A diver at the Seattle Aquarium during an event to announce the aquarium’s endorsement of Initiative 1631.
Photo: AP

Washington voters have an opportunity to make a world-changing decision on Tuesday. They could become the first voters anywhere on Earth to impose a carbon fee on polluting industries.

Initiative 1631 comes at a time when it’s never been clearer that our window to limit global warming to safe levels is closing. And the dynamics of the efforts both for and against the ballot choice—as well as the outcome—will say a lot about the future of climate action.

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The path to Washington state putting a price on carbon has been more than a decade in the making. In 2006, California passed the nation’s first carbon pricing scheme, a cap and trade bill that set up a carbon market that allowed polluters to trade emissions allowances. Washington and Oregon looked to follow suit setting up a West Coast bloc of climate action, but legislative efforts in both states have been repeatedly thwarted.

“After years of seeing the legislature fail to take action, groups [in Washington] started thinking we need to do this at the ballot,” Kristin Eberhard, a senior researcher at the Sightline Institute, a liberal Northwest think tank, told Earther.

Out of a bruising series of political battles between climate groups in Washington, Initiative 732 emerged in 2016 as a revenue neutral carbon tax that would take money raised by taxing carbon polluters and disburse it directly to citizens. It lost by nearly 20 points at the ballot box because the process of writing it alienated would-be supporters on the left and failed to attract support from the right. The lessons from the battle over 732 are built into Initiative 1631's DNA. Rather than being burned by trying to court Republican support again, the new ballot measure unabashedly aims to appeal to the left side of the political spectrum. 

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“This year, they’re like forget bipartisan, we’re going all left all the time,” Eberhard said.

Initiative 1631 would start putting a price on carbon in 2020 at $15 per ton for major polluters in the state, with an exception for those designated “Energy Intensive Trade Exposed” industries, including paper mills, ore refiners, and aircraft manufacturers. The price would rise $2 per ton annually, in addition to adjustments for inflation, until 2035. That makes it slightly less ambitious than Initiative 732. 

The revenue neutral approach in the 2016 initiative has been wiped out. In its place, all fees collected under Initiative 1631 would help fund government programs. The projected $1 billion in annual revenue is a big deal in income tax-free Washington. Of that, 70 percent would go towards clean air and energy, including large portions for tribes and low-income communities. This inclusive approach has allowed backers to build a much broader coalition than Initiative 732.

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“Climate disruption and economic inequality are tightly linked,” KC Golden, a senior policy advisor at Climate Solution, a group helping usher along the initiative, told Earther. “This campaign enjoys support from an astonishingly wide swath of the political landscape,” he continued, rattling off everyone from labor unions to Macklemore to Bill Gates to the NAACP.

If the group in support is a panoply of major players on the left, their foe is a familiar hegemonic duo: the fossil fuel industry and the Republican party. Together, these groups have raised roughly $31.5 million in opposition to the initiative. Nearly $13 million has come from BP alone with Philllips 66 chipping in another $7.2 million. Local Republican groups and other fossil fuel interests have kicked in the remaining $11 million or so. In comparison, the campaign supporting the initiative has raised $15.8 million from both businesses and individuals (admittedly some individuals like Bill Gates and Michael Bloomberg have deep pockets).

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Republican opposition to fees being levied on big businesses is nothing new. But the fossil fuel industry’s opposition to the tax lays bare that the industry is talking out both sides of its mouth. That’s because some of those same industry leaders opening their wallets to stop Initiative 1631 have publicly voiced their preference for a carbon tax.

BP is a founding member of the Climate Leadership Council, a group formed in part by Republican elder statesmen and business leaders that promotes a carbon tax and dividend approach somewhat similar to Initiative 732. The push for a federal carbon tax has led to some nice press, a meeting with Trump, and some op-eds but not much else. Earther has reached out to BP about why it opposes Washington’s initiative while supporting a fee and dividend approach and will update if we hear back.

It perhaps isn’t a surprise that BP—a company that makes its profits off a product that leads to ever-rising carbon emissions—would throw its support behind this effort. It looks good and allows them to keep operating with minimal financial pressure and regulations on their business. And the dividend approach would allow put extra money in people’s pockets to, say, fill up their cars with BP gas.

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And in that same light, it perhaps isn’t a surprise that BP and other fossil fuel companies oppose Initiative 1631: The fees they pay would go into clean energy innovation that could put them out of business. Initiative 1631 also has a very real chance of passing. 

An early October poll showed voters backing the initiative 50-36, though the numbers are likely to tighten since undecided voters tend to vote no on ballot measures, according to FiveThirtyEight. If it does indeed pass, it could convince to other state legislatures to push similar schemes or barring that, groups getting them on the ballot box. That’s why Golden said he viewed the initiative and its potential success as “not so much a template as a catalyst” for continuing the efforts to seek justice and a stable climate.

“They’re not out of gas yet,” Golden said of the fossil fuel industry. “[B]ut the writing is on the wall for the fossil fuel era, and citizen campaigns for climate solutions are getting more numerous, more widespread, and stronger.”

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