Sen. Cliff Bentz, R-Ontario, faces arguably one of the toughest legislative sessions in his careers as he struggles guard his constituents from a climate bill he feels will hurt the state rather than help it. (The Enterprise/File).
SALEM – For more than 10 years, state Sen. Cliff Bentz, R-Ontario, found success at the Oregon Legislature despite the fact his party usually held little power.
Bentz, who helped craft the state’s massive transportation program two years ago, worked across partisan lines while he kept a firm focus on issues that impacted his constituents in places like Ontario or John Day or Baker City.
Yet Bentz said last week that this current session of the Oregon Legislature may be one of his toughest because of House Bill 2020, the proposed plan to place a cap on the state’s greenhouse gas emissions.
“I have worked harder on this than any other problem I’ve faced in many, many years,” said Bentz.
Bentz said the legislation is bad for eastern Oregon and he wants to derail it. That probably isn’t going to happen because Oregon Democrats – who hold a majority in both the House and Senate – favor the plan.
The choices for Bentz on House Bill 2020 are well defined and narrow.
“I am doing my best to protect eastern Oregon but it is a lonely job when you don’t have the votes. I don’t have the votes so my leverage is modest,” said Bentz.
That’s despite the fact Bentz is the co-chair of the Joint Committee on Carbon Reduction, the legislative panel tasked with developing the emission reduction plan.
Bentz said he is worried about how the environmental legislation would impact the voters he represents in Oregon’s sprawling District 30.
“People, right now, should be very, very worried. As things currently sit it is not a pretty picture and, in fact, is a horribly damaging picture,” said Bentz last week.
At once simple and complex, House Bill 2020 creates a new emission standard for the state. The emission standard applies to companies that discharge more than 25,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalents each year.
Carbon dioxide equivalents are part of a complicated scientific calculation that essentially measures how much greenhouse gas is entering the atmosphere.
The goal is to slash the state’s greenhouse gas emission to 1990 levels by 2021.
As now proposed, companies that exceed the 25,000-metric ton limit would be required to buy special certificates – called allowances – at a state-sponsored auction. That essentially provides permission to pollute – but at a cost.
Money from auctioning such certificates would be ploughed into programs to help the state move away from carbon-based industries.
Critics of the proposal charge it would damage the state’ economy by hiking fuel prices – as much as 16 cents a gallon by some estimates - while supporters assert the blueprint will help the environment, curb climate change, and spur new industry.
Local fuel merchants – such as Campo & Poole Distributing in Ontario, a provider of bulk fuel – are concerned about the possible gas price hike.
Meanwhile, at least one of the county’s biggest employers – EP Minerals, which mines diatomaceous earth west of Vale - indicated a month ago that it may leave if the carbon bill is approved.
EP Minerals employs 115 people in Malheur County with an annual payroll of $5 million.
On March 25. lawmakers delivered changes to the proposed bill that included a measure to address a boost in the price of gas by reimbursing rural low-income residents up to $100 million a year, or about 33 cents per day.
Also, more money from the sale of the certificates would be funneled to community projects in rural areas.
Bentz said those measures don’t go far enough.
“There has to be more coming out of this then, as your fuel prices skyrocket you get a few extra dollars to caulk your windows,” said Bentz.
Another issue for Bentz is how the carbon limit plan would be implemented.
“Who is in charge of writing the rules? It appears it would be the governor through her new climate director that will be in total charge of writing the rules. So basically, that is taxation without representation,” said Bentz.
Whether the changes in House Bill 2020 offered by legislators would help a local company like EP Minerals remains to be seen. The Nevada firm didn’t respond questions about the issue.
Bentz said he crafted more than 30 amendments to the bill and Friday during a committee meeting pushed an idea to “carve out” Malheur County from the emission plan.
Bentz’s wanted to tie Malheur County closer to Idaho regarding emission standards. The idea makes sense, he said, because Malheur County has firmer ties to Idaho’s economy than Oregon’s.
“We are saying we (Malheur County) will do nothing until Idaho does something. It is a good amendment,” said Bentz.
Bentz said as a member of the minority Republican party he faces a tough road in terms of lessening the blow from the plan to Malheur County but he hasn’t given up.
“There are all kinds of discussion going on and I am working with any number of people to get some leverage,” said Bentz.
Reporter Pat Caldwell: [email protected] 541-473-3377.
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