Gov. Kate Brown’s executive order on climate change has similar goals as an unsuccessful bill. But its effects are uncertain

Gov. Kate Brown, flanked by students and supporters, prepares to sign a sweeping order on climate change on Tuesday, March 10. (Jake Thomas/Salem Reporter)

Gov. Kate Brown Tuesday directed state agencies to reduce Oregon’s greenhouse gas emissions through more stringent standards for fuels, new buildings and consumer appliances, imposing by order what she couldn’t get from the Legislature.

Her order doesn’t exempt any portion of the state from her mandates, a considerable change from legislation that would have spared rural Oregon and some industries.

The impact on fuel prices and other costs for consumers and businesses won’t be clear until state agencies undergo a process that’ll spell out how Brown’s executive order is implemented.

Under legislative proposals, rural legislators and interests contended that fuel prices would go up, imposing a heavy burden on agriculture and areas of the state where long travel distances are the norm. State agencies weren’t prepared Tuesday to address what would happen under Brown’s order.

“While we are directing agencies to take these efforts to drive down emissions consistent with state goals, the precise policy design and how it’s implemented are to be determined,” said Kristen Sheeran, director of the Oregon Carbon Policy Office.

She said that only then could estimates develop on impacts on prices. Under the order, state agencies are directed to report back in May on specific actions they can legally undertake.

Brown made the move in response to the Legislature adjourning last weekend without passing legislation aimed at climate change.

Document: Gov. Brown’s executive order on climate change.

The order updates Oregon’s existing emission-reduction goals in line with the goals drafted by legislators. She wants a 45% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions from 1990 levels by 2035 and an additional 80% reduction from 1990 levels by 2050.

The scuttled legislation would’ve created a market where businesses could buy permits to emit greenhouse gases and sell extras they didn’t need. The legislation would’ve phased in requirements while providing credits and exemptions to low-income families and businesses exposed to international competition. 

Unlike the legislation, Brown’s order doesn’t take an economy-wide approach and instead gives direction to specific state agencies.

“Significant change doesn’t have to take the form of a single step,” said Brown at a press conference. “It can happen when several separate actions. And that’s what I’m doing today.”

The 14-page order directs the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality to reduce emissions. The order directs the department to expand the state’s existing low-carbon fuel program, which is designed to gradually reduce emissions from gas, diesel and others.

Specifically, the order seeks to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from cars and trucks 20% by 2030 and 25% by 2035.

Partnership for Oregon Communities issued a statement saying that the order gives the governor have few options for “blunting the most negative impacts” of her order and gives power to “unelected bureaucrats who will have the authority to regulate virtually every sector of our state’s economy.”

At the end of the day, her directive could lead to a cap-and-trade style program that is far more sweeping than any proposal contemplated by the Legislature in recent years and will inevitably lead to significant cost increases for consumers and businesses alike, while offering little in the way of meaningful environmental benefits,” the group said in a statement.

Lobbyists for the Oregon Fuels Association didn’t comment on what the order will mean for fuel prices. But in a statement, the association said that it worked with legislators and the governor on the most recent legislative proposal to protect customers from significant increases in fuel costs.

The new order doesn’t contain the same cost-containment measures, the association said.

“This approach pushes groups like OFA, that have worked to improve the policy, into a firm defensive position,” the statement said. “We are currently reviewing the EO, but are prepared to use any tools at our disposal (including legal means) to protect our small businesses and their customers.”

The order also directs the commission to “cap and reduce” greenhouse gas emission from industrial sources, transportation fuels and other sources, such as natural gas.

Department spokesman Harry Esteve said that there were no estimates on what this will mean for consumer prices.

“It’s in the very early stages,” he said.

The order directs the state Public Utility Commission to “consider” measures aimed at rapidly reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Sheeran said that the governor’s office doesn’t have the authority to tell the commission how to make decisions but can direct it to consider the reductions.

Additionally, the order directs the state’s Building Codes Division to increase energy-efficiency requirements for new buildings. It also instructs the Oregon Department of Energy to require appliances to have at least the highest energy-efficiency standards in the country, which Sheeran said would benefit consumers.

On Monday, the legislative Emergency Board voted to direct $5 million to the state Department of Environmental Quality to begin drafting rules aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions in the state. 

The allocation would be used to hire 10 new positions. During Monday’s Emergency Board meeting, Richard Whitman, director of the Department of Environmental Quality, said that the new hires would help complete initial rulemaking for a greenhouse gas reduction program by 2022. That’s roughly the same timeline laid out in the bill killed last session to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. 

A statewide program to cap greenhouse gas emissions has been a priority for Democrats who control the governor’s office and lopsided majorities in the Legislature. But previous attempts were stymied after legislative Republicans walked out of the Capitol in the last two sessions, denying lawmakers a quorum to conduct business. 

Brown’s move was welcomed by Democratic legislative leaders and environmental groups but was criticized by Republicans. 

“This is not only an abuse of power, it shows how out of touch the governor is with the pressing needs of families and communities across the state,” said House Republican Leader Christine Drazan in a statement. 

The most recent walkout occurred during the most recent legislative session that ended on Sunday. 

Senate Republican Leader Herman Baertschiger, Jr. has questioned the governor’s move, saying it would open the state to an expensive lawsuit. 

On Tuesday, Brown said that her order had been carefully vetted to ensure it was in compliance with state law and constitution. 

After a similar bill failed to pass during last year’s legislative session, a coalition of businesses environmental groups and others called Renew Oregon began preparing a greenhouse gas reduction initiative for the 2020 ballot. 

Renew Oregon applauded Brown’s move in a statement following her announcement. 

“Oregonians have organized, advocated, worked and voted for years demanding our state take bold action to reduce climate pollution, improve our health, and transition to clean energy. Governor Brown delivered today with strong and comprehensive action,” said Tera Hurst, executive director of Renew Oregon, in a statement. “This action will hold large corporate polluters accountable for the pollution they create. We all have a responsibility to do our part and most of us do, now it’s time for large polluters to start doing theirs.”

Brad Reed, spokesman for Renew Oregon, said that his group is currently considering whether to move forward with its ballot initiatives or withdraw them. He said that it will consider if the ballot initiatives overlap with the governor’s order and if they accomplish the same goals. 

Contact reporter Jake Thomas at 503-575-1251 or [email protected] or @jakethomas2009.