Oregon bill would require fossil fuel projects to undergo a ‘climate test’

The “Oregon Climate Test” will get its first legislative hearing on Monday.

CREDIT: AP Photo/Don Ryan, file
CREDIT: AP Photo/Don Ryan, file

Few states have done more in recent years to catalyze the shift away from fossil fuels than Oregon. In the last year alone, state legislators passed one of the nation’s most ambitious renewable transition plans, and the state’s largest city, Portland, passed a law banning new fossil fuel infrastructure from being constructed within city limits.

Now, Oregon is looking to push this transition a step farther, by making fossil fuel companies undergo a more extensive environmental review process before any project could be approved for construction in the state. Informally known as the “Climate Test” bill, House Bill 3343, if passed, would require any proposed fossil fuel projects to undergo a review that would calculate the total emissions of the project and its impact on the climate.

The Pacific Northwest has seen several proposals for massive fossil fuel infrastructure projects in the last few years, as coal and oil companies look for easy access to markets in Asia. As of 2014, a Sightline Institute analysis found that the combined coal, oil, and gas infrastructure projects proposed throughout the Northwest would have carried the carbon equivalent of five Keystone XL pipelines. In 2010, there were six proposals to build coal export terminals along the West Coast — today, just one of those proposals remains.

But other projects are still in the works, including a proposed natural gas export terminal in Vancouver, Washington — just across the Columbia River from Portland — that, if completed, would be the largest oil-by-rail terminal in the United States.

The idea of taking climate change into account when considering a fossil fuel project is not unprecedented, but it’s rare. In 2016, President Barack Obama instructed the federal government to take climate change into account during National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) reviews, but that guidance applied only to projects that required approval from the federal government, like cross-border pipelines. And the Trump administration has already revoked that guidance, meaning federal agencies are no longer required to take climate impacts into account when making decisions (though that directive is likely to be challenged in court).

Some state agencies have also done studies on how a particular project might impact the global climate; the Washington Department of Ecology, for example, included climate impacts in its analysis of a proposed coal export terminal in Longview, Washington, concluding that construction of the terminal would be the same as adding eight million cars to the road. Washington requires similar analysis for all large-scale projects.

But Oregon permitting regulations currently do not require regulators to look at the emissions impact of a particular project. Hoping to change that, sponsors of the bill are asking the Oregon Department of Energy to become the lead coordinator for all permitting decisions, which are currently handled by different agencies across the state government. The bill would also require the emissions analysis to consider whether a particular fossil fuel project would be able to remain profitable in a scenario where the global energy economy is taking steps to remain below 2°C of warming, the limit set by the Paris climate agreement.

The bill will get its first hearing before the Oregon House Energy & Environment Committee on Monday, April 10.