Think Out Loud

Portland Bureau of Planning and Sustainability proposes surcharge to reduce air pollution

By Allison Frost (OPB)
Nov. 9, 2021 6 p.m. Updated: Nov. 23, 2021 10:27 p.m.

Broadcast: Tuesday, Nov. 9

Portland City Hall.

Portland City Hall.

Amanda Troxler / OPB


Portland businesses and public entities that are required by the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality to have an air quality permit may soon owe an extra tax. A city plan would levy a surcharge on the largest emitters of air pollution to create city infrastructure to address the problem. It would also make funds available that businesses and organizations could apply for to help them reduce their emissions. The public comment period on this tax to reduce air pollution proposal closes Nov. 19. We hear more details from Portland Commissioner Carmen Rubio, who heads the Bureau of Planning and Sustainability, and Kyle Diesner, a BPS policy analyst.

Contact “Think Out Loud®”

If you’d like to comment on any of the topics in this show, or suggest a topic of your own, please get in touch with us on Facebook or Twitter, send an email to, or you can leave a voicemail for us at 503-293-1983. The call-in phone number during the noon hour is 888-665-5865.

Note: The following transcript was computer generated and edited by a volunteer.

Dave Miller: The largest emitters of air pollution in Portland would have to pay a surcharge under a new program that the city is considering. It’s called the Clean Air Protection Program. It’s expected to bring in about $2 million a year, money that could be spent on reducing air pollution. Portlanders have another 10 days to submit public comments on this tax. For more details on what’s being proposed. I’m joined by Commissioner Carmen Rubio, who heads the Bureau of Planning and Sustainability, and Kyle Diesner, a policy analyst for the Bureau. It’s good to have both of you on Think Out Loud.

Carmen Rubio: Good to be here.

Miller: Commissioner Rubio first. What’s the reason behind this new Clean Air Protection Program?

Rubio: We have a lot of challenges right now in our city that we all know about; we’re working hard on houselessness, and towards a more accountable and better community safety system, and getting our arts community and small businesses back on their feet during this pandemic, but really we can’t forget about our environment and the very real public health emergency that’s before us. That’s that Portland residents are at a very high risk for adverse health effects from air toxins.

In fact, a Harvard research study that came out last year was even linking long-term exposure to pollution with COVID-19 mortality rates, so for our community, the stakes around climate and clean air are now even higher and more urgent.

Miller: Kyle Diesner, what entities would be regulated under this program?

Diesner: Thanks for the question. There are about 72 facilities located in the city of Portland that hold air pollution permits with the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality, based on the fact that they generate substantial hazardous air pollution within the city. We’re proposing a surcharge on those entities. They include a wide variety of industries, large institutions, large commercial businesses.

Miller: So this is stationary sources, point sources of air toxins as identified by the state, by the Department of Environmental Quality. But what about things like diesel emissions from trucks?

Diesner: That’s a great question. It is certainly a key source of air pollution in the Portland area, and a Clean Air Protection Program at the city of Portland will look to address those sources of pollution in addition to local stationary sources.

Miller: Meaning, going forward, at some point there is a future plan, but it’s not in this particular surcharge.

Diesner: The program itself will take action to reduce emissions from those mobile sources, and we have proposed a clean air advisory committee that would weigh in on program priorities. Within that scope, we’ve included the advice from that group on how we might expand the surcharge, so that is something that could be explored down the road.

Miller: This proposal would apply to fewer than 1% of all businesses in Portland. What percentage of total point source air pollution do these relatively few businesses, 70 or so, put out?

Diesner: Unfortunately, I can’t answer that question directly. The modeling is pretty complex, and includes the way that different air pollution sources interact with each other. There unfortunately isn’t a simple answer to that question, but there is the Portland Air Toxic Solutions project from Oregon DEQ, which has released monitoring data from those sources.

Miller: Is it possible to say right now, either with city analysis or a state analysis, that x many tons of this pollutant is being put out by entities in Portland? In other words, is there some set number that you have right now, to know the current baseline?


Diesner: Particularly for our Title Five permit holders, those are the entities that DEQ regulates with a Clean Air Act, there is a verification process for the emissions associated with those facilities, so we do actually have that data. Based on public feedback, we’re proposing an emission surcharge of $250 per ton for those emissions of nitrogen oxides, sulfur oxides, particulate matter and volatile organic compounds. Unfortunately, we just don’t have that level of data with that level of verification for other permit holders.

Miller: Commissioner Rubio: what’s the plan for what to do with the money that’s raised, if and when this program is actually put into place?

Rubio: What we’re trying to do here is to use resources from this fee to help build the expertise of the city, and also to fund projects and collaborations that would move us towards improving air quality, because I think it’s really important to say that folks understand, we’ve never had this kind of infrastructure at the city period. We’re already behind in doing so, and most people aren’t aware of this, but as the stakes get more dire, and climate interruption and pollution becomes more real and touches our daily lives, we need to move on this now.

The bottom line is that the issue is not new. Clean air advocates in Portland have been raising alarm bells for years, and we’re just saying now, ‘let’s go, let’s finally take some action steps and move the ball forward.’

Miller: Maybe I just don’t understand it, but what, then, would this money be used for at the city level? We’re talking about about $2 million dollars a year, is the current estimate.

Rubio: This would be to set up programs and work with communities around strategies to reduce air pollutions, because what we know right now, and most people know this, is that many high pollution areas, mass transportation corridors, industrial sites, are often located in Portland’s BIPOC communities. In these communities, pollution can be as much as 20 times higher than in other neighborhoods in other parts of the city. These programs would be to study how to mitigate these things, how we can work better with businesses and communities, come to some agreements, problem solve, and other technical aspects that we haven’t even explored yet.

Miller: For example, a steelmaking company that is having to pay, I don’t know, $500,000 into this, that would be maybe the upper end, but $200,000, could they get some money back to put a scrubber on top of a smokestack?

Diesner: I’ll jump in to respond; in addition to the programs that are going to help to reduce pollution and improve public health, we’re also going to have about half of the dollars that would be raised go into community based solutions, through both grants and good neighbor agreements. We intend to help support industry and community through grants to help them achieve these goals.

Miller: Maybe this is a question of my technical lack of expertise here, but what kinds of solutions are there? If this boils down to ‘this stuff is in the air, kids and adults can walk around and breathe it and it can lead to higher rates of asthma or cancer or other health problems’ ... maybe I’ve boiled this down unhelpfully much, but if, in the end, this stuff is in the air, and when we breathe it, it makes us sick, isn’t the only solution ‘don’t put as much stuff in the air’?

Diesner: Yeah, that is a great way to boil that down. There’s a variety of additional things, too, that we can do. That includes increasing community education about air pollution, high air pollution days, how the community can protect their health. That’s something that we don’t do right now at the city of Portland, and we’re seeing increased need for that with climate change with higher heat days. These all contribute to poor air quality, with wood smoke from wildfires, for example. So these things are really interconnected.

In addition, there’s a lot of things that we can do by just supporting changes in the community and the private sector. For example, we could look at helping small landscaping companies change out gas powered leaf blowers for electric leaf blowers. Small changes like that can really make a difference.

Miller: So, if I understand that idea correctly, the really big polluters would have to spend some money, and then that money could be used to help, for example, maybe smaller companies that don’t have to pay into this system, pollute less.

Diesner: Yes, correct. We are looking at the shared responsibility of all of the largest entities here in Portland, including the City of Portland, to contribute to this, and we will leverage those resources to achieve greater reductions across sectors.

Miller: Commissioner Rubio, the city’s initial plan was to have polluters pay more for both particulate emissions, the kinds of things we’ve been talking about, and for greenhouse gas emissions like carbon dioxide. Those are two separate policy proposals. They’ve been separate this whole time. And you ended up moving forward a faster way with this air pollution one and delaying the carbon tax. Why did you decide to go forward first with air pollution?

Rubio: Last year, as you said, before I was in office, BPS developed these two proposals, and during the public comment on the proposals, it became clear to me when I assumed the portfolio that we needed a broader, wider group of stakeholders in the conversation. My staff and I reached out to a wide variety of communities and brought together a work group to focus specifically on the carbon piece. That led to looking at the goal, but also working together to pull together policies that would work for Portland. That work on all fronts is still continuing.

We have other carbon related projects that are active that we need to get done before deciding what we do next, but also on clean air. That’s what we’re focusing on, moving this forward, to get this clean air protection place, precisely because we have no infrastructure in the city. So the situation seems more dire. We need that capacity, we need that expertise in house to help us even have the staff capacity to help chart the way to work with these industries, work with businesses and work with communities so that we can chart a plan that’s right for Portland, and that collaborates with the regional, jurisdictional governments as well.

Miller: In 2018, voters in the city approved the Portland Clean Energy Fund, which now some of our listeners may be aware, has actually brought in a lot more money than proponents at the time three years ago said it would. Given that there is now more money in Portland’s coffers and that there are restrictions based on what voters approved on how it can be spent, in terms of the grants it can be spent for, why not, right now, introduce an ordinance to the City Council to say ‘we are in a global crisis of unfathomable proportions, as we heard in the last segment, as we’ve been hearing and experiencing for years now, and so let’s expand what that money can be spent on and get that money out the door right now’?

Rubio: Precisely because it is what voters voted on, that they wanted that community to largely remain community centered, and community led. We have some pretty clear guidelines connected to this initiative that move that forward, and there are plans in the works. It’s only in its first year, they just released their second RFP to get more funds out the door. We want to give the initiative the opportunity to grow.

Miller: Are you interested, in the next year or so, to expand what that money could be spent on? Or are you prepared to just wait and see how it goes?

Rubio: I wouldn’t call it waiting and seeing, I think that BPS, the Bureau of the Community stakeholders are working very closely with the piece of committee and the staff because everyone’s goals are aligned here, and there are constant collaborations, both large and small, about making sure there’s there’s clear alignment about the direction that we’re going.

Miller: Carmen Rubio and Kyle Diesner, thanks very much.

Diesner: You’re welcome. Thanks for having us.