I-1631: A Chance for Equitable Growth

Sylvie Corwin, Staff Reporter

This Nov., Washington State presents I-1631, a carbon fee like no other. If passed, this initiative will charge polluters, redistribute wealth and promote clean energy. Coming soon to ballots near you.

Senior Tyee Williams co-leads the 1631 initiative campaign at Whitman along with junior Andy Burnstein and senior Genean Wrisley.

“1631 is kind of unprecedented and has a chance to make the most progressive change to Washington’s carbon emissions in forever,” Williams said. “This initiative has built the broadest coalition in Washington state history around any initiative, and so it has a lot of different grassroots organizations working for it.”

But 1631 also has unprecedented opposition.

“There’s a huge opposition campaign … as of right now they’ve raised $20 million in opposition and 99 percent of that money is coming from fossil fuel companies, I think 7 million of that is coming from ConocoPhillips,” Williams said. “If they raise another 2 million in opposition, which probably will happen, it will be the most expensive initiative … in state history as well.”

Closely following Phillips 66, BP America is contributing over $6 million and Andeavor, a petroleum refinery company, over $4 million to the campaign against 1631, according to the Public Disclosure Committee.

If Initiative 1631 passes, the largest polluters in Washington state, starting in January 2020, will pay a fee of $15 per metric ton of carbon pollution they produce. This fee will increase by $2 every year. A few large polluters are exempted from this fee including certain building material production facilities whose products are necessary to build clean-energy alternative sources, and, most notably, the Centralia Power Plant. The Centralia coal-plant was excluded from the fee as it is currently in the process of converting to a solar farm and the fee might inhibit this process.

Because initiative 1631 is a fee and not a tax, all the money raised by the fee must be used to continue solving pollution issues.

Abigail Scholar, who’s organizing the 1631 campaign in Walla Walla, believes this part of the initiative is key to its success.

“I’m really happy that it’s a fee because then the fee can be distributed to the communities that are impacted by this and it’ll support people transitioning into clean energy jobs,” Scholar said. “I think the estimate is that it will create 40,000 jobs in Washington state.”

If passed, the carbon fee is estimated to raise $1 billion, which will then be reallocated by a public board. 70 percent of the money must go to clean-energy infrastructures such as solar and wind power and more efficient transportation and homes, according to yeson1631.org. 25 percent must go to maintaining healthier forests and water sources and 5 percent to the communities most impacted by the initiative.

“The writing process took such a hard look at the equity of this policy and that’s something that I know previously in Washington state … has been lacking from certain environmental policies,” Burnstein said. “$1 billion is a wild amount of money to be raised every year and the fact that it can cover everyone’s transition into jobs in clean energy and pay for their benefits and salary and training for up to five years of transition, that is wild … it’s so big it boggles my mind.”

The groups in charge of creating 1631 also tried hard to be equitable.

“I think something that’s really valuable is that part of the steering committee, or I think it was actually its own steering committee, was made up of communities of color,” Scholar said. “In all of the work that we do we have to really focus on race and the politics of communities of color and looking at how they are impacted more than most … and so having them at the table — and I say ‘them’ but you know I’m a woman of color so I mean us — having us at the table being leaders and forming the initiative is invaluable.”

In Walla Walla, the 1631 campaign is led by Scholar, Williams, Burnstein and Wrisley, and many of the participants are Whitman students. Every Wednesday and Friday there are opportunities to canvass for 1631, leaving from Reid G02 at 4:30 p.m., and this week students are tabling in Reid to raise awareness of the initiative.

The canvassers try to target voters who might not usually vote or who might be on the fence about the initiative.

“The biggest question is how is [1631] going to impact all of us in our households, and because of the ‘no’ campaign there’s a real misunderstanding of what that means financially,” Scholar said. “The metric is that it will cost, approximately, $10 per household per month, so when we talk to people at the doors, my personal go-to point that I try to bring up is I get Netflix, and that’s like $10 a month, and I would argue that I would rather spend $10 a month to clean up the planet for my kids than to get Netflix.”

While California already has a Cap-and-Trade system for carbon emissions, 1631 would be the first actual carbon pricing system in the US.

“The biggest hope for me would be that more states pass initiatives like this,” Burnstein said. “I don’t know what the next step for our state would be because I really do believe the initiative is that comprehensive, so we’ll see how it goes and what more needs to be done, but if other states could start adopting initiatives like this and passing laws like this that would be really phenomenal.”

To set this precedent, however, 1631 must pass.

“They’re thinking [the 1631 vote] could be very close,” Scholar said. “So the work we do here in Walla Walla could actually really make a difference.”

Burnstein also reminded students that their vote could make this difference: “Don’t frick’n forget to vote,” Burnstein said.