October 21 2019
Last week, Oregon became the first US state to legislate its way free of coal for good.
After well over a year of heated political controversy, including some high drama in the final days of the legislative session, the Oregon legislature passed, and Gov. Kate Brown (D) signed, the Clean Electricity and Coal Transition Plan.
The bill would do a number of things; most notably, it would instruct the state's two big investor-owned utilities — Pacific Power (PAC) and Portland General Electric (PGE), which together provide about 70 percent of the state's power — to:
Eliminate coal from their portfolios by 2030 (technically PGE can hang onto a small amount until 2035) Get 50 percent of their power from renewable sources by 2040, doubling the current renewable portfolio standard (RPS) of 25 percent by 2025 Oregon's new RPS goal is among the most ambitious in the nation. Only four states have tougher targets: California and New York aim for 50 percent by 2030, Vermont aims for 75 percent by 2032, and Hawaii is going for 100 percent by 2045.
And Oregon already gets 40 percent of its electricity from carbon-free hydro, so this would put its total carbon-free power share at 90 percent by 2040. Not bad, Beaver State.
This post is in three parts. First, a brief account of the history of this bill, which carries some trenchant political lessons. Second, a quick look at the other stuff the bill does, some of which is pretty cool. And third, a closer look at the controversial "coal-free" provision and what effects it might (or might not) have on carbon emissions.
Environmentalists and Democrats brought everyone to the table except Republicans, who refused the invitation
There's an ongoing argument among environmentalists and climate hawks about the best way to make progress on climate change. One side argues that bipartisanship is the only way, so Dems must seek out conservative-friendly policies, speak in soothing tones, and compromise in advance. The other side argues that the better strategy is for Dems to win, amass power, and make progress whether Republicans like it or not.
Oregon's experience weighs in favor of the latter argument.
In an otherwise dismal year for Democrats across the country, the party gained seats in both houses of Oregon's legislature in 2014 (the only state where that happened). The balance is now 35-25 in the House, 18-12 in the Senate.
Oregon also has a Democratic governor. John Kitzhaber was reelected in 2014 but resigned the following year amid scandal; Kate Brown replaced him.
In short, Democrats can basically pass what they want. But of course they still have to be pushed to do so.
The first attempt to pass a clean energy bill, in 2015, died in committee, baffling and frustrating advocates. So a coalition of groups called Renew Oregon started gathering signatures to put the issue on the ballot.
The ballot initiative not only would have eliminated coal and doubled the RPS, it would have docked the salaries of uncooperative utility executives.
That got everyone's attention. To avoid what they viewed as the greater evil of the ballot initiative, utilities sat down with consumer, industry, and green groups to hammer out a consensus legislative version of the proposal.
Republicans did not like it. At all.
After the bill passed the House on a near party-line vote, Republicans in the Senate did everything they could to gum up the works and delay the bill — refusing to work nights or weekends, demanding that all bills be read out loud (seriously), even walking off the job last week.
Eventually the antics ran their course and a deal was brokered. In exchange for a vote on the energy bill, Dems gave up on a few of their other bills and allowed a bill delisting gray wolves from the endangered species list to go forward.
And lo, the energy bill passed.
Democrats elected majorities and passed their agenda, despite Republican obstruction. It's a proven strategy for clean energy progress.
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Photo: An Oregon wind farm — soon to be joined by many others. (Shutterstock)