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I-1631 campaign pits environmental groups against oil companies

September 15, 2018

Initiative campaigns in Washington frequently have one side or the other that is low on funds and claims to be David fighting Goliath. Initiative 1631, which proposes that Washington place fees on carbon pollution, isn’t one of them.

One side of the campaign has deep pockets, the other side even deeper. Both have shown an ability to reach into them to support or oppose a sweeping plan to fight pollution by collecting an estimated $2.3 billion by 2023, and setting up a system to spend that money for a wide range of projects.

Clean Air Clean Energy Washington, the proponents, have support from local, regional and national environmental organizations, including The Nature Conservancy, the League of Conservation Voters and the Sierra Club. They say those projects will create good-paying jobs in the growing clean-energy sector while taking carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases out of the environment to fight global warming.

“Climate pollution is affecting real people right now,” said Mark Vossler, a Seattle cardiologist and member of Washington Physicians for Social Responsibility, when the campaign turned in its petitions this summer.

They’ve raised more than $4.8 million so far, and while they spent some of that to gather the signatures needed to qualify for the ballot, Public Disclosure Commission reports show they had more than $2.2 million on hand at the start of the month and more money flowing in.

While that amount is substantial, it’s dwarfed by the No on 1631 organization, which collected at least $3 million each from Phillips 66, BP and Andeavor, which was formerly Tesoro. Although the No on 1631 campaign describes itself on its website as “a growing coalition of small business owners, farmers, community leaders, organizations and individuals,” oil companies account for all but about $100,000 of the campaign’s $11.4 million in contributions. Only about $2 million of that had been spent by the beginning of September.

The Association of Washington Business, which functions as a state Chamber of Commerce for large and small companies, also opposes the initiative.

“We share the goal of protecting the environment, but this initiative will raise the cost of energy for families and employers while offering little assurance it will result in meaningful reductions of carbon emissions,” AWB President Kris Johnson said in a news release announcing the group’s opposition.

The system proposed in I-1631 is different from other proposals to rein in carbon pollution, which have been introduced in the Legislature only to languish and die. Sponsors appear to have developed the initiative to answer some of the main concerns about those previous ideas.

The first difference is that it proposes a fee, not a tax. Although the No on 1631 campaign is more likely to call it a tax, under Washington law there’s a distinction. Money raised by a tax can be used for a wide variety of government programs. Voters turned down an initiative for a carbon tax in 2016.

Faced with a court order to spend more on education, Gov. Jay Inslee proposed a carbon tax in 2017 that would use some of the money raised for public schools. It failed to get legislative support, but Inslee, who has made fighting climate change one of his signature issues, is backing I-1631.

Money raised by a fee must be used for activities related to the source of the fee. I-1631 would put the money in a Clean Up Pollution Fund, and after administrative expenses would put 70 percent into a fund for Clean Air and Energy projects, 25 percent into a fund for Clean Water and Healthy Forests projects and 5 percent into a fund for Healthy Communities projects.

State agencies would administer the projects, but a public oversight board appointed by the governor would adopt all the policies, procedures and rules, and each fund would have an investment advisory panel.

Supporters say the board would be made up of a wide range of people in science, business, health and community organizations to come up with the best projects. Opponents say the board would be made up of unelected appointees not answerable to voters.

The initiative also exempts certain businesses and fuels. It exempts the state’s only coal-fired power plant, TransAlta in Centralia, which is scheduled to shut down by 2025, and electricity from the Colstrip power plant in Montana, which is also set to shut down by the end of that year and provides some power for Washington utilities. It exempts pulp mills, some metal and chemical companies and aircraft manufacturers. While that could blunt opposition from some large employers, the No on 1631 campaign contends it’s unfair and doesn’t make sense.

The fees would fall mostly on gasoline and other motor fuels sold in Washington, and electricity that utilities generate with fossil fuels, although the companies could get credit for investing in approved clean energy investments. The fee would start at $15 per metric ton of carbon content in 2020, and rise at least $2 a year until certain targets in state law for reducing greenhouse gases are met, and then would be adjusted only for inflation.

Opponents say the oil companies and utilities will pass those costs on to their customers, raising monthly electric bills and the price of gasoline at the pump in a state that already has some of the highest gas taxes in the country.

If the oil companies really thought they could pass all the costs to consumers, they wouldn’t be spending so much money to fight the initiative, said Jacob Johns, an Eastern Washington field organizer for the campaign. The price of gas at the pump already varies widely from month to month, and the added costs for the carbon fee will be within that range, he added.

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