Supporters of the carbon fee Initiative 1631 have turned in the first round of signatures to qualify it for the November ballot.
The initiative would levy a $15 per ton fee on carbon emissions from large carbon emitters beginning in 2020, which would rise by $2 per ton each year. Washington Environmental Council president Becky Kelley said the Yes On I-1631 campaign had gathered some 375,000 signatures, well above the 260,000 required to qualify for the November ballot.
“We fully expect that, given that we have a huge margin, then it’ll appear on the ballot in November,” she said.
The fee would be levied against large emitters including power plants that use fossil fuels and power providers that import electricity generated from fossil fuels and other companies that produce large quantities of pollution. By 2035 the fee would hit roughly $55 per ton, adjusted for inflation, and would either freeze or continue rising depending on whether the state was meeting its goal of reducing emissions to 25 percent below 1990 levels. This could increase the cost of gas by roughly 15 cents per gallon.
However, the fee is lower than previous failed attempts to implement carbon pricing, including I-732 that voters shot down in 2016, and a legislative attempt that died during the 2018 session.
Kelley said she believes I-1631 is on much firmer footing than prior efforts due to the breadth of organizations supporting it. It includes various labor, environmental and conservation groups in addition to health and faith organizations, many of which were integral to drafting the initiative. Importantly for the initiative, it has been endorsed by the Samish Indian Nation, the Tulalip Tribes Natural Resources division, the Makah Indian Nation and the Quinault Indian Nation.
“When you have all those people coming together over a solution … it has the power to overcome the opposition,” Kelley said.
Part of the appeal of I-1631 is that it’s a fee instead of a tax, meaning revenue raised can only be spent on projects related to carbon emissions. Carbon reduction and clean air investments will receive 70 percent of the total revenue from the fee. This will be put towards programs like installing solar panels, making homes more energy efficient and reducing pollution from manufacturing and transportation. It will also go towards restoring forests and agricultural lands, which help filter carbon from the air.
Another 25 percent will be specifically allocated to creating healthy forest and clean water and the remainder will go towards community safeguards for vulnerable communities. This includes funding to help native communities relocate from areas that could flood due to global warming as well as treating forest to reduce fire risk.
Around one-third of the total revenue will be reinvested into communities that are suffering from poverty and pollution. This could come in the form of energy bill assistance, transit vouchers and offering cleaner transit. Some $50 million will be set aside to provide full pension, salary and health benefits for two years to fossil fuel workers who lose their jobs as a result of the initiative.
“People who are in these vulnerable places are going to be getting these cleaner options,” Kelley said.
Peter Bloch Garcia executive director of the Latino Community Fund said that following the July 2 signature turn in rally in Olympia he was even more confident the initiative could pass.
“For me, I felt really great that this is a good sign, that now we’ve switched gears into campaign mode,” he said.
The ballot campaign will include expanding outreach across the state, including more rural areas like the Yakima Valley and farther east. Part of that process will be ensuring communities of color are equitably registered to vote, Bloch Garcia said.
“To have a more equitable representation will actually help pass things like this that the majority of our population cares about,” he said.
The initiative does come with some industry exemptions, including 23 high-energy business classes that would be exempt from paying the carbon fee in an effort to keep the state competitive in attracting manufacturers. The state Department of Commerce would develop criteria for additional industrial exemptions.
Emissions from the coal-burning Centralia Power Plant would be exempt too. It is the last coal-powered plant in the state and scheduled to close by 2025. As part of its sunset agreement, it was exempted from further emissions regulations through its closure.
The Washington Secretary of State’s office will now verify the signatures and both supporters and opponents will likely mount campaigns.