SALEM — Oregon would join an air pollution “market” stretching from California to Quebec under a plan unveiled Monday at the Capitol.
The Senate and House environment committees held a joint meeting where Democrats touted a carbon “cap-and-invest” program they plan to introduce next year. “We are not on track to meet our global warming goals for 2050,” said Sen. Michael Dembrow, D-Portland.
Oregon would link up with an exchange that includes California and portions of Canada. Oregon and several other states had agreed to join the group in 2007, but the commitment by then-Gov. Ted Kulongoski was never ratified by the Legislature.
“Obviously for a small state like Oregon, it makes sense for us to join a market so we don’t have to reinvent the wheel,” Dembrow said.
Polluters would be assigned a set amount of allowable pollution.
Anything over the limit would incur a fee. The state could receive up to $1.4 billion over a two-year budget cycle from the fees. The “carrot and stick” approach has worked in California and other regions, Dembrow said. .
“Oregon is a bit behind the curve in developing this program,” said Richard Whitman, director of the Department of Environmental Quality.
The lawmakers could take no action Monday. The hearing was part of “interim committee days,” when the Senate and House hear government reports and discuss possible legislation for the future.
The plan would start with the 80 most significant pollution sources. They would be prioritized by their proximity to densely populated areas, poor areas, communities of people of color and those with large numbers of children younger than 5, who are particularly susceptible to airborne toxins. State officials hoped to have the list of the 80 most serious polluters ready by the time the Legislature holds its 35-day short session in February and March.
Some Republicans said they were more worried about carbon from massive wildfires than man-made pollution and argued that time would be better spent on timber management and firefighting issues.
“When they are burning up a half a million acres of Oregon a year, that diminishes the air quality,” said Sen. Herman Baertschiger, R-Grants Pass.
The plan is the key to Gov. Kate Brown’s Cleaner Air Oregon initiative. Rep. Knute Buehler, R-Bend, issued a statement critical of the emphasis on the pollution effort over other issues that could be addressed during the short session next year.
“We should be fixing Oregon’s broken Medicaid system during the 35-day legislative session, not passing a regressive $1.4 billion new energy tax scheme that will hammer working families, small businesses and rural communities particularly hard,” Buehler said. He said the initiative would have “negligible impact on global climate change.”
Even without new incentives, many industries and utilities are moving away from fossil fuels. Portland General Electric Co., which handles 70 percent of the commercial and industrial electricity demand in Oregon, operates the last coal-burning power plant in Oregon, located in Boardman. Originally slated to stay online through 2040, it will shut it down by 2020 because of operating costs and environmental concerns, the utility now says. It’s part of a larger transition for the utility.
“About 15 percent of our generation mix is renewable,” Aaron Milano, a utility spokesman testified. The utility has plans “on the horizon” to get to 50 percent.
As the hearing wound down, the panel heard a presentation from the state Department of Forestry about the over 800 wildfires that have broken out in Oregon this year. Though 96 percent are contained at less than 10 acres, massive blazes have broken out across the state. “This is a very serious problem and yet we threw it at the bottom of the agenda with very little time,” said Rep. David Brock Smith, R-Port Orford
Brock Smith called fire policy “broken.”
“If we want to talk about air quality and we have new research showing how horrible wildfire and the air quality from wildfire is over diesel emissions and so forth, we have a long conversation ahead of us before we start looking at other policy,” Brock Smith said.
Dembrow said he hoped everyone would put their personal agendas aside to look at all the carbon causes — fires and daily pollution. He said because of the fire smoke, more Oregonians know what it is like for residents living near the worst polluters.
Brock Smith said he hoped lawmakers will find ways to mitigate all pollution that is under their control, from diesel fuel to wildfire smoke.
Dembrow, a liberal Democrat, nodded to Brock Smith, a conservative Republican.
“Once again, we agree,” Dembrow said.
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