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It’s Getting Hot In Here: With State Legislative Session on Horizon, A Chance To Curb Emissions

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So far, Oregon’s efforts to curb harmful emissions has been, well, a lot of hot air. The state legislature started making plans a decade ago to lower greenhouse gases—and slow global warming. However, those plans were largely wishes and prayers, and not concrete plans.

In the ensuing decade, emissions have not waived, in spite of the Prius and wind power.

This coming legislative session, some concerned citizens and lawmakers are hoping to put bite where their bark is, with the introduction of the Clean Energy Jobs Bill.

Alan Journet is a co-facilitator for Southern Oregon Climate Action Now. He took time to try to explain the how and why to the Messenger.

RVM: The bill is called the Clean Energy Jobs Bill, but how does it relate to jobs? It seems like it relates to emissions caps and raising funds?

AJ: A little history: In 2007, the Oregon Legislature passed HB3543 which established statewide goals for greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions: by 2020 10 percent below 1990 levels, and by 2050, 75 percent below 1990 levels.

The evidence from Department of Environmental Quality assessment of the state’s greenhouse gas emissions indicate that we are not on a trajectory to achieve the 2007 targets; Oregon transportation, industry and utilities have not stepped up to reduce emissions sufficiently. The result is that voluntary measures have failed.

Since 2013 a coalition of concerned climate and environmental groups across the state have been encouraging the legislature to take this matter seriously and pass meaningful greenhouse gas emissions (climate pollution) reduction legislation. While the legislature has approved studies of the issue and bills addressing components of the problem, no legislation addressing the major sectors of the economy responsible for the overall problem has been successful.

As a result, during 2016, the statewide coalition started meeting in consort with representatives of the social/environmental justice community and labor to develop a bill that would meet the concerns of these communities while addressing the greenhouse gas emissions reduction goal.  Many of the critical elements of the bill can be seen to address social justice and labor concerns. The target entities are entities that emit over 25,000 Metric Tons of greenhouse gases (measured in terms of their carbon dioxide equivalent). These are generally entities that participate in the energy economy upstream (near the source where energy enters the economy—utilities and fuel processors for example). These polluters are required to buy, at auction, allowances that will permit them to emit (one allowance permits 1 ton of emissions). If polluters exceed their allowances, the penalty is that they are required to purchase four allowances for each unit in excess. If polluters do not use all their allowances, they can trade these allowances on the open market with other entities needing more allowances. Since entities that switch to renewable sources do not require so many pollution allowances, this mechanism should encourage polluters to switch away from fossil fuels to renewables.

RVM: It seems like this might just result in utility companies increasing their rates to pay for the extra expense?

AJ: Since low income Oregonians are likely to be most detrimentally affected by rising utility prices, the program includes the following provision: some allowances will be awarded to utilities that will be returned to the auction go generate funds that the utility will then use to subsidize the utility bills of low income Oregonians. The utilities must still, however, buy allowances at auction to cover their pollution emissions.

It is estimated that the program will raise about $700 million annually but some of these funds are restricted in their use. Because of Article IX section 3a of the Oregon Constitution, any funds raised from vehicle propulsion fuel must go to roads. The remaining funds can then be assigned as desired.

While the primary objective of the proposal is to cap greenhouse gas emissions, the language of the bill has been developed to recognize that addressing greenhouse gas emissions by discouraging fossil fuels and encouraging renewable energy has consequences for some segments of the Oregon society. First: it is inevitable that among the labor community, there will be some workers who are destined to suffer as we switch from fossil fuel to renewables. The purpose of the items in the bill that allocate (a) 40 percent of the 85 percent that goes to Oregon Climate Investment Fund to economically distressed communities (defined by Oregon Business Development Department) to promote job creation / retraining, and (b) 15 percent of that Oregon Climate Investment Fund to a “Just Transition Fund” to support communities adversely affected by GHG reduction programs, is precisely to redress problems generated by the energy transition that the bill is designed to encourage.  

For rural Oregon (i.e. Jackson and Josephine Counties and eastern Oregon), the bill offers a win-win proposal. On the one hand, we can contribute to reduction of global greenhouse gas emissions that are inducing the global warming and climate change that is threatening our regions. Meanwhile, on the other, we can benefit from the economic development that funds targeting economically disadvantaged communities offer.  

RVM: Who is sponsoring the bill?

AJ: The prime champions are Ken Helm (Chair, House energy and Environment Committee) and Michael Dembrow (Chair, Senate Environment and Natural Resources Committee).  

RVM: Is this modeled on a bill from another state?

AJ: The primary model for the bill is California’s Cap and Trade program (AB32 which has been joined by the Canadian Provinces of Ontario, Quebec and Manitoba), though the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI; encompassing Connecticut, Delaware, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York, Rhode Island, and Vermont) has a similar program. However, the component that encourages full life cycle assessment makes this proposal a stronger effort than the California and RGGI programs. Many aspects of the bill are worded such that, if enacted, Oregon could become part of the California program, at considerable administrative cost savings.

RVM: Why not work for a federal law or program?

AJ: Indeed, it is appropriate to work for federal action. However, it is abundantly clear that federal action will not be forthcoming soon. The repeated rejection of science by the White House and Congressional Leadership in favor of anti-science assertions places greater onus on the states to step up their commitment and act.  

RVM: What is the biggest threat for greenhouse gases—and is this bill the most efficient way to address those? 

AJ: Locally, the greatest problems we face from the climate change that greenhouse gas-induced global warming are: warming accompanied by serious heat waves, droughts, floods, and other severe weather events; reducing snowpack and early snowmelt that add to the drying conditions increasing wildfire risk; diminishing late summer and fall irrigation water compromising agricultural production; and the reduced summer/fall river flow that threatens salmon migrations, successful spawning, and recruitment.  Accompanying these are the increased health threats of diminished air quality due to fires and water and vector-borne diseases.

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