Washington State Ballot Initiative Would Impose Carbon Emissions Fee on Its Largest Polluters

Interview with Nick Abraham, communications director with Yes on 1361 Campaign, conducted by Melinda Tuhus

The state of Washington is attempting for the second time in three years to impose a carbon emissions fee – through a statewide initiative this November – on its largest polluters, like the oil industry and utilities that have not switched over to clean energy.  If approved by the state’s voters, it would be the first of its kind in the U.S. The Yes on I-1631 campaign was buoyed by a poll conducted in early October that found 50 percent approval among 400 registered voters polled, with 36 percent opposed and 14 percent undecided.
Thus far, opponents have spent $22 million and claim the 1631 ballot measure would cost families hundreds of dollars a year. Supporters, who have spent a little more than a third as much at $8 million, say the initiative would cost families only about $10 a month. The money raised would be applied to renewable energy and energy efficiency projects that will save consumers money in the long run, while reducing the states’ use of fossil fuels and decrease carbon emissions.
Between The Lines’ Melinda Tuhus spoke with Nick Abraham, communications director with Yes on 1631 campaign. Here, he talks about the history of the fight and what passage would mean for Washingtonians and the U.S. as a whole.

NICK ABRAHAM: I think the biggest difference between 732 and 1631 is that this time around we have the largest coalition in Washington state history. The last time they had a pretty small group of folks that decided on a policy they thought would work best, but this time around we’re including the largest labor organizations, the largest people of color groups, of course, the environmental community, but over 250 local businesses, health organizations like the American Lung Association and the Academy of Family Physicians, faith groups like Earth Ministry and a whole host of cardinals and churches that have endorsed our campaign. I think that’s what’s been most inspiring to us and has been our strongest message with the public, that we are all on board here and that’s a powerful juxtaposition to who our opposition is; the No campaign is 99 percent funded by six multinational oil companies.

BETWEEN THE LINES: So what does Initiative 1631 actually do?

NICK ABRAHAM: This initiative would put a carbon fee on the state’s largest polluters; those end up being the oil industry and utilities that haven’t yet switched over to clean energy for the most part. We didn’t put this cost on the average consumer. We really feel that the companies that are causing the most harm should be the ones to pay this fee. Take that carbon fee and fund it into clean energy projects and bolster our state’s natural resources so we can clean more of our air and adapt to the changes we know are coming from climate change.

BETWEEN THE LINES: Correct me if I’m wrong, but I believe a major factor in the defeat of a carbon price initiative in Washington two years ago was the split between the supporters and what’s called the environmental justice community, representing low income folks and people of color, who are the ones hurt first and worst by climate impacts.

NICK ABRAHAM: Yeah, that is generally right. The EJ community had a couple of really clear points that we feel now are really well-reflected in this initiative. Communities of color and low-income folks have been the hardest hit by pollution for decades, and we want to make sure in whatever solutions we’re creating that they are front and centered in solving that problem. So ensuring that we are investing back in those communities that are hardest hit and we’re not leaving them behind in this transition and we’re ensuring that more people and more communities are included in the clean energy economy and aren’t left out, as so many folks have been when we’re using coal and oil – you know the most vulnerable people in our state are the ones who are hardest hit.

BETWEEN THE LINES: The fee is so much smaller than what scientists say is needed to bring down greenhouse gas emissions; if this initiative passes, is it going to do any good?

NICK ABRAHAM: This is a very modest first step we’re trying to take here, and we’ve been delaying for a long time and I think folks know it’s time we have to get started with this. This fee would start out at about $15 a ton. Washington state has pollution reduction goals, you know, like so often our legislature set goals but with no plan to get there, so we’ve been missing those targets since 2008. But this fee and investment structure makes sure we are getting back on track, that we are investing and raising the price $2 a year until we reach those goals in 2035, and once we reach those, there’s a cap on the price and we’re continuing to make those investments so we can stay on track to reduce pollution.

But the real crux of where we’re going to get that pollution reduction, where we know we’re going to start moving away from oil is through these investments. So investing in things like clean energy of course, but also energy efficiency so we can bring down people’s electric bills – they just don’t have the funds to invest in the things up front – and then really investing in our state’s natural resources because we know that trees in our forests are some of the easiest ways we can clean the air.

BETWEEN THE LINES: Of course, the opponents say the big polluters will just pass on the costs to consumers.

NICK ABRAHAM: We know they can’t pass on all these costs – we know they wouldn’t be spending $20 million of stockholder funding if they thought they could just pass on all these costs. But we know that at a maximum, if they were to pass every penny of this down, it wouldn’t cost folks more than $10 to $12 a month for the average household.

BETWEEN THE LINES: Would this be the first effort of its kind in the U.S. if it passes?

NICK ABRAHAM: Yeah, this would be the first carbon price in the U.S., and I think more importantly it would be the first major carbon policy to ever be passed by a vote of the people, so this is such a big validator to show yes, people want this; yes, people are tired of not doing anything on this issue and just continuing to kick the can down the road. This is a huge validator to say people want to take action and they’ve had a direct vote and opportunity to say that.

For more information on the Yes on 1631 campaign, visit Yeson1631.org.

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