DEQ staff drops carbon sequestration plan recommended by state advisory groups

An ambitious plan to reduce green house gas emissions is missing plans to sequester carbon in state agricultural and forest lands. (Malheur Enterprise photo)

Advisers to the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality say a new climate change program ignored their recommendations and those of the state’s Global Warming Commission, missing an opportunity to invest in forests and agricultural land to cut greenhouse gas emissions.

The Climate Protection Program is a set of regulations that charge heavy polluters in the state for producing carbon dioxide emissions above certain limits. If polluters go over the limits, they pay per extra ton of carbon emitted, and the money gets invested in projects that DEQ has approved, such as electric buses and electric vehicle charging stations.

The agency was directed to come up with the program in 2020, as part of Gov. Kate Brown’s sweeping executive order intending to reduce and regulate greenhouse gas emissions. 

To create the Climate Protection Program, DEQ convened a group of 35 advisers from environmental organizations, tribes, the natural gas and logging industries and local governments. DEQ met with them seven times beginning in January. 

The final regulations were sent Monday to the Environmental Quality Commission, a governor-appointed panel of three that will consider approving the rules on Thursday, Dec. 16.

Some advisers who represent rural communities were surprised and dismayed by what didn’t make it into that final draft.

John Hillock, county commissioner from Wallowa County, was one of those advisers. He said that in addition to using revenues from the program to fund electric buses and charging stations, the group had also included projects that would improve carbon sequestration, like planting forests and helping farmers afford cover crops. Forests, plants and natural lands can help absorb and store excess carbon from the atmosphere.

Reducing emissions of carbon dioxide and lowering levels in the atmosphere are seen as essential to slowing the damaging impacts of climate change that scientists say are leading to more extreme weather events.

But just recently, he said, DEQ Director Richard Whitman told the advisers that carbon sequestration projects would not be included in the Climate Protection Program.

“They went off on their own,” Hillock said. “The bulk of the people on the rules advisory committee were in favor of natural climate solutions.” 

Another adviser was Jan Lee, executive director of the Oregon Association of Conservation Districts, where she represents 45 local soil and water conservation districts. 

“No one spoke out and said, ‘no we shouldn’t do this,’” Lee said. “Throughout the meetings, we understood that carbon sequestration on ag and forestry lands would be part of the program.”

Oregon’s Global Warming Commission, which separately recommended policies and regulations related to greenhouse gas emissions, had also called on DEQ to include carbon sequestration in the Climate Protection Program. In its report in October, the commission said, “DEQ should be encouraged to work with tribes and stakeholders to solicit and fund projects that result in net carbon sequestration on natural and working lands.”

The commission said Oregon might not meet emissions reductions targets set by Gov. Kate Brown without increasing the amount of forest and agricultural land used to absorb and store carbon. 

In an emailed statement, DEQ officials said they eliminated carbon sequestration projects because they wanted to focus on projects that could “reduce fossil fuel emissions among communities historically most affected by climate change and air pollution. As such, the staff proposal is for the climate investments to fund projects that reduce fossil fuels, rather than to include sequestration.”

The final Climate Protection Program calls communities of color, low income communities, tribal communities, rural communities, coastal communities, communities with limited infrastructure, seniors, youth and persons with disabilities among those most affected by climate change and air pollution.

Hillock said many communities in rural Oregon fit that description. Hermiston and Umatilla have diverse populations, many rural communities are home to low-income Oregonians and many live by natural gas, food processing and cement manufacturing, he said.

“In my community we have timber companies that do clear cutting,” he said. “My fear is that all the money from the program will go to electric buses and car charging stations all up and down the I-5 corridor and metro areas and not to saving forests from clear cutting.”

Lee similarly felt as though the program highlighted the need to support rural communities, and then abandoned them.

She praised DEQ for recognizing the burden of climate change faced by rural communities in a letter she wrote in September to a DEQ official. 

“However, without sequestration projects, there is likely to be little opportunity to provide mitigation in rural settings. During the rulemaking process DEQ has stated many times that it intends to address needs in rural lands, but these appear to be hollow assertions,” Lee wrote. 

Lee, Hillock and several others tried to get elected officials and Brown to intervene and restore the sequestration option.

Lee, Hillock and a representative from Northwest Natural Gas asked the governor’s climate and energy policy adviser to step in.

Hillock said this session occurred after the governor returned from the international climate summit in Glasgow, where forestry issues were highlighted.

“There was so much about forests and how vital they were to fighting climate change,” Hillock said. “Here’s Oregon, a forest state, and we’re not doing anything with them in the DEQ plan.”

He and the others were ultimately told that Brown would not intervene at DEQ.

Charles Boyle, the governor’s deputy communications director, said in an email to the Capital Chronicle that the governor hopes to use federal infrastructure funding and the as-yet-to-pass Build Back Better bill to invest in carbon sequestration in Oregon’s natural and working lands. “Any new state program is best implemented through the legislative process, with input from the Ways and Means process,” he wrote. “The governor would look to future legislative sessions for the opportunity to take action on this recommendation.”

Many see the Climate Protection Program as a potential victory for Brown’s administration after years of failing to get a cap and trade program approved by the legislators. That would have been similar to California’s, where heavy emitters can buy carbon credits to meet limits on greenhouse gas emissions that the state has set. Those credits include carbon sequestration in state forests and lands. 

Had Oregon passed a cap and trade program, some revenues would have gone to carbon sequestration projects recommended by the Oregon Global Warming Commission.

According to state Sen. Michael Dembrow, D-Portland, the Senate Natural Resources and Wildfire Recovery Committee will address carbon sequestration projects recommended by the commission when the Legislature convenes in February. Many of the commission’s recommendations are still unfunded.

Hillock sees the Climate Protection Program as a missed opportunity for cutting state emissions and investing in forests and natural lands.

“I just can’t believe DEQ walked by this as an option,” he said.

A previous version of this story stated the Senate Energy and Environment Committee would address carbon sequestration projects recommended by the Global Warming Commission. That legislation will be brought forward by the Senate Natural Resources and Wildfire Recovery Committee. 

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