Oregon’s path to climate action took an abrupt turn this week, in an unfolding saga that now involves runaway Republican lawmakers, the state police, and threats of armed retaliation.
The state is on the verge of adopting major climate legislation. The Senate is all but guaranteed to pass the Clean Energy Jobs bill, which would link with California’s international cap and trade market, charting the way for other states to move forward on regional carbon pricing as they work to combat climate change. The plan would force businesses to purchase “allowances” for the tons of pollutants they intend to emit. Putting that price on carbon would, the state projects, lower emissions roughly 45% below 1990 levels by 2035 alone. By 2050, emissions would reduce by 80% below that threshold.
But Oregon Republicans have taken dramatic steps to delay that vote.
On Thursday, Gov. Kate Brown (D) dispatched the Oregon police to track down Republican lawmakers after they left town in an effort to avoid the cap and trade vote. That move came shortly after 11 Republican state senators walked out during the vote, subsequently nullifying the quorum needed to continue the voting process.
Brown’s efforts followed comments from state Senate Republican Leader Herman Baertschiger Jr., who asserted earlier this week that his caucus was “prepared to take actions” in order to prevent the vote, while state Sen. Brian Boquist (R) threatened state troopers and implied the situation could turn deadly.
“Send bachelors and come heavily armed. I’m not going to be a political prisoner in the state of Oregon. It’s just that simple,” Boquist said.
In subsequent emailed comments to The Oregonian on Wednesday, Boquist wrote that his comments had not been “thinly veiled” and that he stood by every word.
“I have been in political coup attempts. I have been held hostage overseas. I have been jailed politically overseas … Not going to be arrested as a political prisoner in Oregon, period,” said the lawmaker, who is an army veteran.
Now, the group of Republicans is on the lam, with state troopers in pursuit, although the Oregon State Police has said its officers will use “polite communication” in an effort to bring back the lawmakers.
In a further escalation, an Oregon militia group called the III% has notably vowed to provide the Republicans with “security, transportation and refuge” and have promised to do “whatever it takes to keep these Senators safe.”
Finances are on the side of Democrats — the senators will face a $500 per day, per person fee beginning Friday as long as enough of them are absent to prevent a vote. Twenty lawmakers are required for a vote to occur, and while Democrats have an 18 to 12 supermajority, they will need at least a few Republicans to be present. And Brown has said she will convene a special session if needed in July should the vote not take place by the end of the month as currently scheduled.
It is unclear where all of the absentee lawmakers are, although some publications reported that Boquist might be in Idaho, where Oregon police do not have authority.
The walkout tactic mirrors other efforts nationally, although such actions are rare. Texas Democrats fled the state in 2003 in order to fend off a redistricting bill and stayed in Oklahoma until the bill’s deadline passed. Almost a decade later, Wisconsin Democrats left in an ultimately failed attempt to block an anti-union bill. Oregon Republicans also walked out in May over a school funding package.
Regardless, Democrats have more than enough votes to pass the cap and trade bill, which would make Oregon only the second state in the nation to establish a carbon market. It would also mark the first time a state has joined California’s own market, currently the only one of its kind. Moreover, the bill invests in environmental justice initiatives while working to bolster clean energy jobs. Expanded access to solar power for Oregonians, investment in transportation options, and upgrading buildings are also key components of the bill.
Brad Reed, communications director for the nonprofit Renew Oregon, sounded an optimistic note about the bill’s passage, praising Brown, the governor, as “all-in on climate action.” Renew Oregon has actively supported the Clean Energy Jobs bill and Reed told ThinkProgress that establishing a cap and trade market will help enshrine the state’s “transition to cleaner energy” at a time when the Trump administration has stalled on climate action.
States and cities have largely taken up the mantle of addressing climate change, and Reed said that if Oregon passes its bill, others would likely feel empowered to take similar steps.
“The ability to link together means we could have an ad-hoc national strategy for climate reduction, without waiting for the Federal government to act,” Reed explained, pointing to Oregon’s intentions of linking with California’s market. He nodded to states like Colorado and New York as others who might follow a similar path.
The Republicans opposed to Oregon’s bill argue that it should be put before voters, rather than enshrined by lawmakers. Several have expressed concerns about the possible cost, as well as about carbon pricing in general and the potential impact on fuel costs as well as on industries such as logging which rely on trucks.
California has had its own policy in place since 2013, but other states have been slow to follow, with only nine northeastern states currently involved in more limited, smaller-scale cap and trade programs.
Carbon pricing in general has proven nationally divisive. Most recently, Washington state attempted a carbon fee proposal in 2018 with backing from a diverse group, including labor, health, environmental, and science groups. That effort ultimately failed after out-of-state oil companies spent millions opposing the ballot initiative during the November midterm elections.
Reed, however, thinks that banding together is the key for states looking to push forward.
“What’s great about linking is there is a floor for stringency. In other words, in order to join the club your legislation has to live up to a certain environmental standard,” he said. “It’s helped us when industry has tried to weaken certain parts.”
Now, advocates for climate action in Oregon are only waiting on a handful of runaway Republicans.