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Big Oil Kills Carbon Initiative in Washington State

Out-of-state fossil-fuel money drowns out local support for key climate policy

The Space Needle is seen in view of still standing but now defunct stacks at the Nucor Steel plant in Seattle. The state is releasing its second take of a proposed rule to require the state's largest polluters to reduce their carbon pollution in an effort to tackle climate change. The Department of Ecology withdrew a rule in February to make substantive changes. The measure released Wednesday, June 1 is a key piece in Gov. Jay Inslee's efforts to tackle climate change and reflects other efforts in California and the NortheastCarbon Cap Washington, Seattle, USA

With the defeat of Initiative 1631, Big Oil bought another election and pushed the world a little deeper into climate chaos

Elaine Thompson/AP/REX Shutterstock

Last night in Washington state, Big Oil bought another election and pushed the world a little deeper into climate chaos. What else is new?

Big Oil’s victory came on Initiative 1631, which sought to put a small fee on carbon pollution in the state. It lost by a significant margin, 56 percent to 44 percent.

The Initiative was hardly a fossil-fuel killer. In fact, it was distressingly modest: It would put a price on carbon pollution that starts at $15 per ton in 2020 and rises $2 a year until 2035, where it would reach around $55. If state carbon targets are being reached, it would stay there; if not, it would continue upward. This modest fee (don’t call it a tax!) is far below what most economists believe is necessary to really have a transformative impact on our energy system, especially in a state like Washington, which has a lot of clean hydro power, but it was a start.

Supporters of 1631 included everyone from Bill Gates to the Nature Conservancy. It was pitched as a Green New Deal, because all the money raised by the initiative – more than a billion dollars a year – would be invested in the state in clean air, clean water, healthy forests and in climate-impacted rural communities. A Crosscut/Elway poll from early October showed half of respondents supporting the measure, but 14 percent were still undecided.

Why did it fail? Do people in Washington state just not care about climate change? (Not according to this poll.) Does the phrase “carbon fee” reek of a tax-and-spend big government program that will never gain favor among independent and conservative voters? Has climate change politics fallen further into the partisan divide that separates America?

All of the above may be true. But it is also true that none of these factors were likely as important as money. The “No on 1631” forces raised nearly $30 million. As David Roberts at Vox pointed out, that was more money than has ever been marshaled for an initiative campaign in Washington history. (The previous record-holder was $22.45 million spent by opponents of a GMO food-labeling initiative in 2013.)

Where did this money come from? The fossil-fuel industry, of course. Among the biggest donors were London-based BP (nearly $13 million), Houston-based Phillips 66 ($7 million) and Koch Industries ($1 million). It was an out-of-state assault — about 98 percent of the money against 1631 came from out of state.

In contrast, supporters of 1631 only raised about $15 million, roughly 35 percent of which came from outside Washington.

This flood of fossil fuel money didn’t just flood into Washington state. It also contorted six key energy and environmental initiatives on the ballot in Alaska, Arizona, Colorado, Montana, Nevada and Washington. Groups leading the opposition against those initiatives raised more than $107 million, according to the Center for Public Integrity. And 99% of that money came from oil, gas and mining interests.

The big lesson of the defeat of 1631, if there is one, may be that before we can get carbon out of the atmosphere, we need to get dirty money out of American politics.

In This Article: 2018 Midterms, Climate Change

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