‘Imperfect’ measure seen by critics as too costly

There weren’t many people in the Twisp Valley Grange hall on a recent sunny Saturday, but the call to action on climate change came through loud and clear in the voices of those who presented to the small crowd.

“As a farmer and citizen of this planet, I-1631 is our best option,” said Cameron Green, owner of Willowbrook Farm in Carlton. “We have to pass this. We don’t have any more time to mess around.”

Initiative 1631, which will be decided by state voters in the Nov. 6 general election, would place a fee on carbon emissions of $15 per ton that would increase each year by about $2 per ton until the state meets its greenhouse gas reduction goals.

The fee is expected to generate $2.3 billion during the first five years, which will be used on programs to increase renewable energy sources, reduce emissions, and improve air and water quality as well as forest health. A percentage of the revenues must be used to help low-income people pay for the increased cost of fuel and electricity.

The initiative calls for the establishment of a 15-member public oversight board which would decide how the revenue from the fee is spent. Board members would include the Commissioner of Public Lands and directors of the Department of Commerce, the Department of Ecology and the Recreation and Conservation Office as well as four politically appointed at-large positions and six co-chairs.

Environmental groups, citizens and some state legislators have made repeated efforts to institute a tax on carbon or a cap and trade program in order to reduce emissions at the state level, but so far, neither ballot initiatives or legislation have passed.

The Western States Petroleum Association, which represents the major fossil fuel companies doing business in the state — except for Royal Dutch Shell, which operates a refinery in Anacortes — has spent more than $25 million opposing I-1631.

The costs

According to an independent estimate, I-1631 would increase gasoline prices by up to 14 cents per gallon per year. The Okanogan County Electric Co-Operative (OCEC) estimates the initiative would add $15,000 to its power costs each year, which would translate into a roughly 21-cent-per-month increase on a $100 monthly electric bill. Propane users would see a roughly $20 increase in the cost of a fill-up on a 250-gallon propane tank.

OCEC has not taken a stance on I-1631, but it contributes $6,700 per year to the Western Rural Electric Co-Operative Association or WRECA, which opposes I-1631.

“I think their idea was right, we need to do something to reduce carbon but this just isn’t the way to do it,” said Kent Lopez, executive director of WRECA. The organization represents 15 utilities in rural Washington, totaling roughly 300,000 customers.

Lopez said many of those customers need to drive longer distances, often in less fuel-efficient vehicles, than urban residents of the state. They also may make their living in agriculture, which involves electricity to operate irrigation and fuel for farming equipment.

“If this didn’t have a negative impact on their ratepayers they [WRECA members] probably would not have voted to oppose it, but they looked at it and said this is not good for our members. This is not good for our communities, we’re going to oppose it,” Lopez said.

When asked about OCEC’s stance on I-1631, general manager David Gottula said the co-op is remaining neutral, but that the initiative would raise costs without any guarantee that the revenue will come back to the Methow Valley for use in renewable energy projects, energy bill assistance or other programs.

“Right now the money’s just going to go to Olympia. I doubt seriously we’ll see anything from it,” Gottula said. “For us, and where this really matters, is probably our lower-income members. There’s a lot of people who can’t afford it. An extra $21 [per propane tank fill-up] is a lot of money for some people.”

“Almost everybody who comes into The Cove is on a limited income or a fixed income so anything like that affects people,” said Cove Executive Director Glen Schmekel. “The winter heating is a big deal. We help a little bit, and then there’s a county- or state-wide program that you can sign up for in October, but the money doesn’t come through to be distributed until January. It’s a big deal to raise $25 or $30 on your heating bill.”

At the same time, Schmekel said, “People are willing to pay a little extra for something that is valuable. I don’t know how well the initiative is written but the idea is there. As far as people on fixed income, anything that goes up, either with gasoline or utilities, has to come from somewhere and so it’s going to come from food or other activities or clothing dollars. At The Cove we always encourage people to come in because if you come in and get the food from us you might have an extra $25 a week that can go somewhere else.”

Not perfect, but necessary

The carbon fee would not apply to several major emissions sources in Washington. Jet fuels would be exempt, as would maritime fuels. Fuels and electricity used by facilities that are defined as “Energy Intensive Trade Exposed,” such as glass, steel, pulp and paper, aluminum, and chemical manufacturing are also exempt. The millions of barrels of oil that are transported via train through Washington state to its coastal refineries would also be exempt from the fee.

“I-1631 is not perfect and it’s not the end all, be all solution. It’s a first step and it was designed to be sensitive to the economy of the Pacific Northwest,” said Jasmine Minbashian, executive director of the Methow Valley Citizens Council, which supports I-1631 along with 400 other organizations and businesses, including the Nature Conservancy, the Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians, REI, the Union of Concerned Scientists and the American Lung Association.

Minbashian acknowledged the added costs of heating, electricity and fuel associated with I-1631 but said OCEC should not support efforts to defeat the initiative because the near-term price increases pale in comparison to the costs associated with the long-term effects of climate change on the valley — such as increased wildfire frequency, poor air quality during peak tourist season and water scarcity.

The latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a global body of scientists convened by the United Nations, warns of a strong risk of climate crisis by 2040 if carbon emissions continue at current rates.

In order to effectively reduce emissions, the report said the fee on carbon should be set between $135 to $5,500 per ton of carbon pollution in 2030. I-1631 sets it at $15 per ton.

Minbashian said she is excited about the funding source created by I-1631.

“For example here in the Methow Valley we can use those funds to implement fuels reduction projects in our forests, renewable energy — you name it, our creativity is the only limit to what we can do with those funds.”