The Pacific Northwest probably isn’t the first place you think of when you imagine the front lines of fossil-fuel battles. But it’s earning a reputation as the place “where fossil fuel projects go to die.” Starting in 2010, the coal industry announced plans to build six terminals along the Northwest coast to export coal to Asia. The chairman of Peabody Energy said, “Coal’s best days are ahead.” By 2016, the projects were all dead, and Peabody was bankrupt. In 2015, Shell docked its “Polar Pioneer” rig in Seattle on its way north to drill in the Arctic. The behemoth managed to escape swarming “kayaktivists,” but the Arctic-drilling scheme soon collapsed under its own economic weight.
Now, voters in Washington State can take the offensive against the climate-wrecking industry by passing ballot initiative 1631. This “Green New Deal” would fund public investments to tackle climate disruption and economic inequality, using proceeds from carbon-pollution fees starting at $15 per metric ton.
The best indication of the potency of I-1631 may be the fury with which Big Oil is attacking it. Petroleum companies have amassed a war chest of $28 million to defeat 1631—the largest ever for a Washington ballot measure. With BP and Phillips 66 leading the way, 99.5 percent of the No campaign budget is from Big Oil, according to the Washington state public-disclosure commission. What’s more, Big Oil’s lavish spending against 1631 climbed steeply after the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s recent report calling for urgent climate action. In other words, Big Oil’s answer to the global alarm was to pour more fuel on the fire.
“The campaign opposing 1631 is the biggest political oil spill in state history,” Washington Governor Jay Inslee told The Nation. “These companies have a permit for infinite pollution at zero cost. But Washingtonians can revoke that permit and take control of our energy future by approving 1631.”
The Nation asked BP, which has contributed $11,596,031, and Phillips 66, which has contributed $7,201,187, for the scientific and ethical basis for their opposition to I-1631. Phillips 66 did not respond. Jason Ryan, a director of media affairs for BP America, Inc., confirmed the company’s financial contribution to No on 1631. He added that BP has “for many years supported a well-designed price on carbon, both at the federal and state levels. However, BP strongly opposes the Washington ballot initiative that would impose a carbon tax, because it is a poorly designed policy that would disrupt Washington’s economy without providing significant reductions of carbon emissions.”
Aligning economic justice with climate solutions is the foundation of a Yes on 1631 campaign of unprecedented breadth and strength. “In the constant, maddening noise of hate, division, and dismantling of environmental policies, Washington State is poised to send a different message of hope, collaboration and possibility,” said Aiko Schaefer, director of Front and Centered, a coalition representing over 60 organizations rooted in communities of color that is part of the Yes on 1631 campaign. Labor unions, conservationists, faith leaders, Native tribal nations, businesses, health professionals, and civic groups (including my own organization, Climate Solutions) have mobilized a huge grassroots push for the measure. The Yes on 1631 campaign has raised $13,993,558 to date.
The oil-i-garchs are clearly worried about I-1631, and they should be. Any effective climate policy must keep fossil fuels in the ground. But their reserves of coal, oil, and gas are exactly what make fossil-fuel companies valuable. If their underground assets can’t be drilled, mined, monetized, and combusted, then Big Oil and King Coal are toast. But if even half of these reserves are burned, then everything else is toast. We can have a viable fossil-fuel industry or a decent future. Not both.
Oil’s money seems limitless, but the economic case for continuing dependence on fossil fuels is eroding. On October 10, the World Bank announced that it will not finance a coal plant because renewable energy is cheaper. Affordable electric cars can go a mile on one to three cents’ worth of solar electricity, roughly a quarter the cost of gasoline. And the skyrocketing costs of climate-related catastrophes may start coming home to roost, as victims seek to recover damages from the fossil-fuel companies that knowingly caused them.
But even as their economic rationale weakens, the oil lobby continues to wield its entrenched power. As Keynes wrote during the Great Depression, “The difficulty lies, not in the new ideas, but in escaping from the old ones.” And the fossil-fuel industry has two old ideas that can be potent weapons against new ideas: doubt and fear.
Even though clean energy is overwhelmingly popular, getting a “Yes” vote on a policy that may raise the price of gasoline requires clarity and confidence on the part of voters: They need to see a straightforward connection between the carbon fee, the problem at hand, and an effective policy solution. Just a whiff of doubt can turn a skeptical voter into a “No.”
So Big Oil’s strategy against 1631 is straight out of Steve Bannon’s playbook: “flood the zone with shit” to confuse the issue. Their most shameless tactic is claiming that they oppose 1631 because it exempts “the state’s largest polluter[s].” They’re referring to the Centralia coal-fired power plant. What they don’t mention is that the Centralia plant is already being shut down under a consensus agreement reached between plant workers, the owner, the state, conservationists, and the local community. That agreement is a successful example of a “just transition” away from fossil fuels. It represents an effective political alignment among pretty much everyone except Big Oil to leave fossil fuels behind—which is what I-1631 aims to build, and what Big Oil fears most.
Which brings us to the oil industry’s most pernicious line of defense: economic fear. It’s no coincidence that the one rich nation on Earth with the weakest climate policy is also the nation with the weakest commitment to basic minimum standards of economic security. Even though clean energy is affordable and clean-energy jobs vastly outnumber fossil-fuel jobs in Washington, transitions can still be punishing when so many people live in chronic economic insecurity. In every campaign against climate policy, fossil-fuel interests prey on that fear.
Big Oil’s No-on-1631 ads warn that the carbon fee—which would begin at 15 dollars a ton and increase two dollars a year until 2035—will boost energy costs and kill jobs. But their reasoning is circular and predatory. Consumers will pay more for fossil fuels only insofar as they lack alternatives, and the whole point of I-1631 is to deliver those alternatives through investments in clean energy and transportation options for all. If oil companies could just pass along the carbon fee and expect consumers to suck it up and pay more to live their fossil-fuel-dependent lives, then why would they be so desperate to defeat the initiative? When Big Oil says No on 1631, what it means is, No, you can’t have clean energy and transportation choices. And as long as you don’t, you’ll pay whatever we damned well charge.
The fossil-fuel industry didn’t break a sweat defeating a very different carbon-tax initiative in Washington in 2016. That measure proposed a rising “price on carbon” without public investments to expand access to affordable alternatives. If the electorate consisted only of economists, that initiative might have passed. But voters proved unwilling to pay a carbon price for a policy that didn’t demonstrably deliver the product: real solutions, more affordable choices.
By contrast, I-1631 would use carbon-fee revenue to invest in more and better energy and transportation alternatives, such as energy-efficiency retrofits and electric-vehicle-charging infrastructure, especially in communities that bear the heaviest burdens of pollution and inequality. The point isn’t just to pay more for fossil fuels; it’s to reduce the need for them altogether and mitigate the unthinkable costs of climate disruption.
But as a matter of both fairness and political necessity, the train to a clean-energy future can’t move very fast until most folks can find an affordable seat. That’s why I-1631 elevates equity to the top of the climate agenda, prioritizing investments in low-income communities and funding a just transition for fossil-fuel workers. “[I-1631] is about equitably investing in those communities and those workers who have been disproportionately impacted by carbon pollution and climate disaster,” says Jeff Johnson, president of the Washington State Labor Council AFL-CIO.
Johnson was a key leader in building the broad Yes on 1631 coalition. The list of supporters spans a vast political landscape—from Teamsters and United Auto Worker locals to teachers and health-care workers; from The Main Street Alliance to Microsoft; from tribal nations of the Salish Sea to the Church Council of Greater Seattle; from Naomi Klein to Bill Gates; from Macklemore to Pearl Jam. It’s enough to make Big Oil feel lonely. Their money can’t buy them love, but voters will have to keep their eyes on the ball to prevent the industry from buying this election.
For all the manufactured fog surrounding our climate politics, the core facts stand in unforgiving relief. We must act, as the IPCC recently said, at a scale and pace with “no documented historic precedent.” And we can act; we can prevent immense human suffering if we get cracking on the solutions we have now. The clean-energy revolution is real. There is life after fossil fuels.
The burning question is: Will we act fast enough?
That question is on the ballot in the Evergreen State. Washingtonians can stand up to the abusive power of the oil industry and strike a blow for freedom from fossil fuels, right now.
The future is unwritten, Rebecca Solnit observed, responding to the fear and fatalism that wafted thick behind the IPCC report. As ballots arrive in their mailboxes, Washington’s voters have the pen.