EDITORIAL: Carbon plan must heed needs of rural Oregon

Across Oregon in recent days, people have bravely stepped in front of what seems to be a runaway train – the plan to limit polluting emissions. Now, we’ll see if the political engineers in Salem will acknowledge those voices and bring sanity to this effort to save the planet.

At issue is an ambitious plan known as “cap and trade” – a public policy to force polluters to reduce their emissions or pay a stiff price for continuing their practices. They could only continue emitting greenhouse gases if they paid for the right, buying credit from industry that does hit the new limits.

The legislation pending in Salem – House Bill 2020 – is a Democratic initiative to push through what didn’t survive in 2017. This time, Democrats have such dominant control of the House and Senate that they can ram through the plan despite dissent from largely Republican strongholds around Oregon. Count Malheur County in that dissent camp.

In hearings in recent days, legislators faced standing room only crowds. Part of the challenge is that state officials have poorly explained this plan. That’s particularly true for rural areas of the state. What does Malheur County or any rural county get from this effort? The answer isn’t clear.

What is clear is our community could face a stiff price for helping clear the planet’s atmosphere. Will trimming emissions in Malheur County make it easier to breath in Portland, Chicago or London? Not likely. Of course, no one should dismiss as idiotic any effort to shape up the environment, whether it’s air or water. Reducing pollution is simply a good idea.

However, the sweep of this cap-and-trade plan would impose unacceptable burdens on Malheur County and the rest of rural Oregon. One witness after another made that case in hearings in Baker City, The Dalles, Bend and Medford. They spoke of the ruinous effect on the already fragile rural economy, which is lagging behind the powerhouse recovery in metro areas such as Portland.

What appears to be the most direct impact is on fuel. Any distributor importing fuel – gasoline, diesel and more – would be subject to new state mandate. The state has calculated how much fuel major distributors bring in, and what are the emissions when that fuel is burned. They would then be taxed for excesses over 25,000 metric tons a year. That puts local fuel suppliers in the crosshairs. The state calculates Campo and Poole Distributing’s fuel supply generated 58,036 tons of emissions in 2017. Jacksons added 55,724 and Farmers Supply Coop another 27,067. All would have to pay – and that cost would go right onto the credit cards and accounts of farmers, ranchers and all of us.

And then there is the alarming possibility that local employers would say goodbye to Malheur County and to Oregon. EP Minerals, which employs about 115, last week suggested it would shutter its operation outside of Vale and simply move that work to Nevada. That certainly would reduce the emissions, but it also would tax the state mightily to care for all those unemployed and their families.

Where do we go from here?

State Sen. Cliff Bentz, R-Ontario, and Rep. Lynn Findley, R-Vale, are effectively trying to get that political train to slow down and to divert it onto a siding for some work. Little they could do in the current session would more broadly affect the people of Malheur County than engineering a way to spare Malheur County, and rural Oregon, from the potentially crushing impacts of cap-and-trade. They certainly know they have the community behind them.

Gov. Kate Brown, an advocate of cap-and-trade, can’t be immune to the risks to our economy either. She has taken deliberate steps to help unshackle our local economy, and that progress shouldn’t be derailed by a single-minded focus on driving this major environmental effort. Reasoned changes are needed, and the governor can help us all breath easier by detailing sooner than later that she gets that point – and she will change the plan. – LZ

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