Monday, March 19, 2018
Carbon pricing legislation falls short in Oregon and Washington
Climate change folks have been in various states of excitement, anxiety, and disappointment in recent weeks as major “carbon pricing” bills came close to passage but fell short in the Washington and Oregon state legislatures.
This stuff gets very wonkish very quickly, so as close as I can get to a TLDR on carbon pricing is this:
· Climate change experts largely agree that making it more expensive to burn high-carbon fuels (which pump out greenhouse gases, making climate change worse) will encourage reduced use, switching to renewable resources, etc.
· There are two ways of putting an extra price on carbon: directly, through taxes, and indirectly, by setting up a “cap-and-trade” system that auctions off permits to sell carbon content.
· In North America, British Columbia has the only carbon tax, while several jurisdictions, the largest being California, have cap-and-trade systems. Either system can be revenue-neutral (as in BC) or revenue-producing (as in California).
Back to the main story: Washington attempted to enact a carbon tax, Oregon a cap-and-trade system.
The initiatives in both states were backed by Democratic governors and Democratic legislators (yes, this is a partisan issue in those places). Both initiatives also have strong business/labor/environmental/community activist support groups. In both cases, the legislature didn’t quite have the time and/or votes to get the business done in this year’s session.
What does it mean?
There are a couple of good analytical pieces that sort through some of the possibilities. (See the story in The Atlantic here, and Think Progress here.) I would start with a simpler explanation, which is that complicated and controversial bills always take time and effort to push through the legislative process. (The course of true legislation never did run smooth.)
Both legislatures will very likely re-engage with carbon pricing bills, but probably not until their 2019 sessions. Stay tuned.
But what do these stories mean for the transportation sector?
Transportation fossil fuels would be covered under both the Oregon and Washington bills, meaning the prices at the pump would go up, perhaps by 10 cents a gallon or more.
And would the transportation programs benefit from these revenues? Yes, but it’s unclear how much and how many strings would be attached. Both states have constitutional encumbrances on their motor fuels programs, which would appear to limit the use of whatever money gets funneled into the state’s transportation program. Ideally (in my opinion) funds raised by carbon pricing on transportation fuels should be targeted toward transit, electric vehicle infrastructure, active transportation (bike/ped) infrastructure, and other “clean transportation” uses. No one has explained to me how that will happen in Washington and Oregon.
My takeaway? Transportation folks need to be involved at the beginning of carbon pricing legislative initiatives to make sure that the outcome works to advance the 21st century sustainable transportation system we need.