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There could be a successful carbon pricing next year despite midterms disappointment

Oregon and states along the East Coast are ready to move on pricing greenhouse gases.

Secluded beach with forested cliffs of Cape Perpetua along the south central Oregon coast with the Pacific Ocean in the background. CREDIT: Education Images/UIG via Getty Images
Secluded beach with forested cliffs of Cape Perpetua along the south central Oregon coast with the Pacific Ocean in the background. CREDIT: Education Images/UIG via Getty Images

Climate advocates across the country are refusing to back down after a historic carbon fee proposal failed at the ballot in Washington state on Tuesday. Despite disappointment, a number of states are already preparing for their own attempts at putting a price on carbon emissions — and it could come as early as next year.

Environmentalists and lawmakers in Oregon and a slew of states along the East Coast are already looking at future carbon pricing options, with many favoring cap-and-trade legislation, a slight variation on what voters shot down in Washington.

“Ultimately what happened up there [in Washington] wasn’t even based on policy. It was pure politics,” Brad Reed, the communications director for the group Renew Oregon, told ThinkProgress on Friday.

“It is important to wrestle back the conversation [on tackling carbon emissions],” Reed said, nodding to unfolding carbon pricing efforts in other states.

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That optimistic tone comes after a week of heartbreak for many climate advocates. Washington’s Ballot Initiative 1631 (I-1631) would have been a landmark effort, charging most polluting entities in the state $15 for every ton of carbon dioxide released, increasing that amount by $2 annually. That resulting windfall of funding would then have been used to fund renewable energy efforts along with public transportation and aid to shift away from fossil fuels in vulnerable communities.

If successful, it would likely have helped set the stage for other states to follow suit.

Washington’s carbon fee effort was backed by labor, health professionals, scientists, social justice groups, and beyond, in a diverse and expansive coalition. But following a record-shattering $31 million opposition campaign funded by the oil industry, I-1631 lost big at the polls.

That resounding defeat — coupled with an anti-fracking effort’s failure in Colorado and a renewable energy defeat in sunny Arizona — seemed to offer a setback to environmental efforts in the country. But carbon pricing proponents don’t appear to be giving up — instead, many indicated renewed hope for 2019.

“We were not successful in passing this initiative but this coalition…stands ready to continue this fight,” the Yes on 1631 coalition said in a statement to ThinkProgress and other publications on Thursday.

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Activists in Washington indicated they were already eyeing another attempt targeting carbon emissions next year, despite a history of failures in the Democrat-led state.

“The growing problem of climate change will only get worse the longer we delay solutions. This issue is not going away and neither are we. We stand ready to fight in next year’s legislature and beyond, together,” the 1631 campaign concluded.

Advocates may not have given up in Washington, but Reed is right in noting that other states and areas might outpace them, as soon as next year.

Washington, D.C. is eyeing a carbon pricing effort that would create new building efficiency standards and raise fees on “dirty energy,” using the subsequent revenue to fund renewable energy projects. A slew of East Coast states — New York, New Jersey, Rhode Island, Pennsylvania, Connecticut, Vermont, Maryland, and Massachusetts — are also looking to introduce their their own carbon pricing efforts, likely in the form of legislation crafted by lawmakers rather than through ballot initiatives.

Those states are also likely to opt for a slightly different framing. Washington’s proposal was easily targeted by the oil industry because it was seen as a “tax,” a word that helped opponents rally people against it. By contrast, other states are looking to a cap-and-trade model, which they feel voters might find more appealing.

Carbon pricing legislation encompasses a range of tactics, including carbon taxes and cap-and-trade policies. While they have considerable overlap in that both target greenhouse gas emissions and encourage investment in low-carbon technologies, they also have a few key differences.

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Carbon taxes establish a price on emissions, while cap-and-trade programs issue a set number of emissions allowances, which can then be auctioned off to bidders. California has notably had a cap-and-trade program since 2013, the fourth-largest in the world according to the non-profit Center for Climate and Energy Solutions.

Cap-and-trade, or cap-and-invest, takes the funds generated by the purchase of allowances and invests them. In Oregon, which looks set to pass its own cap-and-trade effort as part of the Clean Energy Jobs bill, that last part is crucial.

“This is what we want to make sure we get right,” said Reed, of Renew Oregon. “We have to make sure that it benefits the whole state, that communities that have historically been short-changed — rural communities, communities of color, low-income communities — get specific carve-outs.”

On Tuesday, Oregon re-elected Gov. Kate Brown (D) — she has made climate a key pillar of her campaign and worked to ban offshore drilling in the weeks leading up to the election. The state also ushered in a Democratic supermajority, all but guaranteeing that the Clean Energy Jobs bill will pass in 2019.

As part of the bill, Oregon would enshrine cap-and-trade in addition to bolstering clean energy jobs. According to Renew Oregon, more than 48,000 Oregonians currently work in clean energy, which has a job growth rate of 11 percent.

Oregon’s efforts have been propelled forward by a dire report from the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which dropped prior to the election. “That today’s first-graders will have their climate fate sealed by the time they graduate high school shocked a lot of people,” said Reed.

Still, he’s taking nothing for granted. “We are confident that this is going to move next year. That being said, we know that [fossil fuel] industry lobbyists are going to be in that capital building every single day,” he laughed.

East Coast states will likely band together in their carbon pricing efforts, likely favoring cap-and-trade, something that is also true in Oregon.

Reed said that the ultimate goal is to join forces across the West Coast and into Canada, and, eventually, the rest of the United States. In the meantime, he said, different states would likely try a number of approaches ranging from ballot initiatives to state legislature efforts.

“We’ve chosen a legislative path, but every state has decided what their legislature looks like,” he said. “We all know that we are running out of time.”

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