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Inslee calls for carbon tax to fight climate change

UPDATED: Tue., Jan. 9, 2018, 6:34 p.m.

OLYMPIA – Gov. Jay Inslee, flanked by Rep. Joe Fitzgibbon, D-Burien on his right and Sen. Reuven Carlyle, D-Seattle on his left, and the portraits of two of his predecessors looking over his shoulder, discusses his plan for a carbon tax that would pay for pollution abatement during a meeting with reporters in the entrance to the governor’s office. (Jim Camden / The Spokesman-Review)
OLYMPIA – Gov. Jay Inslee, flanked by Rep. Joe Fitzgibbon, D-Burien on his right and Sen. Reuven Carlyle, D-Seattle on his left, and the portraits of two of his predecessors looking over his shoulder, discusses his plan for a carbon tax that would pay for pollution abatement during a meeting with reporters in the entrance to the governor’s office. (Jim Camden / The Spokesman-Review)

OLYMPIA – Washington residents would pay more at the gasoline pump and more on their utility bills as the state tries to reduce its carbon pollution under a proposal unveiled Tuesday by Gov. Jay Inslee.

A tax starting at $20 per ton of carbon emissions, with adjustments for inflation, would be put in place July 1, 2019 and generate an estimated $1.5 billion every two years to pay for programs that would reduce the pollution, which experts say is a major factor in climate change.

Inslee said Washington would join California, British Columbia and other parts of Canada, along with European countries in having a detailed plan to reduce carbon pollution.

“We don’t have to invent the rocket ship here,” Inslee told reporters in the afternoon after meeting with business, utility and environmental leaders, including Dennis Vermillion, president of Avista. “This is not the first time this has been done.”

Avista later released a statement saying it “welcomes the opportunity to work with the governor and the Legislature on an approach that supports our customers needs, creates technological advances and considers the economic impact, even beyond the state’s borders, with the goal to improve the environment.”

Republican leaders were sharply critical of the proposal after Inslee talked about it in his State of the State address earlier in the day. Senate Minority Leader Mark Schoesler, R-Ritzville, said Inslee calling for a new tax in his annual address was predictable.

House Minority Leader Dan Kristiansen, R-Snohomish, described it as “extremely tax-heavy and policy-short.” Republicans would be proposing legislation that stressed policies to reduce carbon pollution without a major tax increase, he said.

The taxes would hit hardest on the middle class and lower-income residents who would see increases for fuel, utilities and many consumer items, Kristiansen said.

Inslee said he hoped businesses like Avista and Puget Sound Energy, another major investor-owned utility in the state, would help “open the doors of optimism” among Republicans.

Before he discussed it in his annual address to a joint session of the Legislature, Inslee’s policy experts explained the state would invest money raised by the taxes in a series of initiatives to reduce carbon emissions and provide exemptions and credits for some businesses, agriculture operations and low income residents.

Although the tax would be imposed on producers of fuel and utilities, consumers would likely see a 6 percent to 9 percent increase in gasoline prices at the pump, as well as an increase of 4 percent to 5 percent in their electric bill and 9 percent to 11 percent in their natural gas bill.

Such shifts are in line with normal fluctuations in fuel and energy prices, said Lauren McCloy, a senior policy adviser to Inslee on energy.

Diesel fuel for agricultural uses would be exempt, as would aviation fuel and certain biofuels, McCloy said.

Half of the money raised would be used for programs to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, including clean energy and transportation programs. Another 35 percent would be used to support programs to improve water management and storage systems and to reduce wildfires through better forest health.

Sen. Reuven Carlyle, D-Seattle, sponsor of the legislation in the Senate, said he sees a growing recognition among lawmakers and other state leaders of the need for an energy strategy and Inslee’s proposal is the place to start, with a committee hearing next week. Republican proposals will also be considered, Carlyle said.

Correspondent Rachel Sun contributed to this report.

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