OLYMPIA — Gov. Jay Inslee spent three days in Eastern Washington last week and came back saying he had never heard so much support in farm country for taxing fossil fuels to combat climate change.
“I went into a fruit company in Wenatchee, talked to the production manager, who said, ‘We want action on climate change,’” Inslee said, speaking to reporters. “That’s really amazing to have agricultural leaders say that.”
The fruit company referred to by the governor was Northern Fruit. Messages to the company were not answered.
The Washington State Department of Agriculture documented that the extremely hot and dry summer of 2015 affected the size of apples and cherries.
Washington State Tree Fruit Association President Jon DeVaney, however, said he’s not heard any orchard attribute losses to climate change.
“It’s difficult to say what’s climate change and what’s weather,” he said.
Inslee has made climate change his signature issue. He has spoken at United Nations conferences, the Paris climate summit and most recently at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. At home, however, he has been unable to persuade the Legislature to tax carbon to discourage the consumption of fossil fuels.
The policy has achieved a minor milestone this session. The Democrat-controlled Senate Energy, Environment and Technology Committee advanced a bill to tax carbon at $10 per ton, half the level Inslee proposed.
The tax would grow automatically to $30 a ton by 2030. It’s not a straight gas tax, but it would eventually increase gas prices by an estimated 30 cents a gallon. The tax also would increase the cost of electricity and natural gas,
The bill remains far from the governor’s desk, but Inslee said he was “ecstatic this has gone through the first committee.”
“I can’t overstate how optimistic I am about this because there are so many open minds to this idea, particularly in the business community,” he said. “Look, we have never had businesses in the state of Washington engage in a dialogue about how to reduce carbon pollution. This is like a revolution.”
The Washington Farm Bureau has been among the staunchest opponents of a carbon tax and remains so. An energy tax would increase the cost of transportation, fertilizer and other inputs and put Washington farmers at a competitive disadvantage in the global marketplace, according to the Farm Bureau.
Rather than growing alarm over climate change, the specter of climate-change activists qualifying their carbon tax proposal for the November ballot may be driving support among lawmakers for a bill this year, Farm Bureau associate director of government relations Evan Sheffels said.
“The momentum would be due to the fear that an initiative would be worse,” he said.
The Farm Bureau has not adopted that thinking. “Almost across the board, farmers and ranchers are experiencing painfully low commodity prices and (a carbon tax) just creates more costs,” Sheffels said.
Carbon-tax opponents in Olympia aren’t debating climate-change science. They are making pocketbook points and questioning whether one state’s stand on carbon would have any effect on temperatures.
“We’re not arguing with the governor about climate change. We just question whether the right way to deal with it is with a state tax,” DeVaney said. “It essentially drives up our in-state production costs.”