Jul 18, 2019

Oregon was only hours away from passing the most ambitious climate protection legislation in the country in 2019, and then it all went to hell. What happened? Where do we go from here?

After more than a decade of work to put a price on climate pollution, Oregon was one vote away from adopting the Clean Energy Jobs Bill: a cap-and-invest program to limit greenhouse gas emissions which cause global warming, require the largest polluters to pay for what they put in our air, and invest hundreds of millions of dollars into communities statewide to transition to a clean energy economy. 

The Oregon House passed the bill by a large majority, the first floor vote on cap-and-invest in state history. The state Senate was poised to take the final vote on June 20, 2019, when 11 Republican Senators fled the state to shut down the legislature.

The huge disruption to our democracy undermined the will of voters who elected a governor, representatives, and senators supportive of climate action and the Clean Energy Jobs bill. The episode humiliated Oregon on a national stage, with armed, right-wing terrorist organizations making threats and even a state Senator threatening to shoot the police if State Troopers followed orders to bring him back to work.

Ultimately, Senate leadership crumbled, giving in to the demands of the hostage-takers for the second time in the session. They set aside the important climate legislation, a priority for Oregon Democrats, to lure the Republicans back to work after nine days of hiding from their duty and responsibilities, while still collecting their paycheck from taxpayers.

The Senate Republicans, cozy with polluting industry (including the fossil fuel billionaire Koch Brothers), would not have run away to hide if the bill wasn’t about to pass. However, the uproar allowed polluters to go after some Senate Democrats and shake their confidence in climate action at the last moment. Though a majority of Senators told their constituents they would vote “yes,” the Senate President claimed the votes were not there to pass Clean Energy Jobs in the end. We’ll never know for sure, because Senators weren’t even allowed to have a floor vote. Oregonians were robbed of the chance to hold their elected officials accountable. 

The story doesn’t end when the legislature adjourned on June 30th. Governor Kate Brown stepped boldly into the spotlight the very next day to vow cap-and-invest will move forward this year. More on her plans in just a minute…. 

CORPORATE POLLUTERS USE MONEY, INFLUENCE TO SPREAD MISINFORMATION AND STALL CLIMATE ACTION

While the legislature was in chaos and ultimately legislators made the decisions, a concerted campaign by corporate lobbyists, political operatives, and fossil fuel front groups helped spread fear and misinformation about Clean Energy Jobs helping turn some Oregonians against the bill without ever knowing what the legislation actually does or how it would help rural communities

When the pro-pollution industry group Alliance of Western Energy Consumers (AWEC) was unmasked by The Oregonian, two Oregon universities dropped their memberships almost immediately. AWEC helped found another front group, Partnership for Oregon Communities, with corporate lobbyist Shaun Jillions and his arch-conservative, industry backers in Oregon Manufacturing and Commerce. The professional corporate PR machine produced advertisements, emails, social media and talking points for opponents filled with lies, exaggerations, and fear-stoking messages. These corporate polluters teamed up with aerospace manufacturer Boeing to pummel a Democratic Senator, who held a crucial swing vote on the legislation and flip-flopped under industry pressure after the GOP walkout.

Rising to the front of the protests was Andrew Miller, millionaire CEO of Stimson Lumber, and Oregon’s very own Koch Brother-type political operative. A lavish political spender for Republican candidates and causes, he personally donated $5,000 to launch a political organization to oppose Clean Energy Jobs, a drop in the bucket compared to the millions he and his company have spent on political activity. In the heat of the debate, he fired 60 Oregonians claiming he didn’t want to pay for pollution or to fund public schools, laws that hadn’t even taken effect. His somewhat baffling appearance on a local TV political talk show revealed he knew little about what the legislation actually contained and he stated he would not rehire the people he fired even with the bill tabled. 

Miller even cut down fellow businesses for supporting the measure, some of Oregon’s most beloved brands and best employers, with a boycott, and stoked his followers into an online harassment campaign. 

POLLUTERS VS PEOPLE, NOT RURAL VS URBAN

Preying on small differences to divide us is a tried and true method for corporate polluters to keep from cleaning up their act, using our air and water as dumping grounds at no cost while emotions rise among Oregonians. This was on full display during the fight for Clean Energy Jobs. The people mobilized to oppose this common-sense program to reduce climate pollution did so out of true fear and anger, but it was based on misinformation from corporate front groups. 

If cap-and-invest was going to “destroy rural Oregon” or “cause economic calamity” or “raise gas prices by $3.00” or “take equipment away from farmers and truckers” then no one, including the Renew Oregon coalition, would support it. This is the bad information protestors were fed. Some of the same corporations who stoked the flames of anger are the ones who have offshored or mechanized Oregonian jobs, harming communities that used to rely on the natural resource economy. These corporations will not think twice about replacing all the truck-driving protestors with self-driving trucks to cut labor costs and enrich shareholders while Oregon families suffer. Clean Energy Jobs is about fighting for a more sustainable economy for all Oregonians, with good-paying jobs that can't be outsourced because they need to be done in communities.  

Many rural Oregonians understand the massive toll the climate crisis will bring to their doorstep, indeed how it is already harming their way of life-- from wildfires, drought, fish die-offs, and more, which affect farming, ranching, drinking water, and recreation. They also understand the tremendous investments Clean Energy Jobs will make in their communities; more investment per capita in rural Oregon than in cities, local jobs created which can’t be outsourced, and both clean energy generation and protection against climate change impacts in their communities. The bill guarantees at least half of the Climate Investment Fund will flow to rural, low-income, coastal, Tribal and communities of color.

Support poured in from across Oregon for cap-and-invest, from small business owners to farmworkers to Indian Tribes to fishermen who know the window is closing and Oregon leadership is needed to stop the climate emergency. More than 220 farms and ranches, multiple forestry and timber owners and companies large and small from rural Oregon support cap-and-invest. Yet the media and legislators largely ignored these voices and simple fell into a preconceived, fossil fuel-fed notion of rural versus urban Oregon.

GOVERNOR KATE BROWN IS NOT BACKING DOWN

The very next day after the tumultuous legislative session closed, Governor Kate Brown stepped up to the microphones and cameras, praised the good work of legislators on many fronts this year, and then dedicated the rest of her news conference to unfinished business -- bold action in Oregon this year to combat climate change.

"Let me be very, very clear. I am not backing down."
-- Governor Kate Brown, July 1, 2019

It’s been three years since Oregon’s legislature sent Governor Brown major climate protection legislation. Too long, when the world’s scientists give us only 11 years to significantly reduce our greenhouse gas emissions. Brown vowed to bring cap-and-invest back to the legislature soon and/or to use her executive powers to regulate pollution if necessary. The Governor can call the legislature into special session to vote on Clean Energy Jobs when the time is right.

Many options exist for the Governor, but one thing is clear for now, she’s staked a claim to U.S. leadership on climate action as the federal government actively works to make the problem worse and encourage more pollution, not less. As we head into a season when climate change impacts are most visceral for our state, the Governor can define her legacy by leading Oregon to do our share to combat this global crisis, while growing our economy and cleaning our air here at home.

The Renew Oregon coalition stand with Governor Brown and all the legislators who are working so diligently to bring Clean Energy Jobs to a reality. We must do whatever it takes to protect our state from the ravages of climate change, to hold large polluters accountable for their emissions, and invest in communities in all corners of Oregon to make a transition to a clean energy economy. Oregon’s environment, economy, and especially our children’s future demands we not stop working to make 2019 the year we take the next stride forward.