Q&A: Washington state to take carbon price to voters
San Francisco, 12 March (Argus) — Mike Stevens is the state director of the Nature Conservancy's Washington state chapter. The group is part of a coalition working to put carbon pricing on the state ballot after a legislative effort fell short. In this interview, edited for length and clarity, Stevens talks about why this attempt is different than 2016, when voters rejected a similar proposal.
The Nature Conservancy, along with a number of other environmental and labor groups, filed a ballot initiative on 2 March with the secretary of state's office that would establish a carbon fee. What are the next steps?
The attorney general's office will then prepare a ballot title. There can occasionally be litigation over that, in terms of whether the title actually reflects the policy that was submitted.
We expect to poll on the initiative, sometime toward the end of March, and then from there make a set of decisions about the campaign, with the goal to begin signature gathering in early April. We have to file the required signatures by 1 July and then, at that point, we are in full campaign mode leading up to the November election.
The 2016 ballot initiative failed, in part, because it divided the environmental community on the question of how revenues from the tax would be spent. How will you avoid that issue again?
In 2016, what was proposed was a revenue-neutral carbon tax. What we are proposing is a revenue-positive carbon fee. The distinction that matters from a lay person's perspective, but also from a more technical perspective, is that the revenues from the fee are statutorily required to be directed to solving the problem that has been identified. With a tax, you can tax anything and essentially for any purpose, as deemed appropriate by the Legislature.
In this case, we intend to place a fee on emissions of carbon and then use those revenues to invest in three areas. The first is reducing emissions in the state through investments in clean technology, energy transition, etc. Second is to invest in land and water conservation efforts and, third, community safety.
One design feature in the initiative is the intent to try to benefit disproportionately impacted communities, either because they are low-income, or tribal communities that are very exposed to some of the current impacts of climate change.
What else is different this time around?
One of the great strengths at this point is the very deep and broad coalition of interests from around the state — environmental groups, labor, health professionals, faith organizations, social justice, environmental justice groups.
We also know from the legislative effort that leading businesses in the state believe that, properly constructed, there should be a price on carbon in Washington in 2018. Leadership from Microsoft and Puget Sound Energy, among others, are on record with that.
All of that is quite different than the dialogue that occurred in 2016.
The political debate in Washington, like in many US states, often appears to divide along urban versus rural lines. The state senator who sponsored the carbon tax legislation represents Seattle. Do you have a broad base of support across the state for carbon pricing?
It is sometimes easy to think that that is about urban communities. But when we look around the state, much of the Nature Conservancy's work occurs in rural communities and with tribal communities.
When we think about the impacts that we know are occurring today and will certainly continue to occur due to climate change, such as increased risk of forest fire, increased flooding on our big rivers, periodic drought, or water availability issues in the eastern part of the state, sea level rise, ocean acidification — these are all occurring both in ways that impact urban and rural communities, districts that might vote more liberal, districts that might vote more conservative.
We think there is a broad base of constituents interested in solving these problems.
Democrats control majorities, albeit slim, in both the Senate and House and governor Jay Inslee (D) made the carbon tax a top priority. Why did the legislation fail?
From the outside, people tend to think of Washington as a deep blue or deep green state. Certainly we have parts of the state, particularly in urban Puget Sound, that are both deep blue and deep green. But we have a big part of the state that is rural and more conservative.
Although the Democrats have a one seat majority in the Senate, there are legislators of both parties who represent swing districts, where the majority of voters sit squarely in the middle. The reality is a lot of our legislators are representing very centrist constituencies.
We made a lot of progress this session, but clearly more work needs to be done going forward.
How does the initiative differ from the carbon tax measure debated in the Legislature? The fee would hit $35 in 2030, which is slightly more expensive than what the bill proposed.
We recognized, politically, that the price on carbon needs to start at a low level. We also want to be careful and judicious about how much revenue is generated, from the perspective of what is the tolerance of a majority of Washingtonians for increased costs.
We have to be totally honest — this will increase the price of gas and will increase the price of residential heating and, potentially, electricity. OK, there is a cost, but these are investments worth making.
The price was set at a low enough level that it would be a good entry point. The idea is to escalate on a fixed dollar value of $2/yr until we are meeting our emissions reduction targets. But the price alone on carbon will not really get us to those state emissions targets — it is the combination of the price, plus the investments, that gets us there.
We have tried to target a price that over time gets us there but in a way that is not a shock to Washingtonians and to our business community.
How do you respond to someone who might say a ballot initiative is not needed because the Legislature, with more time, can get the job done next year?
We feel that a majority of Washingtonians believe climate change is occurring, that it is impacting us today, and that we should take action to do something about it. We supported the legislative effort at the Nature Conservancy. We worked hard to support the legislative champions and to try and engage legislators from both sides of the aisle, from a variety of districts, in that conversation.
But we were very open all along that, if that effort failed, it was important to give Washingtonians the option to act on climate in 2018.
Does the governor support this effort?
We believe he will, eventually, support this. He has been very tied up with the end of the legislative session, but we fully expect him to be deeply engaged in this effort.