Bentz drives plan to remove border region from proposed carbon emission mandate

Sen. Cliff Bentz (R-Ontario) wants to cushion portions of eastern Oregon from a proposed bill to limit carbon emissions. (The Enterprise/Pat Caldwell).

SALEM –Sen. Cliff Bentz played another card from a rapidity dwindling political deck recently in an effort to ease Malheur County impacts from a proposal to slash carbon emissions.

Bentz earlier this month proposed an amendment to the cap-and-trade legislation that would exclude – or “carve out” – portions of eastern Oregon for five years if the carbon plan is approved.

Whether Bentz succeeds is uncertain given the tumultuous politics this week at the Capitol.

Even if HB 2020 moves out of the Joint Committee on Carbon Reduction with Bentz’s amendment, he said it would be “still alive and kicking” as another legislative committee considers the proposal.

The legislation would cap on Oregon’s greenhouse gas emissions. Critics of the proposal charge it would damage the state’s economy while supporters assert the plan would help the environment and curb climate change.

Bentz’s amendment covered the “eastern edge economic zone” that includes Malheur County and the Huntington area in Baker County.

The amendment called for the state to review and possibly lift the exclusion after five years, but only if Idaho creates a carbon restriction.

Bentz said he thought his amendment was necessary to “maintain parity between the costs to consumers in Idaho and to consumers in Oregon of placing a price on greenhouse gas emissions.”

For months Bentz has demanded the carbon restriction plan process slow down as he worked to find alternatives.

Last week the Ontario lawmaker said he isn’t sure his proposal to exclude Malheur County from the carbon bill would find traction. He said he talked over the exclusion plan with the committee co-chairs, Sen. Michael Dembrow, D-Portland, and Rep. Karin Power, D-Milwaukie.

“They didn’t seem enthusiastic,” said Bentz.

He said that proponents of the bill have an “inability to understand that there are consequence to their actions.”

“Their willingness to sacrifice parts of Oregon sends a message they care more about the environment than people. They are basically saying it is too bad these smaller communities get hurt but we have to save the world,” said Bentz.

The amendment would make a difference for local fuel shippers and area residents, said Brad Holland of Campo & Poole Distributing in Ontario. The company is a major regional fuel supplier.

“What it would do for us is give us at least a few years relief from the carbon burden tax. It would keep us competitive while the rest of the state works through the program and sees if it actually gives them the benefits they think it will,” said Holland.

As with a major oil company, a small operation like Campo & Poole Distributing would be forced to buy allowances on the state auction market. That extra cost to Campo & Poole Distributing would be passed on to consumers.

Holland said by some estimates the price of a gallon of gas would jump by 15 or 16 cents if the Legislature approves the carbon emission mandate.

Bentz told his committee colleagues that gas prices would hammer businesses on the Oregon side of the Snake River.

“Soon there will be no one buying fuel on this (Oregon) side of the river. Why would they?” said Bentz.

Lawmakers have proposed designating up to $100 million a year to be refunded to low income households in eastern Oregon to offset hikes in fuel prices.

Holland agreed that Ontario’s location next to Idaho is significant.

 “The challenge with a border town is that Idaho doesn’t have the same regulation appetite. So, we compete with Idaho. We in Ontario, Vale, Nyssa, even up into Baker, it is going to be a challenge on the fuel side of things,” said Holland. Campo & Poole may not be the only local firms to feel the impact of House Bill 2020. EP Minerals, west of Vale, and Kraft Heinz Company in Ontario could also be hit by the emission legislation.

Rep. Lynn Findley, R-Vale, warned lawmakers in March that EP Minerals could depart – taking with it 115 jobs – Oregon if the emissions legislation goes through.

Kraft Heinz Company has not commented on the impact of the legislation. The firm employs about 500 people in Ontario.

Another area employer, Ash Grove Cement near Durkee, may also be hit hard by a carbon emission law. Ash Grove employees 115 people with an annual payroll of $13 million. One version of the carbon bill – released in March – contains provisions to offset a rise in gas prices for rural Oregon.

Bentz said the committee also made other adjustments to the proposed legislation that touch businesses such as Ash Grove, EP Minerals and Kraft Heinz.

“We will just have to wait and see what those businesses think,” said Bentz.

Bentz said he agrees that some kind of effort to curb climate change is necessary. He just doesn’t think the House Bill 2020 is crafted to save jobs in places like eastern Oregon.

“Sadly, the folks that are busy drafting the bill believe there are things far more important than jobs and businesses,” said Bentz.

Bentz said he believes the passage of House Bill 2020, without the exclusion for Malheur County and Huntington, will make a severe impact locally.

“It will be a disaster for this part of the state,” said Bentz.

Two local business leaders opposed the legislation in written testimony submitted to the joint committee.

“The current HB 2020 would tip the scales so disproportionately that any other attempt to balance or gain economic advantage over neighboring Idaho would be fruitless, including the work of the border board,” wrote Shawna Peterson, an Ontario attorney.

Tiffany Cruickshank, writing on behalf of Snake River Produce, an onion packing and shipping firm in Nyssa, also raised concerns about competition from Idaho.

“Furthermore, HB 2020 will have a detrimental impact on Oregon businesses’ ability to compete – and especially where Snake River Produce is located is only a mere 1.2 miles from the state of Idaho, the effects will be compounded where competition is concerned,” Cruickshank wrote.

News tip? Contact reporter Pat Caldwell: [email protected] or 541-473-3377.

For the latest news, follow the Enterprise on Facebook and Twitter.

SUBSCRIBE TO UNDERWRITE VITAL REPORTING — The Malheur Enterprise increasingly relies on reader subscriptions to fund its operations. For $5 a month, you get breaking news alerts, emailed newsletters and around-the-clock access to our stories. We depend on subscribers to pay for in-depth, accurate news produced by a professional and highly trained staff. Help us grow and get better with your subscription. Sign up HERE.