Tribes might push their own carbon tax initiative in 2018

By Melissa Santos

The News Tribune

Tribal leaders might forge ahead with their own plan to tax carbon emissions in Washington state, breaking away from another group that’s working on a statewide carbon-tax initiative for the November 2018 ballot.

A top tribal leader said the Alliance for Jobs and Clean Energy didn’t seek feedback from Native American tribes when it began developing the carbon-tax plan it hopes to send to voters next fall.

Now, it’s unclear if the tribes and the Alliance can reconcile their separate visions for how to combat climate change, said Fawn Sharp, president of the Quinault Indian Nation.

Sharp, who is also the president of the Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians, said “there is a very high likelihood” that tribal leaders will end up proposing their own carbon-tax initiative to send to voters next year.

“Others are advancing proposals, and we cannot be part of standing on the sidelines while we witness a woefully underfunded or woefully ineffective proposal move forward to the people,” Sharp said Thursday.

Sharp said she and other tribal leaders consider 2018 to be “our one shot at meaningful funding to solve this crisis.”

“If we fall short, the consequences could be devastating,” Sharp said. “We are running out of time, and we cannot wait.”

The Alliance said no piece of its proposal is finalized, and there’s still time for the tribes and other groups to come together behind one ballot measure.

“My take is because we haven’t done a good job engaging them and collaborating with them when we should have, that we haven’t been able to communicate that there is no final proposal,” said Aiko Schaefer, who co-chairs the steering committee for the Alliance for Jobs and Clean Energy.

Schaefer said she thinks the groups fighting for a price on carbon would be more successful if they unite behind one initiative campaign, and “that’s what we’re working towards.”

“We believe the pathway to win is for all of us to be unified and to work together, and that’s what we’re hoping for,” she said.

This month, Quinault tribal leaders wrote a letter outlining several concerns with the Alliance’s working proposal, including that the proposed carbon tax would be too low and that too little of the revenue from it would go toward environmental conservation projects.

Right now, the Alliance’s website says the coalition would like to see a carbon tax that generates more than $1 billion a year in revenue and dedicates 70 percent of that money to clean energy projects like solar and wind power, as well as mass transit and energy efficiency projects.

The remaining 30 percent would go toward clean water and forest-health projects, the Alliance’s website says.

Quinault leaders said those targets fall far short of what is needed to preserve salmon habitat and reduce the risk of wildfires in the face of global climate change. As part of the final proposal, the tribe wants 10 percent of whatever is set aside for conservation to be earmarked for projects on tribal land or spearheaded by tribal governments.

The tribal leaders also want to see a higher price on pollution. In their Sept. 8 letter, they said the tax should start at $25 per metric ton of greenhouse gas emissions and increase each year based on inflation and other factors. The tribe’s letter says that the Alliance has been talking about charging a lower tax of $15 per metric ton of emissions.

Schaefer said all of that is still up for negotiation, and the Alliance hasn’t settled yet on what the price of carbon should be.

She said many groups within the Alliance support much of what tribal leaders are proposing, though the coalition is still working to come to a “broad agreement.”

Mike Stevens, the Washington state director for the Nature Conservancy, said the Alliance’s goal is to have members of the business community, tribes and environmental groups agree on a proposal by January so the group can start collecting signatures early in 2018. The Alliance will need to gather nearly 260,000 signatures by July for the initiative to qualify for the November ballot.

The Nature Conservancy, which is one of the Alliance’s financial backers, has already been reaching out to the Quinault and other tribes, Stevens said.

“This is fundamentally a political process, in which our first job is to bring the key constituents to the table,” Stevens said. “We’re right in the thick of that dialogue and working to do our best to engage everyone.”

But the political nature of those discussions is part of why Quinault leaders and other tribes are looking in a different direction, Sharp said.

“It does seem like the proposal as stated is reflective of what can be politically negotiated, and ‘what can we do to make this fly,’” she said. “This kind of crisis doesn’t warrant that type of policy development. This kind of crisis demands that we let science drive it.”

Sharp said she hopes to gather the support of other tribal leaders during The Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians’ annual convention in Spokane this coming week. She said she is already meeting individually with tribal leaders to talk about what’s next.

Leaders of the Puyallup Tribe of Indians declined to comment for this story or didn’t return calls Friday. Debbie Preston, a spokeswoman for the Nisqually Indian Tribe, wrote in an email that members of the tribal council aren’t formally involved with developing a tribal carbon-tax proposal right now, “but support the efforts of other tribes.”

Sharp said the plan is to hold a series of meetings with other tribes in September and October, so tribal leaders can agree on the basics of a policy proposal by November. She said those basic principles will be “nonnegotiable” and form the backbone of whatever initiative the tribes decide to work on for next fall.

The Alliance can come and join with what the tribes are doing if that’s what the group decides, Sharp said. But she said tribes won’t compromise on what she described as their “minimum expectations,” which will include investing heavily in salmon recovery, forest restoration and improving water quality.

“We can’t predict the political maneuvering that happens outside of us, but we will be at the table,” Sharp said.