SALEM — Democrats in the Oregon House passed low-carbon fuel standard legislation on a nearly party line vote Wednesday, March 4, after a lengthy and contentious discussion of whether the cost to consumers will outweigh environmental and health benefits.

The bill is headed to Gov. Kate Brown, who has not said whether she will sign it. However, Brown’s comments during a recent press conference suggested she supports the fuel standard.

Senate Bill 324 would make permanent the fuel standard set out in a 2009 bill. The Oregon Department of Environmental Quality spent several years writing rules to implement it, but the existing law is set to sunset this year before the agency can implement the regulations.

Rep. Jessica Vega Pederson, D-Portland, said in a floor speech that a survey recently commissioned by the Portland Tribune showed a “wide majority of Oregonians believe that the state should be doing more to limit greenhouse gas emissions.” Vega Pederson said a majority of respondents also wanted the state to do more to make alternative fuels available.

“Colleagues, the clean fuels program allows us to move closer to both those goals,” said Vega Pederson, the floor manager for the bill.

Lawmakers spent approximately five hours Wednesday debating the bill, as Republicans tried various maneuvers to sidetrack it. House Republican Leader Rep. Mike McLane, R-Powell Butte, attempted unsuccessfully to get the House to indefinitely postpone a vote on the bill until investigations of former Gov. John Kitzhaber and first lady Cylvia Hayes are complete.

The U.S. Department of Justice launched a criminal investigation of the couple, after news reports showed Hayes’ green energy consulting business overlapped her role as an unpaid energy and environmental policy adviser to the governor.

“We need to know who influenced who, and was that influence improper or illegal,” McLane said. “Why does this vote need to be postponed? Because we have a criminal investigation ongoing in Oregon.”

McLane also questioned why Democrats were pressing ahead with the low-carbon fuel standard, after the federal and state investigations of Hayes and Kitzhaber prompted House Speaker Tina Kotek, D-Portland, and Sen. President Peter Courtney, D-Salem, to ask the governor to resign.

“If it was drastic enough to have (Kitzhaber) resign, should we not pause?” McLane said.

That argument did not sway most House Democrats who have a 35-25 majority in the House, although four members of the caucus crossed over to join Republicans in voting against the bill.

The Democrats who voted “no” were Rep. Jeff Barker, D-Aloha, Rep. Caddy McKeown, D-Coos Bay, Rep. Deborah Boone of Cannon Beach and Rep. Brad Witt, D-Clatskanie. Witt said many bills unite Democrats and Republicans.

“A notable few are so discordant that they give rise to the two Oregons, one urban and one rural,” Witt said. “Senate Bill 324 is one such divisive bill.”

Witt and other lawmakers from rural areas said they were concerned the fuel standard will make gas more expensive and prove costly for their constituents who have long commutes. The Oregon Department of Environmental Quality has projected the fuel standard could raise gas prices by 4 to 19 cents per gallon by the end of the 10-year implementation period.

The Oregon Environmental Quality Commission voted in January to adopt regulations based on the 2009 bill that will require fuel importers and producers to reduce the carbon content of transportation fuels by 10 percent during the next decade, starting in January 2016.

Fuel importers and producers have at least two options to meet the standard: blend more low-carbon ethanol and biodiesel into transportation fuels, or by purchase carbon credits. The Oregon Department of Environmental Quality plans to set up a system for entities such as electric vehicle charging stations to generate carbon credits.

The DEQ expects the fuel standard will reduce greenhouse gas emissions in Oregon by a total of 7.3 million tons during the next decade. In 2010, the latest year for which DEQ has data, vehicles in Oregon emitted 22.6 million tons of carbon dioxide. That means the average emissions decrease anticipated from the low-carbon fuels program would have translated to a 3 percent reduction in 2010.

The state Senate passed SB 324 last month on a nearly party line vote of 17-13. Sen. Betsy Johnson, D-Scappoose, was the lone Democrat to vote “no.” Republicans in the Senate had asked Democrats to put the bill on hold indefinitely or refer it to voters, and they also attempted to tie it to Kitzhaber and Hayes. Kitzhaber resigned Feb. 18. Hayes was a paid consultant for groups that worked to organize support for the fuel standard, and a federal subpoena the U.S. Justice Department served on the state last month ordered agencies to provide a long list of records related to Hayes’ consulting, including any that deal with the low-carbon fuel standard.

Hillary Borrud is a reporter with the Pamplin Media Group/EO Media Group Capital Bureau in Salem.