This Washington

What's Next for Washington to Address Climate Change?

"We don't need to let carbon pricing suck out all the oxygen from the room the way it has in the past."

By Hayat Norimine November 20, 2018

An oil trail passes by a Tesoro refinery in Skagit County in December 2015.

When statewide voters in November firmly rejected Initiative 1631, which would have created a carbon fee for companies producing fossil fuels, environmental activists vowed to never give up until they hold big polluters accountable and address climate change.

“We have a responsibility to continue this fight, to pass on a healthier future for the next generation,” said Abigail Doerr, I-1631 campaign director, on general election night. 

Eyes nationwide were on Washington to be the first state to act with carbon pricing, but the initiative failed with 56.6 percent of voters against it. That won't stop activists and state officials from looking at their next step in the Legislature. 

With governor Jay Inslee potentially eyeing a 2020 presidential race, there's no question the upcoming state legislative session in January will be important for him. He's taken on climate change as his central issue in the past, having pushed a carbon tax and cap on carbon emissions without success.

Now, the question is—with a long, 105-day legislative session starting in January, and a larger Democratic majority in the House and Senate—whether this year's prospects are better for policies to reduce fossil fuels in Olympia.

Activists are still trying to figure that out. While the campaign on election night attributed the loss to the money the petroleum industry spent to oppose the measure—$31.6 million—voters against I-1631 listed a variety of reasons, including a lack of clarity on how the revenue on the carbon fee would be spent.

Opportunity Washington just last week sent a survey out to try to better understand why voters rejected the carbon fee initiative (along with why voters supported Initiative 1634, which prohibits cities from enacting grocery or beverage taxes). 

"After an election, pundits and policymakers often try to figure out why voters acted as they did," the survey's introduction said. "Sometimes it's easy. Often, it's more challenging. And, as we've seen with these two tax and fee measures, their advocates try to draw a lesson what will allow them to try again with more success."

House Environment Committee chair Joe Fitzgibbon of the 34th Legislative District, which includes West Seattle, said elected officials will undoubtedly discuss carbon pricing—whether that means a tax, a fee, or a "cap and trade" approach that sets the price for carbon emissions based on market value.

But the focus on carbon pricing, he said, has often gotten in the way of other laws that he thinks could've been passed sooner with more bipartisan support to address climate change. 

He's hoping 2019 will be the year legislators can enact policies to reduce carbon emissions that are "within reach." Fitzgibbon is pushing a bill to phase out fossil fuel in the state's electricity by 2045; another proposed legislation on low-carbon fuel standard would push alternatives over gasoline. 

"We don't need to let carbon pricing suck out all the oxygen from the room the way it has in the past," Fitzgibbon told PubliCola. "Certainly if there's any path forward for carbon pricing...we'll spend a lot of time on that. But it is not going to come at the expense of other greenhouse gas emission policies."

Nick Abraham, spokesperson for the I-1631 campaign, told PubliCola advocates agreed to push for legislation—whatever that may be—together with the coalition intact, including labor and racial justice groups. He said he thinks that will help in the lobbying efforts compared to years past.

"We're going to take the time to think about what's next," Abraham said. "We're trying to push for something collectively. I think the makeup looks a lot better going forward."  

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