Oregon advocates ready for strong climate policy in 2020 — no matter what

It was a sweltering afternoon — just one of many in the warmest June ever recorded on Earth — and it was primed to be a historic one. Advocates, mobilized by the broad-based Renew Oregon coalition, rushed to the Capitol and many across the nation followed along with excitement and anticipation for what could have been a turning moment for meaningful action on climate. After days of blistering heat waves, climate disasters, and the release of several devastating reports, we all yearned for some positive news, for strong climate policy to become law. In Oregon, the groundwork had been laid for more than a decade, and cap-and-invest legislation was on the verge of moving forward. Then, eleven Republicans Senators fled the state

Clean Energy Jobs (HB 2020) was widely expected to pass the Senate and head to the desk of Governor Kate Brown (D), an outspoken champion for the legislation. Other key state leaders, like House Speaker Tina Kotek (D), and Senate President Peter Courtney (D), were also fervent supporters, and Democrats had gained expanded majorities in both chambers in the November elections. So, when the bill died (more information on this below), it was a devastating blow — but far from an insurmountable one.

Last month, Renew Oregon joined forces with a slew of other organizations, including NARAL and the NAACP, to form the Oregonians for Clean Air Coalition. On October 7th, the coalition filed three climate-focused ballot initiatives — collectively branded the Ready for Clean Air Initiatives — which will mandate the state to rely on 100% clean electricity by 2045 and be fully decarbonized by 2050. They’ll continue to push forward cap-and-invest, no doubt, but realized that alternate plans must be put in place. 

“The general idea is that if the legislature fails us, we have climate policy guaranteed to pass in 2020,” Madison Daisy Hathaway, the advocacy and outreach coordinator for Renew Oregon, told Climate XChange. “Seventy percent of Oregonians want to see 100% clean energy, so let’s go further in regulating utilities, aim for 100% carbon free electricity, and set even steeper and bolder goals than we have previously set.”

Remind me — what was Oregon cap-and-invest all about? 

For nearly a decade, Oregon lawmakers have been studying and working on cap-and-invest in the state. The policy requires the state’s largest polluters to purchase allowances for every ton of carbon they emit. Each year, the aggregate cap on greenhouse gas emissions will become increasingly stringent, with the number of available allowances consistently declining. Revenue generated by allowance purchases is subsequently used to fund a range of renewable energy, energy efficiency, and climate adaptation efforts. Additionally, targeted investments are made to ensure that particularly vulnerable groups — rural and low-income communities, displaced fossil fuel workers, Indian tribes and others — are not hurt by the policy. After introduction, the bill went through a meaningful process of revision and public input

For a while, things looked promising, particularly after the bill passed the House by a 36-24 vote. When the bill was due for a vote in the Senate, however, Republican legislators fled the state  — hiding out in Idaho  — and infamously threatened the state police in a scene that captured national headlines. That walkout, along with Democratic Senator Laurie Monnes Anderson’s last-minute decision to vote against the bill, ultimately killed the legislation. 

What do these ballot initiatives do?

The Oregonians for Clean Air coalition has introduced three climate-focused ballot initiatives for November 2020. Advocates submitted ballot language to the Secretary of State last week, and will be signature-gathering through the spring. Ultimately, just one of these initiatives is expected to be on the ballot, although advocates will be signature-gathering for all three for now. 

  • Initiative Petition 48: Yes on 100% Clean Electricity requires all electricity in Oregon be 100% clean and carbon-free by 2045. Electrical utilities will be required to phase in electricity generated from solar, wind, hydroelectric, and other clean and renewable energy resources. Seven US states have already passed 100% clean electricity laws, including Hawaii, Maine, California, New Mexico, New York, Washington State, and Nevada.
  • Initiative Petition 49: Yes on 100% Clean + Electrify Everything also requires all electricity to be clean and carbon-free by 2045. Like #48, this initiative requires utilities to immediately begin a clean energy phase-in. It goes a step further than IP #48 in that it ensures utilities immediately invest in clean energy measures that help power homes, businesses, cars, trucks and operations with 100% clean electricity.
  • Initiative Petition 50: Yes on 100% Clean Economy will strengthen and enforce Oregon’s existing carbon pollution limits that currently aren’t being met. The initiative mandates the state to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 50% by 2035 (below 1990 levels) and become 100% carbon-free (economy-wide!) by 2050. It gives state agencies authority to develop programs to achieve these reductions, ensures that the Environmental Quality Commission will adopt rules and programs to ensure compliance with these targets, and gives the Department of Environmental Quality enforcement authority. 

“The legislative and ballot campaigns really interact well,” Brad Reed, Renew Oregon’s communications director, told Climate XChange. “If we went with the same exact bill, to the same legislature, with the same context, it would be hard to expect a different result. The ballot measures are part of changing the conversation, and they go even further than the legislation, which we’ve heard has industry worried.”

Fossil fuel companies and their misinformation campaigns, are ultimately the largest obstacle any climate policy faces – the five largest oil and gas companies have collectively spent more than $1 billion on climate lobbying since the Paris Agreement. In 2018, the oil industry spent a record $30 million to fight Washington State ballot initiative 1631, which would have levied a rising fee on carbon emissions. While it’s unknown exactly how much was spent by energy giants in Oregon last session, Koch-linked groups undeniably played a pivotal opposition role in 2019. 

“We know industrial polluters are the ones really driving the opposition to this,” Reed said. “Now they have a choice to either pass a cap-and-invest system with lots of details and provisions for everybody, or they can face these bold ballot campaigns.”

What’s next?

On November 18th, Oregonians for Clean Air is hosting a Day of Action, where they’ll lobby legislators alongside youth. By January, after some back-and-forth between advocates and the Attorney General, the initiatives will have finalized titles. The final step to actually getting the initiatives on the ballot is mass signature-gathering; advocates have until early July to get 112,000 signatures. If that happens, Oregonians will get the opportunity to vote on 100% clean energy next November. 

While all this is going on, advocates will continue to lobby legislators to pass the flagship cap-and-invest bill. It also remains to be seen how Governor Brown will proceed; after the Republican walkout, she immediately announced she is prepared to use her executive order privileges to push forward the legislation. She’s been relatively quiet on the topic ever since, however. 

“We think she has wide-ranging power,” Reed said. “But we’re just waiting to hear from her office regarding what she will do next.” 

But Renew Oregon, and the state’s robust community of climate advocates, will not stand idly by. 

“We’re entering a critical time where our Democratic lawmakers have not yet put out a climate plan for the 2020 legislative session, and we are going to be pushing really hard for them to get their plan together,” Hathaway said. “We need our Democrats to be bold, strong, and get something done this session, because this is unfinished business.”

What can you do?

To start, join our State Carbon Pricing Network and get plugged into this national conversation — you can sign up here in seconds. We’ll continue covering Oregon politics, hosting Deep Dive webinars on the issues, and providing technical assistance and support to campaigns across the country. You can support our work by purchasing a Tesla raffle ticket or making a donation.

If you’re in Oregon, be sure to sign up for 100% Ready for Clean Air campaign updates, so that when the petitions are released, you’ll be the first to know.