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Gov. Kate Brown Pitches Bill To Sidestep Trump's Environmental Changes

<p>Oregon Gov. Kate Brown delivers her inaugural address in the state House of Representatives on Monday, Jan. 14, 2019.</p>

Oregon Gov. Kate Brown delivers her inaugural address in the state House of Representatives on Monday, Jan. 14, 2019.

Oregon Gov. Kate Brown began the job Tuesday of selling lawmakers on a bill that would direct Oregon agencies to sidestep rollbacks of environmental protections under President Donald Trump.

“These rollbacks have cleared the way for coal mines and oil wells on public lands, they have eliminated the Clean Power Plan and set our national energy policy backwards,” Brown said in brief testimony before the House Committee on Energy and Environment. “I will not stand and watch.”

Brown was pitching a concept she first unveiled in October, while she was in the midst of a tough re-election fight. Under House Bill 2250, dubbed the “Oregon Environmental Protection Act,” state agencies charged with enforcing federal environmental regulations would keep an eye out for “proposed and final changes” to federal policy that are “significantly less protective” to public health or the environment than regulations in place Jan. 19, 2017, the day before Trump took office.

When they found such changes to the federal Clean Air Act, Water Pollution Control Act, and Safe Drinking Water Act, state departments would be required to “take actions as necessary” to continue pre-Trump protections. In the case of the Department of Environmental Quality, such actions would be recommended to an oversight commission.

Since Brown introduced the idea, the governors of California, Washington, Colorado and Hawaii have also pledged to take action in response to federal rollbacks. Brown contended Tuesday that her bill was the best avenue forward.

“Several of my fellow governors have issued executive orders to prevent these rollbacks from affecting their states,” she said, “but you and I know that legislation is much more durable.”

Brown had support at the hearing from the Oregon Environmental Council and high-ranking staffers from state agencies, including the Department of Environmental Quality and the Oregon Health Authority.

DEQ Director Richard Whitman testified that air quality has worsened in parts of the state — an outcome he attributed to wildfires, wood stoves and auto emissions. That puts Oregon at risk for not meeting federal air standards, Whitman said, a situation that could impact funding and new development.

“This is not just a game,” Whitman said, arguing for stricter environmental standards. “This is real important stuff.”

Business lobbyists, meanwhile, suggested the bill would only heap more responsibilities on departments that already have sizable backlogs.

“We see this as a resource drain on agencies that are already very far behind,” said Mary Anne Cooper of the Oregon Farm Bureau.

Shaun Jillions, of the group Oregon Manufacturers and Commerce, suggested Brown’s bill would result in state agencies wasting time vetting federal changes that could be challenged in court, and might not ultimately become law.

“We could have a situation where every single proposed rollback, or perceived roll back, is taking up agency time and the law never goes into effect,” Jillions said. “All of us agree that this bill has the right intentions. It’s just an allocation of resources.”

Since taking office in early 2017, Trump has been stymied from some of his key policy promises — including finding funding for a border wall and repealing the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act passed under President Barack Obama.

But the president has been active in terms of weakening federal regulations. According to The New York Times, Trump had completed rollbacks on nine air pollution regulations and four water pollution regulations as of Dec. 28, with more proposals in process.

Brown on Tuesday testified that Trump has cut back 53 “landmark environmental regulations” to date, though she did not have a list ready when asked by a lawmaker.

Copyright 2019 Oregon Public Broadcasting

Dirk VanderHart is JPR's Salem correspondent reporting from the Oregon State Capitol. His reporting is funded through a collaboration between public radio stations around the Northwest called the Northwest News Network.