If lawmakers once again fail to pass a law regulating Oregon’s greenhouse gas emissions next year, voters could be called on to do it for them.
Three initiative petitions filed with the Oregon Secretary of State’s Office on Monday would require the state to phase out electricity sources that contribute to global warming, and transition to a carbon-free economy by 2050.
If they proceed to the November 2020 ballot, the measures are likely to usher in a bruising ballot fight. But the clean energy coalition Renew Oregon, one of the organizations spearheading the efforts, doesn’t necessarily want it to come to that.
Instead, Renew Oregon is hoping the measures add urgency to the legislative session that convenes in February, where Democratic leaders have vowed once again to take up a bill that would cap greenhouse emissions in the state, and charge large polluters for their emissions.
“Our priority will continue to be the cap-and-invest bill,” said Brad Reed, a spokesman for Renew Oregon. “We will put all of our energy to that. But we cannot afford for the state and for the people to not have bold climate action next year.”
The carbon cap bill has been in the works for more than a decade, and was front and center earlier this year, when the Legislature tussled over House Bill 2020. The proposal wound up flaming out spectacularly, amid a walkout by Senate Republicans and disunity in the Democratic ranks.
Gov. Kate Brown and legislative leaders have vowed to keep trying to pass a similar proposal. If that doesn’t work, Brown has threatened to use an executive order to regulate greenhouse gas emissions.
The three potential ballot measures open up another front in the battle, asking voters to enact strict timetables for reducing overall emissions and to require power companies to use only carbon-free sources of power. The petitions were filed by a coalition calling itself 100% Ready For Clean Air, which includes Renew Oregon, the Oregon League of Conservation Voters, Climate Solutions, the Oregon Environmental Council and other groups.
Oregon has had targets for reducing its greenhouse gas emissions since 2007, but has had difficulty complying. The state is not expected to meet its 2020 goal of reducing emissions to 10% below 1990 levels. While Oregon's emissions decreased from 2000 to 2014, they have since risen, largely driven by increased use of cars and trucks.
One ballot measure the 100% Ready For Clean Air coalition is pushing would set ambitious goals. Under the plan, the state would be required under law to reduce emissions to 50% below 1990 levels by 2035, and to eliminate emissions entirely by 2050. Those goals would be tied to emissions from “fossil fuel and industrial sources,” wording that captures pollution from power plants, manufacturers and automobiles.
The proposal includes no specifics as to how the state would reduce those emissions — a fact that is likely to be highlighted by opponents if a ballot fight does emerge. Instead, it tasks the state’s Environmental Quality Commission with adopting rules to “ensure compliance.” Rulemaking authority would allow the commission to levy fines, set rules for sources of emissions, and create market-based regulatory mechanisms, among other things. Those rules would be enforced by the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality.
While there’s not currently any teeth in the state’s emissions reductions targets, Reed noted the measure would require the DEQ to enforce any new laws. The state's failure to do so could lead to legal action, he said.
The second ballot concept would ensure Oregon follows a growing movement among states to transition to 100% carbon-free and renewable energy sources by 2045. In 2015, Hawaii became the first state to set a goal to transition entirely to clean energy. At least six states have since followed suit, including California and Washington.
The coalition filed two proposals that include the essential requirement that Oregon transition to carbon-free electricity within 25 years. Both proposals also require power companies to specifically consider geographic areas that include high concentrations of low-income households, high unemployment, high rent burdens and other factors when implementing the policy.
However, one of the proposals goes further, creating an expectation that power companies will invest in projects that reduce emissions in their communities — electric vehicle charging stations, for instance. In exchange, utilities would get to set rates that reflect those investments.
Monday’s filing is a return to Renew Oregon’s roots. The coalition was founded in 2015 in order to push a ballot measure that would have forced Oregon to transition the state’s electricity sector away from coal-fired power.
But that proposal never went to voters. Before the ballot campaign built up a full head of steam, Renew Oregon and the state’s largest power companies reached a compromise. Lawmakers passed a bill enshrining the state’s “coal to clean” plan in the 2016 short session.
The current ballot effort is tapping a very similar playbook. Renew Oregon said it’s ready to move forward, but it would rather the threat of a public vote changed the legislative landscape.
“One thing we know for sure is if we showed up with the same chess board, the same players, I don’t know that we could expect a different outcome,” Reed said. “The ballot measures are one way of changing that landscape.”
Still, he added, Renew Oregon and its allies are “absolutely building a ballot measure campaign,” and are prepared to pay signature gatherers to land it on the ballot if need be. Initial polling has shown roughly two-thirds of Oregonians agree with the concepts, he said.