SALEM — A small group of people demonstrated outside the Oregon Capitol to support a walkout by Republican lawmakers over major climate change legislation.
The Capitol was closed Saturday on the recommendation of Oregon State Police, after anti-government groups threatened to join a protest planned inside the building. One of the groups, the Oregon Three Percenters, had joined an armed takeover of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in 2016.
A larger demonstration was expected Sunday.
Republicans fled the Legislature — and some, the state — last week to deny the majority Democrats a quorum for the climate bill, intended to dramatically reduce fossil fuel emissions. Gov. Kate Brown dispatched state police to round up the lawmakers.
What do Republicans hope to gain?
Senate Republicans apparently feel no compunction to provide Democrats with a quorum so they can pass a piece of legislation Republicans contend will be disastrous for their constituents.
The party line is that the state’s complex and controversial carbon cap-and-trade scheme was developed largely without bipartisan compromise. The say it’s a gift to “Multnomah County progressives” who — once again — show no regard for the state’s rural residents or the economically vulnerable industries they continue to rely on.
That’s a bit of an overstatement. It’s true that Democrats have strong-armed the bill through committees and its approval on the House floor. And they’ve ignored Republican amendments that they felt would fundamentally undermine the policy’s effectiveness.
But it’s also true that Democrats have watered down House Bill 2020 in numerous ways to mitigate its impact on low-income residents and specific industries. They also included a variety of provisions aimed specifically at addressing rural communities’ concerns.
That’s as far as they appear to be willing to go. As Sen. Michael Dembrow, D-Portland and one of the chief sponsors of the bill, said Thursday: “We are not entertaining amendments to HB 2020.”
Not for lack of trying: The governor’s chief of staff, Nik Blosser, huddled in the governor’s ceremonial conference room for most of Wednesday with Sen. Cliff Bentz, R-Ontario, and Rep. Karin Power, D-Milwaukie, both co-chairs of the Joint Committee on Carbon Reduction. There was also timber industry lobbyist Chris Edwards, a former Democratic legislator who helped develop a previous version of the cap-and-trade policy and is now lobbying against parts of it.
In a marathon session from around 10 a.m. until 7:30 p.m., they discussed the latest version of amendments sought by timber and manufacturing groups, essentially tweaks to an earlier set of amendments that Democrats rejected. Bentz says he also reiterated a number of changes he offered in committee after the “reset” that brought Republicans back from their first walkout this session over the Democrats’ proposed business tax.
Bentz said the meeting broke at 7:30 p.m. Then he got a call from Blosser about a half-hour later to the effect of “this ain’t going nowhere.”
It’s not clear how this stalemate will end, if at all. Now, the two parties are far apart, both literally and figuratively.
With that in mind, here’s a summary some of the Republican positions Bentz said he raised at the meeting last week and what might bring them around:
Nix the emergency clause: When a bill has an “emergency clause” — as HB 2020 does — it means the legislation takes effect immediately on passage, not in the usual 90 days. Opponents, therefore, wouldn’t have the opportunity to gather signatures and refer the policy to voters.
Republicans contend that with a bill this complex — with ramifications for the entire state for three decades — there is no good reason why voters shouldn’t have their say.
Democrats say climate change is an emergency, and a referral to the ballot would effectively suspend the program until November 2020, making implementation in 2021 an impossibility.
Opponents could still use the initiative process to challenge the program in a separate ballot initiative.
Count the forests: Republicans argue a better policy would be to focus on “net zero emissions,” not on slashing emissions from economically vulnerable industries.
They point to multiple analyses that show Oregon’s forests are a massive carbon sink, annually absorbing some 31 million metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions. That’s 60% of the total emissions that HB 2020 looks to regulate. But that “sequestration” is not counted in the bill, which focuses on reducing emissions in the transportation fuels, utility and industrial sectors 80% below 1990 levels by 2050.
Republicans say Oregon is already well down the line to net zero emissions, and that its households and businesses shouldn’t be forced to go on a strict emissions diet while other states and countries continue with the status quo.
Don’t hammer industry: Democrats have agreed to provide the industrial companies regulated under the bill with 95% free emissions allowances, essentially in perpetuity, if they can demonstrate they are using best available technology to control the pollution. That’s a big concession that environmental groups did not back.
But Republicans say that will still impose significant new costs on some companies, pushing them out of state or to close their operations. They want more allowances, and they want the enforcement mechanism to revolve around “most cost-effective technologies” rather than “best available technologies.”
Smarter spending: Republicans argue Oregon should spend the program’s massive revenues directly to offset Oregonians transition costs — not fritter them away on roads and schools.
The sale of emissions allowances is expected to raise some $1.3 billion in the 2021-23 budget cycle and rise from there. Most of the money comes from transportation fuel providers, which will mean higher gas prices for consumers. Legal opinions vary, but most experts think this revenue will be constitutionally restricted to the state highway trust fund for use on road projects. Another big chunk comes from natural gas utilities — money that may be restricted to the common school fund. Bentz says any new money ought to be spent helping Oregonians buy electric cars and trucks.
Protect forestry: Democrats have exempted logging companies and lumber mills from direct regulation under the bill. They’ve offered to rebate any increase in diesel costs the bill imposes on forestry operations. And they blocked the participation of state forests in “offset” programs to ensure there is not reduction in fiber supply to lumber, paper and pulp mills.
Still, Bentz said, the forestry community is looking for further concessions, yet he didn’t specify them.