Like much of the rest of the world, Denver is currently not on track to achieve the dramatic greenhouse-gas emissions cuts that climate scientists say are necessary over the next decade and beyond. A group of environmental activists wants voters to help change that by passing a new tax to better fund the city’s efforts to fight climate change.
“We’re in a climate emergency,” says Ean Thomas Tafoya, spokesman for Resilient Denver, the group behind the initiative. “The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change continually tells us that we’re missing our goals. We know that we have good staff that are working [on climate change] in the city, but you have to put your money where your mouth is with the budget.”
If it makes the ballot and gets approved by voters, the Resilient Denver initiative would make Denver the first major city in the country to levy a carbon tax — sort of. The measure is technically an excise tax on electricity and natural gas consumption rather than a direct tax on emissions, and it’s much smaller in scale than many of the world’s most ambitious carbon-pricing schemes.
The tax would raise an estimated $46 million in its first year and gradually rise from there, and that money would be used to fund a new Office of Climate Action and Resiliency, a city agency that would coordinate its efforts to reduce carbon emissions and ensure an equitable transition to a clean-energy economy.
“We really emphasize equity, we really emphasize job creation,” says Tafoya. “It’s very much on track with what the Green New Deal is about on a national level, implementing that locally.”
Denver election officials approved the initiative’s ballot language last week, and Resilient Denver has begun circulating petitions to collect the 8,265 signatures they’ll need to make the November ballot. Organizers are confident they can meet that target, and they believe Denver voters are ready to support strong climate policy — but they also expect powerful interest groups to line up against the measure.
“There’s always going to be opposition to change,” Tafoya says. “We have an oil and gas sector that clearly doesn’t want to see us make this transition. We’ll face resistance, without a doubt.”
Xcel Energy, Denver’s electric and gas utility, says it won’t take a position on the initiative until it qualifies for the ballot. The company already collects a similar tax in Boulder, which in 2006 became the first municipality in the country to pass a carbon tax.
”Xcel Energy does not have an opinion on the proposal at this point,” says spokesman Mark Stutz. “We will wait for the process to play out to see if this becomes a ballot initiative. It should be noted, however, that we already work closely with all of our communities, including Denver, to address their energy goals.”
Resilient Denver modeled its initiative in part on Boulder’s Climate Action Plan Tax, which was overwhelmingly approved by voters and has funded a variety of successful efforts to reduce the city’s emissions. But while carbon taxes are popular among economists, who view them as a market-friendly solution to climate change, not every proposal has been as successful as Boulder’s.
Last year, voters in Washington rejected a ballot initiative to impose a “carbon fee” that would have set a price of $15 per metric ton of emissions and increased by $2 annually thereafter. That’s much lower than the $40- to $80-per-ton figure that economists at the World Bank, in a 2017 report, estimated would be necessary to achieve the emissions goals outlined in the Paris Agreement.
Resilient Denver's proposed tax is even more modest than the Washington measure. It would tax a typical residential utility customer at half a cent per kilowatt hour of electricity and four cents per therm of natural gas; in practical terms, the average Denver household would see an increase of about 5 percent, or about $6, on their monthly utility bill. That works out to a de facto carbon tax of roughly $7 per ton, based on state-level data from the Energy Information Administration.
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In addition to Tafoya, the initiative's backers include members of environmental groups like Wind and Solar Denver and the Sierra Club, as well as Brandon Rietheimer, who led the push for the Green Roof initiative that Denver voters approved in 2017.
Amid opposition from developers, Denver City Council ultimately repealed the measure and passed a revised "cool roof" ordinance in its place. Rietheimer supported the change, and Tafoya, who also campaigned for the measure, says Resilient Denver organizers learned important lessons from the process.
“What we learned is to take a little bit more time, write a better ordinance,” says Tafoya. “The other thing that we learned is that Denver is ready to lead on climate change. We just need the revenue to back it.”
Supporters of the Resilient Denver initiative will hold a campaign kickoff event tonight, May 23, at 6:30 p.m. at The Alliance Center, 1536 Wynkoop Street.