Photo: AP Photo/Rachel La Corte

Washington state just came within a few votes of passing the first statewide carbon tax in the country, a near accomplishment that’s both disappointing and promising.

On Thursday, Gov. Jay Inslee, a longtime champion of climate action, acknowledged the bill was still “one or two votes shy” of being able to pass out of the Democratically-controlled state Senate, and the bill’s prime sponsor, Sen. Reuven Carlyle, a Seattle Democrat, decided to cancel a vote. With only a few days left in the 60-day legislative session, the bill would have also needed to clear the House.

In February, the bill passed through the state Senate Committee on Ways & Means, marking the first time a carbon fee was voted on and passed by a panel of state politicians, according to Carbon Washington. The bill, SB 6023, would have imposed a tax of $12 per metric ton of carbon emissions on the sale and of use of fossil fuels such as gasoline and natural gas starting in 2019, and increasing slowly over the years to $30 a ton by 2030.

Gov. Inslee, who is speculated to have presidential ambitions, said he considers the effort to signify a “sea change in the climate fight...We’ve basically shown that carbon policy is within reach.”

Progressive politicians have been trying for years to pass a carbon tax in the state, and the fight is far from over: A broad coalition has vowed to get the carbon initiative on the November ballot if it fails in the Legislature.


In the U.S., California and nine states in the Northeast have already put a price on carbon, but none has a carbon tax—widely considered a more efficient way of reducing greenhouse gas emissions than a cap and trade. However the politics are much harder because, well, the word ‘tax’.

David. G. Victor, a professor of international relations at UC San Diego with a focus on energy markets and regulation, agreed with Inslee’s takeaway, telling Earther that it was “a really big deal.”


Victor said the Washington State bill drew attention to how the money raised from the tax—a projected $766 million in the first two years—would be spent. He said it’s important that people see a direct benefit flowing to them from the carbon tax, such as with new clean energy projects or jobs rather than offsetting or distorting other taxes.

“The idea of how to spend the money is central to the politics of a carbon tax,” said Victor. “This shows that if you want to get there, you have to focus on spending the revenue. If you do it wisely, it helps deal with the political opposition.”

Kyle Murphy with Carbon Washington told Earther that for many voters, a carbon tax is a new idea and “voters don’t want to see big business getting a free pass.”


He said “spending some of the money on things that people know are a problem, like wildfires, can help, and trying to return some of the revenue through tax cuts or a dividend can help too.”

Murphy noted that nearby British Columbia’s carbon tax has helped to familiarize residents to the idea. The province has had a carbon tax in place since 2008. After being capped at $30 a metric ton for the past five years, it’s going to start rising again, to $50 a ton in 2021. As Vox recently reported, the revenue will also no longer go to offsetting other taxes, but can be spent on clean energy initiatives, including home retrofits or low carbon transportation.

Meanwhile, Oregon is still debating a cap and trade bill this session. Under the Trump administration, the state-level effort to confront climate change has become even more bifurcated, as coastal Blue states focus on progressive policies, while not much happens in the interior of the country or in Washington.


“Ultimately, we need Republicans to come to the table with a set of their own ideas to address this issue, and we need elements of the Democrats base to be ready to compromise and accept an incremental approach,” said Murphy. “We have a serious climate crisis, and yet at times it still feels like we are playing partisan games.”