On Tuesday morning, Carbon WA, or I-732 – the revenue-neutral carbon tax initiative that was signed by roughly 363,000 Washingtonians and is now in the hands of the legislature – made its Senate floor debut.
The Energy, Environment, & Telecommunications Committee heard over two hours of testimony, largely from supporters of the initiative, who pointed to the proposal as the best way to avert climate disaster because it reaches across the political aisle: The $25-per-ton tax it proposes would return that money to consumers and businesses via a one percent cut in sales tax, a tax credit for low-income families, and an elimination in the B&O tax for manufacturers.
This marks the first step in the series of uncertain hoops that I-732 will jump through following its official certification as an initiative to the legislature on January 25. The legislature could adopt it, adopt a version of it, or boot it to the November ballot – all possible, and all unclear, given the vast amounts of both support and opposition it has seen from all sides of the political and environmental-activist spectrum.
The hearing began with comments from atmospheric scientist Cliff Mass, who introduced himself as “a moderate on the topic of climate change” who has “spoken out against unfounded claims on both sides of the issue,” and, for that reason, sees I-732 as "an extraordinarily positive bipartisan example to the rest of the nation." Carbon WA founder Yoram Bauman then pointed to the success of a similar carbon tax in British Columbia – a policy so simple and transparent, he said, that it “can be described in a Haiku”:
Thirty dollars for each ton
Other supporters: Gates Divest organizer Alex Lenferna, an angel investor for renewable energy startups, and the inventor of the Sonicare toothbrush, among others. Opposing testimony came largely from business and energy interests, including Industrial Customers of Northwest Utilities, whose spokesperson, Tim Boyd, said, "We think this initiative is flawed in several ways" and that the exchange of the B&O tax cut for the carbon tax "is not anywhere close to revenue-neutral.”
Ellicott Dandy, a staffer with immigrant-rights group OneAmerica, was the sole voice representing the opposition to Carbon WA today from within the environmental movement – that is, those who believe Carbon WA's proposal doesn't do enough to address the disproportionate effects of climate change on low-income communities of color. It also, Dandy said, “fails to move Washington into a low-carbon economy. It is not enough to make driving or producing cement too expensive. We must also make alternatives available.”
The hearing was bracketed on either end by committee chair Doug Ericksen (R-Ferndale), who expressed repeated concerns about the effect a carbon tax would have on manufacturers and jobs in Washington – particularly if it joined the carbon emissions rule currently being developed by the Department of Ecology. “It creates a lot of uncertainty in our state,” he said, citing the recent departure of metals manufacturer Alcoa from Wenatchee and Ferndale, and REC Silicon from Moses Lake. “To me, this is picking winners and losers,” he said. “I think it would be important for the governor to consider stepping back from his carbon cap rule in the short term.”
For the record, though, when queried via email as to whether the threat of a carbon tax spurred Alcoa to move its operations elsewhere, Josh D. Wilund, a company spokesman, wrote, “No. The decision to curtail Alcoa’s Wenatchee Works and Intalco Works was made in response to challenging market conditions and to further our strategy to create a globally competitive commodity business.”
An informal poll Seattle Weekly conducted via email at the end of December asking state legislators whether or not they might support Carbon WA resulted in a mixed bag of maybes and a few yeses. There was only one clear no from Marge Plumage, legislative assistant to representative Tom Dent (R-Moses Lake).
But legislative action doesn't look particularly promising, given the legislature's track record on passing climate policy, as well as the carbon-policy fatigue that Senator Ericksen and others see arising thanks to Carbon WA, the Department of Ecology's carbon rule, and other, related policies. The Energy, Environment, & Telecommunications Committee just passed another bill, SB 6173, that would overturn Ecology's ability to create its carbon rule. "Prohibiting rules and policies that limit greenhouse gas emissions," the bill's tagline reads.
Notably, SB 6173 co-sponsor Senator Ericksen has also declined to confirm the existence of human-caused climate change. He and SB 6173 co-sponsor Senator Tim Sheldon (D-Potlatch) are among the top three recipients of political contributions from fossil fuel companies, according to the Sightline Institute.
At the end of the hearing, Senator Ericksen reiterated his opening remarks – “I can do it since [Democratic] Senator Ranker is not here to stop me,” he joked – by again expressing a concern for manufacturing jobs in the state. A lot of supporters described Carbon WA as a way to set a climate policy example for the rest of the nation, and “I'm happy for Washington to lead,” he said, “but I want to make sure leadership does not mean we're going to sacrifice good paying manufacturing jobs or hurt those families in order to send a message or to make a point.”
Carbon WA's Joe Ryan, who testified today that he'd "turned [his] life upside down" to work on this initiative over the past year, said in a phone interview that what came through to him from the day's testimony was “the shared sense of moral imperative" to act on climate change "and because it's good for the economy.”
The carbon tax that I-732 is modeled after in British Columbia “hasn't been bad for business” there, he said, even though that policy does not include the tax cut for manufacturers that Carbon WA includes.
"I will say that privately, many senators on both sides of the aisle are very supportive” of I-732, he added. “We need them to publicly support it in terms of a vote.”
Sara Bernard writes about environment and education, among other things, for Seattle Weekly. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 206-467-4370. Follow her on Twitter at @saralacy. Get more from your favorite writers by subscribing to our weekly newsletters.