Climate activists propose D.C. carbon tax

Media Credit: Meredith Roaten | Hatchet Photographer

Local officials are considering a tax proposal for companies that buy and sell fossil fuel in D.C.

A volunteer from the Chesapeake Climate Action Network presented at the Foggy Bottom and West End Advisory Neighborhood Commission meeting Wednesday, proposing a bill that would tax fossil fuel polluters for the amount of carbon they produce and give the dividends back to the District’s residents in the form of rebates.

Christopher Fink, a volunteer from the climate group, said at the meeting that the policy would be applied to companies that provide nonrenewable energy to the city at a price of $20 per ton of carbon emitted.

The industries with the largest carbon footprints in the city – electricity, heating and transportation providers like Pepco – would bear the brunt of the tax. The carbon emissions would be quantified by the energy companies themselves and the regional grid PJM.

The proposed policy would return most of the tax revenue to residents in the form of a quarterly return. Residents would receive about $200 per year from the government’s tax revenue to compensate for the transferred costs from the taxed polluters, but Fink said the taxes and returns would increase yearly.

Fink said that the carbon tax proposal is in an early stage of development, and that CCAN will return to the ANC later this spring to present a more developed policy.

“The goal is to get consumers and producers to think about how they’re using and consuming energy and what we can do to make more deliberate choices about the energy we are producing,” Fink said.

For students, this tax could mean anything from a hike in Metro prices – Pepco supplies the Metro with electricity generated from fossil fuels – to an increase in tuition from a tax on the share of GW’s energy that is derived from coal.

Jeremiah Lowery, a climate justice action organizer from CCAN, said in an interview that his organization pushing legislation to make the District more sustainable, especially when the federal government does not focus on climate change issues. Last Friday, environmental advocacy groups lobbied against Scott Pruitt’s appointment as head of the Environmental Protection Agency because Pruitt has been a supporter of the fossil fuel industry.

Lowery said the organization has hosted roundtable discussions and presented at other ANC meetings, where people have shown interest in the policy.

“We’re not rushing into this,” Lowery said. “We have gotten some funding contracting out to an organization that is going to do an independent study on how this is going to affect D.C.”

ANC Commissioner and junior Eve Zhurbinskiy said that although the policy is in its early stages, it’s something the community should discuss because the ANC has considered other sustainability related policies.

“I’m really interested in environmental issues, but I don’t know enough about this proposal to make a judgement on whether this would be a something that the city should pursue or not,” Zhurbinskiy said.

D.C. has previously launched sustainability measures, like 2011 Sustainable DC, that aimed to reduce nonrenewable energy sources by 50 percent by 2032. To meet this goal the Department of Energy and Environment and the DC Sustainable Energy Utility invested about $23 million into renewable energy services, according to a 2016 progress report.

Similar carbon taxes have not fared well in other metropolitan areas.

Washington state proposed a similar tax that would have given almost all of its revenue back to its citizens last November, but the majority of voters voted no on the proposition. Montgomery County in neighboring Maryland passed a similar carbon tax in 2010, but it was repealed in 2012.

One successful carbon tax bill was passed in 2007 in Boulder, Colo., which costs the average resident $21 per year, the average commercial tax payer $94 and the average industry taxpayer $9,600. The city uses the tax revenue for services that help make the city more sustainable. These include weatherization, or protecting buildings from the elements, and LED lights, according to the City of Boulder’s website.

Camila Thorndike, the carbon pricing coordinator at CCAN, said that unlike other cities, D.C.’s economy is not dependent on large manufacturing companies that would hold up the bill, but will likely face the most opposition from hotels and commercial landlords.

She said that companies typically fight against a bill like this, but that it’s an effective way to fight the harmful impact of fossil fuel carbon.

“It’s time to pool our energy and focus our political capital where it’s going to have the biggest bang for the buck, and that is a price on carbon,” Thorndike said.

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