Environmental advocates warn of pitfalls in state climate plan
As Oregon begins to put together its plan to cap greenhouse gases, environmental advocates say the public needs to weigh in to hold everyone to the eventual goal of 80% reduction from 1990 levels by 2050 — or more.
Gov. Kate Brown issued her executive order almost exactly one year ago, after Republican walkouts in both chambers blocked votes on legislation (House Bill 2020) that would have set that ultimate target and an interim goal of 45% by 2035. Democratic leaders then adjourned the 2020 session.
"This executive order was supposed to take care of big pieces of the legislation, so that is why we did not advocate bringing the bill back this session," Brad Reed, campaign manager for the Renew Oregon coalition, said in an interview. "We really want to focus on this. But it needs to live up to its ambition with the changes we need to see."
Among other things, Brown's order requires the Department of Environmental Quality to write a plan to limit greenhouse gases — principally carbon dioxide, nitrous oxide and methane — and lower the allowable amounts over time. DEQ's policymaking arm, the Environmental Quality Commission, is scheduled to vote on rules by the end of this year.
Many — including Bill Gates, the cofounder with Paul Allen of Microsoft, and author of the newly published "How to Avoid a Climate Disaster" — are urging a goal of net-zero emissions by 2050. Reed said DEQ is on track only toward a plan with the 80% goal by 2050, without the interim goal by 2035 or a more ambitious one by 2050.
"DEQ is not committed even to that level, which we consider a baseline," Reed said. "We need to be more aggressive. We are looking forward to them making commitments."
Oregon's process takes place as the United States prepares to set out its own voluntary targets under the Paris climate accord, which it rejoined when Joe Biden became president in January. Donald Trump withdrew the United States in 2017, but that process was not complete. Only seven nations, Iran and Turkey being the largest, have not ratified the 2015 accord.
Among the other actions contemplated in the Oregon plan are investments in the development of "clean" energy, such as solar and wind power, that do not generate greenhouse gases, and greater energy-efficiency standards for appliances and buildings. A couple of bills to do the latter (House bills 2062 and 2398) were heard Monday, March 1, by the House Energy and Environment Committee.
A revision of Oregon's clean-fuels standard, which started in 2016 and withstood a challenge in a federal appeals court in 2018, also is part of the mix.
But a key component is the cap on greenhouse gas emissions. "It's a complex plan that covers all sectors in theory," Reed said, including power generation, manufacturing, commercial and residential sectors and transportation. The plan will affect the 100 or so largest emitters of greenhouse gases.
According to agency testimony during a House committee meeting in December, however, DEQ is considering exempting from the plan all power plants fired by natural gas. While those plants emit less in greenhouse gases than coal-fired plants — and gas advocates say that's a major selling point — they still generate gases.
Portland General Electric shut down Oregon's only coal-fired power plant on Oct. 15, and it will start dismantling the plant near Boardman next year. PGE still draws electricity from a coal-fired power plant in Colstrip in eastern Montana, where there are coal deposits.
Reed said six gas-fired plants account for about half the greenhouse-gas emissions generated by stationary sources in Oregon — gasoline and diesel are primarily fuels used in transportation — and are the fastest growing source of such gases.
"What we have learned from that meeting is concerning," Reed said. "We see that DEQ is considering exempting the electric power sector entirely."
He said the Legislature could pass a bill requiring regulation, but it would run into opposition similar to that on the broader issue of climate change.
"We all know how much of a roll of the dice that is," he said. "It is within DEQ's power to regulate carbon dioxide, which is a pollutant. We are not sure why that whole sector would be exempt."
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2007 that the federal Environmental Protection Agency can regulate greenhouse gases as pollutants under the Clean Air Act — and the EPA often delegates to states the responsibility for pollution enforcement.
Gas-fired power plants accounted for about a third of Oregon's power production in 2019, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. Hydroelectricity, primarily from federal dams on the Columbia River, and renewable sources such as wind turbines account for 62%.
Reed also said the committee advising DEQ about rulemaking for the plan has too many representatives from fossil fuel and other industries with a stake in the current system, and too few from community or environmental groups, public health agencies or tribes.
Still, he said, his coalition will wait and see what the rulemaking process yields.
"Our focus during the past year has been watchdogging this process," he said.
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