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Sunday, August 02, 2009

Oregon's 2009 Legislative Session: the Good and the Bad

I feel a little odd writing this, because not so long ago this subject would doubtless have been covered in depth by climate writer extraordinaire, WattHead founder, and friend of mine Jesse Jenkins. However, as Jesse is now down south in California, I’m seeing a dearth in the blogosphere of Oregon climate policy coverage. Thus with some trepidation and (I hope) humility, I will attempt to fill the void.

The 2009 Oregon Legislative Session, which finished up this summer, was not all that some of us hoped it would be. In October of last year, Oregon Governor Ted Kulongoski unveiled a set of very progressive goals relating to clean energy and global warming, for the upcoming session. Not all of those goals were translated to law during the actual session, despite a large Democratic majority in both houses of the Oregon legislature. The media has largely assumed that the economic downturn was responsible for the legislature’s balking at some of Kulongoski’s attempts to bring firm climate policy to this state; but some key members of the Democratic “leadership” exhibited violently anti-environmental behavior during the session that is frankly hard to explain away as wholly due to economic troubles.

Despite the disappointments, though, there were also significant successes. The legislature made real progress in the areas of renewable energy, energy efficiency, and reducing pollution from vehicles. Read on for a summary of the session’s high and low points.

The Good

House Bill 2186: This bill gave Oregon a low-carbon fuel standard, of the type already being pioneered in California. According to the new law, the life cycle greenhouse emissions from a gallon of gasoline sold in this state must be reduced by 10% by the year 2020. Not exactly revolutionary in itself, perhaps; but to me the most important thing about HB 2186 may be that it should help screen the new super-polluting fuels like coal-to-liquid, tar sands oil, and rainforest-destroying agrofuels, out of this state. The growing block of states adopting low-carbon fuel standards has got to be a blow to industries trying to bring carbon-heavy fuels onto the market.

Senate Bill 101: A bill pushed through the legislature partly thanks to climate champion Bill Cannon (D-East Portland), this one sets an “Emissions Performance Standard” for new power plants which puts a VIRTUAL BAN ON NEW COAL PLANTS in this state. New power plants in Oregon will be required to produce no more emissions than a combined cycle natural gas plant. Not only does passage of this bill mean no new coal plants in the state, it also means utilities cannot extend the life of existing coal plants, or make new long-term agreements to purchase power from coal in other states.

House Bill 2626: While other climate bills stalled or died, this one flew through the legislature. This bill sets up programs to fund energy efficiency projects in Oregon, including projects in low-income areas. HB 2626 was widely seen as a “green jobs bill,” and gained immense support at a time when anything with the word “jobs” in the title looks great to legislators. The Oregon House passed this bill unanimously, 57-0. The success of HB 2626 should be a lesson for all of us: green jobs messaging works!

Senate Bill 79: This bill sets statewide codes to increase the energy efficiency of new buildings. The efficiency of non-residential buildings must be increased 15-25% by the year 2012, with residential buildings increasing in efficiency by 10-15% over the same time span. The Oregon Healthy Climate Partnership website hails SB 79 as “Cementing Oregon as the national leader in green building.”

In addition to passing these pieces of legislation, climate activists in Oregon scored another major victory in the defeat of House Bill 3058 – a bill that would have eased the way for construction of dirty Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) infrastructure in Oregon. HB 3058 was shoved through the Oregon House by the LNG industry and their cronies in the legislature, only to die in committee in the Oregon Senate. Democrats in leadership positions like State Representative Tobias Read (D-Beaverton), played dirty politics and made a mockery of the democratic process during hearings for the bill. HB 3058 was finally defeated thanks to the efforts of some of the most dedicated and hard-working activists I know of in this state. I feel privileged to have helped with a small piece of this effort.

The Bad

Some key bills that would have paved the way for Oregon’s clean energy future failed to make it into law this year. One of the most notable fights over which the fossil fuel industries had their way concerned SB 80, a cap on Oregon greenhouse emissions, and one of Governor Kulongoski’s priority bills. Another disappointment was House Bill 2015, a bill that would have prevented unnecessary LNG projects in this state, and could have been the clincher against LNG in Oregon. Unfortunately, HB 2015 was assigned to a committee chaired by none other than Tobias Read – the same industry champion who helped push the pro-LNG HB 3058 through the House. Needless to say, Read was not enthusiastic about 2015, and in the end he refused to let it out of committee.

What’s Uncertain

The legislature also passed a couple of other anti-clean energy bills this session which would role back renewable energy policy in this state, but that still stand a chance of being vetoed by the Governor. Today’s Oregonian ran an article that more-or-less declares Kulongoski’s intent to veto a rollback of tax subsidies for wind projects – but don’t breath that sigh of relief quite yet, as nothing is set in stone so far. The same article also hints that Kulongoski plans to veto House Bill 2940, which would undercut the Renewable Energy Portfolio Standard passed by the legislature in 2007; again though, we’re still waiting to see what actually happens.
If you live in Oregon, now’s a great time to call Governor Kulongoski at 503-378-4582, and ask him to veto rollbacks on wind energy tax credits and the Renewable Portfolio Standard!


The 2009 session was a tough one in Oregon, but in the end some truly significant bills were passed into law – a testament to the hard work of hundreds of activists in this state. To me, a lot still depends on whether the Governor makes good on his commitment to renewable energy, and vetoes the worst of the rollback bills passed by the legislature. If this happens, we’ll be looking at a session in which the legislature took some big steps forward, though not all they should have, and in which the most damaging backward steps were defeated. If Kulongoski doesn’t use his veto power, we’ll be left with a session of both victories and large defeats.

Whatever happens, though, this year saw Oregon ban new coal projects, send a strong signal to the dirty fuel industries that we won’t accept their products, and score major victories for green jobs. Congratulations to all who made it happen!

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