High gas prices hurt wallets, Oregon's economy

In part because of a refinery fire this week in Northern California, the national average for gas prices now tops last year's price, the first time this has happened in almost four months. Here in Oregon, we've been consistently paying more than the national average throughout this summer. That pill is even harder to swallow when you consider that every dollar we spend at the pump is shipped out of state, providing very little benefit for our economy. Why? Because Oregon doesn't have a single oil producer or refinery, so the $1,600 annual average each driver spends mostly leaks out of state and out of the country, often to countries that are openly hostile to America.

What if I told you we could make that money work for Oregon while reducing pollution and cutting our dependence on oil? In 2009, the Oregon Legislature created a program to encourage clean, new fuels. This Clean Fuels Program requires Oregon's transportation fuel mix to be 10 percent cleaner over a decade, which could be met with anything from biodiesel blends to electric cars to innovations with existing fuels. The program is on the verge of being implemented: This spring Gov. John Kitzhaber directed the state to finalize the new rules. But there is still work to be done. The rules need to be adopted by the year's end and the original bill was passed with an automatic "sunset" in 2015. Without legislative action to lift the sunset, it will rob Oregon of the economic benefits before the program even gets off the ground.

What is clear is that the Clean Fuels Program could be an effective and wide-ranging economic catalyst for Oregon. An independent study by Jack Faucett Associates found that this program will save consumers money, create jobs and increase Oregon's economic activity — as much as $70 million and, in the most beneficial scenarios, a billion dollars or more of Gross State Product. Businesses and consumers across the state would benefit from lower-cost fuels, and the analysis predicted an increase of as many as 29,000 Oregon jobs by keeping the billions we spend on fuel at least partially in-state through constructing clean fuel infrastructure (such as electric vehicle charging stations, biorefineries or biogas conversion facilities at wastewater treatment plants), hiring distributors, building new retail stations, selling and maintaining new types of vehicles and other jobs to support the clean fuels sector.

Clean fuels technology is already working for Jackson County. Brammo Inc. of Ashland is building powerful electric motorcycles and achieving steady growth, with employment projected to expand by up to a third by year's end. The Rogue Valley Transportation District and Waste Management currently has compressed natural gas fueling stations that service 15 of the district's 23 buses, in addition to local CNG sewer and garbage trucks. Rogue Biofuels and Rising Phoenix both sell biodiesel to a number of local customers, and would see their businesses grow with the Clean Fuels Standard.

In other parts of Oregon, the same story is true: We have upwards of 150 companies working in the electric vehicles industry, seven biofuels companies, including two advanced ethanol companies, and new facilities that can convert biogas into transportation fuels. Businesses such as SeQuential Biofuels in Eugene, now with 75 employees, buy big stainless steel tanks from Canby's JV Northwest and sell lower cost fuels to local companies such as DeSantis Landscapes in Salem, compounding the economic benefits for Oregon by keeping even more money in-state. And technology being developed at Oregon State University and tested in Eastern Oregon could even produce renewable, home-grown fuel from the abundant biomass generated by thinning Southern Oregon's abundant forests.

The economic and geopolitical realities are clear: Over-reliance on dirty foreign oil is backwards thinking. Clean Oregon fuels, supported by innovative companies and new technologies, are the way forward.

DEQ is now accepting written comments on the program through the end of the August, and a statewide public hearing is scheduled Aug. 24, with the Medford DEQ office serving as a regional location for interested parties to share their testimony. I urge you to consider participating and lending your support. Hopefully our Oregon Legislature will follow suit and lift the 2015 sunset on the program so we can create investment opportunities for Oregon, reward innovation, expand access to lower cost fuels and set a solid course for a stable clean fuels future.

Jana Gastellum is the climate protection program director at Oregon Environmental Council, www.oeconline.org.

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