After five hours of debate Wednesday, the Oregon House of Representatives approved a controversial bill that would extend a state effort to reduce carbon emissions from transportation fuels.
The bill passed 31-29 after several failed Republican motions to replace the bill, send it back to committee and postpone it indefinitely.
Senate Bill 324 passed the state Senate last month, despite concerns that it is linked to the ethics scandal involving former Gov. John Kitzhaber and his fiancee Cylvia Hayes. It now heads to Gov. Kate Brown.
Oregon’s low-carbon fuels program, or Clean Fuels Program, would reduce carbon emissions from transportation by 10 percent over 10 years. It would require companies that import fuel into Oregon to reduce the carbon intensity of their fuel mix. That would mean substituting alternative fuels such as biofuel, natural gas, propane or electricity for gasoline and diesel.
The Legislature originally approved the program in 2009 but designed it to sunset at the end of 2015. Senate Bill 324 would lift that sunset and allow the program to continue through 2016, allowing requirements for reducing the carbon intensity of fuel to kick in and creating a state-regulated clean fuel credit market.
Supporters of the bill say the Clean Fuels Program is an important step toward reducing the state’s carbon footprint and addressing climate change. Opponents argue the bill will drive up gas prices and hurt rural and low-income residents.
“It’s a very costly notion and it will have very little impact on improving the quality of the planet or the air shed, and it certainly is going to raise costs on consumers,” said Rep. Mark Johnson, R-Hood River.
Johnson proposed replacing the bill altogether with a program that would divert $60 million from a state energy efficiency non-profit to carbon reduction research at Oregon universities. The House voted that proposal down 35-25. Later, he moved to refer the bill back to committee. That motion was voted down 35-25.
Rep. Mike McLane, R-Powell Butte, led an unsuccessful move to postpone the vote indefinitely in light of the ongoing investigations into Kitzhaber and Hayes. Kitzhaber resigned last month amid allegations that he gave Hayes a role within his administration while she also took money from groups seeking to influence state policy. The U.S. Department of Justice is investigating the matter, and the state has received a federal subpoena for documents connected to numerous state initiatives including the low-carbon fuels program.
“A cloud of corruption has engulfed our state government,” McLane said. “In that cloud can we see clearly who sneaks in the shadows? Let the wind of transparency clear the air before we vote.
Rep. Cliff Bentz, R-Ontario, encouraged postponing the vote to allow discussion on a statewide transportation package that would likely include a gas tax. Earlier this week, Republicans withdrew from talks on a transportation bill when the clean fuels bill passed out of a House committee.
Rep. Brad Witt, D-Clatskanie, said he supports the idea behind the bill but doesn’t believe the program will work as intended. He said the state was supposed to develop ways of abating fuel cost increases caused by the program, but so far it has not.
“I have little faith that this program is ready for roll-out, that all the necessary safeguards are in place or that the advocates are capable of managing that which they have created,” he said.
Rep. Ken Helm, D-Washington County, said he supports the bill not just for its environmental benefits but also because it will diversify the state’s fuel supply and support local fuel businesses that are eager for the bill to pass.
“Right now, what we’re doing in our state is putting our egg all in one basket with respect to transportation fuels,” he said. “By diversifying our fuel supply, we do a couple things. We make it safer. We make it more secure. We make it our own, and along the way we’re supporting Oregon homegrown businesses.”
Andrea Durbin, executive director of Oregon Environmental Council, celebrated the bill’s passage.
“This program will clean up the air and give people more choices and access to cleaner fuel options,” Durbin said in a news release. “Oregon is doing its part to cut carbon pollution and show the nation it is possible to both grow the economy and protect the environment.”