WA decides: Initiative 2117 to repeal the Climate Commitment Act

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This article is one in a series looking at statewide initiatives on Washington’s 2024 November ballot.

What would Initiative 2117 do?

It would repeal a 2021 law, known as the Climate Commitment Act, which established the state’s cap and invest program to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The measure also would bar state agencies from imposing any type of program involving the trading of carbon tax credits.

Why is the initiative on the ballot?

On Nov. 21, 2023, supporters of Initiative 2117 turned in petitions signed by nearly 420,000 people and on Jan. 16, the Secretary of State certified it for the ballot. Let’s Go Washington, a conservative political committee funded largely by hedge fund manager Brian Heywood, underwrote the effort.

As an initiative to the Legislature, the measure could have been adopted by the state House and Senate. But Democrats, who hold majorities in both chambers, chose not to bring it to a vote. They argue that the Climate Commitment Act is a vital tool to fight climate change because it puts a price on pollution.

Critics contend that the Climate Commitment Act and its cap-and-trade program won’t significantly move the needle on climate change but is driving fuel, food and energy prices higher as companies pass their added expenses from the law onto consumers.

What is the Climate Commitment Act?

In May 2021, Gov. Jay Inslee signed Senate Bill 5126, known as the Climate Commitment Act, or CCA for short. It is one of a suite of laws intended to drive down greenhouse gas emissions in Washington to 45% below 1990 levels by 2030, 70% by 2040, and 95% by 2050.

This law sets annual emission limits for major emitters, such as oil refiners and utilities, and requires them to buy allowances at state auctions for each metric ton of their air pollution. Over time, the limits are lowered to compel polluters to curb their emissions. The program started on Jan. 1, 2023, and the first emissions allowance auction was held on Feb. 28, 2023.

Businesses covered by the program must obtain allowances equal to their emissions and submit them to the state Department of Ecology. The first compliance deadline is Nov. 1. That’s when covered entities need to have allowances to cover 30% of their 2023 emissions.

The state raised $1.82 billion from the sale of allowances in 2023 and $136 million from the first auction of 2024 held in March. The next is scheduled for June. By law, Those dollars must be spent to cut pollution, create jobs and help communities respond to climate change.

Dollars generated through the Climate Commitment Act are spent in the state’s 2023-25 operating, capital and transportation budgets.

Initially, this spending totaled $2.1 billion with the lion’s share going to transportation. This year, lawmakers added another  $1.2 billion in spending across the three budgets. However, because of the initiative, most of that money cannot be spent until January when election results are known.

Thus far, funding has gone to the purchase of electric school buses, free public transit for youth, air quality monitoring and electric vehicle chargers.

A portion will also pay for a one-time $200 credit on the residential electricity bills of thousands of low- and moderate-income families by Sept. 15. Critics of the climate law have cried foul, saying the credit will arrive as voters consider the ballot initiative.

More details on how CCA dollars are to be spent can be found here.

If the initiative passes, what would the consequences be for the state?

Backers of the climate law say if the measure passes, the state will lose a critical weapon in its fight against climate change as the limit on emissions and the requirement for businesses to pay for their pollution go away. So too will a stream of revenue used to help families, businesses, schools and communities transition to less-polluting lifestyles.

Supporters of the initiative contend the law has led to higher fuel and energy costs for consumers without delivering measurable improvements in air quality or the natural environment. Erasing the law should bring them relief, they argue. And it will allow lawmakers to devise other incentive-based approaches to get businesses to curb their emissions.

What happens to any unspent money if the measures passes? Lawmakers hold the purse strings and will be able to decide. They won’t, however, be obligated to follow the specific spending rules in the law if it is overturned.

by Jerry Cornfield, Washington State Standard

Washington State Standard is part of States Newsroom, a nonprofit news network supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Washington State Standard maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Bill Lucia for questions: info@washingtonstatestandard.com. Follow Washington State Standard on Facebook and Twitter.

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