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The following is presented as part of The Columbian’s Opinion content, which offers a point of view in order to provoke thought and debate of civic issues. Opinions represent the viewpoint of the author. Unsigned editorials represent the consensus opinion of The Columbian’s editorial board, which operates independently of the news department.
News / Opinion / Editorials

In Our View: Carbon-pricing scheme requires adjustments

The Columbian
Published: November 29, 2023, 6:03am

An initiative to repeal Washington’s carbon-pricing scheme demonstrates the enmity that surrounds the program. It also demonstrates the need for lawmakers to tweak the system during next year’s legislative session.

Opponents last week turned in what they say are 418,399 signatures in support of Initiative 2117 to erase the state’s Climate Commitment Act. To place the initiative on the ballot, 324,516 valid signatures are required; elections officials will determine the validity of each signature.

Whether or not the measure lands on next year’s ballot, the initiative effort makes clear the controversy over the climate act. The act allows polluting companies to purchase credits at auction allowing for carbon emissions beyond their allotment.

Last year, Gov. Jay Inslee said the act would add “pennies” to the price of gas in Washington. Instead, studies show, it has accounted for an additional 25 cents to 50 cents per gallon. Critics say the program has driven inflation by increasing costs for gas, food and other necessities.

“We want the planet to be clean,” said Brian Heywood, chief financier of the signature-gathering effort. “We don’t want polluters to get off scot-free. Frankly, what the carbon tax does is it allows polluters to get off scot-free. They just pass the cost on.”

That message can resonate with voters, who have felt the impact of severe inflation in recent years. It would carry more weight if critics presented alternative proposals for reducing carbon emissions to help mitigate climate change, but that is where the Legislature comes in.

Washington’s latest allowance auction cost $66.03 per metric ton of carbon. For a similar linked cap-and-trade system in California and Quebec, the cost is $38.73 per metric ton of carbon — 59 percent of our state’s most recent price. In the long run, that not only makes it more expensive for polluting companies to do business in Washington, it also provides incentive to not do business here.

Allowance costs “went up too much, too fast, leading to price shocks at the pump,” says state Sen. Mark Mullet, D-Issaquah, a cap-and-trade supporter who is running for governor. “That was avoidable if we’d implemented this in a more thoughtful way.”

In its first year, the cap-and-trade program has far exceeded expectations by collecting nearly $1.5 billion for programs that reduce emissions and improve air quality. Those are worthy goals, but they could be for naught if voters believe they are being stuck with the bill.

To help stabilize the market for carbon credits, the state Ecology Department recently announced a plan to merge Washington’s auctions with the California-Quebec system. That is an important step, but it will not be in place until 2025 — after voters likely weigh in on the program.

If Initiative 2117 is found to have the requisite number of signatures, it will go to the Legislature next year. Lawmakers may adopt it as written — an unlikely outcome — or they may reject it or refuse to act, in which case it will be on the November 2024 ballot.

Lawmakers also may approve an alternative measure to be placed on the ballot, which is the most likely scenario. Presenting a referendum to voters likely would create confusion that scuttles both measures at the polls.

That might be politically expedient, but it would ignore the larger goal — to reduce emissions without unduly burdening taxpayers in Washington. Lawmakers should get busy ensuring the carbon-pricing program works as intended.