Initiative 1631 is a simple, attractive concept: Impose a steadily increasing fee on large emitters of heat-trapping carbon dioxide, and put the money toward environmental causes. It’s often called the carbon tax, and while it’s not currently in use in the United States, it has a broad appeal. I-1631 would make Washington the first state to impose one. But the initiative’s execution is neither simple nor attractive. Its writers are proposing a tissue of favoritism, exceptions and unequal treatment.
Certain industries have been defined as “energy-intensive trade-exposed,” meaning a carbon tax could easily kill them or force them out of Washington. Therefore, many of the worst emitters, such as paper mills or glass, aluminum and steel plants, would not be charged the fee. Other large emitters would receive exemptions by name. Washington’s greatest single emitter, the coal-fired power plant in Centralia, would be exempt. So would the coal plants in Montana that ship electricity to Washington. So would farms. So would a variety of government and public transportation uses. The state could add more exemptions at any time.
Those of us who don’t merit exemptions would all experience what is essentially a large gas tax extended to also cover electricity, diesel and natural gas. This doesn’t have to be a bad thing. Gas taxes fall too heavily on the poor, but they do have some very fair, desirable features. A gas tax responds to your choices naturally, without relying on officials to rule in your favor. Whether you carpool, buy a Prius, ride your bicycle, or do something else doesn’t matter. If you burn less gasoline, you will be proportionately rewarded. You don’t have to be a member of a favored group or hope that your particular method is approved.
No one likes paying the gas tax, but in important ways, it treats road users fairly. Carbon taxes are attractive even to many conservatives and business interests because they can have that same element of fairness. They can adjust organically and reward those who cut their climate impacts instead of those whose friends helped write the law.
Initiative 1631 throws that philosophy out the window in favor of cliquish, top-down rulings on what is and is not worthy. In this regard, it’s similar to Initiative 937, passed by voters in 2006. I-937 required utilities to obtain “green power,” but they only received credit for new green power. The large amounts of hydroelectric power the Cowlitz PUD already had access to? It was green, but it wasn’t new. It wasn’t approved. It didn’t count. That left costly wind and solar sources. As a result, local customers saw rate increases of 10 and 18 percent in 2011. When environmental law becomes about who’s in the club, it gets expensive fast for those who aren’t.
And I-1631 would be expensive indeed. The state estimates it would raise about $2.2 billion over the first five years, even more later. This money would not be available to the normal legislative process controlled by elected representatives. Some of them are not in the club. They might want to put the money toward health care or schools. Instead, these billions would be distributed by a 15-member board made up of state agency heads and governor appointees. This unelected group, along with three sub-panels, would distribute billions to its chosen environmental projects while safely insulated from accountability to voters. This initiative doesn’t value democratic choices; it values the choices of insiders, its chosen clique.
For example, Indian tribes are exempt from the carbon fee, just as they are from other state taxes, yet I-1631 guarantees a tribal representative on the 15-member panel. Why would tribes help spend a large pool of money, if by federal law they’re exempt from paying it? Several tribes helped write the initiative. They’re in the club. Therefore, they would get to bless their chosen companies and projects with I-1631 money; the state reps we send to Olympia, chosen by people who actually paid the fee, would get no such power, because they, and we, are not in the club.
In the long term, a carbon tax might be the future of energy regulation in America, or even the world. The concept has a core quality of basic fairness. But a much more serious, more universal approach is needed to bring that fairness out in a way that is free of favoritism. Washington voters strongly rejected a less expensive carbon tax initiative in 2016, and they should reject I-1631 as well.