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Research & Commentary: Renewable Energy Mandate Expansion, Carbon-Dioxide Tax Would Make Life Harder for Low-Income Washingtonians

February 6, 2019

Proposals Would Set Up A 100 Percent Renewable Energy Mandate & A $15 Per Ton Carbon-Dioxide Tax

Two proposals in Washington State would increase energy costs and have a deleterious impact on low-income Washingtonians by establishing a strengthened renewable energy mandate and highly regressive carbon-dioxide tax. 

The first proposal would strengthen Washington’s Renewable Energy Standard. Established in 2006, the state’ Renewable Energy Standard requires Washington utilities to acquire 15 percent of their electricity generation from renewable sources by 2020, by requiring said utilities to acquire 100 of their generation through renewables by 2045. These utilities will have to totally ween themselves off coal-generated electricity by 2025 and be “carbon neutral” by 2030.

Renewable energy mandates—often referred to as “renewable portfolio standards”—force expensive, heavily subsidized, and politically favored electricity sources such as wind and solar on ratepayers and taxpayers while providing few, if any, net environmental benefits.

A study by the liberal Brookings Institution found replacing conventional power with wind power raises electricity prices 50 percent and replacing conventional power with solar power triples electricity costs.

Unsurprisingly, in states with renewable energy mandates, energy rates are rising twice as fast as the national average and states with renewable mandates had electricity prices 26 percent higher than those without one. According to U.S. Energy Information Administration, the 29 states with renewable energy mandates (plus the District of Columbia) had average retail electricity prices of 11.93 cents per kilowatt hour (cents/kWh), while the 21 states without renewable mandates had average retail electricity prices of just 9.38 cents/kWh. 

In just 12 states, the total net cost of the renewable mandates was $5.76 billion in 2016 and will rise to $8.80 billion in 2030, a 2016 study revealed. 

The second proposal would establish a $15 per ton carbon-dioxide tax on “the sale or use of fossil fuels within the state … and the sale or use of electricity … generated using fossil fuels.” This is extremely similar to the carbon-dioxide tax put forward in the I-1631 ballot initiative that was decisively defeated by Washington voters in November 2018. The purpose of the carbon-dioxide tax is to decrease carbon-dioxide emissions by levying a tax based on the amount of emissions produced.

Carbon-dioxide taxes are inherently regressive and disproportionally harm low-income families. The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) found a $28 per ton carbon tax would result in energy costs being 250 percent higher for the poorest one-fifth of households than the richest one-fifth of households.

CBO reports the reason for cost discrepancy is “a carbon tax would increase the prices of fossil fuels in direct proportion to their carbon content. Higher fuel prices, in turn, would raise production costs and ultimately drive up prices for goods and services throughout the economy … Low-income households spend a larger share of their income on goods and services whose prices would increase the most, such as electricity and transportation.”

The Washington Policy Center estimated the I-1631 carbon-dioxide tax would increase average household costs between $234 and $305 in the first year alone, and between $672 and $877 per year after 2030. Costs for the newly-proposed tax would be similar and would take $7.879 billion away from Washington drivers over the next decade.

One other substantial problem with the carbon-dioxide tax is that it would produce an insignificant environmental benefit, as Oren Cass, senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, noted in National Affairs. “The effectiveness of a carbon tax as a matter of environmental policy [depends] not only on how it would directly alter the trajectory of [local] emissions but also on its ability to affect global emissions by driving globally applicable technological innovation or by influencing the behavior of foreign governments,” wrote Cass. “On each of these dimensions, the carbon tax fails.”

Thanks to its copious hydroelectric power sources, the Evergreen State currently has some of the lowest retail electricity prices in the United States (7.68 cents per kilowatt hour). Moreover, a 2018 WalletHub study reports that only Colorado has lower total energy costs than the Washington. Legislators should refrain from taking any action that would increase the prices.

The higher energy costs guaranteed by a switch from fossil fuels to higher-cost “renewable” electricity sources, such as wind or solar, lead to slower economic growth. Affordable energy is the key to productivity growth and the production of virtually all goods and services. At the same time, a carbon-dioxide tax would make everything more expensive for working families in Washington, raise costs for businesses, and have an insignificant effect on global CO2 emissions. For the good of all Washingtonians, legislators should reject these two proposals and move to abolish the Renewable Energy Standard altogether.

The following documents provide more information about carbon-dioxide taxes and renewable energy mandates.

The Carbon Tax: Analysis of Six Potential Scenarios
https://www.instituteforenergyresearch.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/10/The-Carbon-Tax-Analysis-of-Six-Potential-Scenarios_Final.pdf
This study commissioned by the Institute for Energy Research and conducted by Capital Alpha Partners uses standard scoring conventions to evaluate and model the economic impacts of carbon taxes set at a variety of dollar figures, with different phase-in durations, and with an array of revenue-recycling strategies. It finds a carbon tax will not be pro-growth, is not an efficient revenue raiser for tax reform, depresses GDP and introduces with long-term fiscal challenges playing particular stress on the states, and is inconsistent with meeting the long-term Paris Agreement emissions reduction goals.

Citizens’ Guide to Initiative 1631
https://www.washingtonpolicy.org/library/doclib/MyersCitizens-Guide-to-Initiative-1631.pdf
This report from Todd Myers, director for the Center of the Environment at the Washington Policy Center, says the carbon-dioxide tax that would be levied if I-1631 were to pass, it would translate to between $234 and $305 for the average household in the first year, increasing to $672 and $877 per year after ten years. The largest portion of the cost would come from a 14-cent-per-gallon gas tax that would increase by about two cents per gallon each year. 

Legislating Energy Poverty: A Case Study of How California’s and New York’s Climate Change Policies Are Increasing Energy Costs and Hurting the Economy
https://www.pacificresearch.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/12/LegislatingEnergy_F_Web.pdf
This analysis from Wayne Winegarden of the Pacific Research Institute shows the big government approach to fighting climate change taken by California and New York hits working class and minority communities the hardest. The paper reviews the impact of global warming policies adopted in California and New York, such as unrealistic renewable energy goals, strict low carbon fuel standards, and costly subsidies for buying higher-priced electric cars and installing solar panels. The report finds that, collectively, these expensive and burdensome policies are dramatically increasing the energy burdens of their respective state residents.

The U.S. Leads the World in Clean Air: The Case for Environmental Optimism
https://files.texaspolicy.com/uploads/2018/11/27165514/2018-11-RR-US-Leads-the-World-in-Clean-Air-ACEE-White.pdf
This paper from the Texas Public Policy Foundation examines how the United States achieved robust economic growth while dramatically reducing emissions of air pollutants. The paper states that these achievements should be celebrated as a public policy success story, but instead the prevailing narrative among political and environmental leaders is one of environmental decline that can only be reversed with a more stringent regulatory approach. Instead, the paper urges for the data to be considered and applied to the narrative.

Evaluating the Costs and Benefits of Renewable Portfolio Standards
https://www.heartland.org/publications-resources/publications/evaluating-the-costs-and-benefits-of-renewable-portfolio-standards?source=policybot
This paper by Timothy J. Considine, a distinguished professor of energy economics at the School of Energy Resources and the Department of Economics and Finance at the University of Wyoming, examines the renewable portfolio standards (RPS) of 12 different states and concludes while RPS investments stimulate economic activity, the negative economic impacts associated with higher electricity prices offset the claimed economic advantages of these RPS investments.

The Deeply Flawed Conservative Case for a Carbon Tax
https://www.heartland.org/publications-resources/publications/the-deeply-flawed-conservative-case-for-a-carbon-tax
In this paper published by the American Enterprise Institute, Benjamin Zycher says the “conservative” Climate Leadership Council’s (CLC) much-hyped carbon-tax proposal is “naïve” and “virtually all of the … assertions in support of its proposal are incorrect or implausible.” The CLC’s plan is “poor conceptually and deeply unserious,” wrote Zycher.

The Case Against a U.S. Carbon Tax
https://www.heartland.org/publications-resources/publications/the-case-against-a-us-carbon-tax
In this paper from the Cato Institute, Robert P. Murphy, Patrick J. Michaels, and Paul C. Knappenberger examine carbon-dioxide tax programs in place in Australia and British Columbia and consider whether similar programs would be successful in the United States. They conclude, “In theory and in practice, economic analysis shows that the case for a U.S. carbon tax is weaker than its most vocal supporters have led the public to believe.” 

Economic Outcomes of a U.S. Carbon Tax
https://www.heartland.org/publications-resources/publications/economic-outcomes-of-a--us-carbon-tax
This report from the National Association of Manufacturers evaluates the potential impacts carbon taxes whose revenues would be devoted to a combination of debt and tax rate reduction would have on the U.S. economy. The results consider the varied economic effects of fossil-fuel cost increases caused by carbon taxes, as well as the positive economic effects of the assumption that carbon tax revenues would be used to reduce government debt and federal taxes.

Ten State Solutions to Emerging Issues
https://www.heartland.org/publications-resources/publications/ten-state-solutions-to-emerging-issues-2018
This Heartland Institute booklet explores solutions to the top public policy issues facing the states in 2018 and beyond in the areas of budget and taxes, education, energy and environment, health care, and constitutional reform. The solutions identified are proven reform ideas that have garnered significant support among the states and with legislators.

The Carbon Tax Shell Game
https://www.heartland.org/publications-resources/publications/the-carbon-tax-shell-game
Oren Cass of the Manhattan Institute argues the carbon tax is a shell game. The range of designs, prices, rationales, and claimed benefits varies so widely that assessing the validity of most proposals is nearly impossible to accomplish. In this article for National Affairs, Cass says the effect of carbon-dioxide taxes on emissions has proven to be insubstantial, a fact he says is ignored by the tax’s proponents when promoting its purported benefits.

The Social Benefits of Fossil Fuels
https://www.heartland.org/publications-resources/publications/the-social-benefits-of-fossil-fuels
This Heartland Policy Brief by Joseph Bast and Peter Ferrara documents the many benefits from the historic and still ongoing use of fossil fuels. Fossil fuels are lifting billions of people out of poverty, reducing all the negative effects of poverty on human health, and vastly improving human well-being and safety by powering labor-saving and life-protecting technologies, such as air conditioning, modern medicine, and cars and trucks. They are dramatically increasing the quantity of food humans produce and improving the reliability of the food supply, directly benefiting human health. Further, fossil fuel emissions are possibly contributing to a “Greening of the Earth,” benefiting all the plants and wildlife on the planet.

Climate Change Reconsidered II: Fossil Fuels – Summary for Policymakers
https://www.heartland.org/publications-resources/publications/climate-change-reconsidered-ii-fossil-fuels---summary-for-policymakers
In this fifth volume of the Climate Change Reconsidered series, 117 scientists, economists, and other experts assess the costs and benefits of the use of fossil fuels by reviewing scientific and economic literature on organic chemistry, climate science, public health, economic history, human security, and theoretical studies based on integrated assessment models (IAMs) and cost-benefit analysis (CBA).

Less Carbon, Higher Prices: How California’s Climate Policies Affect Lower-Income Residents
https://www.heartland.org/publications-resources/publications/less-carbon-higher-prices-how-californias-climate-policies-affect-lower-income-residents
This study from Jonathan Lesser of the Manhattan Institute argues California’s clean power regulations, including the state’s renewable power mandate, is a regressive tax that harms impoverished Californians more than any other group. 

 

Nothing in this Research & Commentary is intended to influence the passage of legislation, and it does not necessarily represent the views of The Heartland Institute. For further information on this subject, visit Environment & Climate News, The Heartland Institute’s website, and PolicyBot, Heartland’s free online research database.

The Heartland Institute can send an expert to your state to testify or brief your caucus; host an event in your state; or send you further information on a topic. Please don’t hesitate to contact us if we can be of assistance! If you have any questions or comments, contact Lindsey Stroud, a state government relations manager at The Heartland Institute, at lstroud@heartland.org or 757/354-8170.