When this year's legislative session begins next month, one of the top items on the agenda will be the Clean Energy Jobs bill — Oregon's proposed version of 'cap-and-invest' legislation that would put an upper limit on greenhouse gas emissions and create a market where companies can trade emission allowances while they transition to cleaner infrastructure.
One of the bill's advocates, state Rep. Andrea Salinas, D-Lake Oswego, hosted a public town hall event last week at Lake Oswego's City Hall to brief constituents on the bill and take questions. Some of the three-dozen attendees asked about the cap-and-invest bill, but they also had plenty to say about some of the other challenges facing Oregon as well.
Salinas opened the meeting by urging those in attendance to vote on ballot Measure 101, the health care provider tax that she called "kind of the big elephant in the room right now" because its outcome could largely determine the focus of the upcoming session.
"If that measure does not pass, we don't have a special (back-up) pot of money," she said. "We're going to spend the entire February legislative session talking about cutting budgets."
Salinas also addressed two bills that she plans to move forward in the session, the first of which focuses on protections for K-12 students who are victims of sexual harassment and assault. The legislation is necessary to help create a balance between federal and state laws when it comes to protecting the personal information of minors, she said. The bill is a legacy project that Salinas inherited from her predecessor, former state Rep. Ann Lininger.
The other bill focuses on lowering prescription drug prices in Oregon, she said.
During a Q&A session, Salinas fielded several health care-related questions, as well as queries about gun control and the concept of a state-level "green bank" to supplement cap-and-invest efforts.
Salinas discussed the work that had been done to prepare the Clean Energy Jobs bill, as well as the tight schedule legislators will need to follow in order for the bill to make it through the short session.
"It's going to be a very, very fast process," she said.
She then turned the meeting over to Jana Gastellum, the climate program director at the Oregon Environmental Council, which has been pushing for the cap-and-invest bill. Oregon's greenhouse gas emissions have begun to level out in recent years, Gastellum said, but they're still not going down, which is what needs to happen to prevent further climate change.
"We have never had an accounting mechanism or a way to ensure our pollution goes down," she said. "Right now, climate pollution is free to emit, so we emit way too much of it."
Gastellum stressed that the concept is not unprecedented — other states have similar programs, and Oregon would actually be joining an existing carbon market that includes states like California and some cities in Canada.
During a second Q&A session focused on the bill, many audience members seemed concerned that the proposal wouldn't go far enough. One resident asked if the bill's reduction targets would keep pace with the standards outlined in the Paris Accord, and asked why the bill doesn't push Oregon to pursue more aggressive goals in the short term.
Gastellum replied that some solutions take years to implement and can't be front-loaded, and that the intent of setting a long-range target date — in this case 2050 — is to allow for a smoother transition process that avoids boom-and-bust cycles.
Another audience member asked if the state could also consider a direct carbon tax option, with the possibility of sending rebates to Oregonians. Gastellum replied that the two-thirds majority required to raise taxes in Oregon makes a carbon tax more difficult to implement, and a big focus of the proposed bill is to use the revenue to invest in green energy projects. The bill is carefully worded to ensure that the money isn't used for other purposes, she said.
One of the final questions focused on whether the state of Washington has shown interest in taking similar action. Gastellum replied that the state is pursuing carbon taxes, adding that legislators there have shown interest in exploring their own version of cap-and-invest, creating another potential player in the carbon market.
"Oregon won't be doing this alone," she said.
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