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As Climate Laws Pass Elsewhere, Oregon Republicans Go to the Extreme to Not

The Trump administration is rolling back carbon dioxide emissions regulations. Meanwhile, states are divided on whether to raise their clean air standards.

New York climate change law
A generating station in Queens, N.Y.
Last Updated June 21, 2019 at 11:59 a.m. ET

Legislators in liberal states have taken increasingly bold steps this year in their efforts to combat climate change. Their target? Greenhouse gases released by power plants and other big polluters.

State lawmakers in Maryland, New Mexico and Washington passed sweeping laws aimed at cutting carbon dioxide emissions, and New York is on the verge of joining them.

Then there's Oregon, where some Republican lawmakers have left the state to avoid a vote on similar climate legislation -- and the governor sent state police to find them.

The New York state Assembly passed legislation early Thursday morning that would require the state’s industries, by 2050, to reduce the carbon dioxide levels the state produced in 1990 by 85 percent. The remaining 15 percent would have to be offset by renewable energy sources. The bill now heads to the governor’s desk.

If the proposal becomes law, as expected, New York would become the sixth state to mandate 100 percent renewable energy sources in the coming decades. Hawaii, Nevada, New Mexico and Washington have passed similar policies. California Gov. Jerry Brown signed an executive order on his way out of office mandating such a goal in his state, but it hasn't been approved by the legislature.

New York's measure, however, goes further than most.

It would apply to not just electricity sources but also would require a generational shift toward cleaner industrial facilities and office buildings, along with more efficient cars and trucks. New York Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo touted it in a radio interview as “the most aggressive climate change program in the United States of America, period.”

New York's ambitious proposal passed the Senate one day before the Trump administration announced its final plan to roll back Obama-era rules curbing carbon dioxide pollution from power plants. Sen. Todd Kaminsky, who sponsored the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act, said the bill would take the state in a different direction than federal agencies under President Donald Trump. 

“While Washington is asleep at the wheel, New York is leading the way,” said Kaminsy. “New Yorkers and the world cannot wait any longer. This is the moment for bold, global change.”

Of course, the prospect of moving New York’s entire economy away from fossil fuels is daunting. 

“Every corner of the state’s economy would need to become drastically cleaner, including industrial facilities, heating for residential homes and office buildings and the transportation system, including approximately 10 million cars, trucks and buses,” The New York Times notes.


Oregon Eyes Cap and Trade

Oregon, meanwhile, could soon become the first state in a decade to create a cap-and-trade marketplace for pollution credits. But first, Republican lawmakers would have to return to the capitol to vote on it.

The state House passed a cap-and-trade bill earlier this week after a six-hour debate. Since then, some Senate Republicans have either left the state or gone into hiding to prevent the Senate -- where Democrats hold a slim majority -- from having the quorum it needs to operate. Democratic Gov. Kate Brown sent the state police to find them.

Under the proposal, the state's sale of pollution credits to businesses would fund clean-energy programs, and the cap on allowable greenhouse gas pollution would gradually decrease until it reached an 80 percent reduction from 1990 levels by 2050.

“This bill is not just about Oregon. It’s about building environmental momentum,” Rep. Chris Gorsek, a Democrat, said during the debate. “I believe that this will inspire other states, cities, counties and perhaps even the federal government at some point to join with us.”

In fact, the legislation could clear the way for Oregon businesses to eventually trade pollution allowances with businesses in neighboring California, according to the news site CalMatters.

“California set itself up to be a global leader in reducing greenhouse gas emissions, but it never intended to go it alone,” CalMatters explains. “While the bill doesn’t automatically connect Oregon to California’s market, it creates a compatible system so they could link up down the line -- and according to [the sponsor of Oregon’s bill, state Rep. Karin] Power, that’s the ultimate goal. Supporters say that expanding the cap-and-trade market to Oregon could increase competition, lower compliance costs and speed decarbonization of the West.”

Renew Oregon, a group that supports the cap-and-trade proposal, says other states’ experiences with cap-and-trade systems shows the benefit of the approach.

“Ten U.S. states have successful cap-and-invest programs running now,” the group writes, referring to California and Northeastern states. “After years of experience, all of them have growing economies, falling emissions, stable energy prices and thousands of jobs created. While large polluters continue to try to scare people away from action with claims of economic disaster, history is our proof of success.”

Brown and the legislature’s Democratic leaders support the measure, but Republicans fiercely oppose the legislation, arguing that it would harm rural businesses and the state’s logging industry. 

“The bill makes the urban-rural divide stronger than ever because the biggest polluters are in Oregon’s large cities,” Senate Republican Leader Herman Baertschiger said, according to the AP. “It is fundamentally inequitable to put the responsibility of cleaning up their pollution on the backs of rural Oregonians.”

But even some prominent environmentalists oppose the plan.

OPAL Environmental Justice, an Oregon advocacy group, has been one of the most outspoken opponents of the cap-and-trade legislation that lawmakers are considering there. The group says the market-based system leads to environmental “hotspots” -- often near disadvantaged communities --because polluters, rather than the state, pick where they will reduce emissions.

“Over 40 governments worldwide have enacted carbon pricing policies, yet emissions in those places continue to increase, especially localized pollution that poses direct threats to frontline communities,” OPAL explains on its website. “We cannot waste any more time on policies that have been shown not to work. Instead we must act quickly to reduce and eliminate greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuels.”


Other 2019 Climate Legislation

Around the country, this year has been a busy one for climate activists -- but they haven't found success everywhere.

Many states have debated proposals to reduce or eliminate carbon dioxide emissions. Several states passed them: 

  • Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, who is running to be the Democratic presidential nominee on a climate-change-centered campaign, signed a bill requiring power utilities to produce electricity without producing carbon dioxide pollution by 2045.
  • In New Mexico, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, a freshman Democrat who climbed a 265-foot wind turbine for a campaign ad on renewable energy last year, signed legislation this spring that will eventually require electric utilities in the state to switch entirely to renewable sources of energy by 2045. ArsTechnica notes that, at the time the bill passed, New Mexico was the most coal-dependent state to set a zero-carbon goal. 
  • Nevada Gov. Steve Sisolak signed legislation that sets a "goal" for the state to eliminate carbon dioxide emissions from power plants by 2050. In the meantime, though, the law requires that 50 percent of power sold in Nevada by 2030 would have to come from renewable sources. Sisolak, who championed the idea, signed the measure in an Earth Day ceremony. By passing the law, legislators may have pre-empted an effort to include renewable energy standards into the state constitution, according to the Nevada Independent
  • In Maryland, Republican Gov. Larry Hogan allowed a proposal to become law without his signature that makes it the 10th state to require half or more of its power to come from renewable sources. The legislation sets a 50 percent goal by 2030.The governor has said that next year he will unveil a proposal to move Maryland to 100 percent renewable power by 2040.
Environmentalists have suffered some notable defeats, too.

Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam, a Democrat, upset environmental groups when he signed off on a budget that prevents the state from joining a cap-and-trade system set up by a group of Northeastern states.

Northam has long advocated for Virginia to join the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, but Republicans in the state legislature added a provision preventing the state from spending money on joining the effort. Northam concluded that he didn’t have the authority to veto that provision, although environmental groups disagreed.

Meanwhile, negotiations to promote cleaner energy stalled in Illinois and Minnesota, despite earlier efforts by newly elected Democratic governors in both states to promote the idea.

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