Editorials

Here’s what the Tri-City Herald thinks of the carbon fee initiative

This wind farm sits on a bluff above Wallula in southern Washington state near the Columbia River.
This wind farm sits on a bluff above Wallula in southern Washington state near the Columbia River. Seattle Times/TCA

Like prior efforts to reduce carbon emissions in our state, Initiative 1631 has an important, worthwhile goal – to cut pollution and combat climate change.

The problem is that, if approved, it will cost people more at the gas pump and more when they pay their power bills. And what will they get in return?

Right now, we can’t say for sure. The public is supposed to trust a yet-to-be formed, unelected 15-member oversight board to dole out the money for clean energy efforts.

We can’t encourage such blind faith in government, especially when we are talking about divvying up billions of dollars. We are recommending a “no” vote on I-1631.

The measure proposes a $15 per metric ton fee on carbon emissions by the state’s largest polluters starting in 2020, with an incremental increase of $2 per metric ton plus inflation each year.

Analysts estimate the cost of a gallon of gas will go up 14 cents in the first year because oil companies will likely pass down at least some of the financial burden to consumers.

Commissioners from both the Benton and Franklin public utility districts say their customers, too, will see an increase in their power bills if I-1631 is approved.

The fee is expected to generate $2.3 billion in the first five years, according to an estimate by the state Office of Financial Management.

Since it is a fee and not a tax, it can’t be shifted by the Legislature and used for anything but its original purpose – to encourage clean energy projects.

That’s a wise move.

However, opponents say the oversight board will have a great deal of latitude in deciding how to spend the money and very little, if any, accountability.

The Legislature would have to approve the board’s funding package, but we don’t think that’s enough of a check on the process.

Both sides recently met with the Tri-City Herald editorial board, and opponents noted that higher gasoline and power prices will hit low- and middle-class families hard, but they won’t be in a position to reap direct benefits like wealthier people.

For instance, with the carbon fee fund the government might be able to help some consumers buy electric cars, but such a purchase likely will still be out of reach for many people.

It doesn’t seem fair to pull money from everyone so that clean energy incentives can be given to certain industries and certain people.

While the money can also go to healthier forests and waterways, public transit and solar and wind energy projects that benefit everyone, the regressive nature of the proposal still means that lower-income and middle-income people take the greatest hit for the common good.

There also is the fear that a carbon fee will put farmers and small businesses at a disadvantage with competitors from other states who don’t have to pay the higher energy costs. Companies doing business in Washington also might leave if this initiative is approved.

Don’t get us wrong. We want generations after us to enjoy clear skies, clean air and clear waters. Gov. Jay Inslee told the Tri-City Herald editorial board earlier this year he believes society is headed for an environmental catastrophe and we must act now to avoid it.

We don’t underestimate the need to improve the environment.

But there is no certainty I-1631 will accomplish that. The public is simply expected to trust that government officials will spend billions of carbon fee money wisely.

And this Initiative – like other proposals before it – puts more of a financial burden on some people than others. We can’t accept that.

The Tri-City Herald recommends a “no” vote on I-1631, the Carbon Fee initiative.

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