Credit: thinkstock/LoveTheWind

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For Chaé Norris, this is really a story about a little girl who struggles to breathe.

Norris is talking about her 8-year-old niece, one of the many children affected by the District’s higher than average rates of pediatric asthma. When she’s trying to convince people to support carbon pricing in D.C., the native Washingtonian and Army veteran doesn’t talk about wonky tax debates or rebate schemes. She tells them about the pain her niece experiences when she wakes and needs to use a breathing treatment machine, and how cleaner air would help her fill her lungs more easily.

“We have this policy that we’re trying to get passed,” Norris tells people when she knocks on doors. “It really helps the environment and you get paid to do it—that’s the hook.”

D.C. could be the first jurisdiction in the country to implement a carbon pricing and rebate scheme. The idea is that the current cost of emitting carbon doesn’t include the real costs borne by the public, like environmental damage, health issues, property destruction, and other external expenses. If a carbon rebate program were implemented, the city would add a fee to oil and natural gas bills. The money collected would go back to residents, especially low-income Washingtonians, through a rebate system. Over time, that fee would increase.

“Right now, it’s free to pollute the atmosphere and that’s why we’re burning the planet,” says Camila Thorndike, an organizer with the Chesapeake Climate Action Network who is helping to lead the effort. “That’s why we don’t see the kind of investment in clean energy and the kind of conservation choices on the consumer side. Climate change is the greatest market failure that ever was.”

And so, they’re looking to fix it with a market solution. For more than two years, the Put A Price On It, D.C. campaign has been building a coalition to push for legislation that would make this a reality. The group, which includes more than 50 organizations, formally launched in May 2017.

Thorndike says interest increased after the 2016 election “because people were just despairing and defeated and saw this opportunity to fight back right here under Trump’s nose.”

The coalition includes a mix of usual suspects, like environmental groups, along with some religious leaders, arts advocates, and small businesses. Pleasant Pops is on board, even though a popsicle business might stand to benefit from a hotter planet. “I’d rather sacrifice the marginal returns to have a safe world,” says owner Roger Horowitz, who adds that the business already runs on 100 percent wind power.

This is the first time that property services union 32BJ SEIU has waded into a fight over environmental policy in D.C., says Jaime Contreras, the vice president of the union. They’re doing so because “this is something that our members care about,” he says. “It’s important that it would put money into the pockets of D.C. families, and people would be breathing less bad air. It’s becoming a health issue.”

At least six councilmembers have already come out in favor of carbon pricing to some degree—Chairman Phil Mendelson, At Large Councilmembers David Grosso and Robert White, Ward 1’s Brianne Nadeau, Ward 6’s Charles Allen, and Ward 3’s Mary Cheh, who, as the chair of the Committee on Transportation and the Environment, is heading up the effort to write the legislation.

“My office is in the process of researching how a carbon fee could fit in with the District’s existing climate initiatives and I’m hoping to introduce a bill to address our local carbon output this spring,” Cheh said in a statement to City Paper.

“There’s clearly a majority of the Council who support the direction and the concept,” says Allen. “We don’t have an actual bill in front of us because advocates are working closely with Mendelson and Cheh to help map out what the actual bill would look like. In an ideal scenario, you win this battle before you ever introduce the bill.”

Democratic lawmakers introduced a carbon fee bill this week on Capitol Hill. Neither that legislation nor others tackling climate change have much of a chance on the federal level. “Cities are where we’re going to lead,” says Allen. “Now’s the time more than ever when we have to put our foot on the accelerator.”

So where does the city’s leader stand on the issue? Mayor Muriel Bowser committed the city to a goal of becoming carbon neutral by 2050, meaning the city’s emissions would be balanced by actions and projects that remove carbon dioxide from the air, and reiterated D.C.’s commitment to the Paris climate accord after President Trump pulled the United States out of the agreement last June.

The D.C. Department of Energy and the Environment Clean Energy DC plan, an updated version of which is forthcoming, outlines 55 recommended actions to meet those goals, including mandating that electricity suppliers use renewable energy and creating a DC Green Bank. Carbon pricing is not among them.

“We’re all about hitting the mayor’s goals. The question is, what’s the best way to do it?” says Marc Nielsen, the legislative director for DOEE. “Carbon pricing would have to be at a level that achieves behavior change but doesn’t exacerbate how expensive it is to live in the District of Columbia. It would really depend [on] how the proposal is structured.”

He points to the large Clean Rivers Impervious Area Charges added to DC Water bills and Pepco’s request for a D.C. rate hike as issues already threatening the pocketbooks of residents. “The rebate you get back is supposed to help alleviate that problem, but it’s kind of strange as a behavioral mechanism, because if you get the money back, it ends up just creating a cash flow problem” for lower-income residents, says Nielsen.

The DOEE commissioned a report in 2016 to see how to implement a carbon tax in D.C., Bloomberg reported last April. The report predicted the fee would raise annual revenue of $200 million that would then be redistributed to residents. The agency ultimately opted to focus on other ways of reducing greenhouse emissions, and never released the document or showed it to the Council.

Nielsen says that when the Council comes out with a proposal, “we would be working with the mayor’s office to make sure it’s the most beneficial bill out there.”

Already, D.C. residents can opt for a clean, renewable source for their electrical power supply through Pepco, which has come out in favor of carbon pricing. But the decision isn’t free. A flyer sent out last week from CleanChoice Energy, the supplier of the service, admits that “supporting new renewable energy development costs more than polluting energy.”

With carbon pricing, that would change, says Thorndike of CCAN. “In a quarterly shareholder report kind of world, you have to establish a price for doing the wrong thing and a reward for doing the right thing.”

At the Wilson Building, Cheh’s office and others are working on what, exactly, that price ought to be and the logistics for paying it. Advocates are calling for a fee of $20 per ton of carbon dioxide that would rise by $10 annually until it hits a $150 per ton fee. When it hits the $150 per ton mark, advocates expect that consumers would see their bills rise by about $9 a month if they don’t switch to renewable energy.

The Public Service Commission may levy the fee, with the rebates coming from a new office within the Office of Tax and Revenue or DOEE. There could be a tax on gas that’s triggered when neighboring jurisdictions pass similar laws, or tax cuts for local businesses funded through the rebate, or investments to the not-yet-established Green Bank. But until the spring, when Cheh hopes to introduce the bill, the tinkering continues.

“Everything’s on the table,” says Allen.