Climate

Oregon Set To Pass One Of The Most Ambitious Environmental Bills In Decades

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A bill that would require Oregon’s two largest utilities to phase out coal completely by 2030, coupled with a requirement to double the state’s renewable energy mandate, is working its way through the state Senate after being passed by the House earlier this year. If successful, environmentalists argue that it could represent some of the strongest environmental legislation in the state — and across the country — in decades.

The bill, dubbed the Clean Electricity and Coal Transition Plan, passed through the Oregon House on February 15 by a vote of 39-20, and would require both PacifiCorp and Portland General Electric (PGE) — Oregon’s two largest, investor-owned utilities — to stop using coal in their energy mix by 2030. It would also require those utilities to provide at least 50 percent of their electricity from renewable energy sources by 2040. Currently, the state’s energy mandate requires utilities to provide 25 percent renewable energy by 2025.

Written largely as a compromise by both utilities and environmental groups, the bill has garnered support from Democratic legislators and some House Republicans. Environmentalists had threatened to push a more stringent proposal in the 2016 legislative session, but during closed-door meetings in January, utilities agreed to throw their support behind the current version of the bill in exchange for environmentalists dropping a proposed ballot initiative that would largely have required utilities to drop coal and switch to a greater share of renewable energy. According to Renew Oregon polling, seven in 10 Oregonians support policies similar to the proposed bill; if it had gone to a public ballot initiative, it could have been a public relations problem for the utilities.

On Monday, an amended version of the bill passed the Oregon Senate’s Committee on Business and Transportation 3-2. One amendment was added to allow Oregon’s Public Utility Commission (PUC) more control over costs, should a shift to more renewable energy result in higher utility bills for consumers. Another amendment allows for energy sources such as certain hydropower projects, biomass, and power plants that burn municipal solid waste to be counted as renewable energy. The bill now goes to the Senate floor, where proponents hope it will see a vote before the legislative session officially closes on March 4.

Senate Republican Leader Ted Ferrioli, however, told the Portland Business Journal that Senate Republicans would “do almost anything [they] can think of to slow or stop the process” of passing the bill.

Supporters of the bill argue that it would be an important first step in getting utilities in line with Oregon’s greenhouse gas reduction goals, which call for reducing emissions by 75 percent below 1990 levels by 2050. More than 44 percent of Oregon’s electricity mix already comes from hydroelectric, but coal still supplies nearly a third of the state’s electricity. Solar and wind, by contrast, make up a much smaller slice of the pie, accounting for just .02 percent and 5.2 percent respectively.

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CREDIT: Oregon Department of Energy

“While Oregon has just one coal-fired power plant in the state set to retire in 2020, we are not generating all the coal in the state that we use, but we are consuming it. This bill takes responsibility not just for what we generate but what we consume,” Amy Hojnowski, senior campaign representative with the Sierra Club, told ThinkProgress. “I think that most Oregonians didn’t know where their power was coming from. When they find out how much of their power mix is coming from out-of-state coal-fired plants, that does not line up with their thinking and their priorities.”

But opponents of the bill argue that it would force a marked increase in utility bills, with a less certain impact on the environment. State utility officials have parroted those concerns, with Oregon PUC chair Susan Ackerman testifying before a Senate committee on Monday that the bill could have little actual impact on the state’s emissions.

“It will raise customer rates that will not actually improve the amount of carbon in the air,” Ackerman said, according to the Oregonian.

Both investor-owned utilities, in their estimates, have concluded that the bill would result in modest rate increases for customers. PacifiCorp, which ran its estimates through 2030, found that the bill would likely result in a 1 percent annual increase in customer’s utility bills. PGE, which ran its estimates through 2040, found that customers could likely expect a 1.5 percent annual increase.

In her testimony, Ackerman argued that a carbon tax would be a much more effective means of cutting carbon emissions. Oregon has tried to pass legislation enacting a carbon tax before, but such legislation has consistently stalled in the legislature. This session, two Democratic legislators have already tried to introduce another cap-and-trade bill, but it is expected to die before making it to the floor. Ackerman has also expressed concern that if this energy bill passes, it could use up political capital that could have been better spent attempting to pass a carbon tax.

Environmentalists don’t see it as an either-or scenario, however.

“We’ve always seen this policy as complementary to a broader cap and trade or carbon tax, because when this bill passes, it will take responsibility for the electricity sector and reduce our carbon emissions overall, so that when we do have a market based solution, that goal will be easier to hit,” Hojnowski said.

Far from burning political capital, Hojnowski countered, the bill would be a major victory for climate activists.

“If we get this all the way through the process, the Clean Electricity and Coal Transition Plan represents the single biggest step taken by the United States on climate change since the historic agreement reached in Paris in December,” she said.

UPDATE FEB 24, 2016 12:52 PM

A previous version of this post referred to Sierra Club polling showing 70 percent support for the Clean Electricity and Coal Transition Plan. That polling was actually conducted by Renew Oregon, a Sierra Club partner.

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