PD Editorial: Hope for progress on carbon impact remains with states

While the Trump administration seems determined to keep the nation tied at the hip to Big Oil, hope for progress in reducing America’s dependence on fossil fuels is being kept alive - at the state level.

One of the most hopeful signs occurred in Washington recently where the state Legislature came within a handful of votes of passing the nation’s first tax on carbon pollution, a proposal that had the full support of the state’s governor.

The idea is simple. Fossil fuel companies would be required to pay a fee on the carbon content of the fuels they extract. The bill in Washington called for a tax of $12 per metric ton of carbon emissions on the sale or use of gasoline and natural gas. The tax would have increased each year until capping out at $30 a ton. Half of the roughly $1 billion raised each year would have gone toward energy projects in the state that would reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Thirty percent would have provided assistance for low-income families and workers in the fossil fuel industry. The rest would have gone toward programs for preventing wildfires and protecting forest health and natural resources.

Some supporters of a carbon fee and dividend system contend that the only way to attract bipartisan support is if all revenues are returned directly to taxpayers through monthly dividend checks. It’s because of systems like that that conservatives such as former Secretary of State George Shultz and former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson have endorsed the idea of a carbon tax.

“The public really is understanding the critical nature of this existential threat,” Gov. Jay Inslee, who has vowed to continue to push the idea, said in an interview earlier this year. “What used to be a graph on a chart is now our forests burning down and hurricanes and massive precipitation events, so this is something people are now experiencing in their own lives and with their own retinas, and they understand we have to act.”

Fortunately, Washington is not the only state looking at the plan. Both Rhode Island and Massachusetts have been debating adoption of a carbon tax proposal and may press ahead with legislation this year. Other states including Hawaii, Maryland, New Hampshire, New Mexico, New York, Oregon and Vermont are looking at similar measures.

For the past six years, California has put a price on carbon through its cap-and-trade program. But such a program is less effective because it allows a set number of emissions “allowances” each year whereas a carbon tax attaches a direct price on greenhouse gas releases.

Another proposal that deserves serious consideration is a bill that would ban the sale of gasoline-powered vehicles in California by 2040, if not sooner. The legislation, authored by Assemblyman Phil Ting, D-San Francisco, has received the strong endorsement of the Santa Rosa-based Center for Climate Protection. “We believe it is a game-changer,” said Ann Hancock, executive director of the center.

On the contrary, we believe these proposals show the states are not interested in playing games anymore. If carbon reduction is going to happen, states are going to have to lead the way.

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