Climate change activists have a lot to celebrate this week. The Keystone oil pipeline was cancelled. Closer to home, a bipartisan bill to move Oregon’s energy grid to 100% renewable energy is on a trajectory toward Gov. Kate Brown’s desk. We get more details from Rep. Khanh Pham, D-Portland, and Allie Rosenbluth, campaigns director for Rogue Climate, a climate action group based in Southern Oregon.
The following transcript was computer generated and edited by a volunteer:
Dave Miller: In 2019, and again in 2020, Republicans walked out of the Oregon legislature to prevent votes on Cap and Trade bills. But this year, an ambitious bill aimed at one specific and significant piece of the state’s greenhouse gas footprint seems to have a good chance of passing. House Bill 2021 would put in place one of the country’s fastest timelines for decarbonizing it’s electrical grid, meaning it would mandate that the vast majority of electricity used by Oregonians would have to have zero-carbon emissions by 2040 and there’d be intermediate targets along the way.
Unlike those earlier cap and trade bills, there is no organized opposition to this plan. Khanh Pham joins us now. She’s a Democratic state representative from Portland and one of the chief sponsors of the bill. And Ali Rosenbluth joins us as well. She worked on negotiations over this bill as the campaigns director for Rogue Climate. That’s a climate justice group based in southern Oregon. Ali Rosenbluth and Khanh Pham, welcome to Think Out Loud.
Ali Rosenbluth: Thanks for having us.
Miller: Representative Pham, first. The origin story of this bill includes a listening tour around the state last year, or I guess a virtual one, that you helped manage when you were directing a coalition called the Oregon Just Transition Alliance. What was the idea behind this listening tour?.
Khanh Pham: Yes, thank you, Dave. The idea last summer was we wanted to go across the state, visit eastern Oregon and southern Oregon and western Oregon to really find out from frontline communities who have been impacted the most by the Covid pandemic, by the increasing wildfires, economic recession and really hear their vision for Oregon and what their policy priorities were. And so out of those conversations, this policy concept emerged to create living wage jobs and invest in community-based renewable energy projects and to help build more disaster resilience as we transition to 100% clean energy by 2040.
Miller: What are some of the specific points you heard from Oregonians around the state that ended up in this bill?
Pham: We heard near the tail end of the summer tour, people were already starting to experience these wildfires and they wanted to make sure that we had really clear targets for emissions-free electricity. But people are also saying [they] want to make sure that these dollars are actually providing living wage jobs and that there’s also going to be community-based projects that can build disaster resilience. If we face another time where we’re cut off from electricity, we have disaster hubs to ensure the community has what they need when the next disaster comes
Miller: Ali Rosenbluth, before we get to some of those other pieces of the bill, I want to give listeners a real sense for what will be required of utilities. So what exactly would they have to do in the coming 17 years?
Ali Rosenbluth: So, the 100% Clean Energy for All bill, or HB 2021, is an approach that targets the electric sector. So essentially it sets a standard for clear, ambitious and achievable goals for eliminating emissions. 100% emission-free electricity by 2040, also including 80% reductions in the next 10 years as well. So really making sure that we’re utilizing emissions reductions in the decade that we need it.
The other piece of this bill is that it includes investments. What Khann mentioned about benefits for workers, $50 million goes into community-based energy projects. This bill is led by rural communities [and communities] of color to reach consensus with the utilities, with other environmental organizations, and with organizations that represent utility consumers like the CUB [(Citizen Utility Board)]. And we’re ensuring that the harms [to] environmental justice communities are minimized and that the benefits for this clean energy transition are maximized. That’s at the heart of this bill.
Miller: Just to be clear, we’re not just talking about electricity generated in Oregon, right? We’re talking about any electricity that’s used in Oregon. Even if it is currently created in a coal fired power plant in Montana?
Rosenbluth: Exactly. This is 100% emissions-free electricity for all electricity that’s used in the state of Oregon. So this bill is really exciting and it’s so exciting that there’s a really great chance it’s going to pass. It’s also something that we feel is really achievable and that the utilities, the actual regulated entities, Pacific Power and Portland General Electric, also think it is achievable. And that’s why they are also supporting this bill.
Miller: Khanh Pham, how were you able to get buy-in from the state’s largest electric utilities from PGE and Pacific Power?
Pham: I think that the coalition building has been one of my favorite parts of watching this bill proceed and develop because we really started from the fact that we wanted to build as broad a base as possible of support because we recognize that clean energy has bipartisan support. In making sure that we were including PG and E and Pacific Power as the two investor-owned utilities that are being regulated by this, we did what community organisations do, which is we brought everyone to the table [and] engaged in really thoughtful negotiations to make sure that we could come up with a concept where there was a win for all the stakeholders. And so that’s why I’m really proud of what we came up with. I’ve never seen that kind of collaboration amongst parties that don’t, frankly, always see eye to eye on a lot of issues. But, in this case, we were able to find shared vision.
Miller: I’m curious. and maybe this is just the cynical journalist in me, but if you got support from these two electrical utilities from PGE and Pacific Power, could that be seen as a sign that they actually don’t feel like they’re giving much up that this just mandates something they were going to be having to do anyway?
Rosenbluth: One thing to point out to you is that utilities are already seeing that clean energy is cheaper and more available than new fossil fuels. And so we’re already seeing the utilities moving [in] this direction. What this bill does [is] ensure that we can do this transition in a way that works for Oregonians, in a way that truly creates economic investment in the communities that need it most. And that really listens to what environmental justice communities have been asking for when it comes to our energy systems. So this bill is an opportunity to really do this in the right way for Oregon.
And that’s what’s so exciting about it. Because you’re right. This transition to clean energy may be inevitable with the declining costs of clean energy, the new information that we see on the impacts of fossil fuels, and also the federal government’s new commitment to clean energy. This is something that’s happening already. But this bill gives a chance to the Oregon Legislature to make sure that this transition benefits Oregon as much as possible. And it really makes a difference for people’s lives and helps people get food on the table for their families.
Miller: Representative Pham, will electricity bills in Oregon go up directly as a result of this?
Pham: I don’t know. Ali, can you take that? Some of the specifics around the cost cap? There is a cost cap to ensure that we don’t have to face huge cost increases.
Rosenbluth: We don’t foresee utility rates increasing because of this bill because, like I said before, the cost of clean energy is declining. But we do really hear the concern that community members have who are already struggling to pay their electric bills. So one of the things that this bill has built in it, just as a provision is a cost cap that prevents rates from going up more than 6% when achieving these clean energy goals.
Miller: Could I just interrupt just so I can make sure I understand and our audience understands? My understanding was that the cost cap, it’s not exactly, but a kind of “out” for utilities. It says that if they were going to go up more than that, then they could get temporary permission to not have to abide by these emissions rules. Did I understand that correctly?
Rosenbluth: I believe so. The cost cap again, which we don’t think will be something that will need to be used, is there [just] in case. We are trying to create as much flexibility as possible so that it doesn’t end up impacting people at home. But another thing that I want to add too, which I think is really important is the other bills that we’re running which actually have to do with energy affordability.
The Organ Clean Energy Opportunity campaign, which is this broad coalition of people coming together for these bills just passed the Energy Affordability Act, which creates the ability for the Public Utility Commission to have a low income rate class for utility ratepayers in Oregon. So that means if you are already struggling to pay your electric bills, if you are a low income Oregonian, this bill means that we are going to be able to have a lower rate for people who are struggling most. And that will have a huge impact in reducing energy burden across the state, which is a problem that we’re already seeing in our fossil fuel generated electricity and that we need to address.
Miller: Representative Pham, you mentioned earlier that there is bipartisan support for clean energy in Oregon, but I did note that in the two committee votes so far, there have been five Republican “no” votes and just one “yes” from a Republican lawmaker. How much support are you expecting from Republicans for this bill?
Pham: I was actually very heartened to see that there was some Republican support. And what I think is also important is just the level of tacit acceptance of this. They, of course, have some other political considerations that they have to weigh, but I think many of the legislators, even if they can’t ultimately support the bill, have been part of shaping the bill, and I think they do see the benefits that this will have for some communities, for their communities. And so that, I think, contributes to the much more, honestly, collegial and cordial tone that we’ve seen through these 100% clean energy conversations this year. And so that’s why I am optimistic that my colleagues will continue to support it when it comes up for a floor vote.
Miller: I do want to run one argument by you from a Republican who opposes the bill, David Brock Smith, Republican representative from Port Orford. He has said that in not requiring a certain percentage of renewable energy is sourced from Oregon, that the state would be forgoing green energy jobs that could have been created within the state. What’s your response to that critique?
Pham: Well, we know that these renewable energy projects are already happening in Oregon and that projects will need to be built in Oregon in order to meet some of the demands and the flexibility that are going to result from these clean energy goals. They’re just going to have to be built. And the elements of this bill that specifically support community-based renewable energy, including the $50 million dollar investment for these projects, will ensure that these projects are built in Oregon communities across the state.
Miller: Ali Rosenbluth, we’re talking here about a segment of Oregon’s overall emissions that accounts for about 30% of that. Transportation is even bigger; it’s something like 36%. And obviously there are other aspects that fall into the total greenhouse gas emission picture. What’s the connection you see between this piece of it, the electrical grid, and everything else?
Rosenbluth: First of all, I just want to add that this is something that always just shocks me. Right now, Oregon is a net importer of fossil fuel energy, while at the same time, we are a net exporter of clean energy. So currently over 10 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent comes from imported fossil fuel electricity. So this bill will help ensure that Oregon is utilizing the clean energy resources that we have in Oregon for Oregonians while also investing in our communities. And then on top of that, electrification is just so key as we tackle the climate crisis. And also as we’re reducing bills for folks who are struggling to pay. And so as we see the electrification of buildings, public transportation and vehicles, the benefits of having a 100% clean electric grid are just going to continue to skyrocket.
Miller: In other words, if we electrify more and more things, but then our electricity comes from coal fired plants or natural gas or methane plants, then we’re not exactly accomplishing as much as we might think.
Miller: Ali Rosenbluth and Khanh Pham. Thanks very much for joining us.
Pham: Thanks for having us.
Rosenbluth: Yeah, thank you.
Miller: Ali Rosenbluth is the campaigns director for Rogue Climate. That is a climate justice group, based in southern Oregon that has been working on some of the negotiations for House Bill 2021. Khanh Pham, the Democratic state representative from Portland. She represents District 46 that has parts of Northeast Portland, parts of Southeast Portland. She is one of the co-chief sponsors for House Bill 2021.
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