Ordinary Wyomingites are seeking a carbon tax, galvanized by national politics – Casper Star-Tribune Online

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When Dan Cooper was a child he moved around a lot. His father was a nuclear engineer and the family followed his jobs. As an elementary student, Cooper noticed that the birds in his bird book weren’t in the regions where they should be.

He asked his father about it and received his first lesson on climate change. He learned of disrupted natural environments and the ways that those changes can be watched and tracked, even by a child.

Cooper is 72 now. He lives in Casper and works as an engineer in the oil and gas industry. He’s one of two Casper volunteers for the Citizens’ Climate Lobby, a group proposing a carbon tax to combat climate change.

After the election of President Donald Trump, a spate of activism erupted in the U.S., from women’s marches across major cities to private Facebook groups where members could discuss ways to get involved. As the conservative members of Congress got to work in Washington and the new president swore to uphold the Constitution, Americans were becoming more interested in an area of politics that some had taken for granted: energy. And with energy development comes a conversation on climate science.

Potential cuts to the Environmental Protection Agency and the elimination of climate change sections on government websites further fueled citizen interest in the issue.

The flare-up of activism has also happened in Wyoming, a traditionally libertarian state with conservative political views and an economy powered by fossil fuels. Groups like Wyoming Rising-Northwest cropped up online, and longstanding groups like Citizens’ Climate Lobby attracted new interest.

The Lobby is not one of the march-and-protest groups, its volunteers say.

It’s a policy group, and its mission is to add a fee to fossil fuel emissions per ton. That revenue would be paid back to citizens in the form of a dividend check, making up for an increase in electricity bills.

The fee-and-dividend policy would fuel the economy, supporters say. Operators who export fossil fuels would get a refund on their fee. It would be revenue-neutral and disincentivize the burning of fossil fuels, proponents argue.

Simple or complicated?

The idea of a carbon tax has been around a long time in various forms, with some environmental advocates promoting it as the best way to reach a sustainable future. It’s also being promulgated by many conservatives.

The Climate Leadership Council is pushing a fee-and-dividend plan similar to the Climate Lobby’s, though with a much higher fee on emissions. The group includes conservative statesmen like James Baker, former secretary of state under President George H.W. Bush; Martin Feldstein, former economic adviser to President Ronald Reagan; and Rob Walton, former chairman of the board for Walmart.

Other surprising nods to the concept have come from the oil and gas industry. In a February blog post from ExxonMobil’s new CEO, Darren Woods, the chairman of the multinational oil and gas company said government has a role in both funding energy research and developing sound policy.

“One option being discussed by policymakers is a national revenue-neutral carbon tax,” he said. “This would promote greater energy efficiency and the use of today’s lower-carbon options, avoid further burdening the economy and also provide incentives for markets to develop additional low-carbon energy solutions for the future.”

But digging into the economics of a fee-and-dividend plan can get messy. There are many opponents to versions of a carbon tax that have arisen over the years, who argue it will hurt the country’s GDP, including the group Americans for Tax Reform. Proponents say that’s why the dividend is so crucial.

Yet, for the fee-and dividend-plan, some question how to fairly design the fee based on economic models and how to ethically pay back that money to current and future generations.

Middle of the road

The divisions are great, but various viewpoints can be worked through, and the carbon tax is a bipartisan solution to a real concern, said Barb Deshler, a retired teacher from Laramie and a volunteer for the Citizens’ Climate Lobby.

Deshler looks and sounds like a teacher. She’s soft-spoken, curious and deferential in conversation. She’s seen the polemics regarding climate science, and for a long time the vitriol kept her from being more active.

But with the carbon tax pushed by the Lobby, there is a commitment to bipartisanship and dialogue, and most of all, there is hope, she said.

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Deshler admits that she felt dispirited after the elections. Then she checked her email. Members of the group were active, discussing what to do next. They weren’t behaving like people who were giving up, she said. It was particularly the young people, she added.

Once hesitant to even join a group with “lobby” in the name, the retired teacher was galvanized.

The group holds monthly call-ins with experts from various backgrounds, economics and government to the military. They have a book club on economic policy and climate science.

She’s become braver, she said.

Deshler is the Laramie group’s liaison to Sen. Mike Enzi. She has yet to sit down with the former mayor of Gillette but hopes that meeting will happen soon.

For the everyday people becoming involved in the national debate on climate change, middle-of-the-road solutions are the future, she said.

Cooper, the oil and gas engineer, doesn’t like to think of himself as an activist any more than Deshler, and he’s less hopeful. Where the Lobby in places like Laramie and Riverton has more rolling members, Cooper is usually working with one other volunteer. He’s tired and sees some of the energy policy put forward by politicians as little more than boondoggles.

But he’s also an engineer at heart — someone who knows that things can be built, changed, adapted, he said.

In the carbon tax, Cooper’s found a goal. It keeps him going, he said.

“Fossil fuel is so cheap that we have the opportunity to totally wreck the future with it,” he said. “I believe that what we need to use fossil fuels for is to keep the economy running strongly so we can build a renewable infrastructure for the future.”