Oregon now has a plan to reduce greenhouse gases, which contribute to climate change, with targets of 50% by 2035 and 90% by 2050.
The Environmental Quality Commission approved the plan on a 4-1 vote Thursday, Dec. 16, more than 18 months after Gov. Kate Brown ordered state agencies to come up with one. She issued her order after Republican walkouts in 2019 and 2020 thwarted Democratic majorities from voting on related legislation. Democrats were left without the required numbers to conduct business and were unable to proceed.
The plan combines traditional regulation of 13 large stationary sources, such as manufacturing plants, with a system of credits that suppliers of gasoline, diesel and other fossil fuels can spend on projects to reduce greenhouse gases — particularly in low-income and minority neighborhoods and rural areas that face greater negative environmental effects. These are known as "community climate investments," although polluting companies can use them to fulfill only part of their obligations to reduce greenhouse gases.
It's unlike the cap-and-trade systems that California and Washington are using for industries to cap their emissions and either curb them or offset them by other means. Lacking legislation, Oregon could not follow suit, and the Department of Environmental Quality staff had to take a different course.
"There is no other program quite like this one," DEQ program manager Colin McConnaha said.
Chairwoman Kathleen George, who leads the commission that sets policies for the agency, said the plan had two goals.
"This is a historic opportunity for Oregon to create a resilient economy that decreases its reliance on fossil fuels," George, a council member of the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde, said during the four-hour meeting.
"It's going to provide significant opportunity for new jobs and economic development right here in Oregon. The more we are creating those clean fuels in Oregon, there are multiple benefits."
An analysis commissioned by DEQ says the plan would cut a cumulative total of 309 million metric tons of pollutants — carbon dioxide, methane and other gases — by 2050. According to the analysis, the plan also would create a net 14,100 jobs and add $1.35 billion to Oregon's gross domestic product annually by 2050, return $820 million annually in savings from lower fuel and utility costs, and avert $2 billion cumulatively in adverse health effects.
But the lone dissenter, Greg Addington, questioned that analysis.
Addington returned to the commission in November after being off it for a year. He is the executive director of REAL (Resource Education and Agricultural Leadership) Oregon and a former executive director of the Klamath Water Users Association and associate director of the Oregon Farm Bureau Federation. His most recent job in the 2021 legislative session was as chief of staff to Rep. Vikki Breese-Iverson of Prineville, who just became House Republican leader.
Addington had planned to propose carbon sequestration, which involves the capture of greenhouse gases before they get into the atmosphere, as an alternative within the plan.
"I think we are squandering an opportunity to send a positive message to the three-quarters of the state that isn't there," he said referring to rural resistance to any carbon-reduction plan.
But the other new member of the EQC, Amy Schlusser of the Green Energy Institute at Lewis & Clark College law school, said she questioned whether sequestration should be attached to any plan without a more complete discussion.
DEQ Director Richard Whitman said the matter will be brought back for a presentation early next year after consultation with others, including the two federal agencies that oversee the 52% of the state in public ownership.
Sam Baraso, also an EQC member who works for the Portland Clean Energy Fund, said the agency staff and a large number of participants from the public, industry and environmental advocacy groups achieved a miracle in the past 20 months.
"I am shocked we have gotten to this point," he said.
The commission adopted the plan in the form of agency rules, which can be appealed to the Oregon Court of Appeals, but only on narrow grounds.
When Brown issued her executive order in 2020, she set the same reduction targets — 45% by 2035 and 80% by 2050, based on 1990 levels — as the proposed legislation that failed to advance in 2019 and 2020. An early draft of the plan also proposed the same targets.
But the plan finally adopted set greater targets based on current (2017-19) levels. They are more on a par with California and Washington, which have 100% goals, though theirs are based on 1990 levels.
DEQ director Whitman said one impetus for deeper reductions was an Aug. 9 report by the International Panel on Climate Change, which advises the United Nations. The report said the world will risk worsening effects if average global temperatures warm by more than 1.5 degrees Celsius by the end of the decade.
"It does go beyond what Gov. Brown asked us to do in her executive order," Whitman said. "The fundamental reason for that is the science that is coming out about the importance of moving faster."
EQC Chair George said there was another reason for the deeper reductions.
"We heard loudly and clearly from a majority of responders that they wanted to see these assertive goals because of the urgency for climate protection," she said.
Critics of the plan include Oregon's three natural-gas utilities and some business and agricultural groups, which have raised questions about the availability and reliability of alternatives to fossil fuels.
The plan does require DEQ to monitor fuel prices — and if Oregon prices exceed the average of Washington, Nevada and Idaho by more than 20% in any given year, it empowers the EQC to make changes.
Whitman said in addition to the EQC plan, Oregon has other measures in place that will help reduce greenhouse-gas emissions. Among them is 2021 legislation supported by Portland General Electric and Pacific Power, which serve 70% of Oregon customers, to require them to rely on carbon-free power after 2040 — putting Oregon five years ahead of California and Washington. They will submit plans to the Public Utility Commission.
Other steps include clean-truck rules that the EQC approved in November, standards for carbon-reduced fuel under 2015 legislation, electric-vehicle rebates under 2017 legislation, and energy-efficiency standards for appliances and buildings, some of which were upgraded this year.
"That actually makes the pathway to getting to this level of reductions in greenhouse gas emissions easier than it was 18 months ago," Whitman said. "This is not a program that operates in isolation."
What advocates say
Though environmental advocates supported the plan, some groups said it omitted controls for gases generated by gas-fired plants that export power from Oregon.
"In the coming year, we hope DEQ and other state agencies can work together to ensure Oregon doesn't become a dumping ground for virtually unregulated private and exported power projects," said Erin Saylor, staff attorney at Columbia Riverkeeper.
Others said the plan does too little to regulate pollutants from stationary sources other than the 13 envisioned in the plan. They said the burden of pollution is disproportionately borne by some communities.
"Communities of color statewide are exposed to higher levels of pollution than average, which contributes to health disparities," said Nikita Daryanani, climate and energy policy manager at the Coalition of Communities of Color, which was represented on the DEQ rulemaking advisory committee. "We will be watching the program as it is implemented to ensure that pollution is reduced in frontline communities with the urgency the climate crisis requires."
Advocates in the Renew Oregon coalition agreed with the criticisms, but said the plan is a milestone.
"In adopting the plan, Oregon has set the path to help meet our climate goals and spur job growth and technological innovation, improve community health, and create cleaner, cheaper, healthier energy and transportation options," said Nora Apter, climate program director for the Oregon Environmental Council. "Today is a day to celebrate much-needed progress in the fight for a healthy climate future."
Don Sampson represented Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians on the DEQ rule making advisory committee. He said the plan opens the way for badly needed spending on climate-related projects.
"Oregon's tribes will continue to work with the state government and nonprofits who will oversee community climate investments from this program to make sure tribal communities, who are on the front lines of climate change, will receive project funds to reduce pollution and help build our resilience to climate impacts like extreme heat and wildfire," Sampson said.
Doug Moore is the executive director of the Oregon League of Conservation Voters, the political committee that backs environmental causes.
"Gov. Brown has overseen an unprecedented era of climate protection progress in the Legislature and through her executive action," he said. "Recognizing there's still a lot of progress to make, today we see the results of electing climate and environmental justice champions."
NOTE: Updated version adds quotes from several groups, additional background. Corrects error in deck head on 2035 percentage. Corrects spelling of Rep. Khanh Pham, D-Portland, in photo caption.