Ski towns and carbon tax

Mountain Village, slopeside to the Telluride ski area, has improved energy efficiency for municipal operations. But as in Telluride, gains in the private sector have lagged. Photo/Allen Best

Mountain Village, slopeside to the Telluride ski area, has improved energy efficiency for municipal operations. But as in Telluride, gains in the private sector have lagged. Photo/Allen Best

Will a ski town adopt a carbon tax?

Ballot item in Telluride, and in Jackson a talking point

by Allen Best

JACKSON, Wyo. – British Columbia has a carbon tax, as do Ireland, Australia and several other countries. But it’s scarce to non-existent in the United States.

Now comes a proposal in Telluride and San Miguel County. The per-capita emissions of greenhouse gas emissions there are 13 percent more than the U.S. average, which itself is 14th among the world’s 183 nations.

Buildings are a large part of the problem. Nationally, they consume nearly 50 percent of all energy, but in San Miguel County it’s 63 percent. “We have a lot of buildings but not many people,” says Joan May, a county commissioner.

But while both Telluride and Mountain Village have done much to push energy efficiency and renewable energy in their municipal operations, retrofitting buildings in the private sector has been less robust.

To help bolster these efforts, local governments are asking electors to open up a new source of funding, a 1 percent tax on all energy utility bills on residential buildings. Commercial utility use is already taxed by the local jurisdictions. The $150,000 to $175,000 collected by the new tax before voters in November would be allocated in still-unspecified ways for greenhouse gas reduction. “I feel like this is pretty close to a carbon tax, which is pretty exciting to me,” says May.

Boulder, Colo., levied a tax that was marketed as a carbon tax, although former mayor Will Toor notes that it only applies to electricity, not to gas for heating for fuels for transportation. As such, it’s not a true carbon tax. It has yielded $2 million annually since first levied in 2008 for the city’s climate action plan. In 2012, a five-year extension of the tax was supported by 82 percent of voters. Money is used for energy efficiency upgrades

Idea floated in Jackson Hole

Wyoming’s Jonathan Schechter has started floating the idea of taxing the carbon on all publicly regulated transportation in Jackson and Teton County, the area commonly called Jackson Hole. However, the local government would have no purview over energy used for privately owned cars and trucks. Instead, it would apply to transportation regulated by local government: air travel in and out of the local airport, local buses, rental cars and taxis.

Transportation has a huge footprint in Teton County. According to a 2009 report, transportation is responsible for nearly 80 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions. Ground transportation was the lion’s share.

In comparison, transportation is responsible for 53.5 percent at Snowmass Village, according to a 2009 study done by Rick Heede of Climate Mitigation Services. Heede also did Teton County’s baseline study.Jackson Hole emissions

Jackson Hole is unusual in many respects, not least its enviable source of electric power. The bulk provider is Bonneville Power Administration, the quasi-government agency that operates the many dams on the Columbia River and its tributaries, including the Snake. The latter originates in Jackson Hole.

As a consequence, Jackson Hole has cheap electricity with a low carbon footprint. Many houses are heated by electricity.

Like Boulder, local officials in Jackson Hole have no power over private transportation. But they do have control over buses, taxis, and air travel. The latter is responsible for 17 percent of the valley’s carbon footprint.

Schechter makes the argument that Jackson Hole, because of its high visibility, can send a message to the world. He also insists that it has responsibility to do so.

“If we are creating pollution and creating a mess, then it’s our responsibility to clean it up,” he told the Jackson Hole News&Guide. “That’s an important message to send to the world.”

Schechter is widely followed in Jackson Hole, where he has a twice-monthly column in the News&Guide and operates a think tank called the Charture Institute. But he hasn’t sold the most powerful politician, Jackson Mayor Mark Barron. “I am dubious,” Barron told the newspaper, although his skepticism was directed strictly at the idea of taxing public buses.

But Schechter also argues that if Teton County were to adopt a carbon tax—he calls it an offset, although it sounds like a straightforward tax—it would be good publicity. “This would be another feather in the cap embellishing our century-long record of conservation leadership,” he said.

“Given the threat global warming poses to mountain towns, someone’s got to step up and take a leadership role. And let’s face it—it’s a fool’s errand to expect anything but posturing from Washington.”

The money from the carbon tax could be used toward defraying the cost of solar panels in Jackson Hole, to helping preserve forests on other continents that serve as carbon sinks.

This is one of the stories in the Oct. 24, 2013, issue of Mountain Town News. For a sample copy, please send an e-mail message.



About Allen Best

Allen Best is a Colorado-based journalist. He publishes a subscription-based e-zine called Mountain Town News, portions of which are published on the website of the same name, and also writes for a variety of newspapers and magazines.
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