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Could Washington pave the way for carbon taxes?

Washington residents will have the chance to vote on a carbon tax at the polls this November. The proposed tax, which is the first of its kind in the nation, could set a precedent for how other states handle greenhouse gas emissions. 

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Rail cars are parked on tracks at the coal-burning TransAlta plant, near Centralia, Wash. in 2011. In November, voters will have their say on whether or not Washington should levy a carbon tax as a means to curb greenhouse gas emissions.

Ted S. Warren/AP/File

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Washington state is seeking to curb carbon emissions by posing a ballot initiative to voters that will allow them to decide whether or not polluters should pay for the greenhouse gases they produce. If passed, the tax would become the first of its kind in the nation.

The question, which will appear on the state’s November ballot, asks residents if the state should levy the first direct carbon tax, which would apply to the burning of fossil fuels like coal and gasoline. As officials seek ways to cut back on pollutants and delve into the world of clean, independent energy, some have floated the idea of a carbon tax as a way to curb pollutants. 

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“The great challenge for the next administration using the bully pulpit will be to end this fiction, act upon the science and design a carbon pricing scheme that will provide the certainty and efficiency that energy investors desire,” Clay Sell, who served as a top energy official in the George W. Bush administration, told a forum held by the U.S. Energy Association last week. “I hope both [political] parties will take that up, as it will allow the benefits of all clean energy technologies to be properly valued in the marketplace.”

If passed, the tax could pave the way for other states, and the nation, to combat carbon emissions in a similar way. But not everyone thinks a carbon tax is the answer.

Those in favor of the proposed tax say it would cut back on greenhouse gas emissions by encouraging businesses to conserve or switch to clean energy. But businesses, and some environmental groups, say the tax will create a competitive disadvantage for local companies by driving up fuel and energy costs, and the state has estimated that such a tax could cause Washington to lose some $800 million over a six-year period.

“It’s not a path that makes sense for our communities,” Rich Stolz, executive director of OneAmerica, which works on social justice issues, told the Associated Press. He argued that the initiative’s approach wouldn’t be nuanced enough, saying that it ignores climate justice and didn’t take into account communities of color.

While the tax would be the first in the country, it’s not the first of its kind: Lawmakers modeled it after one in British Columbia enacted in 2008. Despite skepticism, the tax has mostly worked as planned – decreasing greenhouse gas emissions while growing the economy.

Washington’s proposed tax starts out pricier at $15 a ton beginning in July, and would jump to $25 the next year. Incremental increases would follow.

Last week, Canada announced a national carbon tax that will begin at the equivalent of $10 Canadian a ton in 2018 and rise to $50 in 2022. Again, conservatives have questioned how effective such a proposal would be.

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If more communities instated a carbon tax, the impact of the policies would be greater, some argue. As Eduardo Porter noted in a New York Times piece published earlier this year, communities can do little to cut emissions on their own, but a wide-ranging carbon tax can make a significant impact and drive down the negative impacts the tax could have on competition.

“The new Canadian government, headed by Justin Trudeau, seems ready to come on board, imposing some pan-Canadian minimum price. If the United States embraced a carbon tax as part of a comprehensive overhaul of its tax system, the path would be much easier.

That, however, would require Republicans in Washington to recognize that the threat of climate change is not simply a left-wing fantasy. If they do, British Columbia underscores there is a market friendly way to do something about it.”

Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.