Want to shoot down a carbon fee? Just call it a tax

Oct 22, 2019, 4:28 PM
Initiative 732, I-732, carbon tax, carbon fee, climate change, cap-and-invest, climate...
The Tesoro Corp. refinery, in Anacortes, Wash. Gas flares like this are part of normal plant operations. (AP)

If you look at it one way, a carbon fee makes sense. After all, the average American pays a fee to have their garbage collected, taken away, and handled properly. Why not have large corporations pay a fee for their garbage which is released into the environment every American lives in.

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Right now, companies dispose of waste for free. Under a system of fines for carbon, the free market kicks in and people vote with their dollars. So why not a carbon fee?

“Look at Washington’s carbon fee last year,” Kate Yoder told KIRO Radio’s Dave Ross. “Supporters called it a fee on pollution, but the industry rebranded it as a tax, and it failed.”

Yoder recently explained this distinction in an article for Grist, Voters like taxing carbon as long as you don’t say “carbon tax.”

“People have been resistant to that term (a tax) since before our country even started,” she added.

She points to a recent Emerson poll which discovered that more Americans like the idea of a carbon tax, as long as it isn’t called a “carbon tax.” She further notes that polls generally show that people favor climate causes such as clean air and water. And such causes equate to fines on companies that pollute the air and water.

“According to the study, 35% of people supported a carbon tax, but more than half supported the same thing when it was called ‘a fine on corporations that pollute’ instead,” Yoder said. “But the one issue is that the fossil fuel industry knows the same information.”

Carbon fee initiatives in Washington

All of this can depend on who the voter trusts and also how the fee is set up. In Washington, that can be difficult to determine.

The last proposal for a carbon fee that Washington voters weighed in on in 2018 — I-1631 — set up a board composed of a series of environmental groups that would decide what to do with the money. That lack of clarity and specifics rubbed some people the wrong way. I-1631 aimed to establish a $15 per metric ton of carbon starting in 2020, increasing by $2 every year after that.

Bill Gates ultimately came out in support of I-1631, basically arguing that something needed to be done and that it would support renewable energies. Other advocates, however, argued that I-1631 was the wrong way to go. Meteorologist Cliff Mass opposed 1631, but favored a previous carbon fee that voters also rejected — I-732. That initiative copied the carbon fee from Canada and made it revenue neutral, so it wouldn’t harm the consumer while putting pressure on polluters. I-732 would eventually have placed a $100 per metric ton fee on carbon polluters.

Cliff Mass: How to make a carbon tax work in Washington

“(Taxpayers) just want the system to be fair,”  Yoder said. “That means that big corporations and the rich aren’t getting a free pass. Generally, the proposals I’ve seen for carbon taxes are different from property taxes in that the tax money isn’t going back to the government, it’s usually being sent back to the American people in the form of a check to offset the cost of gas prices going up, that sort of thing. Or it’s being spent directly in the communities that are harmed by climate change and investing in renewable energy.”

Whatever the debate ends up being, Yoder argues that waiting for the perfect proposal for a carbon pollution fee is pointless – something needs to be done, soon, after so many years of inaction.

“Even though it is generally, politically unpopular because it would make some of the things we like more expensive,” Yoder said. “Another thing we like is having a habitable planet. And it might be time to get our priorities straight in that regard.”

Dave Ross on KIRO Radio 97.3 FM
  • listen to dave rossTune in to KIRO Radio weekdays at 5am for Dave Ross on Seattle's Morning News.

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Want to shoot down a carbon fee? Just call it a tax