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Big Oil Spending Tens of Millions to Defeat Washington State's Groundbreaking Carbon Fee Initiative

Sierra Club's Michael Brune says Initiative 1631 'could be a game-changer in the fight against climate change'

Demonstrators hold signs during the 2015 Peoples Climate March in Seattle. (Photo: John Duffy/flickr/cc)

One way the global climate crisis is appearing on U.S. ballots on Tuesday is through Washington state's Initiate 1631, a measure that would enact the nation's first carbon fee. And the fossil fuel industry is dumping tens of millions of dollars into the state to defeat the measure proponents say could be a "game-changer" for curbing global warming.

"I-1631 is only one piece of the fierce and broad effort we need to address the climate crisis," says Seattle, "but it's an important one."

As of this writing, state records show that the 'yes' side has spent nearly $16 million to help the measure pass. In contrast, nearly $32 million—nearly entirely from the fossil fuel industry—has been spent to defeat it. That amount breaks a state record—and gives an indication "of how desperate the industry is to not let this initiative happen," as one observer noted.

While both sides engage in last minute campaigning, a Crosscut/Elway Poll conducted month showed 50 percent in favor, 36 percent opposed, and 14 percent undecided.

The yes campaign calls 1631, which differs from a failed 2016 revenue-neutral carbon tax initiative, "a practical first step to ensure clean air and clean water for everyone in Washington and gives us the chance to pass on a healthier state to the next generation."

Specifically, as Ballotpedia explains, the measure, created by the diverse Alliance for Jobs and Clean Energy, would tackle the climate crisis by:

  • enacting a carbon emissions fee of $15 per metric ton of carbon beginning on January 1, 2020;
  • increasing the fee by $2 annually until the state's greenhouse gas reduction goals are met;
  • and using the revenue from the fee to fund various programs and projects related to the environment.


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If voters pass the measure, writes Robinson Meyer at The Atlantic, the state would have "one of the most aggressive climate policies in the country." As he further notes, 

[it] takes something of a "Green New Deal" approach, using the money raised by the new fee to build new infrastructure to prepare the state for climate change. It would generate millions to fund new public transit, solar and wind farms, and forest-conservation projects in the state; it would also direct money to a working-class coal community and a coastal indigenous tribe.

Democratic Rep. Pramilia Jayapal (Wash.) called it one of the "key initiatives for a progressive Washington."

The measure also received backing recentlyfrom the New York Times editorial board, which noted that it could have reverberations nationwide:

If the proposal, Initiative 1631, wins—as we hope it does—the result could ripple beyond Washington's boundaries. No state can match California's impressively broad suite of clean-energy programs, but the initiative, if successful, could catapult Jay Inslee, Washington's governor, into the climate leadership role long occupied by the outgoing California governor, Jerry Brown. More important, it could provide a template, or at least valuable lessons, for other states to follow; and (let's dream for a moment) it might even encourage Congress to take action on a national program.

"With the Trump administration going backwards on fighting climate change, states around the country are taking matters into their own hands," said Michael Brune, executive director of the Sierra Club, to NBC News. "I-1631 holds polluters accountable while investing in clean energy ... It could be a game-changer in the fight against climate change."

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