Governor turns to executive order to advance Oregon climate change program

SALEM — Gov. Kate Brown is preparing an executive order to cut the state’s climate impacts on her own authority, after a second failure to get legislators to approve such a plan.

The governor’s office “is having conversations with the Department of Justice to ensure the governor acts as aggressively as she can within Oregon statutes, and the executive order will reflect that,” a spokeswoman for Brown said in an email on Friday.

Brown said she would act in a statement issued after Democrats in the Legislature decided to close down the 35-day session.

They did so because Republicans in the House and Senate had walked out to avoid voting on an environmental proposal known as cap and trade, insisting the complicated program be sent to Oregon voters instead.

The most recent legislative version of the climate plan would have capped business emissions of greenhouse gases, shrunk the cap over 30 years’ time, and created a market for those businesses to buy and sell certificates for emissions, using the pricing scheme to encourage businesses to emit less.

Brown said Thursday she while she preferred the legislation, she would not abandon the climate change plan.

“In the coming days, I will be taking executive action to lower our greenhouse gas emissions,” Brown said in a written statement.

What exactly the order would do wasn’t clear Friday afternoon.

But any program Brown sets up would be less flexible than the cap and trade program that legislators had proposed, said Sen. Michael Dembrow, a Portland Democrat who was a leading architect of the climate plan.

“My sense, based on what we saw last year, is there’s fair amount she can do on the cap side, and not much that she can do on the invest side,” Dembrow said. “She can’t actually create a market. And so it’s more of a regulatory approach.”

The legislation would have used money from the program for projects to make transportation more efficient, for example, and help Oregonians adapt to climate change.

Brown’s order likely wouldn’t raise money for those kinds of projects, said Brad Reed, a spokesman for Renew Oregon, a coalition of environmental and renewable energy organizations. The group wants a climate change program for Oregon.

“She has a lot of ability to set targets … that will lower pollution, which has its benefits for health,” said Reed. “And certainly, clean energy transition of any kind is going to create economic activity and all the good stuff that comes along with the clean energy, like cheaper electricity… But without the significant investments that were envisioned in the legislation, we have to wait a little bit longer for that kind of activity. She can’t do that through executive order.”

Brown considered an executive order on climate just last year, when Republicans had walked out over the 2019 version of cap and trade legislation. That bill’s demise came in late June after it became clear not enough Democrats supported it.

At that time, Brown could have enacted a number of climate policies intended to reduce emissions, according to an assessment done last year by the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality and obtained by the Oregon Capital Bureau. A spokesman for the agency said in an email that the document is now “outdated.”

According to that 2019 document, Brown could have imposed a new limit on emissions from industrial sources and on fossil fuels, like auto fuel and natural gas, imported to the state. Those limits could have been reduced over time and the state could have required businesses to buy credits or offsets for excessive emissions.

The 2019 document also said that Brown could have taken steps to “strengthen and extend” the state’s low-carbon fuel standard, tightened regulations on landfill methane emissions, boosted energy efficiency standards for electric appliances and required new buildings to have electric vehicle charging stations.

The governor could face a legal challenge from opponents of a climate program.

Asked whether climate legislation could still come down the pike next year, or in a special session, Dembrow said he thought it was “too soon to say.”

I think we would want to see how the executive orders are working,” Dembrow said. “My understanding is that we do want to go at this in a more comprehensive way than the executive orders allow.”

Ultimately, he said, he wants to see the Legislature act itself.

“I’m hoping that we can do that, either in a special session or in a 2021 session, but I’m confident that at some point it will get there,” Dembrow said.

Meanwhile, Renew Oregon continues to prepare measures for the November ballot while waiting to see what Brown and legislators do. One measure would cap greenhouse gas emissions and the other would require that all of the state’s energy come from renewable sources by 2045.

Legislative leaders say climate is a key priority. Speaking on the House floor before effectively ending the session on Thursday, Speaker Tina Kotek, D-Portland said lawmakers “must take climate action this year.”

The legislative Emergency Board is scheduled to meet on Monday and consider a request for $5 million to implement a greenhouse gas reduction program.