aiisha5/Getty Images

Washington State Is One Step Closer to Passing The First Carbon Tax in The U.S.

Take two.

23 FEB 2018

A new bill that would tax carbon emissions in Washington state has cleared a key fiscal committee, clearing the way for a full Senate vote.

"Our bill to put a price on carbon pollution and invest in a clean energy future for Washington just took a big step towards a vote on the floor," wrote Kevin Ranker, a Democrat from Orcas Island, on his Facebook page.


If the bill passes, Washington will become the first state in the nation to impose a direct tax on carbon emissions to combat climate change.

For years Governor Jay Inslee has been pushing for a carbon tax in Washington state. But in 2016, Washingtonians voted down a potential carbon tax because they couldn't agree on how to spend the tax money.

Now, the state is trying again. The new bill would tax $12 per metric ton of carbon emissions on the sale or use of fossil fuels, such as gasoline and natural gas. The bill has already been approved by the Senate's Energy and Environment Committee.

While the final measure is significantly lower than the $20 per ton that Inslee ultimately wanted, it's certainly a start. 

"This is a powerful piece of legislation," said Ranker before Thursday's vote. He added that "this is a very modest approach, maybe too modest."


The new tax would kick in in 2019 and two years later it would increase $1.80 per ton each year until it hits $30 a ton in 2030.

The money generated from this tax would be no small sum. The tax is predicted to raise $766 million in just the first two years. In the next biennium, it would generate about $988 million.

So where would all that money go? Half would go towards energy projects to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and 20 percent would address climate resilience through projects in forest health, wildfire prevention, water and other natural resources.

Still, it's not just the environment that would benefit from the carbon tax. There's also a plan to spend the money on low-income families and workers in the fossil-fuel industry. Plus, another chunk would go towards boosting economic development in more rural parts of the state.

Yet critics of the bill are worried the proposed carbon tax will exempt major industries, like aviation fuel and fossil fuels used in agriculture, while hindering ordinary customers.

In 2020, for instance, the carbon tax would mean a 10 percent increase in gasoline prices, which is nearly 4 percent higher than current projections.


"It's an increase of 9 to 30 cents a gallon, will hit the working poor the hardest, provides corporate loopholes and will do zero for climate change:  This is not leadership, it is grandstanding," in the words of Bill Bryant, Inslee's 2016 Republican opponent for Governor.

Washington's neighbors are also against the measure. The Attorney Generals of Wyoming and Montana wrote a letter to Inslee, reminding him that he does not have "jurisdiction to regulate environmental issues in Montana and Wyoming."

"Yet the clear intent of SSB 6203 is to force non-Washington power generation facilities into compliance with Washington air quality regulations through the imposition of a tax on carbon dioxide emitted outside Washington," the letter continued.

If lawmakers do not hold a vote, a coalition of environmental, tribal and other environmental leaders have promised to bring the issue to the ballot in November.