Oregon’s clean fuels law ignites more political wrangling

Source: By Ian K. Kullgren, Oregonlive • Posted: Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Oregon’s clean fuels law survived a caustic battle in the Legislature this year, but the war is far from over.

One of the law’s biggest advocates threatened to join forces with opponents this week over proposed changes. A new environmental coalition launched ads attacking proposed ballot measures. Lawsuits are pending in state and federal court.

And both Republicans and the oil industry say they’ll fight any new tax to fix roads as long as the law stays on the books.

“Nobody is getting a transportation package,” said Paul Romain, a lobbyist for the Oregon Fuels Association and the organizer behind three proposed ballot measures that would dismantle the program. “We’re serious about that.”

All this shows that efforts to reduce carbon emissions and repair Oregon roads, bridges and other infrastructure remain deeply mired in political wrangling.

The clean fuels program requires fuel distributors to decrease the carbon emissions of their fuels by 10 percent over 10 years. As things stand, they’ll have to show their first decreases in 2016.

Legislators in the 2015 session gave the program a decade-long extension after heated floor debates, and Gov. Kate Brown signed it into law.

Then Brown, a Democrat, and legislative leaders watched a transportation deal crumble late in the session after House Democrats refused to go along with a compromise that involved repealing the law.

Here’s where things stand across a range of battlefronts:


With the 2016 elections coming, legislators have shown little interest in voting to raise taxes for transportation fixes in next year’s February short session.

Senate President Peter Courtney, D-Salem, has warned that they better be ready to try again in 2017.

“If the Legislature doesn’t act, our bridges and our economy will collapse,” he wrote in a statement Sept. 9. “A major transportation plan must be our top priority in the 2017 session.”

A lot could change between now and then. Next year’s elections could shift votes in the Legislature. In 2015, Democrats were one seat short in the House of the “supermajority” needed to increase taxes without Republican support.

Even if Democrats close that gap, Courtney has conceded that a transportation package needs bipartisan support to survive. Without it, opponents could refer a measure to the ballot. And voters would be likely to turn down a tax increase, even one for badly needed transportation fixes.

Kristen Grainger, Brown’s communications director, said clean fuels and road fixes shouldn’t be linked.

“Oregonians shouldn’t have to choose between clean air and safe roads and bridges — Oregon needs both,” she said in a statement. “Linking a repeal of our new clean fuels law to passage of a transportation package is a false choice.”

Gov. Kate Brown supported a compromise that would have repealed Oregon’s clean fuels program for a transportation package. Now, she says the two should be addressed separately.Ian K. Kullgren/staff 

Republicans aren’t onboard. They see both the efforts as increases in gasoline taxes, an issue of high interest in their largely rural districts.

A gas tax is expected to form the backbone of new money for transportation fixes. And the clean fuels program amounts to a new gas tax, Republicans say, because it’s expected to increase prices as much as 19 cents a gallon at the pump.

“I don’t think anything’s changed since the end of session from our perspective,” said Paul Rainey, the Senate Republican caucus administrator. “To have discussions and work toward a transportation package, we have to repeal the low-carbon fuel standard.”

Sen. Doug Whitsett, R-Klamath Falls, agreed: “You have to draw the line somewhere.”

Republicans had already derided the clean fuels program because of former first lady Cylvia Hayes’ advocacy. They became more suspicious of outside meddling since learning in a report by The Oregonian/OregonLive that Brown spoke with billionaire climate activist Tom Steyer in June.

Senate Minority leader Ted Ferrioli‘s office filed a public records request Sept. 10 seeking communications between Steyer and Brown’s staff. Friday, he called on Brown and legislative Democrats to disclose any ties to green energy interests that might profit from the program.

Meanwhile, clean fuels supporters saw hopes of building a West Coast Climate bloc dashed when Washington’s clean fuels program bit the dust this year in a battle between Gov. Jay Inslee and the Washington Legislature.

Ad campaign

A new coalition, Renew Oregon, is working to protect Oregon’s clean fuels law from the same fate. The group launched a $48,000 TV ad campaign Sept. 12 that attacks lobbyists’ “desperate” attempts to kill the program.

“We’re taking the conversation into the public eye in all the ways oil lobbyists are coming after the clean fuels standard,” communications director Brad Reed said.

“I’m not sure if they (the public) realize oil companies are still working to undermine it.”

New estimates

Supporters could lose a key backer, though, in the wake of a proposed change by the state agency that oversees the clean fuels program.

The Oregon Department of Environmental Quality on Sept. 15 announced a plan to change the way it measures carbon emissions from fuel, including biofuels such as ethanol produced from corn.

That matters because fuel distributors are expected to try to achieve the clean fuels targets by blending more biofuels into their gasoline.

The state’s proposed new method would account for indirect land-use changes. For example, higher demand for biofuels in Oregon could lead to a rainforest in Brazil being replaced with crops for ethanol, said Cory-Ann Wind, an agency air-quality planner. Once that’s factored in, fuel emissions rise by about 10 percent.

The Renewable Fuels Association blasted the new method. Geoff Cooper, the group’s senior vice president, said if biofuels are suddenly seen as producing higher emissions, oil distributors will face a tougher time hitting their targets by adjusting blends.

“This indirect land-use stuff is just kind of hokey,” Cooper said. “You can’t measure it, and there’s no evidence that it’s occurring.”

A department committee plans to hold a public hearing on the change Oct. 19. If the agency ultimately adopts the change, Cooper said, his group will join the oil industry in fighting to repeal the clean fuels program.

“They’re really going to lose a key ally and supporter, and that’s unfortunate,” he said of the agency.


Both sides remain tangled in a fight over the language of three proposed ballot measure titles that would end the clean fuels program. Decisions are pending before the Oregon Supreme Court.

Once that issue is resolved, the measures’ backers can start gathering the nearly 90,000 signatures they need to put any of the measures on the November 2016 ballot.

Two lawsuits aimed at taking down the clean fuels program are also pending, one in federal court and one in the Oregon Court of Appeals. Defendants in the federal lawsuit, including the state of Oregon and a coalition of environmental groups, are seeking to dismiss the case. They expect a decision by year’s end.