Editorials

I-1631: If no carbon fee now, when?

The Colstrip Steam Electric Station is in Colstrip, Mont., and is one of the largest coal-fired power plants in the Western U.S. Washington state regulators told Puget Sound Energy, Avista Corp and Pacific Power to reconsider the carbon-emission costs of producing electricity from coal and other fossil fuels, which would bolster the financial case for the utilities to hasten their planned exit from the Colstrip Generating Plant.
The Colstrip Steam Electric Station is in Colstrip, Mont., and is one of the largest coal-fired power plants in the Western U.S. Washington state regulators told Puget Sound Energy, Avista Corp and Pacific Power to reconsider the carbon-emission costs of producing electricity from coal and other fossil fuels, which would bolster the financial case for the utilities to hasten their planned exit from the Colstrip Generating Plant. AP file

Washington has dithered like most U.S. states when it comes to putting a pollution price on greenhouse gas emitters.

Fossil fuels that produce these gases are undeniably linked to global warming. And, Initiative 1631, which is on the Nov. 6 ballot, offers the best chance for The Evergreen State to take a step to wean our economy off petroleum-based fuels.

If approved by voters, our state would join California, which has a successful cap-and-trade pollution credits program, and New England states that use a pollution-credits scheme to encourage utilities to reduce their power-plant emissions.

The real question for Washington voters is: If not now, then when?

That is why we urge passage of I-1631, while recognizing the initiative may need state legislators to give it strong oversight.

What I-1631 would do first is put a “carbon fee “ on some of the state’s biggest emitters of greenhouse gases. The $15 per metric ton rate would rise over time, as needed, to meet state emission-reduction targets.

The fee could add as much as 14 cents initially in 2020 to the cost of a gallon of gasoline.

This “fee” — which unlike a tax must be used for energy-related activities such as emissions-reduction, clean fuel projects and climate mitigation — is absolutely necessary. The fee ensures that all of us, as end-users of fuel, have “skin in the game.”

The carbon fee would also be levied on coal-fired electricity imported into the state and on oil or natural gas used to heat homes.

Some industries — such as the Trans Alta power plant in Centralia, which is transitioning from coal to natural gas by 2025 — and energy-intensive or trade-sensitive industries are exempted.

Over time, the carbon fee would rise, creating a subtle market disincentive for petroleum products and an incentive for consumers or industries to opt for cleaner energy.

The initiative would generate more than $1 billion a year in new state funds that would be invested as grants or other financing for energy projects. The projects to be funded would be authorized by a new board at the state Department of Commerce, which the governor would appoint and which would consult tribes.

Commerce would write a greenhouse-gas reduction plan to help judge whether a potential conservation or energy project can reduce emissions.

Four out-of-state oil groups in Washington, D.C., California and Texas have bankrolled the No on I-1631 political committee with most of the nearly $22 million raised by the No on I-1631 campaign.

Environmental and labor groups are big backers of the Clean Air Clean Energy PAC, which has raised about $8.5 million.

It’s hard to prove how well the measure will guarantee lower emissions. But neither the oil industry nor campaign spokeswoman Dana Bieber are believable when they pledge to work for a better carbon-reduction approach in the Legislature next year.

Bieber represents the coalition of oil and business allies that fought against every carbon-price idea put before the Legislature in recent times. If I-1631 is the wrong approach, the campaign should say what might be the right one.

Opponents also misrepresent why some industries are exempted in I-1631. Smart exemptions include biomass energy producers whose industry cycle requires them to plant new trees to offset emissions.

Becky Kelley, president of the Washington Environmental Council, and Jeff Johnson, president of the Washington State Labor Council, say I-1631 is actually an investment to spur new energy sources.

This investment is expected to create tens of thousands of jobs and help communities reduce their fossil fuel energy needs — as well as help communities adapt to climate impacts such as rising sea levels or job losses.

But to significantly reduce emissions is going to require a big shift in policy and practice — especially for our transportation system. The shift to cleaner fuels will also put some oil-refining jobs at risk of going away unless refiners shift to cleaner fuels.

But I-1631 allocates money — $50 million initially — to address the impact of scaled-back oil production in communities that lose jobs. Johnson says justice requires that the transition to cleaner energy offers training help so laid-off workers get into clean energy jobs.

I-1631 critics such as former state auditor Brian Sonntag are focusing on what they call a lack of accountability in I-1631. But it is not clear the accountability is inadequate; legislators have oversight over all state programs.

And we think our Legislature is more apt to fix accountability flaws, if I-1631 passes, than the oil industry is going to help reduce carbon emissions, if I-1631 fails.

In fact, the path to action on climate change has been rocky in Washington ever since emission-redaction targets were set in state law a decade ago. First the Great Recession led to a moratorium on regulatory actions.

Then Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee ran into opposition from Senate Republican lawmakers and business interests when he began efforts after 2013 to impose a cap on greenhouse gas emissions and to require more use of bio-fuel blends for vehicles.

Then Inslee joined environmentalists and labor groups to oppose a carbon tax initiative, which didn’t do enough, they claimed, in 2016.

Two years later, Initiative 1631 is a second chance to get it right. Waiting a few more years to impose such a carbon fee is like putting off surgery for gangrene in one’s ankle.

Waiting ensures only that the knife cuts later and higher on the leg.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This piece has been revised to correct Becky Kelley’s title with the Washington Environmental Council. Due to a production glitch, several revisions made to the online version posted Thursday were not incorporated into the print version that published Friday.

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