The University of Oregon looks like an unlikely candidate to bankroll opposition to Gov. Kate Brown’s efforts to control greenhouse gases.
The 23,000-student public university is home to academics studying climate change and its impacts. The school’s climate plan calls climate change an imminent threat, one requiring fast and effective governmental action. When the United States withdrew from the Paris Agreement, university President Michael Schill pledged the school would be a climate leader.
But along with Oregon Health & Science University, UO is a member of the Alliance of Western Energy Consumers, a group lobbying to kill the governor’s climate change agenda. One of the energy group’s leaders during a recent interview cast doubt on whether greenhouse gases are causing the earth’s temperatures to rise. It’s a position at odds with the findings of scientists worldwide.
OHSU pays the group $21,000 in annual membership dues. UO, which joined the group in November, pays $13,000, records show.
Corporations including Microsoft and Intel are also members. All have taken prominent public stances on the need to act on climate.
Zack Barnett, a University of Oregon spokesman, downplayed the university’s involvement.
“Our relationship with AWEC is purely to aid in projecting costs for natural gas as we navigate price fluctuations in the energy market,” he said. “The political positions of AWEC do not reflect those of the University of Oregon.”
But hundreds of pages of internal documents show that university administrators were aware of the energy group’s opposition to Brown’s climate plan and knew it would be controversial.
The Climate Investigations Center, a fossil fuel industry watchdog, obtained the records from the universities through public records requests.
When University of Oregon officials released the records, they deleted references to the group’s opposition, asserting attorney-client privilege. But OHSU provided some of the same documents without redactions.
In them, the energy alliance lists Oregon’s emerging cap-and-trade bill as “a major threat.” When the bill was delayed in 2018, the alliance called it a political victory, the records show.
Correspondence between UO officials and the energy alliance shows the university was concerned about how its membership would appear.
In a January email, the University of Oregon’s utility manager, Tony Hardenbrook, said he wanted to be sure the university’s name wasn’t included in any position statements about legislation, citing “internal strife” over the school’s membership.
“Given our status as a quasi-state entity and funding from the State of Oregon, there were concerns with the optics of our membership,” Hardenbrook wrote. “This is most acute with Oregon legislation. We would like to pursue a membership that does not put UO at odds with the elected officials in Salem.”
John Carr, a former PacifiCorp executive who leads the alliance, assured Hardenbrook the university wouldn’t be identified in lobbying materials. “You’re a valued member of AWEC,” Carr told Hardenbrook.
Hardenbrook said he was happy to discuss the school’s participation in the alliance. He said he first needed authorization from university public relations officials. “I have nothing to hide,” Hardenbrook said.
The university refused to allow Hardenbrook to be interviewed.
The Alliance of Western Energy Consumers was formed in 2018 after a merger between the Industrial Customers of Northwest Utilities and the Northwest Industrial Gas Users.
Ed Finklea, the group’s natural gas director, said the group’s primary focus is ratepayer advocacy before public utility commissions, the state agencies that decide how much utilities can charge their customers.
Energy-intensive businesses, including paper mills and large factories, are members because of the group’s advocacy with regulators deciding gas and electric rates, he said. “We’re skilled at keeping them down,” Finklea said. “That’s why people join our group.”
He said the “carbon fight we’re in the midst of and lobbying in general is not our mission as a group.”
Nonetheless, the energy customers’ alliance has made itself a major voice on the issue recently.
It has lobbied at least one Oregon newspaper’s editorial board, celebrating a resulting editorial in the Eugene Register-Guard critical of the effects of the cap-and-trade bill on businesses.
When the group meets jointly with the Northwest Gas Association next month for its annual conference, its keynote speaker will be Alex Epstein, a self-described industry “persuasion consultant” who proposes to combat what he calls “mild” climate change by burning more fossil fuels.
Epstein’s views put him in the position of denying scientific findings about the forces reshaping a planet now regularly experiencing its warmest years on record.
Epstein has lauded President Donald Trump’s appointment of former U.S. Environmental Protection Agency director Scott Pruitt, widely reviled by environmental advocates for his efforts to gut clean air and water regulations, as “great for industrial progress and human flourishing.”
Finklea said Epstein was invited to speak because “he’s a thought leader.”
He said the group wanted “a provocative speaker who’d make a stink, not someone to tell us this isn’t happening. We’re well aware of the environmental impacts of energy.”
But Finklea questioned those impacts. Of the record levels of carbon dioxide in Earth’s atmosphere and the 1 degree Celsius of warming documented since the 19th century, Finklea said: “They correlate. Whether the one caused the other, we don’t know.”
Scientists unequivocally say human activity is driving the global increase in temperatures.
Brendan Adamczyk, a University of Oregon junior who is co-director of the Climate Justice League, a campus advocacy group, said he was stunned to learn his university was financially supporting a group opposing state climate bills.
“If they’re still giving money to them, they can’t control where it goes,” Adamczyk said. “Hearing they’re working against state initiatives, consciously or unconsciously, they should not be funding that group.”
The group’s top legislative priorities in Oregon include opposing bills that would:
• Change the existing Oregon Global Warming Commission to the “Oregon Climate Change Commission” with a budget of $1 million from the state’s general fund. The commission tracks greenhouse gas emissions and Oregon’s progress reducing them.
• Require the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality to create a program to monitor the impacts of the state’s greenhouse gas regulation.
• Create the Oregon Climate Authority. Brown proposed giving the standalone agency responsibility for overseeing the cap-and-trade bill’s implementation.
Finklea said his organization opposes those bills because it doesn’t “think that regulatory solutions are going to be as effective as incentivizing or innovating.”
A spokeswoman for Brown said the governor “has sought out and solicited feedback from around the state on House Bill 2020” — the cap-and-trade bill — “and understood that the universities did not have a position on the bill.”
A 2017 Intel policy calls for the company to influence the development of sound public policies to address climate change. Linda Qian, an Intel spokeswoman, said it would be “impractical and unrealistic to expect that our company, stockholders and stakeholders will agree with every issue that a politician or trade association may support.”
Like the University of Oregon, OHSU and Microsoft said they’re members of the energy consumers’ alliance because of its expertise with utility rates. All distanced themselves from the group’s position on climate legislation.
An OHSU spokeswoman said the school has not taken a position on the cap-and-trade bill and “relies on AWEC to provide analysis of rate impacts of energy regulation so that we can plan for future utility costs.”
Microsoft said the alliance doesn’t speak for the Washington state tech giant on the issue of cap and trade. “We belong to a number of industry and business organizations and rarely agree on all positions taken,” said Lucas Joppa, Microsoft’s chief environmental officer. “This is one example, as Microsoft is not opposing the Oregon Legislature’s climate-change related initiatives.”
Microsoft came under shareholder pressure to abandon its participation in another organization, the conservative American Legislative Exchange Council, a national group that pushed bills to reverse states’ renewable energy goals.
The company left ALEC in 2014.