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James Baker's carbon tax pitch to White House
03:32 - Source: CNN
CNN  — 

Voters in Washington state on Tuesday rejected a bid to tax carbon dioxide emissions, a stinging defeat for environmentalists after years of attempts to curb climate change through economic incentives, CNN projects.

Initiative 1631, which proposed to levy a tax of $15 per metric ton of carbon emissions, would have made Washington the first state in the nation to raise the cost of fossil-fuel intensive activities like driving gas-powered vehicles and heating buildings with natural gas in an effort to encourage clean energy sources like wind and solar power.

A broad coalition of progressive groups, tribes, health advocates, unions, and liberal billionaires like Michael Bloomberg, Tom Steyer, and Bill Gates supported the measure, which was crafted to fix some of the problems that led to the failure of a similar effort in 2016.

Revenues from the tax – estimated to reach $1 billion annually by 2023 – would have been devoted to renewable energy projects and helping negatively affected workers, rather than offset by other tax cuts. Also, 1631 would have exempted some large industrial facilities like factories and paper plants, which helped win support from organized labor.

But the full force of the measure would have fallen on oil refiners, who spent heavily to defeat it. The Western States Petroleum Association raised $31.5 million to oppose 1631, mostly from BP America and Phillips 66, both of which have refineries in the state. Proponents raised about $16 million. The measure was poised to lose by several percentage points with the majority of precincts reporting early Wednesday morning, drawing majority support only from a handful of counties including King, which contains Seattle.

The defeat in a blue state complicates the path for measures to combat carbon emissions. In recent years, major oil companies like Exxon, Shell, BP, and others have signed on to an effort to create a “fee and dividend” plan that would impose a gradually increasing fee on carbon emissions that would be remitted to citizens, in exchange for phasing out regulations.

From the oil industry’s perspective, a federal approach is easier to deal with and creates more certainty than an ever-changing landscape of state-based taxes. But it’s also much less likely to pass — the House GOP pushed through a resolution last summer opposing any kind of price on carbon. Rep. Carlos Curbelo, a Florida Republican who had introduced a bill that would replace the federal gas tax with a carbon tax, lost his bid for reelection on Tuesday.

Tuesday’s elections were a mixed bag for environmental measures across the rest of the country.

California voters rejected a measure that would have repealed a recently-enacted gas tax and required a popular election for any gas or vehicle tax in the future. Florida passed a ban on offshore drilling, becoming the first southern state to do so. Nevadans voted to require that electric utilities get half their energy from renewable sources by 2030.

But Arizona rejected an almost identical measure for their utilities. Colorado voted down a bid to limit where new oil and gas wells could be drilled and Alaskans defeated a measure that would have more strictly regulated development that would impact salmon habitat. Both efforts faced heavy opposition from oil and gas interests.