Portland’s first-of-its-kind climate justice program could be undergoing major changes, from ramping up tree planting to helping more people cut their energy bills.
The proposed changes are up for the public to speak out on Wednesday during a Portland City Council hearing. The possible overhaul follows a series of setbacks for the Portland Clean Energy Fund — including a defamation lawsuit and a city audit that identified several shortcomings in how the program was being operated.
City Commissioner Carmen Rubio, who oversees the Bureau of Planning and Sustainability, has proposed the Portland Clean Energy Fund reforms. She says they’re intended to streamline and strengthen the program — in part by addressing issues flagged by a city audit. Rubio’s proposed changes include allowing government entities and schools to apply for grants, and a focus on reducing fossil fuel emissions from cars, trucks and buses.
Rubio is also proposing a climate investment plan, which she says will better align the clean energy fund’s spending with the city’s climate action goals.
The Portland Clean Energy Fund was established through a citywide ballot measure that won voter approval in 2018. Since then, it has been celebrated as a first-of-its-kind climate justice program, created and championed by communities of color.
The measure outlined specific targets for how a new stream of tax money could be spent to reduce the emission of greenhouse gasses from burning coal, gasoline and other fossil fuels. The resulting release of carbon into the atmosphere is contributing to a warming planet, with consequences that include more frequent droughts, more intense storms, vanishing glaciers and longer wildfire seasons.
The clean energy fund’s carbon-reducing initiatives are meant to result in more clean energy and conservation jobs while benefiting low-income communities and people of color.
The initiative’s 1% tax on large retailers has produced a revenue boon. The fund is projected to reach $402 million by the end of the next fiscal year — far outpacing the initial estimates that it would generate between $40 million and $60 million a year.
Rubio says her reforms will clear the way for more ambitious projects to rapidly curb greenhouse gas emissions from the transportation and housing sectors.
“We must make these investments happen as quickly as possible,” she said in a statement. “We can do so without compromising oversight and accountability, or community vision.”
If the proposed changes are adopted by the city council at a scheduled Oct. 26 vote, two programs would be implemented immediately — one to expand heat-limiting tree canopy in the city and a second to ramp up energy-efficiency upgrades for apartments and other multi-family housing units. Both of those projects would spend about $100 million over the next five years.
Overall, the clean energy fund would spend an estimated $640 million over five years.
Magan Reed, a spokesperson for Portland, said the city’s partnership with community organizations should remain strong as the program continues to grow.
“These proposed changes will allow us to strengthen existing processes and controls while allowing the flexibility needed to meet the demands of the ever-changing climate crisis,” she said.
If the Portland City Council approves Rubio’s overhaul plans, a committee will spend the following nine months working out the details before any changes take effect, beyond the tree-canopy and multi-family housing initiatives.
Rubio’s effort to rework the Portland Clean Energy Fund’s operations followed an audit that identified several problems. Those include a lack of oversight and accountability, unpredictable revenue and unclear administrative costs, and a need to address clear climate action goals.
In January, the Portland city council voted to rescind the fund’s first major grant recipient of $12 million. That came after an investigation by The Oregonian found the recipient organization’s executive director had previously been convicted of defrauding energy companies, serving prison time and amassing millions of dollars in liens for unpaid federal and state taxes. The organization’s leader later sued the city for damaging her reputation.
The city responded to the news investigation’s findings by adding extra steps for its grant applications but did not require background checks for applicants.
In March, the Portland Business Alliance called for a freeze on the funds and a 90-day independent review. But despite its challenges, city council approved the fund’s second round of grantees totaling $120 million in clean energy retrofits for qualifying residents’ homes, regenerative agriculture, and training in green technologies like solar panel installation.