Oregon passes pioneering coal bill, but it didn’t come easy

By Nick Abraham of Portland, Oregon. Nick is the editor of Oil Check Northwest, a local research-focused energy and politics watchdog.

Yesterday, the Oregon legislature passed the Clean Electricity and Coal Transition Plan, one of the most sweeping pieces of energy legislation in state history. The bill gives utilities a deadline of 2035 to completely transition off coal and boost renewables in the state to 50% of the energy grid (currently coal supplies around 30% of the state’s electricity). The historic measure passed with bi-partisan support in the House and yesterday went through the Senate in a short session not usually known for getting major legislation through. In fact, this is the first time that any state in the country has kicked coal to the curb by a legislative vote. That isn’t to say though that it was a smooth path to victory.

Some Senate clean energy opponents tried every trick in the book, from parliamentary delays to posturing walkouts, to delay action, refusing to engage with their legislative colleagues. Led by Senator Ted Ferrioli (R) (who it should be noted takes tens of thousand from oil, gas and coal companies every year) in a blindingly transparent effort to simply delay the session, law makers required every bill be read aloud adding hours to each senate proceeding. Then on February 25th in dithering protest, Ferrioli lead a walkout of the Senate refusing to work at all:

"Senate Republicans will not work late into the night to fast track an agenda pursued by the Democrat majority that features back room deals between Democrats and special interests and numerous broken promises of collaboration and compromise,” said Ferrioli.

Not to be out down by senatorial antics, the Oregonian was once again out early and often with efforts to try and sink the legislation. Despite a coalition that included rate-payer advocacy group the Citizen Utility Board, the Oregonian Editorial Board built a narrative that this was a give away to major utilities that would only cause bills to rise. Readers have grown accustomed to this kind of veiled coverage from the state’s largest paper’s editorial board. But when this one-sided focus became a characteristic of the paper’s news coverage, it raised questions about the industry firewall between the editorial and news divisions.

Oregonian Journalist Ted Sickinger continued to stoke fears with multiple stories that claimed the state’s Public Utility Commission was being muzzled by the Governor’s office from speaking out against the coal bill. This subsequently turned out to be completely untrue with Utility Commission Chairwomen Susan Ackerman stating it was “simply not the case” that the PUC was even cut out of the process much less muzzled. More nuanced coverage from strong Oregonian reporter Ian Kullgren walked back the paper’s previous statements.

Yesterday’s coal vote is the most significant state-level action taking on pollution since the United States and nearly 200 nations signed the historic Paris agreement in December. Oregon is now set to have one of the cleanest energy grids in the country. There is still a plethora of issues Oregon hopes to tackle in the coming year, but in an era of unprecedentedly divisive national politics, actions like this remind us that we can still get things done. Combative tactics and pettifogged reporting aside, the future looks bright in Oregon.

guest column

connect with blueoregon