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Oregon senators demand climate action in federal budget plan

State capitol.JPG

Oregon's senators are among seven Western Democrats who say they are including steps to counter climate change in the federal budget resolution and other measures pending before Congress.

Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley spoke Wednesday during a conference call organized by Washington Sen. Patty Murray.

"Climate change is here and now, not some distant worry for another day. None of us here wants our kids to have to live through droughts that get worse every year, or to only know smoke-filled skies in the summer," she said. "We need to meet this moment with the urgency that it demands. We know what we have got to do."

Murray conceded there's a lot of work to be done in the next few weeks by the thin Democratic congressional majorities — no Republican support is likely — to include what President Joe Biden wants in the budget.

"We are working as quickly as possible," she said. "But we want it done right."

Wildfire wakeup call

Wyden and Merkley said the wildfires that swept western Oregon in 2020 and the Bootleg fire demonstrated how things have changed.

Among the measures that Wyden said Senate Democrats will include in the $3.5 trillion budget resolution is funding for a Civilian Climate Corps, modeled on President Franklin D. Roosevelt's Civilian Conservation Corps, which between 1933 and 1942 put thousands of young men to work in the nation's forests. Silver Falls State Park, east of Salem, is one of its legacies.

"What we ought to be doing is putting thousands of young people to work in the forests," Wyden said, particularly in helping with prescribed burning to reduce the potential fuels for wildfires.

An area that underwent this treatment is credited with lessening the impact of the 2017 Mill fire, which still consumed 24,000 acres near Sisters.

In addition to more federal aid for prescribed burning, Wyden said the tax-writing Finance Committee — which he leads for a second time — has proposed to scrap 44 current tax breaks for fossil fuels into just three for renewable energy, transportation fuels and energy efficiency.

"It is the linchpin of what we are going to be doing to grow clean energy that can support thousands of good-paying jobs," he said. "We have a simple message: The more you reduce carbon emissions, the bigger your tax savings."

Merkley said an urgent task is for the nation to make a quicker transition from fossil fuels and their greenhouse gases, in line with Biden's pledge to generate 80% of the nation's power from alternative sources and cut emissions in half by 2030.

"The answer is pretty simple: Electrify everything with renewable energy. Turn fossil-fuel furnaces into heat pumps. Turn fossil transit into electric vehicles. Put renewable energy on the grid to replace fossil energy," he said. "That is what Build Back Better (Biden plan) does. It is a clean-energy payment plan."

Washington Sen. Maria Cantwell said climate change also calls for upgraded weather forecasting and an improved power grid to distribute electricity despite more intense heat, cold and storms.

"If we have a smarter electricity grid," she said, "then we could move forward with having our grid be more resilient, more robust, and better focused on clean energy from many sources."

Political roadblocks

Merkley also raised possibilities of a tax on carbon emissions, a fee on methane — a more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide — and a border-adjustment tax (tariff) on imported goods from nations with less-strict emissions standards.

"Will any of these be in it? We will see," Merkley said. "But I wanted to mention they are part of the conversation at this point."

Because the Senate is split 50-50 — Democrats hold a majority only with the tie-breaking vote of Vice President Kamala Harris — Democrats will have to be united to pass any budget resolution. But some of the tax proposals may run into opposition from Joe Manchin, a Democrat from West Virginia whose state is a major coal producer. Manchin also leads the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, which Wyden himself led in 2013 and still sits on.

"I think Senator Manchin understands we are undergoing dramatic change in our country," Wyden said. "There are areas we can help through the tax code and elsewhere. But I call tell you that failure is not an option."

The Senate version of the budget resolution will have to mesh with the plan being developed by the House, which also has a slim Democratic majority. Wyden said the Congressional Budget Office is scoring the tax proposals put forth by the House Ways and Means Committee, the counterpart to Wyden's committee, but that Democratic members and Biden administration officials have spent much of the summer discussing provisions for climate change and other goals in Biden's Build Back Better plan.

"I think we made a lot of headway," Wyden said. "What we are really focused on is trying to find common ground."

Others who took part in the call were Sens. Alex Padilla of California, Brian Schatz of Hawaii and Michael Bennet of Colorado.