Opponents of Initiative 1631, which would place a fee on carbon emitters in Washington, have taken aim at the fact that the TransAlta coal-fired plant in Centralia would be exempt from the fee. While the TransAlta issue is more complex than critics would lead voters to believe, it does raise questions about the proposed carbon fee.
Because of those questions, The Columbian’s Editorial Board recommends a “no” vote on Initiative 1631. As always, this is merely a recommendation; The Columbian urges voters to take a close look at this important measure before casting a ballot.
The need for examining the issue is represented by the TransAlta plant. While the facility — one of Washington’s biggest polluters — is exempt from the fee, it also is scheduled to be closed by 2025. Opponents typically don’t mention that, reflecting how 1631 is subject to strident opinions on both sides that don’t always provide a complete picture of the issue.
With that in mind, we shall attempt to provide the basics of the ballot measure, but we encourage voters to fully study Initiative 1631.
To begin with, climate change is real, and it is exacerbated by human activity. A vast majority of climate scientists agree, and increasingly extreme weather events such as devastating hurricanes and wildfires confirm the science. We are past the point of placating naysayers who are prone to downplaying or denying the impact that burning fossil fuels has upon the global environment, but that does not mean that Initiative 1631 is the best possible approach.
I-1631 would charge emitting companies $15 for each ton of carbon they release, with the fee increasing over time. Notably, aviation and maritime fuels also are exempt, as are “energy-intensive, trade-dependent” businesses such as aluminum and steel.
Revenue would go toward efforts to reduce the state’s carbon footprint, prepare for climate change, and help communities impacted by climate change. A commission would be formed to determine how funds are doled out, and because the revenue comes from a fee rather than a tax, it would be used only for climate and environmental projects and could not be diverted for other government expenses.
The state Office of Financial Management estimates that I-1631 would raise $2.3 billion in the first five years. While we support efforts to promote clean energy, it is reasonable to ask whether $2.3 billion can be spent on projects that actually pass a cost-benefit analysis. Raising money for effective projects is a worthy goal; raising money simply to target polluting industries can lead to unnecessary expenditures and can be harmful to industry in the state.
The question then becomes one of costs to consumers. State officials estimate that residential natural gas prices would increase by about 10 percent in 2020, gasoline prices would increase between 6 percent and 9 percent, and electricity costs also would rise. Industries would pay the bulk of I-1631’s fees, but the pocketbooks of average Washingtonians also would feel the impact.
Washington would be the first state to impose a carbon fee on polluters, and we applaud efforts to place the state at the forefront of an important issue. British Columbia adopted a carbon tax in 2008, and while critics claim that tax has not reduced emissions, it likely slowed their growth and has not demonstrably hampered the economy of the province.
Because of that, and because of the urgency presented by climate change, we are intrigued by efforts to reduce carbon emissions. But Initiative 1631 has too many problems to warrant a recommendation.