Jay Inslee Declares War On Fossil Fuels With Plan To Make Industry Pay For Climate Change

The 2020 climate candidate's latest proposal calls for ending federal support for fossil fuels, ramping up prosecutions and putting a new spin on carbon pricing.

Democratic presidential candidate Jay Inslee already laid out plans to shut down all coal plants by 2030, spur a clean-energy construction boom and target climate change deniers overseas with anti-corruption laws.

Now the Washington governor, whose White House bid is entirely centered on climate change, is out with a new proposal to end federal support for fossil fuel production and make the industry pay for some of the damages emissions are causing.

At a time when President Donald Trump’s Energy Department extolls the virtues of “freedom gas” in official press releases, Inslee’s nearly 11,000-word “Freedom from Fossil Fuels” plan imagines what federal policy might look like under an administration that takes seriously scientists’ projections of warming over the next few decades.

The proposal calls for eliminating nearly $20 billion in coal, gas and oil subsidies, tax breaks and royalty exemptions, and halt leasing of federal lands to drillers. It promises to work toward a nationwide ban on hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, the technology that helped the United States surpass Saudi Arabia and Russia as the world’s top producer of crude. It vows an end to oil exports, and outlines a “climate test” for all infrastructure permitting, which would essentially put a stop to most new pipelines, refineries and fuel terminals.

The plan even teases the possibility of nationalizing parts of the fossil fuel industry by buying out and decommissioning assets, making Inslee the first 2020 contender to consider the idea, though he stopped short of making that specific call.

“When you’re in a hole, you have to stop digging,” Inslee told HuffPost by phone Sunday. “We have to stare the fossil fuel industry in the eye and say, ‘The gravy train is over.’”

But the plan goes further than simply deflating the value of fossil fuels by reversing favorable federal regulations. Inslee pledged to wield his pulpit as the Democratic Party’s de facto leader to enact a fee on companies’ greenhouse gas emissions and establish a new office in the Department of Justice to prosecute polluters “to the fullest extent of civil and criminal law.”

“This will get us off fossil fuels in the only time period that’s consistent with our survival in the world as we know it,” Inslee said. “Don’t expect these people to go easily.”

Past U.S. presidents are held up at a rally in Portland in support of a Supreme Court case in which young people are suing the federal government for failing to protect their right to a safe climate.
Past U.S. presidents are held up at a rally in Portland in support of a Supreme Court case in which young people are suing the federal government for failing to protect their right to a safe climate.
Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Inslee should know. He thrice tried to put a price on planet-warming emissions, the climate policy conservative free marketeers favor, in his home state. But the oil and gas industry mobilized against it, spending a record $31 million last year to kill a ballot measure that would have put a modest $15 per metric ton fee on carbon emissions.

The plan announced Monday doesn’t specify a per tonnage price, which Inslee said he’d aim to work out with legislators. But the fee would be open to changes every six months, and cover a wide array of greenhouse gases beyond carbon dioxide, such as methane and fluorinated “super pollutant” gases.

Inslee offered only vague details about the structure of the fee, calling for it to be “set as far upstream as possible to provide stable and predictable incentives for clean energy production.” The proposal suggests there could be alternative compliance payment systems set up to “ensure that compliance costs remain practical, economic and effective.”

When Democrats last tried to legislate on climate change nationally a decade ago, lawmakers proposed a cap-and-trade scheme, known as the Waxman-Markey bill, that would have set a limit on overall emissions and created a market where companies could buy and sell permits to pollute. Now that climate change, made tangible by worsening natural disasters and mounting scientific warnings, can no longer be straight-facedly denied, oil companies that once funded misinformation campaigns about the science are rallying behind a proposal to set a national carbon tax.

But tax tweaks alone are a political gambit, as the ongoing yellow-vest protests in France, started in opposition to a new levy on gas, make clear. To Inslee, a pollution price isn’t meant to raise the revenue needed to transition to renewable energy, though the proposal accounts for how it’ll help. Nor is the fee meant to simply send a signal that encourages the market to correct for the civilizational threat fossil fuel emissions pose. Pricing pollution from entire sectors is meant to limit the power of corporate giants to skirt or weaken regulations meant to phase them out.

“The dialogue has been so centered on a price that it’s unfortunately ignored the effectiveness of other regulatory measures,” Inslee said.

That’s why his campaign rolled out broad regulatory frameworks first, he said. “That’s where you get the biggest bang for your buck.”

“Don’t expect these people to go easily.”

- Washington Gov. Jay Inslee

The Exxon Mobil Corp.-endorsed carbon pricing scheme proposed by the Climate Leadership Council that’s gaining popularity among Republicans seeking a climate plan to back as science denial becomes politically untenable offers a powerful contrast to Inslee’s vision. Unlike the CLC proposal, which promises to waive oil companies’ legal liability for climate destruction, Inslee vowed federal support to the lawsuits a handful of states, municipalities and individual citizens filed to recoup damages from emissions-fueled warming. Going further, Inslee promised that, as president, he’d order the Justice Department to create a new Office of Environmental Justice “to hold offenders fully accountable under maximum application of federal law.”

“We’ve got to have a cop on the beat,” Inslee said. “We can’t allow the fossil fuel industry to just lawyer up and avoid enforcement of these laws.”

The proposal is unlikely to win Inslee many skeptical primary voters in fossil fuel-producing states. But its release comes just days after a new poll found a majority of Americans believe fossil fuel companies are responsible for damages linked to climate change. Just 29% said companies bear little to no responsibility, while 57% said the industry owes a “great deal” or “moderate amount” for climate change destruction, according to the online survey of 5,131 adults conducted by the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication and commissioned by the nonprofit Union of Concerned Scientists.

Another 53% said fossil fuel companies should pay for climate damages, including 25% who said the industry should cover “all costs” and 29% who said “most costs.” Just 4% said taxpayers should cover most costs, 2% said all costs and 12% suggested the expense should be equal split between public and industry money.

Inslee’s expanding library of climate proposals makes little mention of carbon capture and storage, technologies largely funded by fossil fuel companies. But the governor said his plan doesn’t “eliminate that as a possibility,” particularly for hard-to-decarbonize industries like steelmaking and cement production. But he pointed to the repeated failures of carbon capture-equipped power plants as evidence that such technology ought not to be used as an alternative to carbon-free alternatives in the power and transportation sectors.

“We just can’t allow it to be a false hope of people who want to hang on to an industry that is going to be transitioned out of under any circumstances,” Inslee said.

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