My Seattle Times op-ed on I-1631 “carbon fee” (co-authored with Joe Ryan)

On Friday the Seattle Times published an op-ed I co-authored with Joe Ryan (we were the co-chairs of the I-732 carbon tax initiative in 2016) about the new “carbon fee” ballot measure that the Alliance for Jobs and Clean Energy is trying to put on the November ballot.

A few thoughts:

  1. My decision to participate in this op-ed was preceded by a good deal of soul-searching about the right course of action in these sorts of can’t-we-all-just-be-on-the-same-team situations. There’s been a lot of public ruminating about this in the past few years, mostly in the context of whether and how anti-Trump Republicans should express concern about him. I think the question of “When and how should climate activists express concern about climate action?” should be considered as an example of this broader class of situations.
  2. There is a spectrum of options in such situations. In the case of I-1631 we chose what I consider to be a middle-ground option, namely to publicly express our concerns with I-1631 and to do so in a fact-based way that tries to “disagree without being disagreeable”. This seems to me to be the option that is maximally respectful of grassroots climate activists and grassroots climate action.
  3. In choosing a middle-ground option we rejected the extremes. One extreme would have been active opposition to I-1631. For me, this extreme was unattractive because I haven’t heard all the arguments about I-1631, because perhaps there are good answers to our concerns, and because in general I think the bar should be very, very high before I or other climate activists willingly become “climate inactivists”. I also saw this extreme as being unnecessary because our middle-ground path accomplished our goal of “[making] sure that climate activists who wish to support I-1631… do so with eyes open.”
  4. The other extreme would have been staying silent about (or perhaps even supporting) I-1631. For me, this extreme was morally untenable: if I failed to express my concerns about I-1631 and it passed and bad things happened (e.g., if I-1631 increased carbon emissions and/or hurt many low-income households and/or hampered progress towards federal action, all of which I think are possible) then I would have felt like I had failed in my responsibility to tell Washington voters and my fellow climate activists about my concerns.
  5. One past event that heavily influenced my thinking was the 2016 Sound Transit 3 vote to expand light rail. The Yes campaign featured misleading claims about the environmental benefits of ST3 (see KUOW’s fact check) but there appears to have been such a strong can’t-we-all-just-be-on-the-same-team mentality in the environmental community that Jabe Blumenthal was able to claim in his popular Jabe’s voter’s guide that “the people I most respect who really do know transportation and growth management…are, 100%, in favor of ST3.” This is a stunning claim given that Sightline Executive Director Alan Durning’s personal voting recommendation was to vote “No” on ST3. But Alan chose not to make waves, going so far as to take down a thoughtful discussion of the issue in his post, claiming that “it was getting far more attention than it deserved.” Another transportation expert I know (not Alan, but also someone who was publicly silent about ST3) told me privately that voting No made sense because ST3 was “expensive, paid for with fiercely regressive taxes, and doesn’t actually do much to ‘get people out of cars’.” This is not the time and place to talk in detail about ST3, but it’s relevant for I-1631 because this kind of factual vacuum strikes me as being less than ideal. (It’s especially relevant because I-1631 may fail because of ST3-induced “tax fatigue” or ST3-induced voter skepticism; Danny Westneat has been banging the drum about this lately, see for example his columns about “deception and delusion” with regards to public transit systems and $12m-per-mile bike lanes.)
  6. What strikes me as ideal, at least for I-1631, is to put everything on the table and then let grassroots activists decide if they want to support it. I personally have no desire to be an ongoing thorn in the side of the I-1631 campaign, and in fact in the op-ed we said that we “intend to stay out of their way”. We expressed our concerns about I-1631, other people can express their thoughts, and grassroots activists can decide what they want to do.
  7. My hope is for the discussion going forward to stay focused on the facts. We raised concerns about the coal-plant exemption in I-1631 and about the impacts on low-income households, and I think that grassroots activists should push for answers to those concerns before supporting the I-1631 campaign. (And if there are good answers then that’s great!)
  8. Speaking of the facts, the study of the Weatherization Assistance Program (co-authored by Obama administration economist Michael Greenstone) is worth looking at in more detail, so check out the abstract and this research summary; the full article is behind a paywall. The Seattle Times cut a couple of sentences from our description of the paper, so here’s what we originally wrote: “One recent study in Michigan… found that the federal Weatherization Assistance Program reduced energy consumption by less than one-third of what models projected. The average rate of return was negative 7.8% per year. The cost of reducing carbon emissions was about $200 per ton. It was even hard to get households to sign up, with ‘encouragement’ spending of $1,000 per household needed to boost the participation rate to a paltry 6%.” Note that the (unspecified) policies in I-1631 may be better than this federal program, but also note that this study was in Michigan, where weatherization efforts may have higher pay-offs than in Washington State because winters are more severe on average.
  9. One email response to me after the op-ed was published indicated that even without Commerce Clause lawsuits the initiative provides an exemption not just for the Centralia coal plant but also for all power consumed in Washington State that’s produced by out-of-state coal plants that have agreed to shut down by 2025, including Boardman (in Oregon, scheduled to close in 2020); North Valmy (in Nevada, scheduled to close in 2025); and the two smaller Colstrip units #1 and #2 (in Montana, scheduled to close by 2022). The link above says that the bigger Colstrip Units #3 and #4 might be heading for closure in 2027, and that’s where I think Commerce Clause issues might be relevant. (I’m no lawyer, but I don’t think it would be legally justifiable to provide an exemption for coal plants that just so happen to be in towns named “Centralia”, so what’s the legal justification for providing an exemption that just so happens to cover the in-state Centralia plant but wouldn’t cover Colstrip Units #3 and #4 if they schedule for closure in 2027? It seems much more plausible to me that courts will find that all coal plants should be exempt until at least 2025.) And Joe and I have good reason to express our concern about the potential for all of the coal plants that do receive exemptions to ramp up production between now and their closure dates; we’re not the only ones worried about this.
  10. As a PS, note that headline-writing for most media pieces is usually handled in-house by the publisher, so it was the Seattle Times that wrote the op-ed’s headline, which at least online was “Will Washington voters warm to a new carbon tax initiative?” I’m not surprised by the headline’s use of the phrase “carbon tax” because a few years ago the headlines even used that phrase to describe Governor Inslee’s cap-and-trade system. One of the interesting things to watch with I-1631 will be how the “fee” versus “tax” distinction plays out in the media and in the court of public opinion…

One response to “My Seattle Times op-ed on I-1631 “carbon fee” (co-authored with Joe Ryan)”

  1. Really appreciated your op-ed (with Ryan) in the Seattle Times last week, and also your thoughtful comments above. Alas, not enough folks look beyond carefully chosen, deliberately vague language and ask what – if anything – it really means. Who could be opposed to “jobs and clean energy”? Who could be against helping those most impacted by climate action? And just who are those folks most impacted – hardworking American taxpayers, coal industry executives, perhaps both? True, calling a “tax” a “fee” may not make it less regressive, but it sure sounds better. McDonald’s understand this; they sell “quarter pounders” not “four ouncers”. Alas, perception too often prevails.
    Yes, let’s hope the debate between a unite-the-left approach and a bipartisan approach to carbon pricing gets rolling if I-1631 falters.

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