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Republicans Ran, But a Democrat Sank Oregon’s Climate Bill 

Protesters converge outside the Oregon Capitol in Salem, Ore., June 27, 2019. Truckers, loggers and farmers say they support the 11 Republican senators who walked out over a week ago to avoid a vote on climate legislation.

In the end, the death of Oregon’s climate bill was an inside job.

The Democrat-controlled state Senate was expected to pass a bill last week that would have charged industries for their carbon pollution. The measure aimed to cut the greenhouse gas emissions that fuel global warming.

Republicans fled the state rather than vote, bringing the Legislature to a standstill.

But it was one Democratic holdout with an energy-hungry industry in her district who ultimately killed the bill, according to local media.

Confronting the climate crisis comes with costs. By some estimates, the bill would add at least 16 cents per gallon to the price of gasoline. The Oregon incident is the latest demonstration of how toxic those costs can be to voters and elected officials, even those from the party that champions action on climate change.

But the bill will come due one way or another, experts say, and other tools to lower emissions carry an even heftier price tag.

Protesters flood the steps of the Oregon Capitol, June 25, 2019, to push back against a Republican walkout over a climate change bill that has entered its sixth day in Salem, Ore.
Protesters flood the steps of the Oregon Capitol, June 25, 2019, to push back against a Republican walkout over a climate change bill that has entered its sixth day in Salem, Ore.

One vote (and one party) short

The program, known as cap and trade, is designed to put a price on planet-warming carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuel-burning industries.

The state would set a limit, or cap, on statewide greenhouse gas emissions. Power plants, factories and other companies that burn fossil fuels could buy allowances to pollute or trade with other companies that have reduced their emissions and have extras. The cap declines over time, ultimately forcing all companies to cut pollution.

Charging for emissions creates a financial incentive for companies to emit less. And it encourages consumers to seek out products that take less fossil energy, such as high-efficiency appliances and electric vehicles.

But raising the cost of energy proved too hot to handle for Democrat Laurie Monnes Anderson, who was holding out for more concessions for a large Boeing aircraft factory in her district, according to The Oregonian.

Two Democrats were known to oppose the bill when the entire Republican caucus skipped town and went into hiding last Thursday. Democrats hold 18 of the 30 Senate seats. If the Republicans were to return, Democrats could only afford to lose two votes from their side of the aisle.

Five days later, Senate President Peter Courtney announced that the bill “does not have the votes on the Senate floor. That will not change.”

The Oregonian reported that Monnes Anderson was the critical third opponent. She has not commented publicly.

As pollution worries grow, China experiments with carbon trading
As pollution worries grow, China experiments with carbon trading

‘Hard to do’

With or without a price on carbon, “climate change costs us either way” in damaging storms, heat waves, droughts and so on, said climate policy director Joseph Majkut at the Niskanen Center, a libertarian-leaning Washington, D.C., research institution.

“When we’re talking to policymakers and they say, ‘We’re reluctant to impose these costs,’ ” he added, “the first point to make is, there are costs to letting carbon emissions go free.”

Around the world and across the political spectrum, economists agree that “if you’re serious about reducing greenhouse gas emissions, the best way to do that is through some kind of a price on carbon pollution,” said University of Michigan political science professor Barry Rabe.

However, convincing people that they should pay for emissions “is hard to do,” he added. “The carbon price issue, even though this would be economically the most attractive way to go at it, is a tough political sell.”

Washington state voters rejected a carbon tax last November. A federal cap-and-trade bill failed in Congress in 2010.

There are other ways to reduce greenhouse gases.

One of the most popular is a regulation requiring electric utilities to provide a certain percentage of renewable energy to their customers. These regulations are in place in 29 states, covering more than half of the U.S. retail electricity market.

Several states have bumped up their requirements this year, including three that raised it to hit 100% by midcentury. Some members of Congress are backing a federal version of the policy.

“In any event, the price of carbon is going to go up,” said Harvard University economist Rob Stavins. “It either goes up explicitly, through cap and trade or carbon tax, or implicitly, through a regulation.”

Meanwhile, the Oregon Republican walkout continues. The session ends on June 30, and legislation is piling up.

Republicans reportedly are seeking assurances that the cap-and-trade bill will not come up for a surprise vote if they return.

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    Steve Baragona

    Steve Baragona is an award-winning multimedia journalist covering science, environment and health.

    He spent eight years in molecular biology and infectious disease research before deciding that writing about science was more fun than doing it. He graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill with a master’s degree in journalism in 2002.