You’d think the Sierra Club would back carbon-cutting I-732 — but you’d be wrong

Initiative 732 would gradually ramp up the price of coal, oil and natural gas — while reducing other taxes — in an attempt to lower emissions that spur climate change.

By Hal Bernton

The Seattle Times

The Sierra Club has faced an internal backlash in Washington state over a decision to withhold support for a fall ballot measure that would impose a carbon tax on fossil fuels.

Initiative 732 would gradually ramp up the price of coal, oil and natural gas — while reducing other taxes — in an attempt to lower emissions that spur climate change.

Some executive committee members of the Washington state chapter — defying instructions from national staff — conducted a disputed August vote to try to shift the club to a neutral position on the ballot measure. But their motion was never recognized by the national Sierra Club, which found that any vote would violate Robert’s Rules of Order and the group’s political endorsement guidelines, according to club emails obtained by The Seattle Times.

The turmoil within the Sierra Club over the carbon tax reflects a broader fault line in the state environmental and social-justice community about how to tackle climate change. The Sierra Club has lined up with a host of other groups that are talking about an alternate proposal — possibly for a future state ballot — that would raise surplus revenue to invest in clean-energy and other pollution-reducing projects.

The Sierra Club is a powerhouse group in Washington state, with some 24,000 chapter members. But the club’s “do not support” position on Initiative 732 has caused some longtime members to quit.

“To me, this is the issue of our time and we’re shooting ourselves in the foot. It’s a tragedy,” said Erika Shriner, a Bainbridge Island climate activist and 20-year member who resigned from the Sierra Club.

“We recognize that our members are passionate, care deeply about this issue and some disagree with this position,” wrote Margie Van Cleve, the state committee chair, in a statement to The Seattle Times. “However, we are confident that this is the right position, and are committed to creating a just, timely and enduring solution to climate change …”

The Carbon Washington campaign to gain passage of the ballot measure was founded by Yoram Bauman, a Seattle economist who was inspired, in part, by a carbon tax now in place in British Columbia. The authors of I-732 have tried to write a revenue-neutral measure. The goal is for money raised through escalating taxes on fossil fuels to be balanced out by cuts in the state sales tax and the business-and-occupation tax on manufacturers, and a tax rebate of up to $1,500 that would be offered to low-income residents.

But efforts to promote the measure as revenue neutral have been hampered by a dispute with state officials, who have forecast that instead of being revenue neutral as intended, I-732 would bring at least a short-term cut to the general fund of $797.2 million over six fiscal years.

The I-732 campaign also has failed to rally the support of most of Washington’s green groups, who say the proposal should have been developed with more input from low-income communities and people of color.

The Washington Environmental Council and Climate Solutions also have opted not to support the measure, along with many labor groups and the state Democratic Party. And the Sierra Club’s Washington executive committee appeared to put the group firmly in that camp with a near-unanimous vote in April that passed the “do not support” position on the carbon-tax measure.

In the summer issue of The Crest, the Washington state chapter publication, the committee chair, Van Cleve, wrote that I-732 “does not meet key tests for an effective and equitable climate policy.”

Van Cleve’s attack on the ballot measure angered Court Olson, a longtime Sierra Club member who runs a green-building consulting business in Bellevue. He gathered dozens of emails from other members who objected to Van Cleve’s characterization of the measure, and briefly spoke at a July meeting of the executive committee.

At that meeting, Olson said he noted that Audubon Washington had surveyed its state members and switched to supporting I-732. He offered to assist the Sierra Club chapter in conducting its own membership poll.

“They essentially told me that they had been over and over this issue in many meetings, and they were not about to change,” Olson recalls.

Olson did not give up, and lobbied Washington committee members individually. And, in August, the committee convened a special meeting to consider a new vote to shift the Sierra Club to a neutral stance on the ballot measure.

Even before the meeting was held, Greg Casini, a national Sierra Club staffer, ruled that any attempt to put the question up for a revote would violate Robert’s Rules of Order.

But the Aug. 25 teleconference still went forward.

All but one of the 18 Washington state executive committee members initially were on the line. They were joined by more than a dozen other people, including Olson and several national Sierra Club staff, according to minutes of the meeting.

In an initial vote, the committee approved a request to appeal Casini’s ruling amid much debate.

Then at 9:10 p.m., the chairman, Van Cleve, attempted to adjourn the meeting and got off the line, according to the minutes.

But eight other committee members remained on the teleconference and voted — with one abstention — to shift the club chapter to a neutral stance, according to Olson and others on that phone call.

A Sierra Club trio that included Casini and two members from other states would later rule that such a vote was improper.

“Overall, our internal process allows for a lot of conversation before making a determination. We then have rules in place to hold true to our word and our values,” wrote Roberta Brashear-Kaulfers, a Hawaii chapter Sierra Club member who helped make that ruling with Casini.

Kyle Murphy, a state-chapter committee member who also is co-director of the I-732 campaign, resigned from his committee post.

“The Sierra Club calls itself a grass-roots organization, and I was really disappointed on how this process was decided,” Murphy said.

Olson, though frustrated, has decided to remain a member. He wants to help with club programs that promote energy efficiency.

But he has written an online chronicle of his summer quest to change the Sierra Club’s position on the carbon-tax measure.

“It’s history. But it won’t be forgotten,” Olson said.