Big Oil Defeats a Carbon Fee By Arguing It Doesn't Go Far Enough

It would have been the first carbon fee enacted in the US. Oil lobbyists fought it by making a novel, hypocritical argument, and it worked.

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Nov 8 2018, 6:01pm

Washington state could have been the first state to enact a law that fines big polluters for carbon emission. But the initiative was defeated on Tuesday after oil lobbyists spent $30 million on oppositional lobbying arguing that since since not all emitters would be taxed using the bill, nobody should be taxed at all.

The state carbon fee initiative I-1631 would have charged emitters $15 per metric ton of carbon, a fee that would increase by $2 annually starting in 2020. No US state has enacted a carbon emissions fee to date. Fifteen dollars may sound like a small sum of money, but for perspective, BP’s Cherry Point Oil Refinery emitted in excess of 2,400,000 metric tons of carbon in 2016, meaning they would have had to pay a fine in excess of $36 million.

“NO on 1631,” the campaign opposing the initiative was sponsored by Western States Petroleum Association, whose top contributors include oil giants BP America and Andeavor LLC, which is owned by Marathon Petroleum Corporation. According to the AP, BP America was the largest donor to “NO on 1631,” which gave $11.6 million toward the campaign.

The “NO on 1631” campaign argued that the bill would burden taxpayers. This claim incorrect, as I-1631 was a fee on corporations and not a tax on families, according to the actual text of I-1631. NO on 1613 also claimed that there was “no assurances or likelihood of significantly reducing greenhouse gases,” which is phrased as if it is coming from a place of concern for the environment, but is actually a line used to refute the bill in its entirety.

“Although it is being promoted as a fee on ‘large polluters,’ I-1631 would actually exempt many of the state’s largest carbon emitters,” the NO on 1631 website reads. “In fact, eight out of the top 12 carbon emitters in the state, including a huge coal-fired power plant, would be exempt under I-1631.”

There were some number of exemptions to the initiative, including aircraft and maritime fuels, as well as diesel fuel and diesel fuel when used for agriculture. But the biggest polluters, such as oil refineries, still would have been taxed. The largest polluter in the state is also Washington’s largest oil refinery: BP Cherry Point. It processes more than 230,000 barrels of crude oil daily.

Historically, Big Oil has spent millions to sow misinformation among the American public that there is not a scientific consensus that climate change is real, and to attack the credibility of climatologists who advocated for action against climate change. The argument that carbon emission ballots should be shot down altogether because they aren’t harsh enough on polluters is undoubtedly a hypocritical and cynical—but as proven on Tuesday, it also works.

Proponents of the bill were only able to fundraise half of the money that available to the opposition, capping out at $15 million in fundraising. Just 100 companies are responsible for 71 percent of the world’s emissions, meaning that a carbon fee targeting some of these companies would have a huge impact. But these companies are also some of the highest-grossing companies in the world, meaning that ballots like I-1631 will continually have to fight an uphill battle against oil lobbyists.