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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Carbon fee initiative likely headed for Washington’s November ballot

Volunteers for Initiative 1631, which would place a fee on fossil fuels to collect money for clean energy programs, practice a “wave” in front of an electric bus after turning in signatures at the secretary of state’s office. (Jim Camden / The Spokesman-Review)

OLYMPIA – An initiative that would impose a fee on fossil fuels to raise money for clean energy projects seems headed for Washington’s November ballot as supporters from around the state turned in hundreds of thousands of signatures Monday and expect another delivery of petitions on Friday.

Standing outside the secretary of state’s elections office with boxes stacked on either side of a podium, leaders of the Initiative 1631 campaign described the measure as a way to fight climate change by lowering carbon emissions.

“Climate pollution is affecting real people, right now,” Seattle cardiologist Mark Vossler said.

Organizers estimate they have more than 380,000 signatures which would be more than 100,000 above the requirement to have a place on the general election ballot. Elections workers began sorting and counting petitions Monday afternoon.

Opponents counter it is really about raising money from businesses and the public and giving it to a new, unwieldy bureaucracy. They call it a carbon tax, although technically the initiative calls for a fee.

Under state law, there’s a distinction. Money from a fee can only be used for something in connection with the source of that money, so a fee on polluting substances could be used to clean up pollution but not for a general state program. A tax can be used for unrelated programs.

The initiative calls for a fee of $15 per metric ton on carbon from so-called “large emitters” starting in 2020, and increasing each year. An Office of Financial Management review of a similar proposal introduced in the closing days of the legislative session estimated that would generate more than $214 million in 2020 and almost $824 million in 2027.

Opponents say consumers will pay the fees through higher prices at the gasoline pump and on energy bills.

“They claim it will hit ‘large emitters’ even as they know it will raise the price of gasoline for everyone, rich and poor,” Todd Meyers, of the Washington Policy Center, said in an email.

Supporters of the initiative contend, however, that petroleum companies won’t be able to pass it all on to customer and will have to absorb some of it, and the money collected will create clean energy jobs.

If they weren’t afraid of I-1631 hurting their bottom lines, the oil companies wouldn’t be spending money to defeat the initiative, Nick Abraham, a spokesman for the campaign, said. The variation of prices at the pump will be in the range that drivers see every month, he said.

To underscore their antipathy for burning gasoline and other fossil fuels, dozens of supporters rode an electric bus from Seattle to the capital to take part in the petition delivery. Its batteries store enough power to make the round trip without recharging, organizers said.

Bonnie Roberts, a Spokane volunteer who helped organize signature gatherers and collect petitions from Eastern Washington, said she’s concerned about clean air and pollution with railroads bringing oil and coal through Spokane.

Among her relatives, there’s not one family that doesn’t have a child or an adult who suffers from asthma or other breathing problems, Roberts said.

Jacob Johns, the Eastern Washington field organizer for the campaign, said it had about 150 volunteers collecting signatures over a three-month period. Most of the signatures came from Spokane County, and volunteers were busy during big community events such as Bloomsday and the Pride Parade.

At least three other initiative drives are expected to turn in signatures this week before Friday afternoon’s deadline. Ballot measures that address gun violence, grocery taxes and a universal health care plan have made appointments to drop off petitions.