D.C. coalition pushes innovative plan to cut emissions and protect most vulnerable residents

“The only people who don’t benefit are polluters.”

Camila Thorndike, campaign coordinator for the Chesapeake Climate Action Network, introduces a carbon fee plan that supporters hope will get turned into law in Washington, D.C. CREDIT: ThinkProgress/Mark Hand
Camila Thorndike, campaign coordinator for the Chesapeake Climate Action Network, introduces a carbon fee plan that supporters hope will get turned into law in Washington, D.C. CREDIT: ThinkProgress/Mark Hand

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Proponents of reducing carbon emissions in the nation’s capital believe they have developed a proposal the city’s lawmakers will embrace as an effective strategy for fighting climate change, without harming the city’s most vulnerable residents or raising costs for small business owners.

The “carbon fee-and-rebate” plan, introduced at a rally in the District of Columbia on Thursday, would charge polluters for their carbon emissions and rebate a large part of the revenue back to residents of the District.

Lawmakers have introduced comparable legislation in several Northeast states. The proposal also has similarities to a decade-old climate action plan tax in Boulder, Colorado where a tax is levied on city residents and businesses and is based on the amount of electricity they consume.

“It’s a pretty straightforward idea that’s been proposed in many other states,” Camila Thorndike, carbon pricing coordinator for the Chesapeake Climate Action Network and one of the organizers of the campaign to get the proposal introduced in the D.C. city council, told ThinkProgress.

Lawmakers introduced a bill in the New York Assembly in 2015 that establishes a tax on carbon-based fuels. Like the D.C. proposal, the New York bill, which has not passed the state legislature, aims to protect lower-income residents while using a portion of the revenue to adapt to climate change, increase investment in infrastructure, and enhance the use of renewable energy.

In Rhode Island, a bill has been introduced that would put a price on carbon, with residents and businesses receiving a rebate to protect against the additional costs that fossil fuel companies may pass along to energy consumers.

Advocates of a climate fee in Washington state chose to go the referendum route, but voters in the state rejected the initiative last November. Traditionally liberal environmental groups refused to support the tax, arguing it did not do enough to hasten the transition to a green economy and did not take into account the needs and wants of traditionally marginalized communities.

“We are taking this to the legislature instead of to the ballot,” Thorndike said. Unlike the Washington state proposal, the D.C. plan has “a robust, very diverse, unified coalition of social justice, environmental justice, economic justice, and mainstream environmental groups, as well as small businesses all across the city who are working in concert,” she said.

Supporters of the “carbon fee-and-rebate” plan participate in the People’s Climate March in Washington, D.C. on April 29, 2017. CREDIT: Chesapeake Climate Action Network
Supporters of the “carbon fee-and-rebate” plan participate in the People’s Climate March in Washington, D.C. on April 29, 2017. CREDIT: Chesapeake Climate Action Network

Supporters of the D.C. proposal are hoping to use momentum generated over the past couple months, culminating with the People’s Climate March in Washington two weeks ago, to capture the attention of policymakers in the District, Thorndike said. “We expect that councilmembers will want to be the champions for D.C. and the nation. If there is any reluctance, based on the turnout today [at the kickoff rally], we’re ready to exert some pressure,” she added.

Representatives from the Sierra Club, Service Employees International Union, and Interfaith Power and Light joined dozens of other people at the rally for the carbon fee campaign, which backers have named “Put a Price On It D.C.” The legislation proposed by the coalition would be called “The Healthy Climate, Healthy Business, and Family Rebate Act of D.C.”

Seventy-five percent of the revenue generated from the carbon fees would be sent back to city residents in the form of quarterly carbon rebate checks or electronic transfers. Another 20 percent of the revenue would be invested in green energy projects in the city, with the remaining 5 percent used to reduce property taxes for local businesses.

“The modeling has shown that it would create jobs in the District, that residents would benefit and spend that money in the District, creating even more benefits for businesses. Five percent of the revenue would be spent on reducing property taxes of small businesses, not to mention the 20 percent that would go into investment in green energy project,” Mark Kresowik, D.C. resident and deputy regional director for the Sierra Club, told ThinkProgress after the rally.

Kresowik, who spoke at the rally, is optimistic the city council will be receptive to the proposal. “The District leadership, on the council and in the mayor’s office, has long been supportive of taking on climate and promoting clean energy,” he said. “We have the best renewable energy requirements in the country right now and this would extend that leadership. We expect the council will take this up over the course of the coming year.”

As with all D.C. legislation, the bill, if passed by the council and signed by the mayor, would be sent to the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate for review. Republicans, who control both chambers, could cite the bill’s stance on fossil fuels as a reason to block the bill.

Mike Tidwell, director of the Chesapeake Climate Action Network, said he expects the bill will have multiple sponsors on the city council and will become law in 2017.

Tidwell believes the chances are good that Congress will not intervene if the bill passes. “But if the House decides that it wants to meddle with this bill, it would turn the issue into a national debate we will be willing to have,” he told ThinkProgress.

The proposed policy would apply to natural gas and oil consumed in the District and emissions linked to transportation, with exemptions granted to public transportation. “We’re going to charge the distributors and importers of fossil fuels at the first point of sale in the District,” Thorndike said. “For electricity, that would be Pepco and then any third-party providers. It would be the same for Washington Gas.”

The transportation sector produces about 25 percent of emissions in the District. Supporters of the proposal hope the District’s Department of Transportation and Department of Energy and Environment will offer some guidance on the transportation component of the plan if the council takes up the bill. Those agencies could come up with recommendations on how to capture the emissions caused by transportation, perhaps using vehicle miles traveled, commercial parking, or vehicle registrations as a measurement, Thorndike said.

Advocates of the proposal also solicited help from Center for Climate Strategies (CCS), a nonprofit group that helps governments tackle issues related to climate and the environment, to run computer model runs based on the proposed carbon fees for the District. CCS found that the mix of a 75 percent rebate, 20 percent investments, and a 5 percent property tax cut for businesses would produce maximum benefits while reducing carbon pollution by 23 percent in the city by 2032.

“This would be good for D.C. businesses,” Kresowik said. “The only people who don’t benefit are polluters.”

Update: This article was updated to include comments from Chesapeake Climate Action Network Director Mike Tidwell.