The legislature’s Joint Committee on Carbon Reduction is crafting a bill to help meet the state’s carbon goals. The state of Oregon’s policy toward hydropower is undermining its efforts.

Sens. Elizabeth Steiner Hayward, Alan Olsen and Lee Beyer hear testimony from Department of Environmental Quality Director Richard Whitman at a May meeting of the committee. Photos by Lynn Howlett

Most members of the Oregon Legislative Assembly received a brief respite from the demands of the Capitol following the dead sprint that is the legislature’s so-called short session. That is, unless they were named to the newly formed Joint Committee on Carbon Reduction.

The 14-person committee is co-chaired by House Speaker Tina Kotek (HD-44) and Senate President Peter Courtney (SD-11), along with a diverse group of co-chairs that includes Sens. Cliff Bentz (SD-30) and Michael Dembrow (SD-23) and Rep. David Brock Smith (HD-1).

Since May, the committee has met monthly. Committee members have heard from scores of experts to learn the baseline facts of climate change, understand trends with Oregon’s greenhouse gas emissions and undergo a deep dive into issues such as carbon sequestration. Future meetings are scheduled through December.

The legislature has funded studies on the economic impact of a cap-and-invest program.

“We hope Gov. Brown will come to the table and collaborate with other Northwest states and tribes to formulate a plan that strikes an appropriate balance among energy production, the economy and our state’s environment.”

—ORECA Executive Director Ted Case

“Oregon’s economic and environmental future depends on us working together to get a carbon reduction plan in place,” Kotek said. “We must maintain the momentum for passing a cap-and-invest bill in next year’s session.”

While the joint committee is benignly named “carbon reduction,” it appears that “cap and invest” is the preferred alternative to get there, at least by committee leadership.

There are, however, a wide range of views on the committee, as evidenced by the July meeting during which members debated a series of goals and principles to guide their work.

Some members, including Kotek, discussed the price of inaction.

“We have climate disruption,” she said. “It is an everyday occurrence. There is only one way to go forward and that is a cap-and-invest program.”

Photo of joint committee meeting
The Oregon Legislature’s Joint Committee on Carbon Reduction meets monthly to craft a climate bill for the 2019 session.

Other members of the committee, however, raised issues with the potential impact of a carbon pricing regime on Oregon’s economy.

“Why would a new business want to come if it will cost them?” asked Sen. Alan Olsen. “If you add costs to business, they have to raise costs or lay people off.”

The committee’s work will have ramifications for Oregon’s 18 electric cooperatives. While their power supply is nearly carbon-free because most of the power is produced by federal hydropower dams, they are impacted by the state of Oregon’s lack of alignment over their own carbon policy. The state continues to pursue an aggressive strategy for spilling more water at the dams for fish, which reduces carbon-free hydropower production.

This aggressive strategy is contrary to the state’s goal of reducing carbon emissions.

The recent increase in spring spill reduces power generation at the eight federal dams by more than 250 megawatts a year on average and increases purchases of power on the wholesale market, which is likely produced by carbon-emitting power plants.

Estimated emissions associated with Oregon’s spring spill program is more than 1 million metric tons, which, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, is the equivalent emissions of 214,506 passenger vehicles driven for one year, or 5,468 railcars’ worth of coal burned.

“If the state of Oregon continues to devalue the federal dams, then the legislature will not be able to meet our carbon goals at the lowest cost,” said Oregon Rural Electric Cooperative Association Executive Director Ted Case. “We hope Gov. Brown will come to the table and collaborate with other Northwest states and tribes to formulate a plan that strikes an appropriate balance among energy production, the economy and our state’s environment.”

In the meantime, the Carbon Reduction Committee will examine the myriad issues involved with a carbon pricing program.

At the July meeting, Kotek noted the challenge of crafting the principles and goals to take their legislating to another level.

“If we believe in perfection, we should not be legislators,” she said. “It doesn’t happen in this building, but we have to move forward.”