Air horns of protest can’t stall legislative action on Oregon climate bill

Log truck drivers rallied at the Capitol on Wednesday to protest House Bill 2020, which will implement a cap and trade program. Despite their presence, the bill passed out of its final committee. (Claire Withycombe/Oregon Capital Bureau)

Democrats appear to have the support to move forward on a massive environmental plan to price carbon after a week of turmoil and uncertainty.

House Bill 2020, which would implement a cap and trade program, passed out of the Joint Committee on Ways and Means on Wednesday. It now goes to the House floor for a vote scheduled for Monday. It’s the most significant piece of legislation still in the works, with the legislative ending in two weeks.

The legislation – and the 116th amendment proposed on it – passed out of committee on a 13-8 party vote with Sen. Peter Courtney, D-Salem, temporarily sitting in for Sen. Betsy Johnson, D-Scappoose. Johnson, the most conservative of the Senate Democrats, has been a vocal opponent of the bill, saying it would destroy the state’s economy.

At about 20 minutes, it was easily the shortest of the 20 hearings the bill has endured.

Business trade groups have long opposed the bill, but individuals working in industry have also made themselves seen in hearings for months. Wednesday was no different, as log truckers rallied in front of the Capitol in the morning before filling the hearing room and overflow room, dressed in their well-worn pants, boots and suspenders. They apparently didn’t feel heard in the brief, 20-minute hearing, so they took to their trucks. For an hour and a half after the hearing they performed an auditory assault on lawmakers, driving around the building blowing their loud airhorns to make sure they were literally heard.

Under the cap and trade program, a 52 million metric ton cap will be placed over 80 percent of the state’s emissions. It would regulate nearly all sectors of the economy, excluding agriculture and forestry. Entities regulated by the cap which are emitting at least 25,000 metric tons of greenhouse gasses per year will have to buy allowances from the state for each ton over the limit. If companies overestimate their need, they can sell those allowances on a marketplace linked to California and Quebec, Canada. If they don’t buy enough, they can likewise purchase some on the marketplace.

The state will make fewer allowances available over time, a mechanism intended to force industry to undertake conversions that reduce emissions. The targets are a 45 percent decline from 1990’s level by 2035 and an 80 percent decline by 2050.

It’s a wildly progressive proposal. Oregon’s plan is in part based on California, but Oregon’s economy is much smaller. The hope is to show other states that such a plan can work in smaller and more rural states.

However, Republicans have been staunchly against the idea, saying it will decimate the rural way of life, where people work in mills and factories that would be hurt by cap and trade. They drive longer distances, making the estimated 16 cent-per-gallon increase in gas costs more significant.

To that end, Republicans made a last-ditch effort to change the bill with amendments drafted by industry and one that would remove the emergency clause. Both those proposals failed on party-line votes, as they did the day before in the Ways and Means Natural Resources Subcommittee.

Despite the Democratic unity in the bicameral committee, all Democrats aren’t lining up in support. Rep. David Gomberg, D-Central Coast, said Oregon once had an environmental legacy due to things like bottle deposit and public beaches, but it’s lost that legacy over the years. The new policy is a chance to regain that reputation, but it will come at a cost, he said.

“I am concerned about my farmers, I am concerned about my dairies, I am concerned about my fishermen,” Gomberg said. “I am particularly concerned about my good men and women that work in the large mills in my small towns.”

With 38 of the House’s 60 members, Democrats can allow some of their own to dissent, whether it’s because of a rural constituency or otherwise. In the Senate, the numbers are less forgiving. Democrats need 16 of their 18 members to support the bill, and Johnson is already a no. Last week, it came out that several others were uncommitted, including Sen. Arnie Roblan, D-Coos Bay.

Roblan gave a “courtesy” yes vote to get the bill out of committee Wednesday, but said he is concerned about how the gasoline price increase will hurt rural Oregonians.

“I reserve the right to be a no on the floor, because I really have some other issues and conversations that I need to have before I feel really comfortable,” he said.

However, moving the bill out of committee is a strong sign that leaders of the cap and trade movement have secured the votes to get final legislative approval.

But another sign emerged of trouble ahead with a political threat to the already-passed business tax designated to boost school funding.

Robert Freres of Freres Lumber on Wednesday made a $1 million contribution to a political action committee leading the effort to send business tax to voters.

Freres is part of Oregon Manufacturers and Commerce, an industry trade association led by business lobbyist Shaun Jillions. Over the past couple weeks, Jillions has been active in trying to get Senate Democrats to reject the cap and trade plan. Jillions has said he would consider backing down from referring the business tax in exchange for a deal to kill or weaken cap and trade.

Asked if the donation indicated there would be no such deal, he said “that’s a fair assessment.” 

Reporter Aubrey Wieber: [email protected] or 503-575-1251. Wieber is a reporter for Salem Reporter who works for the Oregon Capital Bureau, a collaboration of EO Media Group, the Pamplin Media Group, and Salem Reporter.

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