Mar 29, 2022

Earlier this year, Oregon’s groundbreaking Climate Protection Program began holding many of the state’s largest climate polluters accountable to a timeline for reducing greenhouse gas pollution and making a transition to clean energy sources.

It’s a scientific fact, this transition must happen, and quickly, to maintain a livable world for humanity and to curb the heath and economic harms to Oregonians from burning fossil fuels. 

Only a few months into the program, the state’s largest polluters and a group of industry lobbying organizations have chosen to sue Oregon in an attempt to roll back the clean air protections. 

"Rather than seize the opportunity to innovate and invest in the jobs and economic stability afforded by a transition to a clean energy future, corporate polluters are doubling down on obstruction,” said Nora Apter, Climate Program Director at Oregon Environmental Council.

"There's no question that ending our reliance on fossil fuels is essential to avoiding the most devastating impacts of climate change, and that it will involve a significant reshaping of our economy," said Representative Khah Pham (Portland, District 46). "Instead of resisting that change, we invite Oregon's business community to join our calls for more safeguards to ensure that the transition is an equitable and fair one. Suing to overturn the Climate Protection Program doesn't move us towards a just transition."

The outcry from many corners and communities of Oregon against the industries’ legal actions was swift and unified, including climate & environmental justice groups, consumer, public health, and business advocates.

“As Director of Oregon Business for Climate, I participated as a member of the Rulemaking Advisory Committee and saw first-hand the overwhelming support of Oregonians for the program. The result is a smart, flexible Climate Protection Program (CPP) that guides businesses to a clean energy transition. Rather than mandating how to get there, the program leaves room for innovation. It also spurs targeted community investments to help with the transition,” said Tim Miller

Read Oregon Business for Climate’s guest column in the Portland Business Journal
“...denial is not a sound business strategy.”

“Unfortunately, it's no surprise that certain entrenched interests in the state are sticking with an old playbook, attempting to roll back Oregon’s leadership,” Miller added. 

Widespread support from Oregonians

Indeed, the Dept. of Environmental Quality’s development of the program lasted for 18 months, in a transparent, public process and several technical workshops, with an unusually large Rulemaking Advisory Committee (RAC) -- in which industries had more representatives than any other interest group-- to help shape the program.

Apter, Miller, and Allie Rosenbluth were among those who served on the RAC, outnumbered by multiple fossil fuel lobbyists and business associations for large polluters. 

“Regulating the gas industry and fuel suppliers is an important first step for climate action in Oregon, but the State still needs to focus on strengthening this program by closing loopholes that give industry a free pass to emit pollutants that harm the health of communities and contribute to climate change,” said Rosenbluth, Campaigns Director at Rogue Climate. “These lawsuits are just another example that, despite big talk about climate goals, fossil fuel corporations will do anything they can to weaken climate action and delay a just transition to clean energy.”

When the time came to ask Oregonians' thoughts of the first draft of the program, the response was huge for an agency rulemaking process. Thousands of comments poured in via email and in person at public hearings, in which those in favor of a stronger program vastly outnumbered those who wanted to continue with the status quo, which is causing climate change. 

In the end, about 7 of every 10 public comments not only supported the program’s development, but asked that it become stronger and more ambitious. 

“Burning fossil fuels releases air pollutants and particulate matter that can cause cardiovascular and respiratory ailments as well as other detrimental health issues. The fossil fuel companies challenging the Climate Protection Program are impeding on much needed climate action that will protect and benefit the health of Oregonians,” said Samantha Hernandez, Climate Justice Organizer at Oregon Physicians for Social Responsibility.

Oregon’s largest polluters lawyer up

Unable to make a case for continuing polluting as usual, the largest climate polluters in Oregon are taking legal action, insisting the Dept. of Environmental Quality doesn’t have the authority to regulate air pollution in this way and seeking to roll back the program, which for some polluters is the first time they’ve been legally responsible for reducing climate pollution. 

“The Climate Protection Program was developed with an historic level of public participation. This frivolous, cynical, legal action is a slap in the face to the majority of Oregon residents who support it, and who deserve cleaner air, improved health, and a more resilient source of energy," said Apter of Oregon Environmental Council. 

Three separate legal actions have been filed. So who is behind them? 

The Western States Petroleum Association is the leading lobbying power in Oregon for the largest polluters in the world, including Shell, Exxon, Chevron, and ConocoPhillips among other out-of-state oil companies. 

A group of frequent corporate collaborators, who oppose climate and clean air protection efforts in Oregon, is once again working together: Oregon Business & Industry, Oregon Farm Bureau, Oregon Manufacturers & Commerce, Alliance of Western Energy Consumers, Associated Oregon Loggers, Northwest Pulp & Paper Association, Oregon Association of Nurseries, Oregon Forest & Industries Council, Oregon Trucking Associations, and Western Wood Preservers Institute. They’re joined by two private businesses, Otley Land & Cattle and Space Age Fuel.

Methane gas companies NW Natural Gas, Avista Gas, and Cascade Gas filed an independent legal action to roll back the Climate Protection Program, the first program to hold them accountable for reducing climate pollution in Oregon. Gas, like coal and oil, is a fossil fuel that is dangerously heating the planet and harming health in communities. 

“Gas utilities talk a good game about their commitment to reducing carbon emissions. But they continue to invest millions in expanding their pipelines and increasing their emissions every year,” said Bob Jenks, the Oregon Citizens’ Utility Board’s Executive Director. “This suit demonstrates the wide gulf between their rhetoric and their reality.”

Read: CUB on why the unfettered expansion of gas pipelines is bad for Oregon consumers

What will happen?

There’s no absolute answer until the large polluters make their case in court. As of right now, there is no timeline for the legal proceedings. However, throughout the development of the program, the Dept. of Environmental Quality (DEQ) consulted with the Oregon Dept. of Justice to make sure the Climate Protection Program followed the law. 

“There is no doubt that Oregon has the authority to regulate greenhouse gas emissions and a clear mandate to do so,” said Molly Tack-Hooper, Supervising Senior Attorney at Earthjustice. “These lawsuits do not identify a single legal problem with the Climate Protection Program, and will only serve to stall climate progress.”

In the meantime, DEQ has reported all major polluters that are required to have registered with the Climate Protection Program (CPP) and are complying.

Advocates say rather than having to deal with an attempted roll back, the state should be looking for ways to continue to strengthen the CPP, including expanding requirements to methane gas-burning power plants and additional industrial polluters.

"We are running out of time for meaningful action on climate, and the program that has come into industry’s crosshairs reflects just the beginning of the work that needs to be done to transition away from fossil fuels," Tack-Hooper said.