Washington voters have likely defeated what would have been the United States’ first-ever fee on carbon pollution.
Although votes are still being counted, on Tuesday night The Seattle Times reported that after officials tallied nearly 2 million votes from all the state’s precincts, 56 percent of voters opposed Initiative 1631 — the Carbon Emissions Fee Measure — which makes it exceedingly unlikely the law will pass.
If it did pass, the fee would have raised an estimated $2.3 billion in its first five years by leveling a fee on the state’s largest carbon emitters.
The defeated proposition faced unprecedented financial opposition from Big Oil, which organized a formidable campaign sponsored by the Western States Petroleum Association, an influential petroleum trade group.
The measure would have put “a price on pollution and invests revenue in solutions,” Becky Kelley, president of the Washington Environmental Council who helped draft the initiative, said in an interview.
“It often gets called a tax, but it is a different tool and we chose that tool on purpose,” said Kelley.
Who’s endorsed #YesOn1631? @BernieSanders, @BillGates, @NaomiAKlein, @billmckibben, @DoloresHuerta, @PearlJam, @VanJones68, @macklemore, @jeremyjones, @Janefonda, @LeoDiCaprio, @MarkRuffalo, @PramilaJayapal, @JayInslee and so many others! Vote Yes on 1631 by 8pm tonight! #WAelex pic.twitter.com/hbVvHWyvNI
— Yeson1631 (@yeson1631) November 6, 2018
Specifically, 1631 would have charged oil and gas companies for the carbon content of fossils fuels sold or used in Washington.
In turn, the fees would create a sizeable fund to construct clean-energy infrastructure and public transit, while also mitigating the consequences of extreme weather events like droughts and wildfires exacerbated by global warming.
Yet, the the “No on 1631” campaign, sponsored by the Big Oil, was able to blanket the state in oppositional advertisements. The group received $31 million in contributions, largely from oil companies. British Petroleum and Phillips 66 led the way, contributing around $13 million and $7 million, respectively.
“The existential threat to their business model is [that] we are going to invest in building out cleaner alternatives so we don’t have to buy their dirty product,” Kelley said before the votes were counted.
“I think that’s what they’re most afraid of.”
Meanwhile, the campaign in support of 1631 also received significant infusions of $15 million, though just half that of the petroleum-led campaign.
“The stakes are very high for everybody,” Aseem Prakash, a political science professor and director of the Center for Environmental Politics at the University of Washington, said in an interview.
But voters, especially in rural areas, generally dislike the idea of fees and taxes.
Indeed, the fee is on large oil companies, but there’s understandable concern that costs will be passed down to the consumer paying for electricity or filling up their tanks. That could mean an estimated 13 more cents per gallon of gasoline at the pump, according to a study funded by the Western States Petroleum Association.
“The word tax scares people,” said Prakash.
But, although some make the reasonable argument that a fee is a form of tax, this carbon fee would have worked differently than a typical sales or income tax. The tax wouldn’t go into the general state coffers.
“With the fee, the money can only be used for the purposes it was intended,” Nives Dolsak, a professor and associate director at the University of Washington’s School of Marine and Environmental Affairs, said in an interview. “You have to use it for carbon mitigation and adaptation.”
The fee wasn’t intended it to last forever. Just until Washington met its ambitious clean-energy goals, which is to reduce overall emissions of greenhouse gases in the state to 25 percent below 1990 levels by 2035 — and continue the trend thereafter.
“The point of the exercise is not to punish anyone — in the long run no one will have to pay a fee,” said Kelley.
The carbon fee would certainly have impacted everyday people in Washington. But that’s also part of the plan — 1631’s supporters weren’t hiding that.
Emitting carbon would cost everyone, a little.
“The point of the exercise is not to punish anyone”
“It’s supposed to — that’s what intended,” emphasized Dolsak. “It’s supposed to give clear information to all of us who make daily decisions.”
These daily decisions mean could mean using energy more efficiently, decreasing fossil fuel use, using mass transit when possible, and perhaps voting for candidates who support renewable energy projects.
1631 may have gone down, but it engendered widespread support, and a similar initiative may very well rise again.
A shipbuilding company, the American Lung Association, and local citizen councils signed on their support, noted Kelley. Bill Gates, Pearl Jam, and Leonardo DiCaprio were among the initiatives prominent supporters.
“The problem is not going away, and either are we,” said Kelley.