Our Opinion: Go slow on cap, trade legislation
To do its part to slow global warming, Oregon will end up with some sort of price on carbon emissions. That's an inescapable conclusion.
What's unresolved is how quickly the state should move to a cap-and-trade mandate for carbon, and how thoroughly the law will be vetted by those who must pay the price.
Environmentalists, progressive business groups and key Democratic lawmakers are pushing hard to pass a law in the short session of the Legislature that begins Feb. 5.
However, after meeting with supporters of the bills as well as representatives of Oregon's utilities and agricultural interests, the Pamplin Media Group editorial board has concluded that legislators need to take a pause. Cap-and-trade legislation should become a top priority for 2019, not this year.
The most compelling reason to wait is to keep faith with Oregon voters, who agreed in 2010 to allow the Legislature to meet every year. When voters approved the move from biennial to annual sessions, they were promised that the abbreviated, 35-day sessions — the ones held in even-numbered years — would be for budget tweaks or to deal with urgent matters that arise between the regular six-month sessions held in odd-numbered years.
In other words, short sessions are not designed for big, complicated policy questions requiring a great deal of study and public input.
The cap-and-trade bills — one in the House and one in the Senate — are nothing if not big and complicated. It's true they've been talked about for several years, but the specifics of these proposals haven't been subjected to rigorous public hearings in the Legislature, and the entities most directly affected — primarily utilities and very large industries — are not fully on board.
Everyone who heats a home, consumes food or uses the transportation system potentially will be affected by placing an extra cost on carbon emissions. But in all likelihood, most Oregonians are only dimly aware of the two bills now being fast-tracked by lawmakers.
Rushing it through now raises the risk of referral and failure.
While meeting with people on both sides of the issue, we've yet to hear anyone deny the reality of climate change or the harm it inflicts, including increased severity of wildfires in Oregon and disruption of the state's farming economy. A cap-and-trade system, already in place in California and parts of the northeastern United States, Canada and Europe, is viewed by many experts as the best market-based tool for reducing greenhouse gases.
Under cap-and-trade, utilities or other large carbon users must stay within a certain ceiling — the "cap" — on carbon emissions. If they exceed those limits (in this case, 25,000 metric tons a year), they have to pay a penalty. Companies that remain under the caps can sell their excess capacity — the "trade" — to others. The idea is to provide an economic incentive for utilities or very large industries to cut their emissions more quickly than they otherwise would.
Supporters of the two bills now in the Legislature concede that a lot of details are unresolved. Those specifics, they say, will come during a three-year rule-making process overseen by state employees. But two of the agencies that would be tasked with this rule-making — the Department of Environmental Quality and the Oregon Department of Transportation — are at a low point in public confidence right now. The Legislature itself will lose credibility if it rushes this program through and hands it off to agencies not currently equipped to do the job.
A much better idea is to come into 2019 with a bill supported by Oregon's utilities and by the state's top political leaders. That gives supporters a year to fill in more of the details upfront and to tour the state with a concrete proposal in hand.
Meanwhile, the state's utilities will continue their existing efforts to reduce carbon emissions. They've agreed to stop using coal-generated electricity by 2030, and independently they are in a race to develop and adopt greener forms of energy. All of these initiatives will continue in 2018, regardless of whether the Legislature passes a cap-and-trade bill now or a year from now.
Oregonians will respond to the message that cap and trade can be good for the environment and the economy. But they have to understand the issue before they can support it.