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Climate Protection Program under scrutiny

Solar evolution

ASHLAND — It’s 2050 and greenhouse gas emissions have dropped 80%. Light duty vehicles no longer rely on fossil fuels, and clean electricity dominates the transportation sector — Oregon’s largest source of emissions and the key to a de-carbonized future, said Colin McConnaha, Department of Environmental Quality greenhouse gas programs manager.

The rest of the state’s energy future could be shaped by projects tailored to communities most impacted by climate change through the new Climate Protection Program, though some advocates retain concerns that the proposed program falls short of meeting emission reduction goals and evolving environmental justice standards.

Gov. Kate Brown signed an executive order in March 2020 directing state agencies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and mitigate the effects of climate change, and created a new program to regulate emissions limits and incentivize clean energy transitions.

DEQ released a draft proposal for the Climate Protection Program Aug. 5. A public comment period on the proposal — preceding adoption by the Oregon Environmental Quality Commission — ends Oct. 4.

The commission will host a public hearing from 4-7 p.m. Sept. 30. Written comments can be submitted online or by mail.

DEQ will review, consider and respond to every comment submitted, and adjustments will be made to the program proposal prior to submission to the commission in December, McConnaha said. If adopted, the program takes effect in 2022.

DEQ defines the program as “aggressive and achievable,” while some public feedback presses for more expedient and drastic action.

McConnaha said feedback shows interest in “doubling down” requirements of the program to reduce emissions across the state’s economy “further and faster,” and on the flip side, concerns from potentially regulated fossil fuel producers about the cost of compliance with the program.

DEQ staff and a rules advisory committee convened seven times in the months prior to opening the public comment period — thus far, input and concerns have been similar from both groups, McConnaha said.

The 34-member rules advisory committee included representatives from environmental organizations, energy production companies, municipal entities, food interests, Native American family services and tribal governments, trucking companies, forest products, a citizens’ utility board and Coalition of Communities of Color, according to the notice of proposed rulemaking.

Under the Climate Protection Program, directly regulated fossil fuel suppliers with annually declining emissions caps would include natural gas utilities and gas, diesel, kerosene and propane suppliers that produce more than 25,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide annually.

Per Brown’s executive order, DEQ caps greenhouse gas emissions at 28.2 million metric tons as a baseline in 2022, declining to 16.9 million metric tons by 2035 and 6 million metric tons by 2050, representing an 80% reduction from 2017-2019 emissions.

Momentum behind the program was, in part, driven by a failure to make progress on achieving greenhouse gas reduction goals adopted at the state level in 2007, McConnaha said, emphasizing the value of “enforceable limits” in the new program.

When progress stagnates, updated science reflects a grimmer future necessitating more emissions reductions to make up for lost time, he said, adding that DEQ considered both a more and less aggressive approach than the proposed program, which charts a middle path.

Embedding enforceable, declining annual caps in the program raised questions about which entities are responsible for direct compliance, amid a myriad of small- and large-scale emissions sources, McConnaha said.

“We can’t be regulating directly every motorist, household, furnace and water heater out there,” he said. “So what we’ve done is proposed that the limit be applied to the companies that are bringing in these fossil fuels and distributing them throughout the economy.”

A webinar panel of environmental justice leaders Tuesday focused on how advocates can attempt to strengthen the program during its creation, said webinar host Allie Rosenbluth, campaigns director with Rogue Climate.

According to Rosenbluth, the part of the Climate Protection Program that regulates fossil fuel suppliers through a cap-and-reduce program fails to fulfill its intended purpose.

As is, the program offers three compliance options: supply less product over time, save credits for future use or trade them with other fossil fuel suppliers. According to the DEQ program summary, the format encourages suppliers to cut emissions early and offers flexibility to choose the most economical emissions reduction model.

Penalties apply to directly regulated parties that fail to meet their obligation, but the program does not specify how reductions occur.

Instead of supplying less of a fossil fuel product, a supplier may choose to shift toward producing renewable and alternative energy products to achieve compliance, or fund “community climate investments,” which funnels money toward statewide projects focused on fossil fuel combustion reduction.

Suppliers can choose what combination of compliance is “economically rational,” comparing the cost of purchasing community climate investments to bringing in renewable diesel, for example, McConnaha said.

McConnaha expects most businesses to mix and match their compliance strategy — some natural gas utilities have already compiled blended portfolios of compliance options based on economic modeling and trends in renewable energy, he said. The program as proposed does not cover the electricity sector.

“It’s important that as we switch over uses from fossil fuels to electricity that it not just be a shell game where it’s really just fossil fuel by a different energy source,” McConnaha said.

Each entity covered under the CPP may meet up to 10% of its compliance obligation with community climate investment credits at the start of the program, up to 20% over time, according to the program summary. Suppliers must demonstrate compliance on a three-year basis.

The community climate investment contribution amount starts at $81 per credit. Funds must be spent on projects that reduce Oregonians’ reliance on fossil fuels, and the priority for those dollars must be given to communities traditionally disadvantaged by pollution, McConnaha said.

“DEQ’s priorities include achieving at least one metric ton of carbon dioxide equivalent of emissions reductions per the average community climate investment credit achieved, reducing non-greenhouse gas emissions, promoting benefits for environmental justice communities, and accelerating the transition from fossil fuels to low carbon energy sources,” according to the summary.

Public feedback has emphasized the need to decrease greenhouse gas reliance and emissions while “lifting up” the most impacted communities, including predominantly low-income and rural communities, “allowing them to be part of that clean energy transition and not left behind holding the fossil fuel bag,” McConnaha said.

Based on how similar programs in California have played out, allowing corporations to purchase offsets instead of reducing emissions only preserves the disproportionately negative effects of pollution on rural and low-income communities, said Rosenbluth, pointing to other perceived flaws in the program as proposed.

“By the end year of this program, in 2050, we only reach about 77% of the governor’s goal in this specific sector ... which is only about 40% of Oregon’s emissions,” she said.

The second facet of the program, which directly regulates stationary sources of emissions, could be effective so long as measurable goals for emissions reduction are established and exemptions are minimized, she said.

“The largest stationary sources in the state of Oregon are fracked gas power plants, but these have actually been excluded from the program and DEQ has given the largest stationary polluters a way out of this program,” Rosenbluth said.

Twelve stationary source polluters in the state would be covered by the program, leaving out 50 other large stationary sources, she said, elaborating on a request that DEQ include emissions from the electricity sector, pipelines, compressor stations, gas processing and liquefaction facilities and facilities that pollute less than 25,000 metric tons of CO2.

“We have a ton of exemptions in this program, which means there’s a ton of pollution that is not being accounted for by the Climate Protection Program, and there are a ton of communities who will not see the added benefit of pollution being reduced in their communities,” Rosenbluth said.

Don Sampson, chief of the Walla Walla Tribe and climate change project director for the Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians, called for a minimum 50% dedication of community climate investment funds to “frontline” communities, including Indigenous communities that often cross into rural and low-income status.

Potential projects using the funds could improve transportation systems in tribal communities with regional transit or zero-emission vehicle investments, address substandard housing with energy-efficient utilities and construction, and support initiatives like Yellowhawk Tribal Health Center’s pursuit of net-zero energy use, Sampson said.

“Our goal is reduction of greenhouse gas emissions first and foremost,” he said. “In places where these community climate investments can achieve real, measurable, additional, verifiable and permanent reductions, then we think that those investments must result in a one-to-one reduction of emissions or co-pollutants for every credit that is issued.”

DEQ proposed a monitoring and verification process of credit recipients to ensure each meets a one-to-one reduction and credits aren’t being over-issued, McConnaha said.

Sampson urged DEQ to consult with all nine of Oregon’s tribes, claiming that thus far the agency “hasn’t been effective in consulting with the sovereign tribal governments” about the analysis, process and impact of the proposed program.

To Sampson, achieving environmental justice means following the philosophy of “Tamanwit” (natural law). He is beholden to a 1,000-year vision into the future and the past, in which equity and reciprocity are upheld through land stewardship.

“There’s a difference between ecological knowledge and wisdom,” Sampson said. “Wisdom is what guides people to make the right decisions for their future. Wisdom is what guides people to take care of something that they don’t own, but they only borrow from future generations. That’s what environmental justice is.”

Rep. Khanh Pham, D-Portland, said as ecological crises compound, expanding the definition of “environmental justice” has allowed stakeholders to move beyond measuring inequitable impact on various groups and productively question the entire system of human communities’ relationship with the Earth, specifically in regard to resource extraction methods.

Environmental justice has recently been used to acknowledge that Black, brown, low-income and tribal communities often “bear the brunt of toxic pollution in a far disproportionate manner to wealthier communities, whiter communities,” Pham said.

“Our goal, ultimately, is not to make sure that all racial and ethnic groups receive equal amounts of pollution, but to make sure that we are actually living in balance,” Pham said. “A just transition to a more regenerative economy that’s caring and a more equitable economy is a critical part of environmental justice — it’s maybe more apt to say it’s a return to those [Indigenous] principles.”

Pham said she supports the goals of the Climate Protection Program, but cautioned that as written the program amounts to a high likelihood of failure to meet emissions reduction targets by regulating only a small portion of polluters. Outstanding concerns include the regulation of interstate gas pipelines, large fracked gas facilities and the offsets component of the program, she said.

“I am concerned that fuel suppliers can still buy their way out of reducing pollution by buying offsets known as these community climate investments, which currently don’t have any sidebars to ensure that frontline communities in Oregon will actually get the benefits of reducing emissions,” Pham said.

Dr. Patricia Kullberg underscored the public health impact of greenhouse gas and toxic emissions on underserved communities, which are more exposed to risk, more sensitive to risk factors and are least prepared to adapt to problems brought by climate change, she said.

Kullberg is a retired primary care physician, holds a master’s degree in public health and volunteers with Oregon Physicians for Social Responsibility.