Oregon climate bill leaves out Big Timber – the state’s largest polluter – and instead rewards it with two more subsidies

Extractive industries have proven adept at generating record profits, then using those same profits to protect themselves from any responsibility for cleaning up the mess they leave behind. Oregon’s timber industry is a case in point: it is the number one source of greenhouse gas emissions in the state, the biggest threat to clean drinking water supplies, and the biggest source of wildfire risk as climate change unfolds. Yet, as Oregon’s “Clean Energy Jobs” bill (HB 2020) moves out of the House and heads to the Senate, the timber industry has not only shielded itself from any restrictions, it is now being rewarded with new subsidies to add to the several hundred million dollars a year it already receives.

On June 13, 2019, the timber industry secured a late stage amendment to HB 2020, introduced by Senate President Peter Courtney (D-District 11), that ensures “wood products manufacturing facilities” do not suffer any “permanent or temporary” reductions in the “supply of wood fiber” in the carbon offsets protocols of HB 2020. This amendment is a supply side subsidy that will keep log prices down and wood to mills flowing at roughly the same pace as now. Any reductions in logging associated with forest carbon offsets would have to be made up for by increased logging elsewhere. In the technical language of offset markets, this phenomenon is called “leakage,” and is a basis for invalidating any offset proposals that do not actually result in less logging.

Slowing down the pace of clearcutting to let forests grow longer and their soils mature so they can soak up more carbon, scientists say, is one of the most important natural climate solutions we have at our immediate disposal. Yet Courtney’s amendment does the opposite: It will make our forest offsets program even worse and more ineffective than California’s.

Leakage already plagues California’s forest carbon offset program. In December 2018, Engineers for a Sustainable Future and CSE co-hosted University of California, Berkeley researcher Dr. Barbara Haya at a talk in Portland, OR to discuss how California’s cap-and-trade offset program vastly overestimated emissions reductions (video here). In May 2019, Dr. Haya released a policy brief entitled “The California Air Resources Board’s US Forest offset protocol underestimates leakage“, which analyzed projects generating 80% of total offset credits issued by the California Air Resources Board under its U.S. Forest Service offsets protocol. Her research showed that “the credits generated by these projects likely do not represent true emissions reductions.” The reason? In a word: leakage. Courtney’s forestry amendment language appears to not only follow down the same flawed path as California. It goes further by, in effect, requiring leakage. If Senator Courtney is so eager to keep logs flowing to mills, why not require diversion from the export docks instead?

Logs destined to Asia at a Weyerhaeuser export dock. Photo by Sam Beebe.

A second bill introduced by Senator Michael Dembrow (D—District 23) and others (SB 1051) would protect low-income drivers and drivers of logging trucks and farm equipment from higher fuel prices through a rebate. The amendment was pitched as a way to shield low-income drivers from paying more, a laudable goal. But if passed, it would subsidize driving at a time when climate science suggests we need to do the opposite. Each year, an Oregon Department of Transportation study estimated that log trucks rack up at least 58 million miles traveled each year – that’s over a hundred round trips to the moon! Rising transportation emissions are the reason Oregon is failing to meet its short-term climate goal and subsidies like this to some of the most polluting vehicles destroy the incentive for owners and drivers to make the rigs more fuel-efficient. There are other ways to protect low-income drivers without eating into revenues the state needs for its climate programs and the Senate should be working hard to find these.

In exchange for these amendments, pro-timber legislators previously opposed to House Bill 2020 casts votes in favor. On June 17, 2019, HB 2020 passed the House in a 36 – 24 vote and is now before the Senate. Senators will have the opportunity to strip away or modify these last-minute logging amendments.

As so expertly chronicled by Rob Davis and his team at The Oregonian, the Oregon legislature is polluted by money and timber industry contributions per legislator are the highest in the nation. It’s not surprising that the industry is so successful in warding off bills to modernize Oregon’s archaic forest practices laws while maintaining hundreds of millions of dollars of taxpayer subsidies each year. Yet it is the low-income, frontline, rural communities, those who have few resources to adapt to record temperatures, unpredictable rainfall, and drought who will suffer the most as climate change unfolds. In opting for the easy way out, legislators are doing our rural communities and all Oregonians a huge disservice, while continuing to act as handmaidens to the very extractive corporations we must rein in.

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