Fix WA climate law’s broken promise to farmers

Lawmakers enacted Washington’s cap-and-trade system with the understanding that agriculture would be exempt from the increased costs created by the nascent carbon emissions market. But more than a year into the landmark climate law, some farmers and those transporting their goods continue to pay more than they should at the gas pump.

This is a broken promise by Gov. Jay Inslee and legislators who voted to pass the Climate Commitment Act in 2021 — and it’s their responsibility to fix it.

Part of the frustration that led to a citizens initiative aimed at repealing Washington’s “cap-and-invest” system were untruths about the program. Inslee argued the system would cost motorists only “pennies” at the pump, but it turned out to be around a quarter or two per gallon. The exemption for farmers was clearly too complicated for the state’s Department of Ecology to implement when the law went into effect in January 2023. So farmers paid — and they shouldn’t have.

Ecology officials laid the responsibility at the feet of the state’s fuel suppliers and distributors. The fuel those companies sell directly to farmers should be free of the costs the suppliers are required to pay to comply with the carbon market, officials say.

That fix has worked for some bigger farmers who buy directly from those fuel suppliers. But here’s the problem: Roughly two-thirds of the state’s farmers sell less than $10,000 of goods each year, according to the latest census data available. They aren’t likely to have a formalized contract for fuel or possess their own tanks, instead relying on a local gas station to fill up, according to Bre Elsey, the Washington Farm Bureau’s governmental affairs director. It is all but impossible, according to industry lobbyists, for suppliers to exempt all of the fuel they sell. To make matters worse, smaller farms are the ones most often merely scraping by, paycheck to paycheck, and are more likely to be owned by women and minorities than larger ones, Elsey says.

One solution would be to allow the small farmers to collect their receipts and submit them to the state periodically for a refund. That’s the goal of bills introduced in separate chambers by Sen. Mark Mullet, D-Issaquah, and Rep. Mike Chapman, D-Port Angeles. Both say they would not have supported the Climate Commitment Act without the agriculture exemption.

Revenues from the carbon auctions can be distributed now. The governor’s budget already calls for a $200 rebate for lower-income residents for home electricity bills, for instance. It’s well past time the farmers and those bringing their goods to market got their money back.  

The Seattle Times editorial board supported the passage of the Climate Commitment Act as a way to curb carbon emissions at a time of growing evidence that greenhouse gas emissions are making our climate increasingly chaotic.

While most Republican lawmakers support the repeal, they are offering no comprehensive plan of their own to fight climate change. But Initiative 2117 goes beyond repealing cap-and-trade — it bans the state from implementing any such future system, a terribly unwise prohibition in the face of this crisis.  

If Democrats who control the Legislature want to save cap-and-trade, they must be completely honest about the Climate Commitment Act. Show voters you can acknowledge mistakes were made and fix them promptly. That kind of courage might be the only thing that can save Washington’s carbon market.

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