused by pollution – so-called externalities – that cost ultimately serves as a signal, or incentive, for polluters to cut the cost by reducing emissions. The government can then use the revenue to fund clean alternatives.

“This is a market-based approach. Putting a price on pollution helps internalize those costs,” said Nick Abraham, communications manager for the Washington Environmental Council. “The industries that are causing the most harm are the ones that should be paying to clean up the pollution.”

The Washington Environmental Council is part of the Alliance for Jobs and Clean Energy, which has filed the proposed statute with the Washington Secretary of State and represents a broad coalition of interests supporting the initiative.

“We’re supporting it because we think it’s the best solution for Washington state to transition to a clean energy economy and make sure we’re investing in the communities that are hardest hit by pollution,” Abraham added.

Under the proposal a $15 per ton fee would be levied on large carbon emitters in the state starting in 2020. The fee would increase each year by $2 per ton plus inflation until the state’s 2035 greenhouse gas reduction goal is met and the 2050 goal is likely.

Established in 2007 by executive order of former Gov. Christine O. Gregoire, the current targets would have carbon emissions reduced to 25 percent below 1990 levels by 2035 and to half of 1990 levels by 2050.

Under the proposed statute, 70 percent of the proceeds of the fee would have to be used for clean air and clean energy investments; 25 percent would have to be allocated to clean water and healthy forests and 5 percent would be used for healthy communities investments.

Funds also would be set aside to support and retrain fossil-fuel workers whose jobs are dislocated because of the industry transition. Utilities could obtain credits by making investments in clean energy.

A public oversight board with 15 voting members would be established to manage the implementation.

To help the state remain competitive and keep emissions and jobs from being moved out of state, fossil fuel and electricity sold to, and used by “energy-intensive” and “trade-exposed” businesses, will be exempt from the fee, according to the alliance’s website.

The 1,340 megawatt coal-fired Centralia power plant in southwestern Washington owned by TransAlta, which is scheduled to close by 2025, would be exempt.

Myers said he is not opposed to establishing incentives to reduce pollution.

“It’s reasonable to put a price on the environmental impact you cause as long as the price relates to the real world and not a fantasy,” Myers said.

He argues that any price charged for emissions should be related to the value of the environmental impact. Such impacts often include healthcare and other social costs. If the impacts are $30 per ton of emissions, but the government charges $55 per ton, then there’s an imbalance. “You’re actually doing more harm than good,” he said.

“You’re paying $55 to avoid $30 in environmental impact and that’s a lose-lose because you’re wasting money,” Myers said. “And it isn’t just that you’re wasting money, it’s that you’re wasting opportunity to help the environment.”

Myers believes there are many other tools and technologies that can be adopted first to more-efficiently reduce carbon emissions before having to resort to government-imposed taxes or fees.

Given the cloudy weather in western Washington state, for example, methane gas capture at landfills is more cost-effective than solar panels in cutting greenhouse gases but the government promotes solar panels, nonetheless.

You get an environmental policy that focuses on trendy projects

“Solar panels are simply more cool than methane gas capture,” Myers said. “So what we get is an environmental policy that focuses on trendy projects but doesn’t guarantee that it will actually help the planet.”

“We’re not using the tools we have to work with people to cut emissions. We’re using carbon taxes to beat people up so they do what we want,” he added. “It’s more about punishment than the planet.”

Prior carbon tax failures

A ballot initiative in Washington to impose a carbon tax failed in 2016 and a legislative effort supported by Gov. Jay Inslee fell short of the necessary votes earlier this year.

Supporters said this latest ballot initiative has the support of a broad coalition of environmental, labor and community groups, which they hope will give it the necessary momentum to succeed.

“What we’re really excited about is just to see how much support there is for addressing pollution in the state and how much support there is for investing in clean energy,” Abraham said.

Supporters need to obtain 259,622 signatures by the submission deadline of July 6 to get the initiative on the November ballot.

Washington is seen as the state most likely to be first with a carbon tax

No state in the U.S. has yet enacted a carbon tax. Washington is among seven jurisdictions in the nation, however, seen as the most likely to be the first, according to the Carbon Tax Center, a non-profit group that advocates emissions taxes as a tool to reduce global warming. The other jurisdictions include Massachusetts, Connecticut, Maryland, the District of Columbia, Illinois and New York.

Neighboring British Columbia in 2008 was the first jurisdiction to adopt a carbon tax in North America. The rate, currently at $35 per ton, will increase $5 per ton each year until 2021 when it reaches $50 per ton, according to the province’s website. Canada’s federal government, meanwhile, is developing a national carbon tax, which leaders are hoping to implement in the next year.


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