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Here’s what the carbon fee, Initiative 1631, would mean for the environment and consumers

After a measure that would have imposed a tax on carbon emissions was rejected by 59 percent of voters in 2016, Washingtonians will consider a similar initiative that would establish a carbon fee on polluters in the state.

Carbon taxes are making their way through legislatures in several other states, but approval of Initiative 1631 would make Washington the first state to impose a carbon tax or fee.

What it means: A “yes” vote would impose a $15-per-ton-of-carbon fee on large emitters of greenhouse gases, like oil and gas companies, starting Jan. 1, 2020, according to ballot initiative language from the Washington Secretary of State’s office and Ballotpedia.

  • The fee would increase by $2 each year until Washington meets its 2035 greenhouse gas reduction goals and is on target to meet its 2050 goals.
  • The money would fund programs aimed at reducing pollution in the air and water, addressing climate impacts and encouraging clean energy usage.
  • A 15-member public oversight board would supervise spending, and report to the governor and legislature.
  • The Washington Office of Financial Management said the fee would raise more than $2 billion in the first five years.
  • Some fee exemptions apply, including to fossil fuels exported from Washington and coal-burning facilities scheduled to close by 2025.
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Who’s for it: Clean Air Clean Energy Washington, a coalition of businesses, tribal groups and environmental organizations, has spent $9 million supporting the initiative, according to the Public Disclosure Commission. The coalition has raised more than $12 million, with most of its contributions coming from conservation and environmental groups. Former Microsoft CEO Bill Gates and former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg each have given $1 million.

Yes on 1631 touts the endorsements of dozens of businesses, renewable energy groups, unions, Native American tribes, churches and healthcare groups like Planned Parenthood and the American Lung Association.

Advocates of the measure describe it as a “practical first step to ensure clean air and clean water for everyone in Washington,” and say it would “protect our health, build new good-paying jobs, and ensure a cleaner future for the next generation.”

Gov. Jay Inslee supports the fee, and said people who vote against it are “voting with Donald Trump, who is a climate denier.”

Who’s against it: No on 1631, sponsored by the Western States Petroleum Association, has spent nearly $19 million fighting the initiative, according to the Public Disclosure Commission. The group has received more than $21 million in donations, mostly from various oil and petroleum companies. Top contributors include Phillips 66, BP America, Andeavor, Chevron and Valero.

Shell’s top executive said he supports a price on carbon and would not spend money opposing the initiative, but cannot support it, either. In an opinion column in The Seattle Times, CEO Ben van Beurden said the initiative has flaws, like failing to place a fee on coal emissions or a tax on out-of-state carbon imports.

The Association of Washington Businesses has raised $14,500, mostly from petroleum companies, and has spent $500 opposing the measure.

Other critics, like The Tri-City Herald Editorial Board, contend the initiative would unfairly increase consumers’ and small businesses’ gas and electricity prices, exempts too many of the state’s polluters and lacks oversight for spending the revenue that would be generated.

What the expert says: Chris Anderson, an environmental economist at the University of Washington’s School of Aquatic and Fishery Sciences, thinks the fee will be an effective way to help address climate change in the state, including fighting changing wildfire patterns, smoky skies and rising sea levels.

“The state has costs associated with fighting those fires and helping people manage those fires, and that’s one place that this money might get spent,” he said. The $2 billion or more is a “meaningful” amount of money in terms of addressing environmental problems, he said.

Anderson said the fee will cause drivers to pay more at the pump, since emitters that are forced to pay more to pollute will compensate by raising gas prices.

“Everyone’s going to feel the slightly higher prices, and that’s the idea, because (the goal is for) you to feel it enough to change your behavior,” he said. “If you set the (fee) at the right level, you will discourage the polluting activity, and you’ll have money which you can potentially use to ... address the damage that’s caused by carbon pollution.”

If the initiative passes, Anderson predicts more people will start using renewable sources of energy, like electric cars.

“I think that’s a design intent of the measure – we want to buy less conventional motor vehicle fuel, because it is causing some serious environmental problems both globally and locally,” he said.

Anderson doesn’t think many people will see increased electricity prices, because so much of Washington is already powered by hydroelectric power and wind.

Even though some large emitters would be exempted from the fee, Anderson still thinks the initiative would be effective at addressing pollution.

“Although they’re the big emitters, emissions is so broadly spread out among businesses and consumers in the state that they don’t account for very much of the total emissions,” he said. “So we are still addressing and applying this to an overwhelming percentage of the state.”