Fresh off of expanding their legislative majority in Oregon, Democrats in the state ravaged by wildfires have put forward sweeping climate legislation.
The 2018 election not only replaced Republican administrations in swing states like Michigan and Wisconsin with Democratic governors eager to address climate change through executive action. The blue wave also made blue states like Oregon even bluer.
That has put Democrats in the relatively sparsely populated state — whose climate-warming emissions are dwarfed by neighboring California — in an even better position to pass climate legislation.
“Oregon is a really small state and our relative global impact in terms of carbon emission is relatively small,” Gov. Kate Brown (D), who won reelection in 2018, said in a recent interview. “But I think it's critically important that a state like Oregon lead and pave the path for other states across the country to follow.”
The goal indeed is ambitious: To drive greenhouse gas emissions down 80 percent below 1990 levels by the middle of the century.
But lawmakers think the method they are turning to is tried-and-true: The legislation calls for the state to create a cap-and-trade system similar to the one used in California.
Under the cap-and-trade scheme put forward by Oregon Democrats in January, polluters buy credits for how much carbon dioxide and other warming gases they can emit every year. Economists generally like such trading systems for their ability to drive down emissions in a cost-effective way.
But for opponents to the plan, however, the whole project begs the question: How much of an impact can a state like Oregon really have on a global problem like global warming?
“We’re a state of 4 million people,” said State Sen. Herman Baertschiger Jr., who is the Republican leader of the state’s upper chamber. “So at the end of the day, you're not going to be able to measure how much carbon we're really putting into the air, it’s so small."
“And it's going to be at a great cost to the citizens of Oregon,” he added.
Yet for proponents of a cap-and-trade scheme, it is not just about reducing Oregon’s impact. It is also about setting a nationwide example.
“Most people in the country don't know how to pronounce Oregon and sort of know that we're somewhere near Idaho,” said State Rep. Karin Power (D), who is co-chair of the bicameral committee on climate legislation in the Oregon State Legislature. “But having a normal state like Oregon find a way to adopt policies to combat climate change will make it a mainstream thing that we can get back to nationally.”
Republicans, though, are pressing back against the proposal over concerns it will raise prices on businesses and consumers. They also note Oregon already has laws on the books aimed at reducing emissions in the transportation and electricity sectors.
But a spate of wildfires in recent years — thought by scientists to be made more intense by rising temperatures — has motivated many Oregonians to want its state to do more.
During the first eight months of 2018, more than 430,000 acres burned in a state known for its towering forests of Douglas firs and ponderosa pines. At times, the fires sent enough soot aloft to make the air quality as bad as Beijing’s.
Climate change is also having more subtle impacts. When Sam Tannahill started growing grapes in Oregon about a quarter century ago, his team usually started picking them either in the last week of September or the first week of October.
But as temperatures have gone up, that date has moved up to the first week of September. And the warmer weather mean his pinot noir grapes are sweeter. That, in turn, makes for a boozier wine.
“Pinot noir is known for its finesse and elegance,” said Tannahill, founder of A to Z Wineworks, “and we’re not looking for higher alcohol in our wine.”
Tannahill wants a cap-and-trade scheme in Oregon, but not everyone in Oregon's agricultural sector agrees. Some farmers are concerned it will raise fuel prices. Even certain traditional Democratic allies, like some labor unions, are not on board either due to concerns that their employers will move production outside the state.
“The cap-and-trade plan is almost certain to cause a loss of Oregon jobs to states that have weaker environmental regulations and far higher emissions,” Bill Kerr, president of United Steelworkers Local 1097, told lawmakers at a recent hearing. His union represents 600 workers at a pulp-and-paper mill in northwestern Oregon.
Democrats have been careful to craft their bill to win the support of key businesses that may otherwise leave the state, leading some on both the left and right in Oregon to lob accusations of political favoritism.
One exemption concerns fluorinated gases. These greenhouse gases are highly potent, but right now are an unavoidable byproduct for semiconductor manufacturers like Intel, which has a plant west of Portland in an area represented mostly by Democrats. Under the proposed cap-and-trade scheme, emitters of fluorinated gases would not have to pay for releasing them for five years.
Electric utilities like PacifiCorp and Portland General Electric would also get special treatment. They would not have to purchase allowances in the carbon market until 2030. The reasoning there is that the electric utilities are already reducing their carbon emissions under existing laws meant to phase out coal-fired power production.
Without issuing formal endorsements, Intel and the two electric utilities have engaged with lawmakers in Salem and so far appear to be open to the bill. "We are pleased that the bill, as introduced, reflects months of engagement around how to protect Oregon electricity customers," PacifiCorp spokesman Bob Gravely said.
Winning the support of the business community is one reason Oregon lawmakers have avoided trying to levy a tax directly on carbon emissions, as lawmakers to the north in the state of Washington tried to do last year through an unsuccessful ballot initiative. That effort engendered opposition from the oil giant BP, which spent millions of dollars to defeat the proposal.
A cap-and-trade system, instead, gives lawmakers the ability to blunt some the impact on businesses that may otherwise flee Oregon.
"It give certainty to these sectors impacted," Brown said.
Correction: An earlier version of this story referred to State Rep. Karin Power (D) as the co-vice chair of the 2019 Joint Committee On Carbon Reduction. She is the co-chair.
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