Koch Industries, Van Jones united in carbon tax battle

Source: Hannah Hess, E&E News reporter • Posted: Monday, November 7, 2016

Koch Industries Inc. and a political organization founded by President Obama’s former green jobs czar Van Jones each spent five-figure sums on the same side of an environmental campaign last week.

They are working against a ballot measure in the Pacific Northwest that would impose the first-ever statewide carbon tax.

With high-profile endorsements and big spending on both sides of Washington State Initiative 732, observers say the debate over an escalating, revenue-neutral carbon tax could foreshadow a broader national dialogue about how to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Actor and climate activist Leonardo DiCaprio, former Energy Secretary Steven Chu and longtime Seattle-based Rep. Jim McDermott (D-Wash.) are endorsing the state’s plan, which would impose a tax starting at $15 a ton in 2017, increasing to $25 per ton in 2018 and 3.5 percent each year thereafter.

Campaign committees formed to support I-732 have raked in more than $2.2 million in cash, according to public finance reports from Carbon Washington and Audubon Washington, including $250,000 from the family of billionaire gas trader and philanthropist John Arnold.

But strange bedfellows — fossil fuel interests and a cadre of environmentalists — are joining forces in urging voters to reject the plan.

Unions, farmers and businesses, who argue the state’s commercial and industrial sectors already emit less carbon than they used to, formed the “No On 732” campaign, sponsored by the Association of Washington Business.

Its cash contributions total $1 million. Top donors include the American Fuel and Petrochemical Manufacturers, Kaiser Aluminum, Puget Sound Energy and Koch Industries, which yesterday kicked in $50,000.

Racial justice leaders, including one of the founders of Black Lives Matter, added their voices to the opposition yesterday. They echo conservationists and the Washington Sierra Club, which have come out swinging against the measure (ClimateWire, Oct. 17).

Opponents frame the plan to offset revenues with tax cuts as a missed opportunity to redirect money toward clean energy, water quality improvement, and help for low-income communities disproportionately affected by climate change and pollution.

‘Just that bad’

Jones, who resigned in 2009 as the Obama administration’s special adviser on environmental jobs, told reporters about his long fight for climate action, before declaring his opposition to the first-ever statewide carbon tax.

“I have never, ever opposed a single climate bill, proposal, comma, semicolon … but I am opposing this one because it is that bad. It is just that bad,” Jones said on a national press call. He could end up with a high-profile environmental post if Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton wins the presidency.

Coinciding with the call, a nonprofit group Jones founded called Rebuild the Dream released two online ads slamming I-732 as “revenue negative.” The group is spending $10,000 on the ads, a spokesperson said.

Conservatives who support federal carbon tax legislation — former South Carolina Rep. Bob Inglis (R), founder of a group called republicEn, and former Sen. Slade Gorton (R-Wash.) — have rallied around the Washington ballot measure.

“Congress has not heeded our plea for bipartisan leadership on climate change. President Obama’s executive orders on the issue have only served to deepen the partisan divide,” Gorton wrote in a recent op-ed for The Hill.

“But in this general election, voters in Washington State have the opportunity to lead the country to a solution that has broad bipartisan support — a revenue neutral carbon tax proposed by Initiative 732,” wrote Gorton.

Democratic Sens. Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island and Brian Schatz of Hawaii introduced a carbon tax last year with the hopes of attracting some Republican support, but none has materialized.

Observers have suggested the debate could play out in the next Congress, as companies increasingly promote a price on carbon as acceptable climate policy in exchange for some regulatory rollbacks.

Tiernan Sittenfeld, government affairs senior vice president at the League of Conservation Voters, said this week that “any notion that would trade away EPA authority to cut carbon pollution under the Clean Air Act would be totally unacceptable and an absolute deal breaker.”

Few Republicans on board

GOP strategist Mike McKenna dismissed the notion of Republicans coming around on a carbon tax. “They will flirt with it. But they will not vote for it,” said McKenna, who is helping with Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump’s transition plans.

Scholars with the left-leaning Center for American Progress, however, predict the proliferation of carbon pricing plans across the nation.

Carbon taxes and cap-and-trade programs have found a diverse set of proponents, including from the private sector and across the political spectrum, said CAP in a report this week.

“Concern about the economically and socially destructive effects of climate change — and prescience that climate denial is politically unviable over the long term — motivate the position among conservatives that there is a legitimate role for government to correct for the externality of carbon pollution,” said the report.

Mexico and Canada are moving toward carbon pricing, and U.S. cooperation could help North America meet collective climate targets, such as the goal of 50 percent clean energy generation by 2025.

The report also noted that dozens of states are considering carbon pricing as a potential tool to comply with U.S. EPA’s Clean Power Plan, which is currently under judicial review.

“If the plan is upheld, there is strong potential for an expansion of carbon pricing policies across the country,” says the document.

Unconfirmed emails allegedly hacked from the personal account of Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta show CAP researching a price on carbon for the campaign, though Clinton has not endorsed or rejected the concept on the trail (E&ENews PM, Oct. 20).

A Trump economic adviser rejected the idea of pricing carbon emissions this fall (ClimateWire, Oct. 21).