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Our Opinion: City carbon tax? It's smoke and mirrors

The idea for a carbon tax in Portland — at least as it has been described so far — has little to do with carbon, and a lot to do with taxes.

Portlanders should be wary of adding to their gasoline and utility bills without first gaining a great deal more clarity from City Hall about the likely consequences of such a tax.

Plans for a carbon tax became public last week when a polling firm called registered Portland voters to ask them their opinion of a “carbon pollution fee.” Mayor Charlie Hales’ office confirmed the city was involved in the poll, which was paid for by the Oregon Environmental Council.

Hales’ staff this week emphasized the city is merely in the preliminary stages of exploring ways to raise revenue while also encouraging people to change carbon-producing behavior. The wording of the poll, however, gives a strong indication of what the city has in mind — and what’s being proposed so far looks like a revenue measure dressed up in environmental clothing.

The poll asked voters if they would support “establishing a local tax on producers of carbon pollution to help reduce the impact of climate change.”

Our guess is that a majority of green-minded Portlanders would answer yes to that query, but the next question in the survey was more telling. It included sample ballot language regarding a 3 percent fee on utility revenues and a 4.5 cent per-gallon gasoline tax.

In other words, the city wants to tack an extra fee on people’s energy bills and also create a local gas tax. That means those “producers of carbon pollution” are in fact the residents of Portland, who would be encouraged through additional taxation to change their carbon-generating habits.

The survey suggests the carbon issue would not come before voters until November 2014. We believe that gives Portlanders adequate time to evaluate whether this is just another tax, or whether it truly has a connection to global warming. Along the way, city leaders and others who support a local carbon tax must be prepared to answer some obvious questions:

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  • Is it wise for a city to place itself at a competitive disadvantage by taking on a global concern and thereby increasing costs for its residents and businesses? The Oregon Legislature also is studying a carbon tax, yet many people argue that climate change can be addressed only at the federal or international level. Any regulation by states and cities might hurt their economic growth as people and businesses migrate to lower-cost areas.

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  • Will a 3 percent tax on utility revenue or a 4.5 cent per-gallon gasoline tax do anything to slow local carbon production? Previous research conducted at Portland State University indicates people won’t significantly alter their behavior unless the economic cost is much greater.

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  • For that matter, does it make sense to add a blanket fee onto a utility such as Portland General Electric, which already gets power from renewable sources such as wind and from hydroelectric dams that create no carbon? A utility fee in that case would punish green energy on the same basis as coal-fired plants. Keep in mind, too, that PGE has agreed to close its Boardman coal-burning plant by 2020.

    Beyond those questions, Portlanders also should consider whether the city needs the money it is seeking. Hales’ office says one possible use for carbon-tax revenue is maintenance of city roads and sidewalks. Indeed, a local gas tax that’s dedicated to paving streets, filling potholes and building sidewalks could be justified, assuming that Portlanders are willing to pay the price.

    Fixing local streets, however, is far removed from repairing the Earth’s climate. Any tax proposal must be clear in its purpose. It cannot be obscured by dubious claims that it will rein in “polluters” — the people who are just trying to keep their cars running and their homes heated.