The decision to oppose Initiative 1631 was not political for the Longview Kelso Building and Construction Trades Council labor group and its president, Mike Bridges.
“We’re all about helping with climate change,” Bridges said. “But we didn’t see any accountability on how the money would be spent.”
But Rev. Kathleen Patton, former pastor of St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Longview, said I-1631 is a chance to address effects of climate change.
“This is fabulous opportunity for us to take systemic step forward and build clean energy infrastructure while creating jobs in the state,” Patton said.
Initiative 1631 would impose a $15 per ton fee on emissions of carbon dioxide beginning in January 2020. The fee would adjust for inflation and increase by $2 each year until the state meets its 2035 greenhouse gas reduction goal of reducing overall emissions by 25 percent below 1990 levels.
The fee would apply to users and sellers of fossil fuels within the state and on electricity generated with fossil fuels, even if it is imported from outside the state. It’s expected to raise $2.3 billion in the first five fiscal years.
Qualifying light, power and gas distribution businesses could claim credits for up to the entire fee for clean energy investments, but its unclear how the initiative would affect the Cowlitz PUD.
The measure has exemptions, including for Energy Intensive Trade Exposed industries like pulp, paper, steel and iron mills. Three major carbon emitters in Longview, Nippon Dynawave, North Pacific Paper Company (NORPAC) and KapStone Paper and Packaging, appear to be exempt from the fee.
The Northwest Pulp and Paper Association, which represents the Longview companies, is not taking a stance on the initiative, said Executive Director Chris McCabe.
The initiative would not directly affect the Cowlitz County-owned Headquarters Landfill, said Axel Swanson, county chief of staff.
If passed, the measure would be the first tax or fee on carbon dioxide emissions in the United States. I-1631 appears on the ballot two years after voters defeated Initiative 732, a carbon tax initiative.
The initiative comes at a time when the state already is making some progress in reducing its climate change footprint. Carbon emissions here have dropped from 87 millions tons in 2008 to 83.4 million tons in 2015. The Legislature already has mandated a reduction to 78.1 million tons, the level in 1990. I-1631 aims to reduce emissions by 22 million tons by 2035, a target that exceeds the Legislature’s mandate.
The Yes on 1631 campaign is supported by Clean Air, Clean Energy Washington. The coalition, along with progressive organization Fuse Washington, has raised $11.2 million to support the initiative. Some top contributors include Seattle’s Nature Conservancy, League of Conservation Voters and Bill and Melinda Gates.
Proponents of the measure say it targets large polluters and invests in affordable clean energy while creating high paying jobs in renewable energy technology.
Western States Petroleum Association and the Association of Washington Business are the primary supporters of the Vote No on 1631 campaign. They’ve raised $22.1 million, and top contributors include out-of-state oil, natural gas and petroleum companies Phillips 66, BP America and Andeavor.
I-1631 opponents argue that the initiative has little accountability and would drive up gas and other fossil fuel prices for consumers, small businesses and farmers while exempting some of the state’s largest industries.
Many Cowlitz County organizations and local governments oppose I-1632, citing cost to citizens, job loss and lack of accountability.
The initiative anticipates workers in fossil fuel industries losing jobs if the measure is enacted. It states a minimum of $50 million must be set aside for a worker-support program including wage replacement, retraining or tuition costs, benefits and pension contributions.
Despite this language, Bridges said there is no guarantee affected workers will get a new job with comparable income.
“We want good policy, something that could make things better, but without guarantees we have real concerns.”
But climate change is already impacting the world, Patton said, and the state cannot afford to wait to take action.
“There comes a time when we have to do the good thing and the right thing and not wait for the perfect thing,” Patton said. “We can wait some more, but climate change doesn’t wait.”
The Longview City Council, Port of Longview commissioners and local candidates for public office have spoken out against the measure. Cowlitz PUD General Manager Steve Kern said the utility’s Board of Commissioners will officially oppose the initiative during its next meeting because of concerns it would cause higher gas prices and utility rates and would place a burden on residents.
The Washington State Budget and Policy Center says the fee would raise fuel, natural gas and electricity costs by an average $13 per month for Washington households in 2020. That adds up to an average of $156 per year.
The center notes that cost would vary significantly across households depending on things like vehicle efficiency, commute length and home insulation.
That estimate is lower than that suggested by the conservative learning Washington Policy Center, which says the fee would cost the average household $234 to $305 in 2021.
Patton said she understands why the estimated cost deters people from supporting the initiative, “but we are already paying the price for climate change and we’re going to keep paying it if we don’t act.”
It’s unclear how the fee would impact the Cowlitz PUD, Kern said. Power markets are complex and its hard to say how they will react to the measure, he said.
“It’s not clean and simple,” Kern said. “Some (scenarios) would show a negative impact, some would show a positive impact. It all gets back to how it is implemented.”
The PUD estimates the carbon fee could cost the district between $1 million and $9 million, depending on how much fossil fuels the Bonneville Power Administration has to purchase. The PUD’s budget is nearly $236 million and it purchases more than 90 percent of its power from the BPA, which largely markets hydropower and nuclear power that would not be subject to the carbon tax.
The PUD could also gain millions from the improved value of renewable resources that the initiative’s fee would create. The district sells surplus energy on the open market, including from its Central Washington wind farms. The utility could see a $2.2 million annual net benefit, said Chris Roden, former PUD director of regulatory and regional affairs.
Money that the carbon would would generate would be deposited into a newly created fund in the state treasury. After costs, 70 percent of the money must go to energy and air quality programs, 25 percent to water quality and forest health projects and the remaining 5 percent would be used to help communities combat climate change affects.
A public board created in the governor’s office would supervise spending. The board would include 15 voting members: a full-time chairperson and four at-large positions appointed by the governor, leaders of four state agencies, and six other appointed representatives who co-chair the advisory panels.
Three advisory panels, each made up of no more than nine governor-appointed members, will make recommendations to the board and state agencies.
Co-chairpersons of the panels would include one representative each from clean air and energy business interests, a statewide labor organization representative, two tribal leaders, a representative of statewide environmental interests and a representative of vulnerable populations.
Ted Sprague, Cowlitz Economic Development Council president, said the council voted to oppose the initiative Wednesday. Members are concerned about lack of oversight and that the board members are appointed rather than elected, he said.
“Key things were poorly written,” Sprague said of the initiative. “Setting up an un-elected board to control billions of dollars made a lot of people uncomfortable.”
Port of Longview Commissioners Jeff Wilson and Doug Averett voiced similar concerns about the public board during the commission’s meeting on Oct. 10.
Nick Abraham, communications director for Yes on 1631, said the board would supervise spending but the Legislature would appropriate the money and has the final say. The board is a public accountability tool so scientists, tribes and community representatives, are at the table, Abraham said.
“The Legislature has the power of the purse, but we wanted to make sure they’re not doing this in a vacuum,” he said. “We’re making sure people help them in their decisions.”
Abraham said other state boards have a similar structure of appointed members. A lack of accountability is a “disingenuous” argument from the other side, he said.
Dena Bieber, spokesperson for No on 1631, said the initiative is ineffective even if money is spent how proponents say it will be, because it doesn’t set requirements for emission reductions.
I-1631 works together with state greenhouse gas reduction targets, Abraham said. He said the state didn’t have a plan to reach those goals and the initiative would help fill that role.
Bridges said he would like to get behind a measure like this, but it would need to be something labor could get behind.
“It’s not a jobs versus environment thing,” he said. “We want jobs in community but also want them to be environmentally responsible. “