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A Disappointing Legislative Session For Oregon Environmentalists


Oregon and Washington are expecting to receive around $185 million to spend on replacing old diesel engines through a settlement with the automaker Volkswagen.

Oregon and Washington are expecting to receive around $185 million to spend on replacing old diesel engines through a settlement with the automaker Volkswagen.

Cassandra Profita/EarthFix

Paige Spence spread a few sheets of paper across her desk at the Oregon Conservation Network, listing out her organization’s goals for the recently adjourned 2017 legislature.

She made a mark for everything that passed, and drew an “X” by everything that didn’t. The first page has losses, but also a few wins. The next one doesn’t.

“Yeah, here’s where the X’s come in,” Spence said. “I think there’s a lot of real disappointments on this page.”

Environmentalists lost on a bill to put a price on carbon pollution. They lost on clean-air funding.

Retiring dirty diesel engines, solar tax credits, regulating oil trains, groundwater monitoring — all those initiatives failed.

Amid efforts to pass revenue and transportation packages, many environmental bills fell by the wayside. That leaves Oregon still trailing its neighbors on several environmental issues, and it leaves natural resource agencies still underfunded.

Environmentalists had one really good win this legislative session, said Angela Crowley-Koch of the Oregon Environmental Council — the transportation package. It includes $100 million per year to expand transit and rebates for electric vehicles.  

“It was pretty great actually. We got everything we asked for,” she said. “Unfortunately, we lost on everything else.”

Environmentalists did claim some other victories, such as bonds to help keep the Elliott State Forest public and limits on suction dredge mining. Environmentalists also cheered the defeat of several bills they said were designed to weaken the state’s land use laws.

But, Oregon’s rules on many environmental issues remain weaker than those of neighboring Washington and California.

“It is very frustrating to watch our neighbors get ahead,” Crowley-Koch said. “On the other hand, the positive of that is we can learn from our neighbors, learn from their lessons both good and bad, but after awhile you need to act.”

This session included bills to close many of those gaps. They nearly all died. And a lot of them died, at least in part, because of that transportation package.

“It really gave a lot more clout to industry than they otherwise would have because legislators wanted to keep them at the table,” said Michael Dembrow, D-Portland.

Dembrow said that bargaining made it more difficult to pass bills that otherwise had an edge by just one or two votes.

“I think to some extent that was the story of this session,” Dembrow said.

Dembrow introduced a bill that would phase-out old, dirty diesel engines, using funding the state received in a settlement with Volkswagen.

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That diesel effort had widespread support. But it ran into heavy opposition from industry.

Lawmakers heard from lobbyists from Associated Industries of Oregon and Associated General Contractors, who opposed prohibitions on older engines.

They also heard from truckers like Loren Hutwick, who moved to Oregon after losing a fight against clean air rules in California and feared the economic impacts of a diesel phaseout.

“I left the state of California to get away from that,” Hutwick told lawmakers. “Now you’re asking me to go out, someway down the road and watch you guys allocate money, to start this ball rolling?”

Ultimately, the original diesel bill was gutted, and it passed only after its regulatory teeth were removed. A bill to fund the governor’s clean air initiative also failed this session.

And while lawmakers were kicking around idea for new taxes to fill a growing budget gap, they punted on smaller proposals to fund natural resources.

Washington County Democrat Ken Helm sponsored a few of those.

“From my point of view it’s regrettable, because it’s the same old story for natural resource agencies,” Helm said. “Boy we really value them, we really like what they do. We say they’re important. But then we don’t fund them adequately. And it shows.”

Helm’s bills included a proposed fix for a long-running budget shortfall for the Department of Fish and Wildlife.

He also introduced several bills aimed at improving the state’s water management. Those included fees for water uses to fund the the Department of Water Resources and requirements for farmers and ranchers to measure water use. Another bill would have allocated more than $8 million to study the state’s groundwater supplies.

None of those efforts passed. Helm said lawmakers would revisit those, as well as bigger ideas like carbon pricing, in the near future.

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