Science & Environment

Oregon climate program draws fire for leaving out natural gas power plants

By Cassandra Profita (OPB)
Feb. 18, 2021 2 p.m.
A requested permit would dramatically increase the amount of pollution PGE could emit from its natural gas-fired plant in Boardman, Oregon.

The Carty Generating Station in Boardman is a natural gas power plant owned by PGE.

Michael Durham

Oregon’s plans to regulate greenhouse gas emissions through a new Climate Protection Program are facing criticism for leaving out natural gas power plants.


Last year, Gov. Kate Brown ordered the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality to create a program that would cap greenhouse gas emissions from major industries and reduce them over time.

The agency has been working to develop the program for nearly a year, and last month it convened a new advisory committee to weigh in on the program’s rules for who will be regulated and how.

The rules are far from final, but environmental advocates say they’re already on the wrong track with too many exemptions that would allow industries to continue polluting and not enough commitment to the governor’s interim emission reduction targets for 2035.

One of their biggest complaints is that DEQ staff has decided to exclude the entire electricity sector from the program, including eight natural gas power plants across the state.

Zach Baker with Oregon Climate Solutions, who sits on DEQ’s rulemaking advisory committee for the program, said state data shows greenhouse gas emissions from natural gas power plants have gone up by about 58% since 2012.

“These emissions have actually been growing,” Baker said. “And we have no plan. There’s no plan in our state to address these at this point.”

DEQ staff says they’re not planning to regulate natural gas power plants because that could push utilities to buy electricity from natural gas plants out of state, where DEQ doesn’t have authority to extend its program regulations.

DEQ Director Richard Whitman told committee members at a meeting Wednesday that his agency is “not clear” on the best way to get to 100% clean electricity without help from the Oregon Legislature, and he’s hoping to see lawmakers pass a bill this session that “would make our work here at DEQ much easier.”

House Bill 2995 would put new “clean energy” emission restrictions on 100% of the electricity sold in Oregon by 2035, effectively regulating greenhouse gas emissions from all natural gas power plants delivering electricity to the state.

“I completely agree that getting to 100% clean energy, clean electricity, is a critical part of getting control over our climate future,” Whitman said. “But to ask DEQ with its limited legislative authority to take on, in effect, 100% clean through the limited tools we have, we think there’s significant problems there.”

But the whole reason the governor issued an executive order on climate change was because the Legislature failed to pass a major climate bill last year, Baker said, so relying on the Legislature to regulate greenhouse gas emissions at this point is risky.


“We saw through the cap and invest conversations that we are not able to fully count on the Legislature to pass big ambitious climate legislation,” he said. “DEQ should be moving forward whether or not the Legislature is going to act.”

Environmental advocates found support for their argument that DEQ should include the electricity sector from Dan Kirschner, executive director of the Northwest Gas Association, who said the electric utilities should be treated in the same way as the natural gas utilities, which are being regulated based on where their gas is burned — not where it originated.

“From my perspective, it’s about accounting for the emissions of consumption of electricity in Oregon,” Kirschner said. “It’s not about where that electricity is sourced. This program does not concern itself with the source of natural gas, which all of it comes from outside of Oregon, or almost all of it. “If we were to focus on the consumption of electricity and it’s associated generation mix you don’t have to get into the whole world of where that electricity is coming from.”

But Bob Jenks with the Oregon Citizens Utility Board said he supports DEQ’s decision to exempt the electricity sector because including it would actually take pressure off the other industries such as transportation fuels that the program would regulate.

“The electric sector is going well beyond the goals,” Jenks said. “They’re phasing out coal, replacing it with renewables and energy efficiency. I think the electric sector is going to be way ahead of the game. I worry if you bring the electric sector in here, the head room allows other polluters, other carbon emitters, other sectors, to do less. I think removing the electric sector is actually an advantage. It puts pressure on other sectors to clean up.”

Right now, DEQ staff are analyzing several policy options for achieving greenhouse gas emissions targets for 2035 and 2050. The most aggressive option would target a 50% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2035 and a 90% reduction by 2050. The least aggressive option would only target an 80% reduction by 2050 without an interim target for 2035.

Nicole Singh, senior climate policy advisor for DEQ, walked through an overview of the program plans for capping emissions at Wednesday’s rulemaking committee meeting. The state is planning to set one overall emissions cap that will be enforceable as well as several smaller caps for industry sectors.

Singh said the state won’t assign individual limits to regulated entities, but it will be issuing “compliance instruments” for every 1 metric ton of greenhouse gas emissions. Over time, the state will issue fewer of those permits for greenhouse gas emissions as it reduces the statewide emissions cap.

“The cap itself says this is the target, and we all have to get there,” Singh explained. “We don’t specify how you get there. We leave it up to each regulated entity to determine how to get to the goal. The idea is to allow flexibility in how entities reach the target.”

The current plans would allow regulated entities to “bank” compliance instruments and save them for later if they don’t need them one year because they’ve reduced their emissions. The plans also allow for companies to trade those permits among themselves, and they also allow companies to invest in alternative ways of reducing emissions such as paying for electric vehicles or charging infrastructure if they can’t reduce their own emissions enough to meet the lower requirements.

The program has three stated goals to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, prioritize equity for impacted communities and contain costs for businesses and consumers.

Environmental advocates voiced concerns at the meeting that DEQ was focusing too much on cost containment and wasn’t prioritizing equity the way the agency had told the public it would last year, and some argued including natural gas plants in the program is a key factor in making the program equitable to the people who live near Oregon’s gas plants.

“There’s some communities saddled with pollution from four of the six top polluters,” Dan Serres with Columbia Riverkeeper said. “This pollution lands on Latinx communities already facing prolonged periods of poor air quality, low level ozone, smog and VOCs. DEQ needs to back up and look at what affects frontline environmental justice communities. How do we meet our greenhouse gas goals while mitigating impacts on the most vulnerable communities.”

The Climate Protection Program isn’t scheduled to launch until next year after a vote by the Environmental Quality Commission. Whitman told advisory committee members that the EQC will make the final call on many of the contentious issues critics are raising in the rulemaking process.