Lawmakers and business leaders take on cap and invest proposals

Jason E. Kaplan
Wildfire haze converts sun into glowing pink orb (Portland, August 22)

Carbon reduction strategies take center stage at coastal legislative summmit.

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Oregon legislators generally agree climate change is real and the government needs to combat it. Where Republicans, Democrats and the business community diverge is on the details of the fix.

“The issue isn’t whether it [climate change] is happening,” said Sen. Cliff Bentz, R-Ontario. “It’s what we’re going to do about it.”

Execution is the task of the legislature’s Joint Committee on Carbon Reduction, co-chaired by Senate president Peter Courtney and house speaker Tina Kotek. Committee members —  including Bentz — took the stage along with regulators, policy advisors and economists at a three-day summit in Lincoln City this week.

Yesterday’s discussion focused on carbon reduction plans to be debated during the 2019 Legislative session. A “Cap and Invest”proposal featured prominently, but speakers also considered other carbon pricing schemes. 

The timing was propitious, as signs of a climate gone awry were visible across Oregon. Outside the Chinook Winds Casino, where summit attendees gathered, breakers pummeled rocks along a coastline threatened by acidification and sea level rise. Haze from wildfire smoke blanketed the Portland and Ashland metro areas.

Climate change will lead to more wildfires, floods, droughts and unpredictable weather, scientists at the conference warned.

The Cap and Invest plan failed to pass in the 2018 short session but holds promise for 2019.  Summit leaders talked about how to spend revenue generated by the program, avoid disproportionate burdens on low-income communities and navigate the unique impact on rural areas.

Oregon legislators modeled cap and invest after California’s widely lauded program.

“Under the Trump administration, we can’t count on the federal government to ride to the rescue on this issue,” said Ethan Elkind, director of the climate and business programs at UCLA and a summit speaker. “It’s more important than ever that states form a multi-state coalition.”

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Legislators, economists, scientists and the public gathered at the Coastal Caucus at Chinook Winds Casino.

Elkind said the sunshine state reinvested the “significant revenue stream” from auctioning carbon allowances into programs that further reduce emissions. Those included electric vehicle rebates, low carbon fuel requirements and active transportation infrastructure. The incentive programs, he said, pit the “big utilities against big oil,” using market competition to lower emissions.

Officials stressed that a successful cap and invest program would need to mitigate the impact on low-income families, who pay a higher percentage of their monthly take home pay on utilities and fuel.

“This is where you see a disproportionate burden on all rural communities, but especially the coast,” said state economist Mark McMullen.The remarks hit close to home in Lincoln City. Around 9% of the emissions reduction mandated under cap and invest would have to come from six major employers, mostly paper mills, along the Coast.

Rural Oregon would shoulder those cost burdens while dealing with climate forces beyond what will hit Portland and other metros. Rural economies rely on logging and irrigation, and rural towns face flood risk.

Already fierce conflicts over water rights have intensified in recent years, said Water Resources Department director Tom Byler, as the state records declining water levels. Aging early 20th-century dams, culverts and levies desperately need upgrades. Hydropower, responsible for 40.47% of Oregon’s electricity, could lose some of its strength.

“I’m managing a program built on 19th-century legal principles and 20th-century infrastructure trying to adapt to a 21st-century climate,” Byler said.  

“If we believe other countries and states are going to act,” said Kristen Sheeran. “does Oregon want to be at the beginning or the end of that?”

An increasing number of wildfires worried State Forester Peter Daugherty. 

“We seem to always pay for the disasters that result from climate change,” he said, “but we don’t invest in things to avoid it.”

Along with emissions reductions, policy leaders discussed carbon sequestration strategies. Innovative ideas ranged from placing biodigesters for methane on farms to strewing crushed Serpentinite, a mineral that absorbs carbon dioxide, along beaches.

Despite support for the overall principles, the committee tasked with shaping cap and invest has yet to unify around its goal.

“I’m not quite sure what we’re doing yet,” remarked Rep. Richard Vial, R-Scholls, a member of the joint carbon reduction committee.

Vial said his district includes a large number of middle- and upper-class families who wouldn’t be hit as hard by increased costs of cap and invest, but nevertheless might be reluctant to back the program, fearing it would inhibit growth and innovation.

In an afternoon panel discussion, Vial says he was “suspect of yet another government run program to address a big problem.” Fearing pushback from the state’s large employers, he asked Bentz: “What if we do this wrong and Astro Cement leaves your district in Ontario?”

If legislators pass cap and invest in 2019, Oregon would become the second state to adopt such a program.

“If we believe other countries and states are going to act,” Kristen Sheeran, the governor’s Energy and Climate Change Policy Advisor, told the audience, “does Oregon want to be at the beginning or the end of that?”

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