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Behind Washington’s ambitious carbon fee proposal, a diverse coalition works for the future

With support from labor, scientists, doctors, and communities of color, I-1631's backers hope the initiative will succeed where others have failed.

Mt. Baker and the "Sisters" across Bellingham Bay. CREDIT: John Greim/LightRocket via Getty Images
Mt. Baker and the "Sisters" across Bellingham Bay. CREDIT: John Greim/LightRocket via Getty Images

If Washington makes history by becoming the first state in the country to put a price on carbon emissions, it will largely be thanks to the efforts of a diverse coalition, one that has spent years mobilizing residents in support of the effort.

Opposed by oil companies and supported by labor, science, health, and social justice organizations, in addition to environmental groups, the activism behind Ballot Initiative 1631 could be a model for future endeavors — if it passes this November.

“We knew we couldn’t do this on our own,” Nick Abraham, communications director for Yes on 1631, told ThinkProgress. “That’s been a problem in the environmental community and it’s one we’re trying to correct.”

Marketed as a carbon “fee,” rather than a tax, thanks to Washington state law, I-1631 is an effort years in the making. Environmental activists across the country have struggled to gain support for various proposals to tax carbon pollution, many of which have been met with apathy or even active resistance from local residents.

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Washington is no different: prior efforts to impose a straight tax on carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuels have failed. Most recently, a carbon tax bill backed by Gov. Jay Inslee (D) died in the state legislature in March, as supporters failed to garner enough votes to ensure its passage out of the Democrat-controlled state senate. In November 2016, Washington voters also rejected a proposed carbon tax when it appeared on the ballot.

But I-1631 is different. That the effort is a fee rather than a tax means it cannot be spent on government expenses, but the differences end there. Arguably one of the most ambitious climate policies proposed during the Trump administration, the initiative would charge most polluters $15 for every ton of carbon dioxide released, increasing that amount by $2 every year. The fee would generate an estimated $2.2 billion in five years, according to the state, which would in turn be used to invest in efforts like renewable energy and public transportation.

Other projects would also benefit from revenue generated by the carbon fee, which would take effect in 2020. Key to the support I-1631 has garnered are its requirements that 25 percent of the revenue be spent protecting forests and streams, while 5 percent must go to communities both impacted by fossil fuels and looking to transition away from them.

That includes low-income communities and tribal areas, home to some of the most vulnerable people in Washington.

“Communities of color are the campaign [and] from our perspective this is how it should be done,” Aiko Schaefer told ThinkProgress. “An inclusive campaign that centers equity and puts the voice of communities most impacted up front.”

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Schaefer is the director of Front and Centered, a statewide coalition working for environmental justice for communities of color. The coalition has played a formative role in I-1631 from the beginning, helping to write the initiative and lead the campaign supporting the effort. Their involvement has helped to steer the initiative’s direction — something I-1631’s backers say is critical to its success.

“When we talk with voters, we make it clear that this is the broadest and largest coalition that has come together on anything in Washington state,” said Schaefer. “We talked with people from across the state to get their input and created the most progressive, equitable climate policy that works for us.”

Schaefer’s comments have been echoed by others supporting I-1631, all of whom told ThinkProgress the initiative has what other efforts have lacked: a broad base of support that can appeal to Washington residents on a community level.

Some of the initiative’s most vocal backers have been doctors and nurses, many of whom have sought to engage patients and residents in conversations about climate change and its impact on health.

“We were so excited when this coalition was formed. While climate change is a health issue, it doesn’t impact all people equally,” Sarah Cornett, who works with Washington Physicians for Social Responsibility, told ThinkProgress.

Mainstream medical associations have increasingly looked to support climate initiatives, Cornett said, in a nod to growing national acknowledgement that global warming is having an adverse impact on public health. In Washington, many doctors have seen the toll fossil fuel pollution can take on their patients’ health, along with the worsening impacts of climate change. Wildfires, which have worsened on the West Coast along with warming weather, have left patients struggling after excess smoke inhalation, for example, while extreme heat has also sickened residents.

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“Health messengers themselves, especially nurses, physicians… can consistently speak from their experience,” said Cornett.

Proponents of I-1631 say the initiative’s broad-based support stands in stark contrast to its opponents. More than 2,300 volunteers helped the Yes on 1631 collect 370,000-plus signatures that allowed the initiative to be placed on the ballot. The carbon fee campaign has also netted $12.5 million, thanks to donors like the Nature Conservancy.

The No on 1631 political action committee, formed by the Western States Petroleum Association, is a bit different. That effort has raked in nearly $26 million — money that has come predominately from oil companies like Phillips 66 Co., Andeavor, BP, and the U.S. Oil & Refining Co. All of those companies stand to be impacted by the carbon fee.

“The oil industry is the major opposition here,” said Abraham, of Yes on 1631.

Backers of I-1631 argue that any additional costs generated by the initiative are unlikely to exceed $10 a month for the average household. But oil companies insist the ballot initiative will hurt jobs and Washington’s economy, something that has been a concern for voters before and spelled doom for prior carbon tax efforts.

I-1631, however, has the backing of labor groups, which Abraham said has been key to ensuring the initiative protects some of the people most impacted by the fossil fuel industry, which they rely on for jobs even as they suffer health ramifications from their work.

“Workers are the [best] messengers,” he said.

Steve Garey, a retired oil refinery worker who volunteers with the BlueGreen Alliance, agreed that having a labor perspective involved is critical to I-1631’s ultimate impact.

“We feel that we kind of gotta be at the table,” said Garey. “We gotta be on the bus if we don’t want to be under the bus. We recognize that we want to be part of the solution and not part of the problem.”

Garey emphasized to ThinkProgress that not all labor groups tend to support carbon fee efforts, precisely because they worry about jobs. But his own views on I-1631 have been shaped by what he has learned about climate change as much as his time as an oil worker.

Many workers, Garey said, want “a policy that’s designed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, but also to protect existing jobs as much as possible.” Speaking to the idea of a “just transition” allowing for workers to be protected, Garey said effective carbon fee efforts should “take care of low-income folks and those impacted by pollution” in addition to ensuring workers have a “safety net” as the economy moves away from fossil fuels.

Not all major polluters would be covered by I-1631, an intentional move its supporters say was made to protect workers. As the Atlantic reported in August, industries that largely sell their products abroad will be exempt, including Boeing, the state’s top employer, along with others like aluminum manufacturer Alcoa and the Centralia coal plant, which is set to shut down in 2025. But once that plant shuts down, I-1631 would ensure a fee on some 85 percent of Washington’s pollution.

The initiative’s backers say such an aggressive climate policy will place Washington at the forefront of U.S. states working to fight climate change. At least one analysis of I-1631’s possible impacts, conducted by the Puget Sound Clean Air Agency, found that even before accounting for clean energy investments, the initiative would be the equivalent of taking 200,000 cars off the road between 2020 and 2035 — a 3 percent reduction in air pollution.

Still, no one knows what the outcome will be in November. Despite initial indicators of the initiative’s popularity following a summer of major natural disasters, support also appears to be dropping as the opposition campaign ramps up.

“This is going to be a really close election,” said Abraham. But he underscored his confidence in the coalition supporting I-1631.

“People understandably get concerned,” he said, nodding to the qualms Washington voters have previously had with carbon tax efforts. “But when their local doctor is telling them this is important, when the community organization that has been organizing farmworkers for decades tells them this, their labor union, that helps.”