Taking on Big Oil in Washington State: From Initiative-732 to Initiative-1631

Alex Lenferna
8 min readOct 8, 2018

*An abridged version of this piece appeared in The Daily, and is available here

The oil industry likes to pretend that they are just meeting the demand for fossil fuels. Like a drug dealer, they tell us that they are just supplying the product, and we, like addicts, are the ones demanding their product. Recognizing our fossil fuel problem, a broad coalition of Washingtonians is trying to ensure a just transition away from fossil fuels and towards a clean energy future through Initiative 1631, which will be on the ballot in November. Instead of allowing us to get clean, the oil industry is pouring in over $26 million in opposition spending, trying to keep us hooked on their dirty product. It’s time Washington broke free from Big Oil’s corrupting influence, and embraced a clean energy future, by saying Yes on 1631

In contrast to the small handful of multinational oil companies funding 99.5% of the No on 1631 campaign, Initiative 1631 is supported by the largest coalition in Washington state history, consisting of local businesses and organizations like the American Lung Association, Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians, League of Women Voters, PCC Farm Land Trust, The Nature Conservancy, Latino Community Fund, UFCW21, Washington Environmental Council, REI, Virginia Mason, SEIU 1199, and Asian Pacific Islander Coalition. Together they are taking the issue of climate pollution directly to Washingtonians through the ballot initiative process, proposing a green new deal for Washington State, in the form of Initiative 1631.

I-1631 would put a fee on carbon pollution, charging those that pollute, and using 70% of the revenue to invest in clean energy and clean air, 25% in clean water and healthy forests, and 5% to prepare communities for challenges caused by climate change, and ensure that the impacts of climate change and the transition away from fossil fuels are not disproportionately borne by vulnerable populations. Together the price on carbon pollution and re-investment will help ensure a comprehensive and just clean energy transition.

As a volunteer, a teacher, a researcher and an organizer, I have dedicated the last decade of my life to working for climate justice, and this is arguably one of the most important moments in that work. For the next few weeks here in Washington we can make history, but we need all the help we can get. That’s why I am asking if you’ll join me in being actively involved to promote 1631, whether it’s emailing your Washington contacts, speaking to your friends, hitting the streets to canvas for 1631, or contributing to the campaign, we need all the help we can get as it’s going to be a tight race. I hope you’ll join us in reclaiming democracy, clean air, and our climate future from the corrupted influence of the oil industry.

If you’re already convinced to take action, no need to read further, but if you’re a former support of 732 who is on the fence, then please read on as to why you should support 1631 too.

Why 732 Supporters Should Back 1631

As you may know, I-1631 is not the first carbon price initiative to go to Washington’s ballot, as Washington voters declined to pass an earlier carbon tax initiative, Initiative 732. I-732 aimed to be a revenue neutral carbon tax, using the revenue raised from a price on carbon pollution to reduce the sales tax, fund a low-income family tax rebate, and reduce taxes for manufacturers. I-732 exposed a complicated rift in the progressive community, as many opposed it, worrying that it did not properly include the voices of impacted communities, or adequately invest in a just transition or in climate solutions.

I am acutely aware of the I-732 controversy, as I served on the Carbon Washington Steering Committee and found myself on several public stages, arguing against those who opposed 732, many of whom helped craft 1631. I do not relish those arguments, and the complicated and at times painful rift that the I-732 divide created among those who wanted to push for climate action but had different ideas about how to do so. Now, however, I am proud (and relieved) to be standing on the same side of the debate, working together, and pushing forward I- 1631 — a proposal that I truly believe in, and which holds the promise of a just transition to a robust clean energy economy for Washington.

For those who also liked 732, I-1631 emulates a number of 732’s virtues. For instance, both I-732 and I-1631 proposed a $15/ton and gradually rising price on carbon emissions. Although their rates of increase and mechanisms are slightly different, both proposals would be the most ambitious carbon prices in the United States, and among the most ambitious in the world. Washington is behind on meeting its targets of cutting carbon pollution back to 1990 levels by 2020 and 50% below that by 2050. I-1631 aims to course correct and put us back on track, by having the price on carbon pollution gradually rise until we meet those targets.

It is important to note though that Washington’s Department of Ecology has concluded that the state targets are weak and outdated. A group of children are even suing the state to get them updated to the more scientifically up-to-date and safer target of 80% below 2050 levels. Thus, while not yet ambitious enough when it comes to climate change, I-1631 is a big step in the right direction, which can be both strengthened over time and/or supplemented with broader action to tackle climate change. Right now we’re way off track to meet even the weak targets currently in law, so we desperately need a measure to get us moving in the right direction, and 1631 provides just that.

Where I-732 protected low-income people through targeted low-income tax rebates and a reduction in the sales tax, I-1631 attempts to do so through dedicating 15% of clean energy and clean air investments to low-income communities, and 5% of all funding going to investments to prepare communities for challenges caused by climate change and to ensure that the impacts of climate change are not disproportionately borne by certain populations. Additionally, a minimum of 35% of the revenue from I-1631 must be used for investments that provide direct, meaningful, and assured benefits to areas disproportionately impacted by pollution and health inequities, with a minimum of 10% of expenditures being located in these communities. Where I-732 had broad tax reductions which addressed the regressivity of the tax system, I-1631 has more targeted interventions and investments to assist disproportionately impacted communities.

Where I-732 attempted to protect energy intensive, trade-exposed industries (EITEs) through a reduction in the B&O tax for manufacturers, I-1631 does so through more targeted and tailored exemptions for EITEs. Such a mechanism allows for a more nuanced approach to protecting EITEs and preventing companies from simply leaving the state and moving pollution elsewhere. While the oil industry likes to claim that they are unfair exemptions, they are smart, narrow and targeted exemptions made to ensure we are not just moving EITEs, pollution, and jobs elsewhere, especially not to even more polluting jurisdictions. Furthermore, the exemptions will be gradually phased out as other jurisdictions start to act too.

In sum, while there are differences in the mechanism and degree of similarities between I-732 and I-1631, both proposals aimed to push for strong climate action, with some protection for low-income people, without senselessly pushing pollution and business elsewhere. I-1631 also has other virtues that I-732 did not. The most striking difference of course, is that instead of being revenue-neutral, the revenue raised from putting a price on pollution is invested, thus allowing the state to make much needed investments to help ensure a comprehensive and just clean energy transition, which invests in uplifting Washington’s communities and protecting our beautiful natural environment.

Unlike 732, I-1631 was crafted through an intensive and inclusive stakeholder engagement process, which sought to include voices from across Washington States including workers, communities of color, and tribes in the design of the proposal. The result is that the investments are targeted in a way that facilitates a just transition for fossil fuel workers, communities of color, tribes, and communities hardest hit by pollution and climate change. The investments will also be overseen by a broad and accountable Public Oversight Board which aims to ensure that they are equitable, effective, and efficient investments. Overall, the result is a powerful policy, a green new deal, which invests in a just transition to a robust clean energy economy.

Recognizing that 1631 achieves many of the same important goals as I-732, the organization behind 732, Carbon Washington, has thrown their weight behind and endorsed 1631. There are, however, a small minority of outspoken former supports of 732 that have weighed in against it. It is sadly ironic to see them doing so, as during the 732 campaign I had heard those same voices say that the opponents of 732 were making the perfect the enemy of the good at a time when we desperately needed climate action. I believe they are now the ones making the perfect the enemy of the good, and in the process aligning themselves with the oil industry and climate inaction.

Looking forward, I am hopeful that with our support, I-1631 can win the hearts of the majority of Washingtonians who support building a clean energy economy that works for all Washingtonians. I-732 identified 41% of the voting population who were already ready to act. Exit polls indicate that the primary reason why more didn’t vote for it was a lack of awareness of the proposal — the first carbon tax initiative in U.S. history. That means that one of our primary tasks, particularly in the face of oil industry misinformation, is to speak to fellow Washingtonians about the benefits of I-1631 and how it can help us respond to the urgent need to take comprehensive and just action on climate change and pollution. It is going to be a tight race, and that’s why I am asking if you’ll join me in being actively involved to promote 1631, whether it’s emailing your contacts, speaking to your friends, hitting the streets to canvas for 1631, or contributing to the campaign.

2017 was the costliest U.S. disaster year on record, and pollution and climate impacts are taking heavier tolls on Washington and the world every year, from toxic air and water pollution, to more destructive wildfires, to decreased snowpack in our mountains, to reduced shellfish harvests, and costly droughts impacting our farms. If we do not act swiftly, we risk much worse ahead, as the science tells us that we only have a few years to turn things around if we are to stand a reasonable chance of averting truly catastrophic climate change. With the federal government going backwards on climate change, and the state government going nowhere slowly, we cannot count on politicians to protect us from one of the gravest risks we face. So, we the people must rise up to this existential problem and fight the oil industry’s corrupting influence.



Alex Lenferna

Alex Lenferna is secretary of the Climate Justice Coalition & campaigner with 350Africa.org. He has a PhD on climate justice from the University of Washington.