Carbon plan should be nonstarter

The Boardman Coal Plant is scheduled to close in 2020, part of the federal government's plan to reduce carbon output. Oregon is considering an additional cap-and-invest program to further limit carbon output.

Oregon was a national pioneer on land use planning. It led the way with the Bottle Bill. Its protection of public beach access is legendary.

In each case, Oregonians benefited from the state’s landmark legislation. That’s not the case with the carbon tax-and-invest proposal being shaped by a committee of Oregon legislators.

The greenhouse gases emitted by Oregon truckers, commuters, utilities, manufacturers and other entities are so small that they are barely measurable on a global scale. Neighboring California has a huge impact, not Oregon.

Oregon officials might win environmental plaudits for taking action, but the actual atmosphere would hardly notice. In fact, there’s a distinct chance Oregon could worsen the global situation.

Cap-and-invest is a market-based system in which U.S. states or Canadian provinces place caps on the amount of allowable carbon emissions. To exceed those caps, companies can buy allowances from the government. The allowances can be sold or traded on the open market, with the government investing the income in environmentally friendly projects.

California, Quebec and Ontario are the North American leaders. Key Democratic legislators in Oregon want to join them.

The catch is that Oregon’s environmental initiatives already are stronger than those in many states and nations. The world, not just Oregon, loses if companies leave the state for less-restrictive locales. Or if Oregon companies switch to buying products manufactured — and shipped — under lighter regulations. Transportation is a huge contributor to greenhouse gases.

California now is the world’s fifth-largest economy, larger than the United Kingdom’s. That reality creates the incentive for many California corporations to invest in carbon reduction there. In contrast, Oregon’s economy ranks in the middle of the pack among U.S. states — about the size of Egypt’s and smaller than Pakistan’s, Bangladesh’s or Finland’s.

The Legislature’s Joint Interim Committee on Carbon Reduction must prioritize how cap-and-invest, or any other scheme, would alter the state’s economy as well as its environment.

“What we’re proposing here is a big and serious program, and I think it’s legitimate to expect people to be concerned about the effects on the economy,” said state Sen. Michael Dembrow, a chief architect of Oregon’s cap-and-invest proposal, at a committee meeting this summer.

Such concerns ride especially high in rural Oregon, reflecting both the Democrat-Republican and urban-rural splits on the committee.

“I can’t go to cap-and-trade yet,” Sen. Fred Girod, R-Stayton, said at the same meeting. “If you listen to the testimony today, it sure seems like we’re going to make rural Oregon pay the cost of all this, and I don’t see urban Oregon stepping up to the plate, and that really bothers me.”

Sen. Alan DeBoer, R-Ashland, has a more modest approach — a carbon-pollution tax, with related projects to improve forest health and reduce the destructive, carbon-emitting wildfires around the state.

“Cap-and-invest is contentious for many reasons, but a broader discussion about sunsetting a carbon tax may be a better way to solving one of the most quarrelsome arguments in Salem,” he said in a constituent letter last month.

Gov. Kate Brown and other key Democrats are eager for the committee to act.

But there should be no rush. Do what is best for Oregon — all of Oregon.

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