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Why Don't Environmentalists Support Washington's Carbon Tax Measure?

A largely revenue-neutral carbon tax proposal, similar to the carbon tax in British Columbia which began in 2008, qualified for the November ballot in Washington. Environmentalists and Democrats, not Big Oil, may cause it's defeat.
September 19, 2016, 7am PDT | Irvin Dawid
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The carbon tax measure, officially known as Initiative 732, the "Washington Carbon Emission Tax and Sales Tax Reduction," would enact four tax changes, according to sponsor Carbon Washington:

  • Reduce the state sales tax by one full percentage point.
  • Fund the Working Families Rebate to provide up to $1500 a year for 400,000 low-income working households.
  • Effectively eliminate the business & occupation tax for manufacturers.
  • Institute a carbon tax of $25 per metric ton CO2 on fossil fuels consumed in the state of Washington.

Note: Campaign leaders acknowledge a flaw that would "cut state tax collections by $900 million over four years," reported Jim Brunner for The Seattle Times.

"Initiative 732 is designed to move the state toward two important goals – fairer taxes and cleaner energy," according to campaign co-directors Duncan Clauson and Kyle Murphy. And therein lies the rub — it doesn't do what much of the state's environmental community wants.

For example, here's what the Northwest-based clean energy economy nonprofit, Climate Solutions, which has taken a "do not support postion," would like done with revenues:

  • Invest the proceeds raised from putting a price on pollution into new technologies and projects that accelerate the growth of the clean energy economy. A price alone will not advance the clean energy economy fast enough to end our reliance on fossil fuels.
  • Address the needs of those most impacted by fossil fuel pollution. Pollution sources like emissions from refineries and vehicles on highways impact the communities located closest to them. More often than not, these communities are low-income and communities of color, exposing already disadvantaged populations to more pollution.

The Sierra Club has taken the same "do not support" position for similar reasons. They add another point, the lack of a "cap" on emissions, which may now be moot due to the Department of Ecology's approval of the Clean Air Rule on Thursday which sets a carbon cap on large emitters.

The Northwest Progressive Institute and the Democratic Party are opposed to the initiative.

An alternative proposal [PDF] has been advanced by the Northwest Environmental Center and the Alliance for Jobs and Clean Energy. Rather than a revenue-neutral approach, it is based on "reduce and reinvest" and is more likely to please more of the state's environmental organizations and environmental and social justice groups. However, the group chose not to qualify it for the November ballot due to the presence of I-732.

One environmental group that is supporting the I-732 is the Audubon Washington.

"It means Audubon is breaking away from a huge group of environmental, labor and progressive groups in the Puget Sound region — a group that Audubon awkwardly still belongs to," reported columnist Danny Westneat for The Seattle Times.  

That coalition has opposed Initiative 732 as a “Republican lite” effort that raises no money for various causes and may even blow a hole in the state budget.

Carbon Washington's Murphy "rejects the logic that the policy was crafted wholly to appeal to conservative interests, and instead argues that its revenue neutrality stems from a desire for economic fairness and simplicity — and to ensure taxes aren’t being increased on low-income families," reports Clayton Aldern for Crosscut.

Harvard economist N. Gregory Mankiw concurs. "The overall plan is progressive and revenue-neutral," he wrote in a New York Times column last year. "If passed, the initiative would yield a tax shift, not a tax increase."


"Recent polling shows I-732 trailing, or only leading by a slim margin, and many voters still haven’t made up their minds," adds Aldern, who goes into greater detail on polling results.

The ballot measure marks the first time a statewide carbon tax has gone before voters in the U.S. Should it lose, I suspect it won't be the last time.

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Hat tip to Darrell Clarke

Full Story:
Published on Tuesday, September 6, 2016 in Crosscut
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