Opinion: Can Oregon Maintain Its Place on the Environmental Leaderboard?

Joan McGuire

The state risks falling behind on legislative action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

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Started under a Republican governor in the late 1960s, Oregon’s environmental legacy includes the Bottle Bill, which protects public access to Oregon’s majestic beaches, and progressive land-use and planning laws, which prevent urban and suburban sprawl.

That legacy became an example to the rest of the nation and showed how it is possible to protect the environment and have a growing economy.

Honoring that legacy is more important than at any other time in Oregon’s history. The consequences of not acting fast enough on climate change are revealing themselves in tragic and economically devastating ways: wildfire seasons that are getting longer and more destructive; species decline; the state’s agricultural sector affected by more frequent drought; and communities, reliant on water or snow-related tourism activities, seeing lower seasonal revenues.

Historically, the West Coast states consider themselves leaders in environmental protection policy, and particularly now when it comes to addressing climate change. Top of mind are two key policies that are commonly known as 100% clean energy and cap and trade.

Both are aimed at reducing and ultimately eliminating greenhouse-gas emissions from various sectors of the economy. The 100% clean proposals are aimed at the electricity utility sector and require by a certain date, usually 2045 or 2050, that a state’s electric utilities no longer generate electricity or supply space and water heating using fossil fuels.

Cap and trade (sometimes referred to as cap and invest) target all the primary GHG-emitting sectors such as utilities, transportation and industry.

Seventeen states, plus the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico, have 100% clean-energy goals or mandates either through legislation or executive orders. Thirteen states participate in cap-and-trade systems. Washington and California have both these types of programs, but Oregon has neither.

It is not for lack of trying. Oregon has tried several times to enact a cap-and-trade program, but the Legislature has not been able to reach compromise to advance legislation.

In March 2020 the governor issued Executive Order 20-04, which calls for greenhouse-gas emissions to be capped at 45% below 1990 levels by 2035 and by at least 80% below those levels by 2050.

While the regulation directs agencies to come up with policies to reduce GHG emissions, there remain questions and limitations on each agency’s jurisdiction to regulate certain sources of emissions. It lacks the comprehensiveness that a carbon-emissions reduction program passed by the Legislature would have and a revenue-generating allowance-trading market, which California and Washington have.

Climate change, greenhouse-gas emissions and fossil-generated electricity are not limited or stopped at state borders. For this reason, consistency in decarbonization policy across the three western coastal states is an imperative.

Oregon’s commitment is key to regional coherence on capping GHG emissions, putting a price on carbon and advancing the build-out of more renewable energy resources, and other initiatives that will boost our efforts to reverse climate change and create jobs.

Many businesses in the sectors targeted by climate-related policies will fight and lobby hard to take the teeth out of them. But I have seen that, ultimately, most of them get it, and they accept the inevitability of what is and what will be required of them.

Policy, regulatory and market certainty are key for businesses to determine what their costs will be. In all West Coast states, these entities have been at the table negotiating, arguing, compromising, taking their hits and seeing some successes.

They are doing the hard work because they have a lot at stake. It is key that legislators stay at the table too, understanding that there is much to be gained by the citizens they represent in all regions of the state: clean-energy jobs; preservation and protection of natural resources upon which rural communities depend; and clean passenger and freight-transportation options that make sense in urban and rural settings.

The Legislature is considering HB2021, a 100% clean-energy bill, and once again stakeholders are negotiating with legislators. It is my hope that the combination of progress and revenues that will be realized by our neighbors to the north and to the south, along with momentum at the federal level, will motivate the Legislature to develop a climate policy bill that can make it to the governor’s desk.

While there does not seem to be an avenue for it to happen this session, I still believe that an economy-wide carbon-trading mechanism is a key piece for state climate policy.

A carbon-trading market would provide a balance of incentive and mandate, target more than just the utility sector, and create a source of state revenue that can be invested in diverse climate-resiliency efforts statewide. It would serve as a complement to emissions regulations already in place and a 100% clean program.

We have ever-increasing opportunities: renewable-energy development; alternative fuels like renewable natural gas and renewable hydrogen; innovations in materials and production processes; and research that will spur investment and job creation.

By further accelerating the inevitable transition to a clean-energy economy and incorporating market mechanisms into policy to do that, Oregon can honor its environmental legacy.

Michelle Detwiler is executive director of the Renewable Hydrogen Alliance.


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