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Oregon's 3 Biggest Environmental Stories Of 2019 Promise To Play Out In 2020

Cheyenne Thorpe/OPB
Rob Bradley painted his face for the Portland climate strike in September. Thousands of children, students, and citizens from around the state rallied in an effort to fight climate change.

Looking back on the environmental news that dominated headlines in 2019, it’s easy to see that in Oregon and Washington, three topics —  forestry, climate change and fights over fossil fuel facilities — drove much of the coverage.

Here's a closer look at how they dominated environmental news this year and are sure to animate debates over energy and environmental policy in 2020:

Climate Change

It was one of the biggest global stories of 2019 and it played out in a big way in our part of the world. High school students in Portland and other Oregon cities joined their counterparts in other states and countries with multiple walkouts and demands for climate action — inspired in part by a Swedish teenager, Greta Thunberg, who was recently named Time magazine’s Person of the Year for 2019.

Evidence was abundant in 2019 of the impacts of climate change and actions to adapt to more snow-bare mountainsrising sea levels and less abundant water.  

The signature debate, and rollicking political fight of the 2019 Oregon legislative session, involved a plan to put a price on carbon and, as a result, combat climate change. Opposition from industries and workers fearing that such policies would take an unwanted financial toll rallied against it and minority Republicans in the state Senate fled the Capitol — and the state — to shut down the legislative process until Democrats pledged to let the bill die. The legislation’s failure left climate activists gutted, but vowing, along with Democratic lawmakers, to renew the effort in 2020.  

Fossil Fuel Fights

Oregon and Washington saw a continuation in 2019 of a decade-long series of skirmishes over the expanded use of railroads and pipelines to move oilnatural gas and coal from interior North America’s energy belt to shipping ports in the coastal Northwest.

Proposals to build facilities to take delivery, process and export these products ran from Coos Bay to Portland to towns on thelower Columbia River to the Salish Sea. Few of these fights over permitting for liquefied natural gas, crude oil, methanol and coal were resolved. 

An OPB investigation revealed that a Chinese-owned company pushing to build a massive natural-gas-to-methanol complex in Kalama, Washington, may have been misleading state regulators and planning to sell its methanol as fuel in the Chinese transportation market.

Protesters did all they could — from planting a "victory garden" where demonstrators gathered in Portland to oppose expanded oil-train traffic tokayakers attempting to block shipping traffic at the Port of Vancouver on the Columbia River.

While a halt in permitting delivered a setback to the Kalama methanol project, two other projects that already had permits to operate —  one in Portland and the other in Clatskanie, Oregon, —were proving more challenging for opponents to shut down. The bottom line: continued protest and conflict seem assured in 2020.  

Oregon’s Forests

They define our state and they were in the news a lot in 2019. A proposal to convert Oregon’s Elliott State Forest into a research forest was a subject of debate for the public and deliberation by statewide officials.

How the state has managed its forests was one of Oregon’s big legal issues in 2019, with a jury awarding over $1 billion to 13 Oregon counties that challenged policies reducing logging revenues for purposes of wildlife and clean-water protections. The jury ruled this violated a contractual agreement to manage the forests for the “greatest permanent value.”

That wasn’t the only front for critics of the way Oregon manages its forests. The state’s enforcement of environmental protections through the Oregon Forest Practices Act drew challenges from environmentalists and others in 2019. Forests were also at the heart of recommendations to spend $4 billion on various wildfire prevention and suppression strategies, issued in 2019 by a Council on Wildfire Response that Gov. Kate Brown created earlier in the year.

In a bright spot for people who want to see Oregon’s wooded, wild places remain that way, Congress and President Donald Trump signed off on a long-sought designation of a new wilderness area, protecting the Devil’s Staircase in southwest Oregon.        

Copyright 2019 Oregon Public Broadcasting