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Oregon governor’s race will dictate the state’s direction on battling climate change

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OPB Staff
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OPB

Democrat Tina Kotek stands behind strong regulations her party passed in recent years. Republican Christine Drazan and unaffiliated candidate Betsy Johnson are promising to roll some back.

In the last decade, Oregon has sought to position itself as a bulwark against human-caused climate change. Alongside Washington and California, state leaders have passed laws that chart a path to carbon-free power, require cleaner-burning auto fuel and regulate emissions from major polluters.

In many ways, the outcome of the Nov. 8 gubernatorial election will dictate whether Oregon stays the course or pares back its climate efforts.

The three women leading the race for the state’s top elective office have been some of the fiercest warriors in bruising political fights over the issue, and bring very different viewpoints.

As House speaker for nearly a decade, Democrat Tina Kotek played a leading role in passing many of the state’s most notable climate policies.

Her two opponents say Oregon has gone too far, with policies that raise costs for Oregonians while making a negligible difference globally. House Republican Leader Christine Drazan and unaffiliated candidate Betsy Johnson – a former longtime Senate Democrat – are promising to undo some of Oregon’s signature climate regulations the moment they take over.

Polls show likely voters care most this year about the state’s struggle with inflation, homelessness and crime. But in terms of immediate impact, the next governor might make the biggest difference in how Oregon handles global warming.

‘I’d rescind that order in a heartbeat.’

Oregon’s governor enjoys a major say in the direction of the state’s climate objectives.

She appoints members of the commission that oversees the state’s Department of Environmental Quality, the agency responsible for enforcing many key climate and environmental regulations. All five of the commission’s members will see their terms expire during the next governor’s time in office.

The governor also appoints the Public Utility Commission that regulates the state’s largest power companies as they labor under requirements to switch to clean energy. And she sits on the State Land Board, a three-member body that manages property owned by the state and in recent years has taken up such weighty matters as selling off an entire state forest to logging interests.

But in this year’s election, one piece of policy is most immediately at stake: an executive order issued by Gov. Kate Brown in March 2020.

When Brown signed the order, House Republicans led by Drazan had just blown up that year’s legislative session by fleeing the state. With the maneuver, they successfully prevented a vote on a bill that would have set an upper limit on the state’s greenhouse gas emissions and reduced that limit over time.

It was the second time the concept, known as cap-and-trade, had failed in grand fashion: Nearly a year before, Democrats scrapped a similar bill because Johnson and two other Senate Democrats refused to sign on, dooming its chances.

“Should that bill pass,” Johnson said at the time, “I think that it has the very real potential to cripple Oregon’s economy and to change our economic landscape, particularly in rural Oregon, in ways that we could not have imagined.”

Betsy Johnson, then a Democratic state senator, holds up a wood cutting depicting the statehouse at a rally for Timber Unity in 2020. The event was in opposition of a cap-and-trade bill being pushed by Democrats, at the time Johnson's colleagues.
Bradley W. Parks /
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Betsy Johnson, then a Democratic state senator, holds up a wood cutting depicting the statehouse at a rally for Timber Unity in 2020. The event was in opposition of a cap-and-trade bill being pushed by Democrats, at the time Johnson's colleagues.

With the Democratic climate agenda stymied in the legislature, Brown took matters into her own hands, issuing an order that would lead to the state’s Climate Protection Program.

The policy is not as broad as the cap-and-trade proposal but accomplishes some of the same things. It sets a limit on how many tons of carbon auto fuel suppliers, factories and natural gas companies can emit, and gradually lowers that limit through 2050.

Modeling ordered by the state suggests the policy will be a modest boon to the economy, resulting in additional jobs in the long run. Business interests paid for their own analysis; it suggests energy prices will surge because of Brown’s regulations, and the state will lose more than 100,000 jobs by 2050.

Who’s right remains to be seen. The climate program took effect this year, but won’t force businesses to show compliance until 2025.

That’s if the policy survives until then. Both Drazan and Johnson have pledged to undo Brown’s order in the first days of their administration.

“I’d rescind that order in a heartbeat,” Johnson said in response to OPB’s questions. “Governor Brown’s ill-conceived executive order was intended to implement her failed cap-and-trade plan through regulatory fiat after she was unable to get it through the legislature. The governor should not be usurping legislative authority just because she cannot get her way.”

Similarly, Drazan has promised to “tear up Governor Brown’s cap-and-trade executive order on day one.”

“It is an extraordinary abuse of power by the executive branch that will, in the end, provide little in the way of environmental benefits while harming businesses, consumers, and our overall state economy,” Drazan said.

Such statements have helped Johnson and Drazan’s standing among foes of the program. Both women have seen endorsements and sizable campaign contributions from timber companies, industrial groups and other interests against the policy.

Kotek, meanwhile, would keep Brown’s order in place.

“The executive order was only necessary because Christine Drazan led her fellow Republicans to walk off the job and derail an entire legislative session instead of negotiating in good faith to address the climate crisis,” Kotek said. “Both my conservative opponents have received major campaign contributions from the oil and gas industry and have spent years siding with big polluters.”

Very different records

All three candidates bring a greater history on climate issues than the cap-and-trade fights of 2019 and 2020. During their time in the Legislature, each has built a record on policies aimed at stemming Oregon’s impact on global warming. (Johnson was first elected in 2000, Kotek in 2006 and Drazan in 2018.)

Though she was a Democrat during her 20 years in the Legislature, Johnson often worked against her party’s major climate proposals. That included a 2016 bill requiring power companies to generate more of their energy from renewable sources. The bill ensured that the state would wean itself off of coal-fired power by 2035. (Johnson did support a 2007 bill that sought to speed the transition to more renewable sources of power.)

Johnson also opposed the creation of a Clean Fuels Program that limits the carbon intensity of auto fuel. The program has prevented millions of tons of emissions since 2016, according to the DEQ. The state says the regulations hiked gas and diesel prices by about 5 cents a gallon in 2021.

And both Johnson and Drazan opposed a major 2021 piece of legislation that will require the state’s largest power companies to transition to 100% clean energy by 2040. That’s among the most ambitious such goals of any state – one many acknowledge might not be possible.

Kotek, meanwhile, supported all of those bills and helped usher them through the Legislature during an influential nine years as House speaker. She has been credited by environmental groups with saving policies like the Clean Fuels Program from attacks by industry groups and their allies.

Looking to the future

Kotek, Drazan and Johnson also bring major differences to how they plan to address climate change moving forward.

Kotek’s platform is partly a promise to maintain the status quo, a pledge to keep the state on target as it implements laws Democrats have passed in recent years.

She also stresses the importance of making it easier for Oregonians to buy and charge electric vehicles. And she says she’ll focus on reducing the use of natural gas, a potent greenhouse gas when it leaks, in homes and commercial buildings.

“Climate change impacts like wildfires and extreme weather are already a major threat to our way of life and have deadly consequences, like last year’s extreme heat that killed nearly 100 people,” Kotek said. “I am committed to transitioning to a clean energy economy, one that provides clean renewable energy, grows jobs, and helps fight the effects of climate change.”.

Kotek, like her two opponents, also has supported projects that would widen Oregon highways at troublesome choke points. That has earned her criticism from some climate hawks who say such projects will only increase auto use and, therefore, emissions.

“I don’t think this is an ‘either/or’ conversation,” Kotek said. “I believe we can have safe roads that aren’t clogged with traffic all day long and smart strategies to reduce pollution from cars and trucks.”

Johnson says her climate pitch comes down to three things: “better forest management, green energy, and greater innovation in emission-reducing technologies.” The policy Johnson stresses most is forest management, a subject the wealthy timber heiress raises whenever climate change is brought up.

By thinning forests – cutting down some trees while leaving others – Johnson argues the state can better guard against wildfires.

“The biggest thing we can do to mitigate climate change… is not let the place burn down every year,” she said during a debate in late July. “The amount of particulate and carbon that goes into the air from conflagration is absolutely unacceptable.”

Another central plank of Johnson’s climate platform: Fighting efforts to remove four federal dams on the Snake River in eastern Oregon. The dams have been targeted by activists and environmental groups for posing a threat to fish species, but Johnson says the hydroelectric power they provide is too important.

“I will continue pushing Oregon into a green energy future, including protecting the 100% carbon-free hydro that provides roughly 50% of our current electricity needs,” Johnson said.

Drazan, the Republican nominee, is the lone candidate not to include climate among the central issues in her online platform and doesn’t seem to have much to say on the matter. OPB asked her what she’d do to reduce Oregon’s greenhouse gas emissions after rescinding Brown’s executive order. She declined to offer suggestions.

“It’s important to start by acknowledging that Oregon is already among the greenest states in the country,” she said, “due in large part to our ability to access renewable hydropower and other clean power sources.”

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.