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A groundbreaking carbon tax lost at the ballot–again

Washington State voters and representatives both keep on rejecting plans to put a price on carbon. What can activists learn from the ongoing struggle?

A groundbreaking carbon tax lost at the ballot–again
[Source Image: pzAxe/iStock]

The third time was supposed to be the charm. On November 6, voters in Washington State had a chance to vote on Initiative 1631, a proposal–drafted by a broad coalition of communities of color, labor, and environmentalists–to put a price on carbon. Initiative 1631 aimed to charge oil companies and other significant polluters in the state $15 per ton of carbon released–a fee that would increase by $2 every year until 2035. The approximately $1 billion it was expected to raise annually would go toward clean energy projects, public transportation, environmental conservation, and green jobs programs.

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And yet, despite endorsements from the likes of The New York Times, The Sierra Club, Microsoft, Bill Gates, and the state’s governor, Jay Inslee, the 2018 attempt at a carbon fee failed, winning only 43.7% of the vote.

[Source Image: pzAxe/iStock]

This was not Washington State’s first attempt at carbon pricing. In 2016, another initiative, 732, proposed implementing a tax on carbon in exchange for reducing sales and manufacturing taxes and creating a fund for low-income families–an approach intended to appeal to conservatives. The strategy didn’t work: 732 received 40.7% of the vote. Earlier this year, too, the state legislature attempted to pass a carbon tax measure, but that died when it failed to collect enough votes in the Senate to advance.

Organizers on the ground, like Deric Gruen, program director for Front and Centered, a Seattle-based environmental justice organization, thought 1631 seemed poised for success. The previous ballot initiative push in 2016 leaned heavily on the bipartisan appeal of the tax breaks created out of the carbon tax, and did not engage with the environmental concerns of communities and how the revenue raised would address them. The 1631 coalition took that lesson as their starting point for organizing. They engaged environmental activists to ensure the policy would be rigorous enough to make an impact. They worked with labor to ensure a portion of the revenue would go toward transitioning jobs in fossil fuels to jobs in renewables. And they worked with communities of color and tribal nations to address their particular environmental needs.

“The previous initiative, 732, tried to write a policy and wrap everyone around it,” Gruen says. “Our approach was to bring everyone together to write a policy.”

In a statement to Fast Company, Nick Abraham, communications director for the Yes on 1631 coalition, said that “regardless of the outcome, our coalition is sticking together. We know the longer we wait, the worse this problem is going to get. Climate pollution isn’t going anywhere and neither are we.” Jesse Piedfort, director of the Washington State Sierra Club chapter, expressed the same sentiment: “An unprecedented coalition united behind this measure and the idea that fossil fuel companies should be held accountable for their impacts to our changing climate. That coalition isn’t going away an time soon and will continue to fight for a clean energy future for Washington State.”

But even if the effort to put a price on carbon is holding its ground, it’s clear it needs a new approach. In 2016, the libertarian, conservative-courting approach failed. The legislative approach failed. And now the left-leaning, grassroots coalition also failed.

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What these varied thwarted attempts shows is something every resident of the U.S. likely knows intuitively: Passing a broad, state-level tax on carbon is an extremely difficult task. Even as renewable energy like wind and solar grows cheaper and more pervasive, fossil fuel companies still wield a great deal of power. In Washington, companies like Chevron and BP donated $31 million to oppose the measure–the most a ballot measure opposition campaign has ever spent in the state. “We’re still battling powerful, entrenched forces,” says Bryce Smith, CEO of the Seattle-based LevelTen Energy, which facilitates renewable energy purchasing for corporations.

[Source Image: pzAxe/iStock]
The No on 1631 campaign, sponsored by the Western States Petroleum Association (umbrella organization for companies like BP, Chevron, Shell, and Exxon), produced a swath of ads saying the measure would result in higher costs to consumers. This makes sense: In Washington, 54.5% of carbon emissions come from gas and diesel used in transportation, so these companies would be hardest hit by the measure. Most states see the bulk of their carbon emissions come from the electric sector, but because Washington has such abundant hydropower resources, only around a quarter of its energy sources are non-renewable.

But the No on 1631 effort also manipulated doubts about the plan not being strong enough to regulate emissions from the energy sector,  playing up the fact that 1631 exempted a coal-fired plant. (They glossed over the reason for the exemption, though: The plant is already set to shutter in 2025.) These arguments were persuasive enough to merit the Seattle Times editorial board recommending a “no” vote on the measure.

There’s also the fact that even though Washington, the Evergreen State, has a strong progressive reputation, swaths of the central and eastern portions of the state are still very conservative. It’s also one of the few states with no income tax, which makes proposed additional taxes seem stark, even for liberal voters. In this same election, for instance, Washington passed a measure banning any new taxes on food items (namely: soda). Seattle, the state’s progressive hub, also notoriously repealed a tax it was going to levy against big businesses like Amazon.

[Source Image: pzAxe/iStock]

And there’s the simple issue that no state has ever enacted a carbon fee of this nature. California’s successful cap-and-trade program, which sets a limit on emissions from polluters and requires them to purchase credits to authorize emissions that exceed that limit, attaches a price to carbon, but leaves the market to sort out how it’s levied.

Just south of Washington, voters in Portland, Oregon demonstrated that there is an appetite for holding large polluters accountable to their carbon emissions, and for protecting communities impacted by climate change. While not a fee on carbon, exactly, the Portland Clean Energy Fund–a first-of-its-kind measure–will raise around $30 million annually via a surcharge on large corporations with a local presence (the idea being that their long supply chains and extensive operations produce a disproportionate amount of emissions). That money raised will fund clean energy and environmental protection projects in low-income communities of color. A broad coalition similar to the one behind 1631 advanced the PCEF, and in Portland, it found success. This local approach could prove an effective building block toward more statewide accountability measures around carbon emissions.

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And, Smith adds, renewable energy is not going anywhere. While oil companies still hold political sway, other companies have decision-making power as well. As companies like Apple have announced they’re powered by 100% renewable energy (Washington-based Amazon has that standard as a long-term goal, though it hasn’t given itself a precise deadline), there’s less carbon being emitted that needs a price. “It’s even more important that corporate and institutional power buyers demonstrate energy procurement leadership,” Smith says.

The defeat of 1631 is certainly a blow to the effort to drive down the use of renewables, but it’s not a stopping point. The Carbon Costs Coalition, a group of legislators in 10 states that are committed to putting a price on carbon, pointed to signs of progress across the state. The Oregon state legislature is aiming to hammer out details of a cap-and-trade bill next year. Utah introduced a carbon-pricing bill, and the Massachusetts Senate passed one. New Mexico resolved to study what impact carbon pricing would have there. In Washington State, according to Abraham, the Yes on 1631 coalition is aiming to push the state legislature to re-introduce a new carbon pricing bill. (The state legislature, following the midterms, is now more strongly Democratic, so activists are optimistic). Even if Washington misses the opportunity to become the first state to implement carbon pricing, it’s certainly played a significant role in waking more states up to the possibility that this strategy could become policy–even if that takes an uphill battle.

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About the author

Eillie Anzilotti is an assistant editor for Fast Company's Ideas section, covering sustainability, social good, and alternative economies. Previously, she wrote for CityLab.

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