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Is reducing greenhouse gas emissions mandatory or aspirational? Oregon's climate package could determine

Republicans in the Oregon House are upset about word changes in a climate package and delayed a final vote.
Ron Cooper
Oregon Capital Chronicle
Republicans in the Oregon House are upset about word changes in a climate package and delayed a final vote.

House Republicans have held up a vote on a package full of climate bills, claiming a substantive word was changed too late in the process.

When the Oregon House ended its work last Wednesday, only one bill was left to flounder without a final vote.

House Bill 3409 is a package of 15 “climate resilience” proposals. They include investments in community-based solar programs and green building code updates among others.

Each of the 15 proposals underwent months of public hearings in House and Senate committees before being recommended to move to the budget-making Joint Ways and Means Committee.

But when that committee discussed the final 122-page climate package on Monday, including a budget recommendation of more than $60 million, Republicans noted a revision that changed a declaration that it is the “aspiration” of the state to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to read that it is the “policy” of the state to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Republican House Speaker Vikki Breese-Iverson, R-Prineville, said this was a substantive change that could have major implications for businesses. The word aspiration was approved as an amendment to one of the proposals in the climate package at the request of Sen. Lynn Findley, R-Vale, who wanted clarity that no mandates or penalties would befall businesses in Oregon if state emissions reduction targets aren’t met. Democrats and the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality said the word change would not affect any rulemaking or penalties.

Breese-Iverson implored lawmakers on Monday to vote against the package. She issued a letter Tuesday saying the Natural Resources Subcommittee of Joint Ways and Means had rushed the package through and introduced word changes with significant public policy implications. The letter was co-signed by 30 industry groups involved in timber, fossil fuels and agriculture.

On Friday afternoon another business coalition made up of 25 companies represented by the advocacy group Oregon Business for Climate urged lawmakers to pass the climate package, calling it a sound business choice.

Republicans take issue with the targets themselves, which are part of the Climate Protection Program created via executive order by former Gov. Kate Brown. It was issued in 2020, and directs state agencies to come up with plans to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions. The end goal is to reduce emissions 95% below 1990 levels by 2050.

As aspirations, Republicans saw the targets as goals. As policy, they saw them as mandates.

The decision to wait a week to hold a vote on the package was made so members of both parties could cool off and take time to read it all, lawmakers said.

Breese-Iverson said Republicans are frustrated that the Ways and Means committee violated the process of creating legislation like the climate package by ignoring an amendment that had been approved by lawmakers months earlier. Next, she said, they are worried about how the word change would affect new regulations that would follow.

“While we are focused on one word, we believe this one word will make all of the difference as state agencies carry out the rule-making process,” Breese-Iverson wrote in an email to the Capital Chronicle.

Rep. Pam Marsh, D-Ashland, said the state’s climate goals are just that — goals — not mandates. She also added that Findley could have attended meetings when the final package was being put together and weighed in then, but he had not been showing up to work as part of the five-week Senate Republican walkout. Matt Davis, a policy manager for the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality, even submitted a note to lawmakers stating that the word “policy” instead of “aspiration” in no way would affect any future regulations from the agency, but Republican lawmakers nonetheless fear unintended consequences.

The bill will be the only scheduled business for the House when it convenes Tuesday, as the June 25th end of the legislative session looms.

The Oregon Capital Chronicle is a professional, nonprofit news organization. We are an affiliate of States Newsroom, a national 501(c)(3) nonprofit supported by grants and a coalition of donors and readers. The Capital Chronicle retains full editorial independence, meaning decisions about news and coverage are made by Oregonians for Oregonians.

Alex Baumhardt is a JPR content partner from the Oregon Capital Chronicle. Before that Alex was a national radio producer focusing on education for American Public Media.