Politics of cap-and-trade pit rural interests against urban locales in Oregon

Truckers and loggers organized the largest protest of cap and trade last week. (Troy Brynelson/Salem Reporter)

SALEM — The debate on climate change appears to have deepened the gap between the liberal politics of Portland and Eugene and the conservative politics of rural areas with natural resource and agricultural economies.

The impacts of the fight over doomed House Bill 2020 aren’t fully clear yet. Legislators finished their work Sunday and head home to constituents with deeply divergent views of whether Oregon ought to limit carbon emissions.

Cap-and-trade advocates said lawmakers and industry skillfully exploited the rural-urban divide, whipping up resentment in traditionally conservative parts of the state and turning the climate issue into a lightning rod.

One of HB 2020’s chief architects, Sen. Michael Dembrow, D-Portland, said he tried to mitigate rural concerns.

“Great care has been put into shielding rural Oregonians from negative impacts from the bill, while creating investments that will breathe new life into their local economies,” Dembrow said. “The opposition knows this but has chosen to sow fear in the hearts and minds of rural Oregonians through a campaign of distortion and misinformation.”

Opponents, including the 11 Republican senators who fled the state last week to prevent a vote on HB 2020, say the cap-and-trade plan’s urban supporters simply don’t understand their rural counterparts.

“Part of governing is including all of Oregon, not just Multnomah County, in what is going to be included in legislation,” said Sen. Tim Knopp, R-Bend.

Andrew Miller, a major Republican donor and chief executive officer of Portland-based Stimson Lumber Co., framed HB 2020 in more colorful terms.

“It’s a ‘screw-you’ to rural Oregon so that people in urban Oregon can feel good about saving the planet,” Miller said.

Oregon is often described as a “blue state,” one that favors Democrats. But that belies the reality that Oregon, like many Western states, contains sharp political contrasts.

Oregon’s few major cities and their suburbs hold the bulk of the population, and therefore its voter base and political power. They are overwhelmingly “blue” in contrast to the largely “red” counties of eastern Oregon and the Oregon coast.

But dividing the state neatly into Portland and everything else and assigning each to ends of the political spectrum is an oversimplification.

As of January, Oregon had 969,106 registered Democrats, 701,392 registered Republicans and 911,387 voters who were not affiliated with a party.

And some of the state’s rapidly growing regions such as Bend and Hood River are becoming more liberal.

But one statewide survey suggested views on climate change were driven more by politics than geography.

The Portland firm DHM surveyed Oregonians in March about whether Oregon “should do more to address climate change.”

Eighty-five percent of Democrats said yes, compared to 25 percent of Republicans and 53 percent of nonaffiliated voters and those registered with other parties.

By area, 64 percent of respondents in the Portland area agreed, compared with 58 percent in the Willamette Valley and 44 percent in the rest of the state.

“There’s been a misinformation campaign,” said Brad Reed, spokesman for Renew Oregon, a coalition of special interests that supported a cap-and-trade program.

Reed said that campaign portrayed the new pollution costs and restrictions proposed as destroying rural economies, riling areas of the state.

Backers of cap-and-trade said rural Oregon would have benefited in a way that opponents downplayed, obfuscated or ignored.

“This bill is a massive, massive investment in rural Oregon. I mean, tens of millions, hundreds of millions of dollars a year will be going to rural Oregon for the next 30 years, the way this bill was designed,” said Dylan Kruse, lobbyist for Sustainable Northwest. “This notion that this is urban versus rural, or this is about environmental groups profiting off of this, is outrageous.”

Sen. Arnie Roblan, a Coos Bay Democrat, said such views don’t account for the challenges of life in rural Oregon.

“They have to drive farther and farther because the mills are farther and farther away,” said Roblan, who opposed the cap-and-trade plan. “All of these things conspire to make people who don’t see a lot of hope out there, and that is very frustrating to them, and when other people don’t acknowledge that, it makes it even harder.”

Even supporters of HB 2020 like Sen. Jeff Golden, D-Ashland, acknowledge it’s a tough sell.

Golden is one of three Democratic senators who live outside the Willamette Valley and represent largely rural constituencies. He said he understands the concerns he hears in his sprawling southern Oregon district.

The timber industry there was decimated by the spotted owl decision and other shifts, both political and economic, in the late 20th century.

But cap-and-trade is different, he insisted.

“I want rural people in my district to know we really hear you,” Golden said. “We all remember the pain of the timber decline, and how rapid it was, and how working families had the rug pulled out from under them. I want them to know that this isn’t that.”

Some timber companies supported HB 2020, which exempted the industry from regulations.

Others did not, including Miller’s Stimson Lumber. Miller believes that while some businesses and groups would prosper under cap-and-trade, others would suffer.

“It’s all about picking political winners and losers,” Miller said.

Similarly, while cap-and-trade had the support of some farmers, the Oregon Farm Bureau was opposed.

Jenny Dresler, lobbyist for the Oregon Farm Bureau, said cap-and trade didn’t address businesses’ concerns that cost increases would drive them under.

“I don’t know that it’s urban versus rural as much as it’s understanding some of the pressures in different sectors in Oregon’s economy,” she said.

Oregon’s farmers compete with growers in other states, and even in other countries. Neighboring Idaho doesn’t have anything like the regulations and fees included in HB 2020, Dresler pointed out.

Analysts said the bill would have immediately resulted in higher fuel costs, something opponents zeroed in on.

Rep. Lynn Findley, R-Vale, worried that the increased cost of fuel, for example, could make Oregon farmers less competitive.

“In my district, you take a farmer in Ontario that grows onions,” Findley said. “When he sells his onions, he sells them on an open market with growers from Idaho, and if the farmer from Oregon has to pay 22 cents a gallon more for fuel, his operating costs are up. … The guy from Idaho whose fuel is 22 cents a gallon cheaper, his cost of production is less, but they’re selling the same product to the same people.”

It’s not just farmers and loggers, either. Higher fuel prices affect urban and rural Oregon differently.

While Portlanders might complain about sitting in traffic not experienced in places like Coos Bay and Ontario, most of the distances they travel are short, and to get to some appointments, they can walk, bike, or take the bus or light rail.

In places where the population density is low, like Findley’s district — which is roughly the size of South Carolina — it’s a different story.

“The people that don’t have those expenses say, ‘Well, you have to reduce your car driving,’” Findley said. “(But) you have to be able to live and eat. You go to a doctor, you drive 150 miles. … It’s a different set of rules.”

Many of Roblan’s constituents face challenges he thinks go unappreciated in the Portland area.

His Senate district, which covers most of the Oregon coast, has shifted further toward Republicans than any other over the past six years, according to voter registration data.

“We want our kids to have the same kinds of schools and the same opportunities that people in Beaverton and Lake Oswego have,” Roblan said. “But rarely do we see the resources come to allow that.”

He added, “I think people are sympathetic for poor people living on the coast, but I don’t think they really understand the plight they have been in, for as long as they have been in it.”

In some circles, the rhetoric grew heated.

During a Facebook livestream recently, Stewart Rhodes, president of the far-right Oath Keepers militia group, argued that Oregon is in the midst of “a cold civil war.”

“This is a war on rural America. This is a war on the political right,” Rhodes told listeners. “And they’re using this so-called ecological emergency as their excuse for cramming through what really is a socialist or Marxist war on their political opponents.”

Rhodes did not respond to an interview request.

“There are people who do not see life the way we do in rural Oregon, and they’re aiming to change that, including retooling the entire economy around green jobs,” said House Republican Leader Carl Wilson in a recent interview with Grants Pass radio station KAJO. “That, I tell you, is a disaster in the making.”

Claims like that frustrate Golden, a mild-mannered PBS host who was elected to succeed Republican Alan DeBoer last year.

“Again and again, you hear how this bill will destroy rural Oregon — crush people’s lives,” he said. “I really hope before people believe that, they look at the bill. … My only anger about this, really, is the way that the flames are getting fanned by people who know better.”

Reporter Aubrey Wieber: [email protected] or 503-575-1251. Reporter Claire Withycombe: [email protected] or 971-304-4148. Reporter Mark Miller: [email protected] or 503-913-0450.

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