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Where They Stand: Oregon's Gubernatorial Candidates On Climate Change

By Dirk VanderHart (OPB)
Portland, Ore. Oct. 18, 2018 5:30 p.m.
The three major-party candidates in the 2018 race for Oregon governor are Gov. Kate Brown (Democrat), Rep. Knute Buehler (Republican) and Patrick Starnes (Independent).

The three major-party candidates in the 2018 race for Oregon governor are Gov. Kate Brown (Democrat), Rep. Knute Buehler (Republican) and Patrick Starnes (Independent).

Earlier this month, a panel convened by the United Nations released a report suggesting irreversible, catastrophic effects from global climate change could kick in far earlier than had been previously thought — and that drastic action would be needed to avoid that future.

In Oregon, the news arrived at an apt time.

Next year, the state's Legislative Assembly is expected to take up a bill that would institute a cap-and-trade system on Oregon carbon dioxide emissions — a heavy political lift that likely would seek to drastically reduce those emissions by 2050. Democratic leaders have signaled their support for the policy, which would resemble a program in California.

But the bill’s ultimate fate likely hinges on the race for governor.

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Democratic Gov. Kate Brown and her main challenger, Republican state Rep. Knute Buehler, are on different sides of the idea, and diverge in other key areas when it comes to climate change policy.

Here’s a rundown of where Brown, Buehler and Independent Party of Oregon candidate Patrick Starnes stand on the issue.

Kate Brown (Democrat)

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Brown has been keen to present herself as a bulwark against the policies of President Donald Trump — for example, his enthusiasm for burning “clean” coal and pulling out of the Paris agreement on climate change. So it’s no surprise Trump has a prominent role in her platform.

"When politicians in Washington D.C. turned [their] back on the landmark Paris Climate Agreement, Kate stepped up in their place," Brown's campaign website reads. "Under her leadership, Kate will continue the fight to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and support innovation that reduces Oregon's reliance on fossil fuels."

In fact, many of Brown’s climate change accomplishments pre-date the current president.

In 2015, she signed a bill to implement the state's Clean Fuels Program, which sets standards forcing fuel importers and producers to dial down the carbon intensity of gasoline and diesel every year until 2025. The program includes exemptions for gas used by planes, trains, logging trucks and other vehicles.

The following year, Brown signed the so-called "Coal to Clean" bill, which set a timeline for eliminating coal-fired electricity in Oregon and established new requirements for how much energy comes from renewable sources.

Related: Can Gov. Kate Brown Sell Oregonians On Her Vision For The State?

And in 2017, Brown helped negotiate a $5.3 billion transportation bill she argues will help the environment by increasing funding for public transportation and offering incentives for consumers to purchase electric vehicles.

If she’s re-elected, Brown says, she’ll enthusiastically sign a bill implementing a cap-and-trade proposal in Oregon, known as the Clean Energy Jobs bill.

A formal proposal hasn’t been drafted for next year’s session, but many observers think it will resemble a 2018 bill that targeted large polluters for regulation, charging them for every ton of carbon dioxide or CO2 equivalent they produce and lowering the total amount emissions allowed over time. Past estimates have suggested such a system could generate $1.4 billion every two years, money that would be spent to help the state transition off of fossil fuels.

“We need to continue to tackle this with every tool in our toolbox because it is the biggest challenge that we face,” Brown said in a recent debate. “Future generations will judge us not on the fact of global climate change, but what we do to tackle it.”

Knute Buehler (Republican)

Buehler says his background as a surgeon has grounded him on this issue

“I certainly believe in global climate change,” he said recently. “I’m trained as a scientist, and the data is overwhelming.”

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Buehler has also made his stance on climate change a key piece of his push to rally moderate Democrats and non-affiliated voters to his cause. Key to that sales pitch is Buehler’s support for the 2016 bill transitioning the state away from coal-generated power. Just four of the House’s 25 Republicans supported the bill.

Buehler says he also disagrees with Trump’s decision to pull out of the Paris climate agreement, a position which he called “the kind of leadership that Oregonians want to see on these important issues.”

Still, Buehler has stood with members of his party against other initiatives targeting climate change, and environmental groups like the Sierra Club and Oregon League of Conservation Voters have decried his environmental record.

Buehler opposed the Clean Energy Fuels program and recently said he'd look to cut it if elected governor. In an Oct. 4 debate, Buehler suggested that the program raised prices on consumers and didn't necessarily help the environment. He added that the Sierra Club opposes the use of ethanol, one of the cleaner fuels used in the program.

Related: Knute Buehler Says He's A Different Kind Of Republican


In response, the Sierra Club’s Oregon chapter issued a release saying it “strongly supports” the Clean Fuels Program and suggesting Buehler had mischaracterized its position.

Buehler has also been clear about his stance on implementing a cap-and-trade system in Oregon. He opposes it, suggesting the program would hike prices on consumers.

“Probably the best way to describe it is a $1.4 billion tax on energy,” Buehler said.

Rather than a cap-and-trade proposal, which limits the amount of carbon polluters may emit, Buehler has said he’d support a “broad-based” tax on carbon emissions that would be offset by reductions to the state’s income tax.

“I think it would disincentivize use of carbon-based energy sources and would go a long ways to decreasing Oregon’s carbon footprint,” he told OPB’s "Think Out Loud."

Patrick Starnes (Independent)

Starnes believes local gas taxes are a key solution to Oregon’s woes.

In place of roads choked with carbon-spewing automobiles, Starnes envisions cities with free, convenient public transportation options that give citizens a convenient alternative to driving.

To pay for those systems, he says cities should hike gas taxes.

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“We need to have a setup that makes bus riding a no-brainer,” Starnes said. “It’s not only helping us with climate change, it’s also helping us with congestion.”

Starnes has also talked up the notion of highways that could wirelessly charge electric vehicles driving on them — a technology reportedly being developed in Israel.

And the Independent Party of Oregon candidate says he supports cap-and-trade in theory, but he’s reticent to comment on Oregon’s proposed system until he learns more. Besides, he thinks gas taxes are a simpler solution to curbing emissions.

“For voters, cap-and-trade is a little more complicated and it’s easy to demonize,” he said. “Conservative talk radio can make a nightmare demon out of it.”

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