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Carbon pricing & energy investment: A time for representative democracy

December 31, 2017


There is an ever-present and vibrant political tension in our state between direct and representative democracy. Sometimes the opportunity of an initiative move the Legislature to act, or provides air cover to elected officials, and sometimes the people go directly to initiative on important issues of the day to move beyond a slow-moving Legislature.  Both tools of democracy are vital if not messy to progress.

As a state founded at the height of the populist movement, the nuanced checks and balances is a complex part of our political DNA and there are stories of success and failure on all sides of the equation. From campaign disclosure to renewable energy, gun safety to marriage equality, the story of change goes through both the ballot box.

As the 2018 Legislative Session begins in Olympia, that historic tension is playing out in real time on the pressing public issue of climate change with a bold carbon pricing and energy investment strategy.

As the new chair of the Senate Energy, Environment & Technology Committee, my preference is that representative democracy–the people’s elected representatives in Olympia–should step forward this year and pass comprehensive carbon pricing and energy investment legislation. The easy route would be to retreat while a public initiative is sent directly to voters. The Olympia route inherently means complex negotiations above purity.  It means working closely with stakeholders from disproportionally impacted communities and displaced workers to global oil companies and utilities.  It means compromise.

As chair, I’m deeply honored to partner with Governor Inslee and our thoughtful legislative colleagues as we actively and energetically move forward with a robust carbon pricing and energy investment package in the Legislature. The bill places a price on carbon emissions and invests the money in next generation electrification of transportation, smart gird infrastructure, eliminating coal usage, transitioning workforces, rural development, mitigating forest fires and investing in water sources, centers of educational excellence and much more. And it opens the door to a next generation of investment in renewable energy jobs.

As the Legislature considers the Governor’s bold carbon and energy legislation, I am guided by three core principles:  First, the policy must prove it can work by meaningfully reducing our state’s carbon footprint. This is not an academic exercise.  It is an opportunity for global leadership at the state and West Coast regional level at a time when the federal government has retreated from its public obligation to tackle climate change.

Second, the revenues collected cannot become another generic source of government resources and utlimately dissipate into the ether of unrelated spending. The allocation and appropriation of the public’s money must have a direct nexus of value toward reducing CO2 emissions and making our state more resilient to the effects and implications of climate change.  It should not be used for education or health care or other public needs that are not directly related. Third, the program must contribute toward modernizing our state’s grid and infrastructure.  We want it to enable the next generation of public and private utility business and service models–from distributed energy systems to utility scale infrastructure to the electrification of our transportation system.

With two votes separating a divided legislature, it is not difficult for any one political player–global oil companies, timber interests, labor, tribes, environmentalists, utilities, leadership–to stop a major energy investment bill.  The difficult part isn’t to stop a bill but to pass one. The question facing Olympia is whether we want to retreat from the opportunity to pass historic legislation because it is easy to do so.  The issue is whether voters will decide directly or whether we in the Legislature will craft a responsible, balanced approach that recognizes the legitimate nuance of this complex policy issue.

If this energy investment legislative effort does not succeed, in my view is there is a growing consensus–fueled in part by extensive polling data of voters–that the State of Washington is going to see a major carbon pricing and energy investment initiative in 2018, and likely again in 2020 if needed. When major oil companies including British Petroleum and many market-oriented Republicans embrace reasoned carbon pricing and energy investment strategies worldwide, it’s unreasonable to pretend that the institution of state government should continue to unwisely and inefficiently subsidize the negative externalities of carbon.

The impact of climate change in Washington State touches every aspect of our lives, as shown by the widely-respected University of Washington Climate Impact Group, and so many premier scientists worldwide.  Our committee’s work will be science, data and evidence-driven. Responsible carbon pricing and energy investment strategies work when the resources are wisely invested. And that’s our plan.

We hold elections in our constitutional republic for our elected officials to govern.

This is a time for honesty about the profound impact of climate change on Washington State.  It is time for our constitutional republic to do our job and boldly tackle the issue of climate change directly, unequivocally and with a firm resolve to build a 21st Century strategy here at home.

Your partner in service,



6 Comments leave one →
  1. Christine Barrett permalink
    January 1, 2018 7:57 am

    1. Find a way to have Washington State lead the nation with gun control (banishment).
    2. Find a way to stop the disappearing of our children – – there are so very many!

  2. January 1, 2018 1:04 pm

    Hi Reuven,

    Thanks for the post and all your hard work on this issue. I’m glad that you’ve made climate change a top issue for this session, but I take a few serious concerns with your analysis here.

    Firstly, you write that the “Olympia route requires complex negotiations”. The Alliance for Jobs and Clean Energy — a grassroots coalition of environmental, labor, social/racial justice, and other community groups — has been conducting those complex negotiations for years. They have worked on and assembled a complete carbon pricing package, complete with emphasis on social justice. It is a movement of the people, by the people, and for the people. There is no need to include the global oil/coal/fracked gas companies in negotiations — they already are history’s most profitable enterprise, and their business is literally dependent on causing climate change. Including them in negotiations will only weaken any carbon pricing. This is why they spent millions of dollars in Washington’s electoral races in 2017 — to make sure that they have the opportunity to weaken any measure that meaningfully reduces fossil fuel dependence or carbon emissions. And let’s not forget that the global fossil economy — and indeed utilities such as PSE — knew about climate change for decades, yet colluded to hide the truth from the public and stymie public action. See this Inside Climate News post:

    Secondly, you write that revenues from carbon tax should be strictly invested in modernizing infrastructure, and not on other issues like addressing inequality/poverty or social and racial justice. These issues are fundamentally intertwined; indeed, eradicating poverty **is** a top-5 climate solution. In a country that is developing an enormous and seemingly permanent underclass of people saddled with education, medical, and credit card debt, and in a region where over 10,000 people sleep outside every night, climate solutions cannot exist without economic and social justice. I appreciate your enthusiasm for renewable energy, but it will not be truly effective without widespread economic reform — including things like reparations to indigenous groups, African Americans, and other marginalized people of color. See this study published in Nature Communications earlier this year:

    Thirdly, you say that since climate change affects everyone that “this is a time for representative democracy”. I strongly disagree with this statement. Our representative democracy in Washington in the past few years has stolen tens of billions of dollars from the public purse to hand to Boeing for tax breaks. It has failed over decades to adequately fund public education (perhaps chatting with some college graduates with 6-figure student debt would push this point home). It has criminally underfunded mental healthcare services. I, personally, am thoroughly unconvinced that the legislature has the ability to tackle this issue in a way that is beneficial to the public. Especially when our Democratic elected leaders — who claim to be the resistance to Trump — then ask to team up with the Republican Party that elected him (and who is a front group for Big Oil and Big Carbon, which is committed to destroying the climate and whose 2016 platform literally said climate change is a hoax) in order to pass corporate-friendly carbon pricing legislation, undermining years of grassroots work. Browse the Republican platform here, and CTRL-F climate change to see how much they care about it.

    Climate change is not an issue that “requires representative democracy”. Indeed, because it affects everyone, it is an issue that **mandates** participatory democracy.

    Finally, if we are going to be serious about using “fact-, evidence-, and science-based” decision making, consider the facts that Big Oil (including the lauded BP and Shell) is planning for 5C temperature rise by mid-century. (

    I don’t doubt that you are taking this issue seriously. But I do doubt that including Republican politicians and Big Oil in any kind of negotiations for the future of the planet they have destroyed will be helpful. Especially when all this work has already been done, without them. Claiming that this needs to be done through the legislature undermines the years of tireless work by people across this state.

  3. January 1, 2018 5:50 pm

    My sentiments were already captured by rkaminski: there is an initiative that has already been negotiated by the stakeholders who should be represented. Bringing energy companies to the table is the opposite of representing your constituents.

  4. REUVEN M CARLYLE permalink
    January 1, 2018 6:17 pm

    Your comments are most appreciated. I’m not arguing that the initiative process isn’t compelling in terms of carbon at the ballot, just that the context and complexity of the issue lends itself to a strong legislative effort. I also deeply appreciate the role and value of investments in disproportionately impacted communities, and support such spending. It needs to be balanced so that the overall investments achieve the broader policy goals. Thanks for your engagement.

  5. February 2, 2018 8:50 pm

    Senator Carlyle, congratulations on shepherding SB6203 through committee last night. I am hopeful that you can work to bring along a few more of the Senate’s reluctant colleagues with minor adjustments to the legislation.

    I just read the substitute bill passed out of Committee and I find it interesting in how the escalator now reads. The new bill starts at $10 per ton but increases linearly by $2 each year starting in 2021 until it reaches a maximum of $30 per ton in about 2031, whereas the original bill had the tax starting at $20 per ton but increasing exponentially at 3.5% per year. Running the calculations this also results in about $30 per ton by 2031. So the two bills are roughly equivalent out to 2030.

    I favor the substitute bill for beginning at a low tax and then ratcheting it quickly. Psychologically this is a really good approach. It also avoids the immediate and dramatic price shocks for motor fuels that would affect poor and fixed income Washingtonians.

    However, the substitute bill does not have any adjustment for inflation. That will not matter much if we stay at low inflation, ~2%. High inflation though would cause the bill to essentially fail though as the price signal would be muted. In addition from a budgetary approach, it would create uncertainty in terms of multi-year planning for adaptation and mitigation projects as inflation would erode the state’s spending power. As the bill proceeds to Ways & Means, it may be worth looking into adding an inflation adjustment as well as the geometrical escalator.

  6. Scott Varner permalink
    February 3, 2018 5:04 pm

    You sir DO NOT represent the views and wishes of the rural Washington cities and counties. You are simply doing as you and your king county official cronies want. Go meet with the people that actually depend on the timber and farming industry! I bet you discover that YOUR point of view is NOT shared by many.

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