Washington State's latest effort to enact a carbon tax is about to die on the vine.

The bill would have made Washington the first U.S. state to levy a straight up tax on fossil fuels. But the proposed legislation, which would have needed to clear the state House by March 8, does not have enough votes to even make it out of the Democratically-controlled Senate, says Washington Democratic Governor Jay Inslee, despite the forward momentum in the fight against climate change.

"I would consider this a sea change in the climate fight. It's come a long way from where we've been. We've basically shown that carbon policy is within reach," Inslee told the Associated Press. "On the arc of history, we're not quite far along enough on the arc. That day will come, but it wasn't quite here yet."

In its most basic terms, a carbon tax is a fee imposed on the burning of carbon-based fuels, such as coal, oil, and gas. Each ton of carbon emitted is taxed at a certain rate, with the hope that the extra cost will limit the consumption of fossil fuels and encourage further development of alternative energy sources. Carbon taxes have been adopted in a number of countries around the globe, but the United States is one of the few industrialized nation hold-outs.

The proposed tax in Washington State would have begun in 2019 and initially imposed a $20 per ton tax on fossil fuels. Starting in 2021, the tax would have increased $1.80 per ton each subsequent year until it hit $30 a ton -- estimated to be in 2030. In the first two years, the tax was projected to raise $766 million and increase to about $988 million in the next two years.

Despite Governor Inslee's positive spin, many tax policy experts remain skeptical that a carbon tax has any legs, especially if it can't even become law in a progressive state like Washington.

"Even in a state like Washington, where you have a governor who is enthusiastically in favor, a Legislature that seems to lean to the idea, this proves difficult to do at least at this point," Barry Rabe, a professor at the Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy at the University of Michigan, told the Seattle Times.

Rabe's words echo a sentiment I heard from Dr. Steven A. Cohen, Executive Director and Chief Operating Officer of Columbia University's Earth Institute, back in 2015. I asked him what he thought about the likelihood of a carbon tax taking root in the U.S., and he was not optimistic.

"My particular issue with the carbon tax is not that it's bad or good. I just don't think it's feasible here in the U.S. I'm a political scientist," Cohen said. " I study how issues get on the agenda and this one has made so little progress and has been met with such resistance that we're just spinning our wheels to pursue it."

Cohen is right. Carbon taxes aren't without their critics. Quite the contrary, in fact. This latest attempt fell victim to many of the same complaints as the others that have come before it. Specifically, the tax's opponents argue that the government is tinkering with the free market, while wrapping the issue in red tape. The Washington Policy Center's Todd Myers told the Seattle Times that the bill had too much money going to carve-outs, special interests, and expensive projects that won't actually reduce greenhouse-gas emissions as promised.

That may be the most black-and-white takeaway from Washington's exercise: When it comes to this issue, the political landscape is so wrought with land mines that there just isn't enough support to get a carbon tax done. As The New York Times' Coral Davenport astutely put it, "Economists broadly agree that taxing the carbon pollution produced by burning fossil fuels is the most efficient way to fight climate change. But politicians agree that it is also a nearly surefire way to get voted out of office."

But that still leaves a country struggling to find energy solutions.

A carbon tax is always going to rub businesses the wrong way, and consumers are going to wring their hands when they see their energy bills increase. It needs governmental support to make it a reality. But this bill's imminent failure to pass through Washington's legislature signals a grave future for the viability of this strategy in the U.S.

Published on: Mar 7, 2018
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