oil pump
Credit: Paul Lowry/Flickr

At some point, even the most powerful forces in the world run out of luck.

The fossil fuel industry–which knew damn well that its products where threatening human civilization–has been on a political winning streak for decades, but it could experience a significant reversal of fortune this November, if a grassroots ballot initiative becomes law:

Initiative 1631 has collected nearly 380,000 signatures from Washington voters — 120,000 more than necessary for it to appear on the ballot this fall. If voters pass the measure in November, Washington would be the first state in the country to adopt anything like a carbon tax…

It’s one of three carbon pricing efforts to watch in the United States this year. In Washington, D.C., Councilmember Mary Cheh is expected to introduce a “carbon fee” bill to the district’s progressive city council this month. The Massachusetts state legislature is also mulling over a (somewhat vague) carbon price.

Washington state’s proposal would charge industrial emitters $15 per metric ton on carbon emissions starting in 2020, ramping up by $2 per year until Washington state meets its climate goals. The revenue raised would go toward investing in clean energy, protecting clean water and forests, and helping to make sure the communities that suffer the most from carbon emissions prepare for the effects of wildfires and sea-level rise.

Surprise, surprise — major oil and gas companies are already trying to fight it. The Western States Petroleum Association recently formed the “No on 1631” political action committee. The Seattle Times reports that the PAC has the support of the big guys, like BP, Shell, Chevron, Phillips 66.

So far, opponents to the carbon fee are arguing that prices will rise at the gas pump, hitting average people where it hurts. Mark Funk, a spokesperson for No on 1631, told the Seattle Times that the fee would “place the burden for initiative squarely on middle-income and lower-income people.”

As if polluters give a damn about “middle-income and lower-income people,” the ones who will be most impacted by the climate crisis.

Fossil-fuel interests are clearly scared to death that the implementation of this policy in Washington state will be replicated in other blue (and possibly purple?) states. With acting Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Andrew Wheeler dedicated to destroying all vestiges of federal climate policy, state-level action on climate is of the utmost importance.

If Initiative 1631 passes, it will be quite interesting to see the reaction of the Republicans and “centrist” Democrats who have expressed support for federal carbon pricing. It seems rather odd that this Republican/”centrist” Democrat coalition isn’t pushing for elements of their carbon-pricing proposal to be implemented on a state level. In a June New York Times op-ed, former Senators Trent Lott and John Breaux asserted:

Americans already like the idea. A poll released Tuesday by Americans for Carbon Dividends shows that 81 percent of likely voters — including 71 percent of moderate Republicans and 58 percent of conservative Republicans — agree the government should take action to limit carbon emissions. And by a 2-to-1 margin, likely voters support taxing carbon emissions and rebating the money directly to the American people. Support for this concept among Republicans is similarly strong, with Republicans favoring the dividends plan by a 23-point margin.

If Republican enthusiasm for carbon pricing is indeed so strong, why don’t the Lotts and Breauxs of the world make an effort to get key portions of their proposal passed in a red state in order to prove their thesis? What could possibly go wrong?

We certainly know what will go wrong for the fossil-fuel industry if Initiative 1631 passes in Washington state. The implementation of carbon pricing in the Evergreen State would be a harrowing defeat for an industry that has imposed its will on American politics for far too long–and a sweet victory for those who have been fighting for decades for sensible climate policy to be implemented on any governmental level. We will find out who wins and who loses on November 6.

D.R. Tucker

D. R. Tucker is a Massachusetts-based journalist who has served as the weekend contributor for the Washington Monthly since May 2014. He has also written for the Huffington Post, the Washington Spectator, the Metrowest Daily News, investigative journalist Brad Friedman's Brad Blog and environmental journalist Peter Sinclair's Climate Crocks.