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Environmentalists call for a Mass. carbon tax

A group of environmentalists plans to ask voters to make Massachusetts the first state in the nation to adopt a so-called carbon tax by imposing new levies on gasoline, heating oil, and other fossil fuels based on the amount of carbon dioxide they produce.

The group, which has registered with the state as a political committee, is launching a campaign to place the issue on the ballot for the 2014 state elections. If approved, such a tax would add several cents to the price per gallon of gas and could generate as much as $2.5 billion in revenue a year, according to an economic analysis that was done for the group, the Committee for a Green Economy.

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The goal is to combat climate change by reducing consumption of fossil fuels and the carbon dioxide they produce when burned in cars, trucks, and heating systems. Increasing levels of carbon dioxide are accelerating climate change and the chances of environmental disaster, scientists say.

“There is grass-roots support for taking this kind of action,” said Gary Rucinski, of Newton, a cofounder and chairman of the group.

But the effort will almost certainly attract opposition from antitax groups and businesses not eager to contend with higher taxes and energy costs. Some note that Massachusetts already participates in the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, a program among Northeastern states to cut carbon dioxide emissions by requiring power plants to pay an allowance for every ton they produce.

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“Massachusetts is already committed to reducing carbon,” said Robert Rio, senior vice president at Associated Industries of Massachusetts, a trade group. “Raising the cost of living or the cost of doing business just to make a statement would seem counterproductive.”

No state has adopted a carbon tax, but several jurisdictions in foreign nations have put a price on carbon emissions, including the Canadian province of British Columbia. There, the tax has added roughly 25 cents to a gallon of gasoline.

Climate change, which faded as an issue during the economic crisis, is gaining new attention, in part due to the increasing frequency of destructive storms, such as Hurricane Sandy last fall. President Obama has made climate change a focus of his second administration and is expected on Tuesday to detail a plan to combat it, according to a video posted over the weekend on the White House website.

Using carbon taxes to discourage consumption of fossil fuels and fund measures, such as transit improvements, that reduce pollution has been discussed for years, but there has been no headway in Congress or legislatures. In Massachusetts, carbon tax legislation was filed in January, but has languished.

This lack of progress prompted the Committee for a Green Economy to launch its ballot measure campaign, said Rucinski, also Northeast regional coordinator for Citizens Climate Lobby, an advocacy group based in California. The Committee is drafting language for the proposed law, which must be submitted in an initial petition to the attorney general by August.

Then begins a quest to gather the tens of thousands of signatures needed to put the issue before voters. The committee declined to say how much money it has raised.

The Committee for a Green Economy hired a consulting firm, Regional Economic Models Inc., to analyze the economic effects of a carbon tax here. The study’s findings, to be released Wednesday, show that taxing consumers on every unit of fossil fuel they use could boost the state’s economic activity by as much as $8 billion over the next two decades, by using the revenues to lower income, sales, and corporate taxes.

The study was modeled, in part, on a bill filed in the Legislature by Representative Thomas P. Conroy, a Wayland Democrat, and Senator Michael Barrett, Democrat of Lexington.

In addition to lowering income and corporate taxes, the bill would set aside $100 million annually from carbon tax revenues to fund transportation improvements, limit increases in public transit fares, or pay down transit-related debt.

The Committee for a Green Economy’s consultant analyzed a similar but slightly different proposal to tax fuels based on the amount of carbon dioxide they produce. For instance, Rucinski said, a tax of $45 per metric ton of emissions could hypothetically add 45 cents to the price of a gallon of gas.

“We experience 45 cent swings in a gallon of gas all the time,” Rucinski said. “Phased in over several years, it doesn’t seem like it would be a daunting prospect.”

Skeptics say a carbon tax would make it harder for Massachusetts businesses to compete with companies in other states where no such tax exists. Even some environmentalists, preferring federal to state-by-state approaches, wonder if it would have much impact on lowering overall greenhouse gas levels.

“We are strongly in favor of having a price on carbon and having a market signal that greenhouse gases need to come down over time,” said Peter Rothstein, president of the New England Clean Energy Council, but “is doing a carbon tax at a single state level going to be most beneficial to the state and to dealing with climate change?”

The state has set goals to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 80 percent from 1990 levels by 2050, buy it hasn’t yet implemented all regulations required by the law, said Susan Reid, Massachusetts director of the nonprofit Conservation Law Foundation, an environmental advocacy group in Boston. She said a carbon tax could be an important part of measures to reduce greenhouse gas emissions the state — but leaders first need to finish the job they’ve started.

“Addressing climate change is an all-hands-on-deck scenario,” Reid said, “so any options can and should be on the table and any well-designed proposals need to be taken seriously.”

Erin Ailworth can be reached at eailworth@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @ailworth.
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