The November election will be a national bellwether on how we as a people decide to face our future. Will we vote for change or to stay the course? Will that decision be mostly motivated by reason or fear? Or will it be the result of the majority of us deciding not to vote at all? To varying degrees, a significant number of us see that our current lifestyle, culture, and economy are not working for us, and the quandary is: are we going to, or should we, do something about it? These changes, if we decided to make them, would be profound and would impact each of us personally. What makes it especially hard is the formidable influence of wealthy proponents of the status quo that are telling us that things really aren’t that bad, and who knows what might happen if we upset the apple cart?
Of the many important decisions in front of us, I’d like to explore one that exemplifies the kinds of challenges we face in making our decision. This November, we get the opportunity to vote on Initiative 1631, which proposes to charge a fee for carbon pollution released into the atmosphere. The fee will be $15 per ton, increasing by $2 per year until state pollution reduction targets are reached. The fee is to be used as follows: 70 percent for clean air and renewable energy projects, 25 percent for reforestation, fire prevention, and clean water, 5 percent for jobs, pollution mitigation, and other programs for our most vulnerable communities. The fee is expected to raise $2.2 billion in the first five years. Someone representing your interests will be on the commission that decides how the money is spent.
In reality, the purpose of the initiative is to wean us off fossil fuels. Opponents use the term “social engineering” to cast a negative light, but, in fact, it is social engineering and there is nothing negative about it. We have to retire fossil fuels, and we already know that renewables are competitive or cheaper and provide more jobs, so if an extra cost will help us break a bad habit, maybe we should see it as a good thing.
The proponents and opponents of this issue are clear: environmental groups and climate change activists are for it, and the fossil fuels industries are against it. The proponents have collected about $4 million, and the opponents have collected about $16 million and counting, all but about $100,000 coming directly from fossil fuel interests.
The proponents call it a fee rather than a “tax” even though the result is more or less the same. Actually, in Washington state law, a fee is distinguished from a tax in that the revenue has to be used to invest in projects related to the activity that pays the fee. The civilian opponents are probably right that the cost of gasoline will go up about 10 to 20 cents a gallon. The proponents say they are charging the polluting companies, but there is no guarantee, and little likelihood in my mind, that they will not pass some of it on. We have to remember that most of the behavior we are trying to curb is ours. If we weren’t buying the fuel, they wouldn’t be selling it. To keep this in perspective, remember that gasoline prices regularly vary by way more than that, and you never reap the benefit of that revenue.
Another big non-mention in all this is that, with this law, we are trying to wean ourselves off of internal combustion engines. Many of us, myself included, have been touched at some time by the romance of gas-powered machines. The throaty roar of the exhaust and the hum of those hundreds of parts evoke a visceral response of love and pleasure, however inexplicable that may be for those untouched. But the writing is on the wall: Volvo plans to market a predominately electric fleet in 2019 (!), Mercedes and Jaguar by 2022, GM and Ford will have about 20 hybrids and all-electrics by 2022, Toyota and Mitsubishi the same. Nobody is going to take your Dodge Charger away, but most of us will be in electric vehicles. I can’t say that I wouldn’t enjoy hearing a powerful gasser now and again, just as I enjoy hearing and seeing a steam locomotive. Electric vehicles are much simpler and cheaper to run, and the range and ease of charging limitations will be solved.
This first-in-the-nation carbon fee bill is an existential threat to the fossil fuel industry, so you can be sure they will pull out all the stops to defeat it. It has some flaws but is basically a solid proposition. The opponents’ claim that the largest polluter in the state, the Transalta coal plant, is exempt is true, but that is because it will be closed by 2025. Same for Colstrip Coal plants that will close in 2022. Other large defense or export-related businesses are also exempt, but our transportation and energy sectors that release the most carbon overall will be motivated to move to renewables. Don’t let the big fossil fuel industry bully you into putting off once again what needs to happen now. Let’s pass I 1631.