Evergreen State Looks to be First on Carbon Pricing

Scenic Downtown Seatlle Photo credit: Chinaface

Seattle is a city in the clouds this time of year, but for those of us following carbon pricing policy, things are surely heating up. With the legislative session wrapping up next week, Governor Jay Inslee and his team of carbon pricing champions in the state’s capital are feeling the pressure. Since the start of the session in early January, the Governor has called for his state to act on carbon pricing. As we have covered previously, Washington stands to benefit economically while also promoting healthier communities by being one of the first in the nation to adopt an economy-wide price on carbon. The Governor is not alone, he has a committed group of legislators and advocacy organizations that have joined the campaign and support the initiative.

To understand the current political opportunities in the Evergreen State, it is useful to look at the largest impetus within the current conversation. Momentum has been building over the past four years thanks to a group of advocates who jump-started the effort to implement a carbon tax in the state. It is hard to say where we would be without the previous ballot initiative that was led by Carbon Wa. Ballot Initiative 713 is still a delicate topic here in Washington. Those who supported the initiative and those who were victorious from its defeat have come a long way to bury the hatchet and are currently working hard on being able to present a unified front. There may still be disagreement over how the campaign benefited the current political landscape, but there is little doubt that it was a significant contributor to building the conversation on carbon pricing in the state.

In many states, introducing legislation after a failed ballot initiative would be viewed as politically unattainable. That has however, not been the case in Washington due to the man spearheading the campaign, Governor Jay Inslee. In many instances, having strong executive leadership has been pivotal in getting climate policy across the finish line. Major policy wins in California, British Columbia and New York City could not have been accomplished without the role played by strong leadership. Governor Inslee is looking to continue this precedent by taking carbon pricing under his wing. One of the challenges to any legislative action is accounting for all the various interest groups and their perceived implications of the the policy outcomes. The bill currently being considered in Washington is certainly a compromise between business interests and the advocacy community, with both sides claiming they did not get everything in it they hoped for. We are being told that his office is working behind the scenes for a political solution and are getting extremely close, possibly even being able to have a bill on the senate floor by Thursday afternoon. Legislators and businesses are not only jockeying for exemptions but also looking at the potential for future investment. The governor’s current policy would initially spend carbon pricing revenues on public education and transitioning towards a renewable energy transition. Even interest groups that are not being granted an exemption, don’t want to miss out on the available funding for emissions reduction.

If Governor Inslee ultimately does not get the job done, there is an opportunity to take carbon pricing back to the ballot in 2018. The one advantage to a ballot initiative would be that the advocacy community would be able to dictate what the initiative says and get to take a more prescriptive approach. If such a campaign were to be launched, it would need to hit the ground in the coming week. Advocates estimate such a campaign would cost between $20-30 million with the potential to be even more expensive depending on how organized of a challenge comes from opposition. The Alliance for Jobs and Clean Energy, who would be leading this ballot initiative, have the numbers to overcome such an opposition, but they would need to collect over a quarter million signatures by this summer to get on the ballot for 2018.

One large question that remains on this approach is whether carbon pricing would fair better a second time around. There would certainly be a higher level of public awareness and a more unified coalition of advocacy groups working towards passing it. The forthcoming initiative would also differ substantially since it will put investment back into the state, as opposed I-713, which was revenue neutral. On one hand, carbon pricing does poll significantly better when paired with investments in renewable energy and infrastructure upgrades, but it also allows the opposition the talking point of brandishing the policy as a tax. All eyes will be on Olympia over the next week and we will continue to offer updates through the end of the legislative session on March 8th.

Michael Green leads Climate Action Business Association (CABA) as an award winning advocate for climate policy and environmental action. Since 2012, he has served as a representative to the United Nations focusing on international climate science and policy. Recognized as a Champion of Change by President Obama in 2016, Michael was honored for his focus on climate change as an equity issue. He has played strategic roles in several of the national and global campaigns dedicated to fighting climate change. Michael is a Northeastern University graduate with degrees in international affairs and environmental studies, course work at the University of Edinburgh’s MSc Program in Environmental Protection and Management and Harvard Business School’s CORe Program. He sits on the Board of Boston area non-profits as well as a policy advisor to national business associations on energy.