Update Oct 30: David Roberts added a PS to his piece claiming that his analysis is good because Ash Grove Cement, Nucor Steel, Boeing (the state’s largest private-sector employer), etc. etc. don’t count as “large polluters”. Shameful.

Initiative 1631 is a “carbon fee” measure that will be on the ballot in Washington State next week. It exempts the state’s only coal-fired power plant, and it also exempts a long list of manufacturing businesses: the bullet list from Sightline Institute, a supporter of I-1631, includes “Paper and pulp mills, Glass manufacturers, Certain food and juice producers, Iron, Aluminum, Steel producers, Cement refineries, Semiconductor and related device manufacturers, [and] Aircraft and related aircraft part manufacturers.”

The Yes campaign argues that there are good reasons for these exemptions—manufacturers are EITE (Energy Intensive Trade Exposed) businesses that might lose competitiveness in national or international markets under a state-level carbon price, and the coal plant is exempt because of a provision that exempts all coal-fired power plants that are scheduled to shut down by 2025—but there should be no argument that these exemptions exist.

So it is troubling to read the following (boldface added) from Seattle-based Vox journalist David Roberts:

This extreme funding imbalance has resulted in a blizzard of misleading No on 1631 ads on local television. (I can testify — during the World Series, it was relentless, and I didn’t see a single Yes on 1631 ad.)

The ads claim the carbon fee is too big (it will crush families!) and that it’s too small (it won’t reduce carbon emissions at all!), that it exempts the state’s biggest polluters (it exempts one, which is already scheduled to close), and that the revenue will go into an unaccountable slush fund (it won’t).

It is factually inaccurate for Roberts to say that I-1631 exempts only one of the state’s biggest polluters. Go look at EPA FLIGHT data and you can see that the exempt manufacturers burn a lot of fossil fuels. As noted above, there might be good reasons for these exemptions, but the ads for the No campaign are correct in saying that I-1631 “exempts many of Washington’s largest polluters”.

Even more troubling is that Roberts knows that what he wrote is factually inaccurate. Go look at his previous post about I-1631 and you will find him saying that he’d like to see “fewer industries exempted”. This is solid evidence that Roberts is intentionally lying when he says that 1631 only exempts one large polluter.

Perhaps that’s why Roberts appears to be uninterested in correcting the record. I tweeted at him on Friday afternoon, shortly after the post went up, and got no response. On Saturday I sent him a Direct Message and got a completely inappropriate response:


It’s now Sunday afternoon (12:45pm PT) and Roberts still hasn’t corrected his piece. (See more below.)

One final point—one that raises even more red flags about Roberts’s conduct because it clearly shows the possibility of collusion—is that his inaccurate reporting aligns perfectly with the equally inaccurate talking points of the Yes on 1631 campaign. See for example this head-spinning Twitter thread featuring baloney from 1631 supporter Goldy, or this excerpt from the piece in The Nation by 1631 supporter (and 350.org board chair) KC Golden:

Big Oil’s strategy against 1631 is straight out of Steve Bannon’s playbook: “flood the zone with shit” to confuse the issue. Their most shameless tactic is claiming that they oppose 1631 because it exempts “the state’s largest polluter[s].” They’re referring to the Centralia coal-fired power plant.

Wow is this Orwellian. The ads for the No campaign are correct in saying that I-1631 “exempts many of the state’s largest polluters”. KC Golden spins this by using brackets to get from “the state’s largest polluters” to “the state’s largest polluter[s]”—making it seem like adding the “s” in “polluters” was a mistake by the No campaign!—and then goes from there to focus on the coal plant.

Perhaps David Roberts should end up where Golden is: as an activist, writing opinion pieces for activist publications that have higher priorities than factual accuracy. Perhaps. All I know for sure, based on what I’ve read, is that David Roberts shouldn’t be a journalist for a publication like Vox.

PS. For the record, here’s my response to Roberts’s Direct Message question about “Can you explain what you mean when you say you’re trying to stay out of it?”

I’m trying to treat 1631 the way I wish they had treated 732: not my preferred approach but I’m trying to let them have their swing at the ball without getting in their way. In keeping with what I consider to be my moral obligations (see the blog post I wrote in April) I’ve expressed my concerns about 1631 but have done it in a pretty mild way and since then I’ve pretty much avoided being newsworthy on 1631. I think I’ve accomplished that by keeping my opinions mostly to myself and sticking to the facts (and focusing on my newborn baby boy!). But I’m not going to sit back and do nothing if I see what appears to be a journalist colluding with the Yes campaign in an effort to mislead the public. Come on, David, please confirm for me that you’re better than that. And don’t make me waste my Sunday making a stink about this with your editors etc.

Roberts’s response, in part:

I have no idea what alleged error you are referring to.