Carbondale eyes bold move with carbon tax

Scott Condon
The Aspen Times
Solar panels catch the rays outside a Carbondale building. The town placed a carbon tax on the April ballot to support future renewable energy and efficiency efforts, but the measure failed when voting concluded on Tuesday.
Aspen Times |


A full list of pro and con statements included on the ballot can be found on the town of Carbondale website,, then clicking on the link for “Tabor Ballot Issue Notice.”

Carbondale is looking at the first comprehensive carbon tax in the Roaring Fork Valley and what’s believed to be only the second one of its kind in the country.

The town will ask voters in the April 5 election to approve a “climate action excise tax” on electricity and natural gas used by residences and businesses.

The tax is being proposed at a rate where the average homeowner would pay $5 to $7 more per month. The average business would pay between $10 and $30 more per month, according to a committee supporting the proposal.

Only Boulder has a similar program. Arcata, California, and Washington, D.C., have variations, according to Mona Newton, executive director of the Roaring Fork Valley’s nonprofit Community Office for Resource Efficiency.

The nonprofit helped enact what was probably the first quasi-carbon tax in the country. Randy Udall helped design a program where new and remodeled homes in Aspen and Pitkin County that exceed an energy budget must either pay cash to mitigate consumption of fossil fuels or offset them on site with renewable energy sources or conservation. The program raises roughly $1 million per year, which is dedicated to energy-efficiency programs.

“Won’t kill commerce”

Carbondale’s proposed carbon tax “is actually a step beyond” the Community Office for Resource Efficiency’s program, said Auden Schendler, vice president of sustainability for Aspen Skiing Co. All consumers would be taxed, not just those exceeding a specific energy budget, he noted.

Schendler believes if the tax is passed in Carbondale, it will be attempted in other towns and cities. The key, he said, is that the fee isn’t high enough to hurt homeowners or businesses but is high enough to raise a worthwhile amount of money for efficiency projects.

The resistance to a carbon tax in the United States has generally been people say it’s bad for business and hard on households.

“This is a carbon tax, but it’s not going to kill commerce,” Schendler said. “It’s a huge statement.”

The carbon tax would raise an estimated $352,000 in 2016. It would sunset after six years, in 2022. If successful, proponents have said they will seek renewal.

The revenue would be dedicated to renewable-energy and energy-efficiency programs. Proponents aim to improve efficiency in 400 homes and 50 businesses from 2016 through 2022 by providing incentives, free installs and technical assistance.

They also want to add 1 megawatt of solar power to the grid, more than doubling Carbondale’s current capacity of solar power. Solar systems would be added to 200 houses by providing financial assistance to residents and pursuing bulk purchases.

Another potential use is promotion of electric-vehicle use.

Time to “tinker”

Carbondale town government set a goal in 2009 to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions by 20 percent by 2020 and to generate 35 percent of the town’s electricity from renewable sources by the same year. The town is spending money from its general fund to try to reach that goal. The carbon tax would become the revenue source and free up general funds for other purposes, said former Carbondale Mayor Michael Hassig, treasurer of the committee seeking approval of the ballot measure.

“We want clean-energy efforts to stand on their own,” said Dan Richardson, a proponent of the ballot measure and a longtime proponent of renewable energy and energy efficiency.

Hassig supports the proposal because the tax depends entirely on consumption. Households and businesses have an incentive to lower their fossil fuel bills.

In the big picture, it’s a way for the individuals and the town to do their part to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions and combat climate change, Hassig said. It’s acting locally on a global issue.

“At some point you have to reach in and tinker,” he said.

Tax opponents emerge

Richardson said passage of the measure would further cement Carbondale’s role as a leader in renewable energy. He said he could think of 17 clean-energy businesses operating in the town already. This would be an example of a local government stepping in to incubate the industry further.

Newton said Carbondale’s vote could inspire further action.

“There are a lot of communities looking at this,” she said of the “climate action tax” approach. It might be something other towns in the Roaring Fork Valley, including Aspen, want to consider, she said.

Newton believes passage makes a bold statement: “This is what we want to do to help the climate.”

“It’s a great example for any community to follow,” Newton said.

First it must earn approval from Carbondale. Opponents put a lengthy list of reasons to vote “no” on the ballot, just as proponents put on reasons to support it. Opponents claimed it is a regressive tax that places more of a burden on low-income households. It also hit businesses and industry harder, since they require higher energy consumption.

Foes also ask if a local tax will make any difference with global warming.