Boardman Coal Plant

The Boardman Coal Station. 

Unless something unexpected happens in Salem this week, we suspect the Oregon Legislature will pass House Bill 2020, the so-called cap-and-trade bill that's meant to lower the greenhouse gas emissions that are contributing to climate change.

Legislative action on the controversial measure could come this week; the House, where the bill virtually is a lock to pass, was scheduled to take it up early this week and, in fact, might have approved it by the time you read this. 

Winning approval from the state Senate might be a little trickier, especially since the bill has generated opposition from prominent Democrats such as Betsy Johnson, the senator from Scappoose who's been a frequent thorn in the side of legislative leaders. But our hunch is that the bill has enough support in the Senate to pass there, and Gov. Kate Brown has said she'll sign it.

Under the cap-and-trade program, the state puts an overall limit on emissions and auctions off pollution permits or allowances for each ton of carbon industries plan to emit. The measure targets only the largest polluters; the idea is that as emission limits become stricter over time, and as the price of permits increases, industries will have an incentive to switch to green technology.

Oregon's cap-and-trade program would begin in 2021, and the goal is to reduce emissions below 1990 levels by 2050.

So it will be at least a couple of years before we can even begin taking stock of how the program is working and — in particular — what impact the bill is having on the state's rural and agricultural communities, where its impacts likely will be outsized. Opponents of House Bill 2020 have argued that the measure will result in increased prices for fuel, and gas prices are projected to rise by 22 cents a gallon in 2021 and by a whopping $3 a gallon by 2050. 

To be fair, the bill does attempt to soften the blow to the state's rural and agricultural businesses. Some of the money that would be raised in the first year — an estimated $550 million — would be used to fund investments in low-income communities. The proposal also includes $10 million to protect workers in the transportation or manufacturing sectors who face layoffs.

But that money presumably won't help the 60 sawmill workers who will be laid off at Stimson Lumber's Forest Grove sawmill. Stimson CEO Andrew Miller said in a statement that rural and agricultural communities are paying the price for what he called "Oregon's assault on business," an assault that includes the cap-and-trade measure.

Presumably, that assault also includes a gross receipts tax on certain Oregon businesses approved earlier this session. Money from that tax will go to the state's underfunded K-12 schools — unless an effort underway to refer the measure to the ballot doesn't derail it. 

Oddly enough, both the proponents and opponents of cap and trade agree that the measure won't radically reduce greenhouse gas emissions. For starters, Oregon doesn't produce that much in the way of emissions when compared to states with bigger economies.

In California, the only state that has adopted a cap-and-trade system thus far, emissions have declined substantially — but only about 20 percent of that decrease can be linked to cap and trade, according to the Associated Press.

Proponents hope that joining Oregon's cap-and-trade system with California's will help trigger similar actions in other states. Gov. Brown has said that she hopes Oregon "can be the log that breaks the jam nationally" on climate policy, especially in the face of a federal government that's in denial about the issue.

Perhaps. But the question remains: What price will Oregon's smaller communities, the ones reliant on industries such as timber and agriculture and transportation, pay to be that log? And if this policy turns out to be a body blow to those rural economies, what steps are legislators prepared to take to try to make them whole? (mm)

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