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Cannon: A national carbon tax?

October 10, 2018

You’ve seen the ads and read the stories. On Nov. 6, Utahns will have a chance to let the governor and legislature know what we think of imposing a 10-cent per gallon tax at the gas pump, with the proceeds going to education.

Reasonable people can disagree, but, it brings us to an important conversation about the effect of taxing the fuel we need for transportation, heating and commerce.

The conversation is important because of the perennially percolating idea in Congress called the “carbon tax.”

There are various proposals differing in details, but the basic notion is a federal tax on carbon dioxide emissions by taxing the fuels behind those emissions. It would translate directly to a new tax on the energy we all use daily. The leading congressional proposal would set that tax initially at $24 per ton of CO2 emissions.

That’s a lot.

In consumer terms, that would be roughly 24 cents per gallon at the gas pump — more than a nickel per gallon increase over the current federal gas tax — when we fill up our cars and trucks. And the bill, introduced by Congressman Curbelo of Florida, would increase that tax steadily each year.

The natural gas we use for heat and the coal that produces our electricity would be taxed as well, including the gas and coal we produce here in Utah.

We get the idea. If you tax something, you end up using less of it. So we cut carbon dioxide emissions in the hope of less global warming!

But it also means less coal from Utah mines, less gas from Utah wells, and fewer jobs in rural Utah. And that means less revenue for local and state needs, such as our State School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration, which provides critical funding for education.

More important, raising gas prices perpetually to somehow “do our part” for a questionable environmental benefit would fall squarely on the backs and pocketbooks of working Utahns and their employers.

It will cost Americans $275 in its first year alone.

That’s a lot of money and a lot of lost jobs, especially when compared to the “benefits,” which could only be a few hundredths of a degree over the next century.

The carbon tax proposal would theoretically go with a reduction in regulations that, again theoretically, would reduce costs and partially offset the impact of the tax itself. That may sound good to some — especially big companies which own power plants and other sources of greenhouse gas emissions. The problem with that thinking is that we have a White House that has made cutting job-killing regulations priority number one — so why make a devil’s bargain?

If I learned one thing in my years in Congress, it’s that “deals” aren’t really deals in Washington, D.C. How many times have we seen the part of the “deal” that falls on taxpayers stick while the part about government doing something good for us doesn’t?

We all care about the environment. We all care about air quality. And we respect those who are prepared to put forward reasonable ideas. But a carbon tax isn’t the solution to anything.

Asking every American to pay almost $300 per year for an insignificant reduction in global warming may be well-intentioned, but it doesn’t pencil out.

And here in Utah, where energy production is a big part of our economy, it really doesn’t pencil out.

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