Lawmakers in Salem are considering five different bills with the same goal of significantly reducing Oregon’s greenhouse gas emissions.
Two of the proposed bills would create a cap and trade program, two would create a cap-and-price permitting program and the other would create a carbon tax.
A public hearing on these bills before a joint meeting of Oregon’s House and Senate environmental committees on March 1 was packed, with names of testifiers filling five pages.
The overwhelming majority of public comment was in support of passing some sort of legislation to rein in carbon emissions, with many endorsing Senate Bill 557 specifically. This bill would implement an incrementally decreasing cap on the state’s total greenhouse gas emissions and create a carbon pollution market for sources emitting more than 25,000 metric tons of carbon or carbon-equivalent greenhouse gases per year.
While 10 states already have a carbon-pricing market in place, SB 557 is most similar to the cap and trade system California adopted in early 2012.
California invests gains from its carbon market into green projects in communities most affected by climate change.
A driving force behind this investment strategy was the Oakland, Calif.-based nonprofit Green For All. Founded by CNN commentator Van Jones in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, Green For All is focused on initiatives across the U.S. that use polluters’ dollars to fund green economy projects in low-income areas.
Green For All Deputy Director Michelle Romero traveled to Oregon to offer the support of Green For All to lawmakers should they pass SB 557, which includes provisions for investing carbon market revenue in economically depressed communities.
“I’m here because we’ve been watching Oregon for a while and believe now is your time,” she said at the public hearing.
Earlier that day, Romero sat down with Street Roots at Climate Solutions’ office in Old Town to discuss how Oregon’s most vulnerable communities could benefit from a carbon-pricing program.
Before coming to Green For All in early 2016, Romero, 29, spent the bulk of her burgeoning career at the Greenlining Institute, working to bring historically marginalized voices into the democratic processes.
Emily Green: I was hoping you could tell our readers about Green For All’s agenda to “promote a clean-energy economy to solve the urgent problems of both our economy and our environment.” Can you give me a couple of examples of what that looks like on the ground?
Michelle Romero: One way to grow the green economy is to dedicate investments in growing that economy in communities that are on the frontlines of some of the worst pollution.
We need to reverse the damage of the fossil fuel industry and help clean up and green up these communities. In California, for example, where our director, Vien Truong, helped lead the fight to get a billion-dollar fund for disadvantaged communities, we’re seeing things now like electric van pools in migrant farmworker towns where there wasn’t an established bus line; we’re seeing 400 opportunities in just one city to work in the solar industry, putting solar panels on affordable apartment buildings near transit; we’re looking at thousands of trees going into urban communities affected by traffic congestion to help clean the air there and create good green space. And in some places, we’re helping communities do really innovative things like transform a third-acre lot of unused public land into a green space with fruit trees that is creating healthy foods for the community, job training around community gardening, and things like that.
There have been solar investments in communities across California. One area was out in Fresno, for example. Our central valley region can get really hot. For one woman (Maria Zavala), what that investment in solar meant was that her – and she was a single mother supporting her kids after the loss of her husband just a year prior – her electric bill went from $200 a month to as low as $1.50 a month.
(This reduction in energy cost is also attributed to a new energy-efficient home Zavala helped Self-Help Enterprises build before she moved into it. This nonprofit helps low-income residents in the San Joaquin Valley, known as the world’s most productive agricultural area, achieve homeownership by using sweat equity as a down payment.)
E.G.: Where did that billion-dollar fund for disadvantaged communities come from?
M.R.: That money comes from polluters. The cost of carbon pollution is not free – families and workers, we pay with our shortened lifespans as a result of cancer, asthma, pollution-related disease. We’re paying an increased produce cost at the supermarket because of the effects of drought on agriculture, for example. We’re paying with reduced property values, and to clean up from flooding and super storms as a result of climate change, and so it’s really time to reverse that trend. So in California, and in other parts of the country, states are looking at how to put a price on carbon that holds polluters accountable and captures some of that value, and reinvest it back into the communities that need it most. Oregon has a really great opportunity to do that now.
FURTHER READING: Street Roots' continuing coverage of climate issues
E.G.: You’re in Oregon today to testify before our Legislature. What’s the most important thing you plan to tell our lawmakers, aside from urging them to pass carbon capping legislation?
M.R.: Carbon pollution isn’t free, and it’s really time we stop giving away free welfare to polluters. It’s time to prioritize families and workers living on the frontlines and invest in growing and green economies for all.
E.G.: What can Oregon learn from California’s cap and trade program? Were there any missteps we should avoid or models we should replicate?
M.R.: Absolutely. California decided to put a strong cap on greenhouse gas emissions first and essentially decided to go with the cap and trade system. This path didn’t really look at the investments side of distributive justice. So, how will revenues be spent? How will we ensure that we’re reducing pollution in hotspot communities or in communities that are really plagued by the most pollution? And how will we reinvest in repairing the damage that’s been done by the fossil fuel industry?
What I would encourage is that Oregon take a really serious look at not just putting a strong cap on carbon pollution, but in tackling the investment question of distributive justice at the same time.
Some of the pushback to California’s carbon cap, AB 32, came from that it didn’t address how we were going to ensure local emission reductions and how we were going to invest in frontline communities. It took a lot of organizing work by equity groups, environmental justice groups to fight the Legislature to get that billion dollars I mentioned, whereas here in Oregon, we could get it right the first time.
E.G.: You’re promoting carbon pricing and investing across the country. What other states are considering these types of bills right now?
M.R.: New York has a really great bill. The NY Renews coalition is pursuing at least 40 percent of investment of their polluter pay funds into disadvantaged communities, and Washington state has another really strong bill, an opportunity there in HB 1646, where the Alliance for Jobs and Clean Energy are advancing a strong price and invest bill.
E.G.: How do you see Oregon, specifically, elevating marginalized communities with the implementation of a carbon-pricing bill?
M.R.: I’ve talked a lot about California, but what’s great is that what worked in California may or may not work here, and this is an opportunity for Oregon communities to engage in the process of how to say how they want to grow the green economy, how they want to tackle the pollution in their neighborhoods to really empower them and resource them to advance solutions to their own problems. There’s a lot of genius in communities to figure out what that is for themselves.
E.G.: Did you have any personal experiences that shifted your focus toward environmental justice?
M.R.: Several years ago, I was sitting at home, watching on the local news, the city of Richmond (Calif.) experience an oil and gas explosion from the Chevron oil refinery. I had a friend who lived and grew up there. Her name is Blanca, and I remember calling her and saying, “Blanca, have you seen the news? Are you OK?”
The news was telling people to “shelter in place.” What that meant was they were asking residents to run inside of their homes or to find a building where they can close the doors and windows. They were literally telling people to find towels or whatever you could to plug the cracks in the doors because the air right outside their wall wasn’t safe to breath. While that experience sticks in my mind, her response is really what drives me:
She said, “Michelle, that happens all the time. Don’t worry; I’m inside. The city has an alarm system that lets us know when things like that happen.”
It had become normal for her, and unfortunately, those experiences have become all too normal for low-income people and people of color who have been deprioritized. Their lives have been devalued, and that’s not OK. That’s what drives me, to figure out solutions so that there are no more Richmonds, no more Flints, no more Standing Rocks, no more Jade Districts – the Jade District (in Southeast Portland near 82nd Avenue and Division Street) would look a whole lot different in my vision for the future.
E.G.: Tell me about the electric vehicle strategy at Green For All. Is this something Oregon could take advantage of?
M.R.: Yeah, we’re just now beginning to explore a national strategy for electric vehicles. Volkswagen recently settled a lawsuit where they admitted to installing secret software on many of their vehicles that would help them pass emissions tests while still polluting above the law, and this settlement represents $20 billion that’s going to be allocated to states and cities across the country to decide what to do with it. So there’s this distributive justice question about how will that money be spent? And how will we use those funds to tackle the traffic-related pollution and congestion in disadvantaged communities?
The settlement was just issued recently, and it is going to be a quick timeline; states have until September to announce how they are going to spend that money, and so communities should definitely be calling their legislators and starting to ask those questions.
E.G.: Green For All has a program called Green the Church, where pastors of African-American congregations can sign up to transform their church properties to be more energy efficient. First, why focus on churches, and second, what kind of an impact has this program had on the communities where those churches are located?
M.R.: Green the Church was birthed out of the black church experience by Rev. Dr. Ambrose Carroll, who was a Green For All fellow several years ago, and Rev. Carroll really had this idea for a Green the Church initiative that would harness the power and purpose of the black church to really advance sustainability in church practices and church culture, and bolster the ability of black faith leaders to advocate on environmental issues. And so when he asked Green For All to help incubate his vision and cultivate a plan that would help grow it, and provide a temporary home for the initiative, we gladly agreed, and now Green the Church has grown to have over 400 members across the country participating and is now permanently based out of Carroll Ministries International, Rev. Carroll’s organization, where it’s being fully led and managed by leaders in the black community.
If there were any Oregon churches that were interested in getting involved in that initiative, check out greenthechurch.org.
E.G.: Is there anything you’d like to add that might be important to Oregon as it considers a carbon-capping bill?
M.R.: The last thing I’ll add is at a time when we’re seeing the Trump administration gut clean air and water protections for communities and really threaten our progress on climate, it’s up to state leaders to step in and do the right thing to fight for families. So we look forward to seeing what Oregon does with this opportunity.
Email staff writer Emily Green at firstname.lastname@example.org; follower her on Twitter @GreenWrites