What Oregon's Ambitious Climate Bill Means for Climate Change

The bill commits Oregon to source 100% of its electricity from clean—or zero-emission—sources by 2040.

Large group of wind turbines on the hill at Interstate 84 in Oregon, Near Portland, USA

Feifei Cui-Paoluzzo/Getty Images

The day before a record-breaking heat dome descended on the Pacific Northwest, Oregon lawmakers finally passed major climate legislation.

House Bill 2021, which passed the House on June 25 and the Senate on June 26, commits Oregon to source 100% of its electricity from clean—or zero-emission—sources by 2040. That’s one of the most ambitious such timelines in the nation—an especially sweet victory since it follows two years of failed attempts to legislate a response to climate change in a state already dealing with its impacts.

“We needed to move forward at addressing climate issues,” Sen. Lee Beyer, D-Springfield, one of the bill’s sponsors, tells Treehugger. “It was time.”

Changing Environment

Oregon’s climate is already changing. The state’s average temperature has risen by nearly 2 degrees (1.1 degrees Celsius) in most of the state over the last 100 years, decreasing snowpack, increasing drought, and leading to more frequent and extreme wildfires. Scientists have already concluded that the heat wave that baked Oregon and the rest of the Pacific Northwest late last month would have been “virtually impossible without human-caused climate change.”

Rep. Pam Marsh, D-Ashland, another of the bill’s co-sponsors, says she has observed the changes first hand in her Southern Oregon district: reservoirs are at 10% or less, morel mushrooms don’t emerge when they used to and weather patterns are no longer reliable. 

“We’re facing it right now, and that should be clear to everybody,” she tells Treehugger. 

Despite this, the state has struggled to pass major legislation addressing the crisis. In both 2019 and 2020, attempts to pass a cap-and-trade bill were scuppered when Republican lawmakers walked out. So proponents of climate action came up with a new strategy. 

“We knew we couldn’t come back with that,” Marsh says.

Instead, Oregon Democratic Gov. Kate Brown signed an executive order in March of 2020 requiring state agencies to take actions to reduce emissions. The electricity sector was largely left out of that action, however, since the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality cannot regulate fossil-fuel energy that enters Oregon from other states. This gap meant electricity was a natural focus for a more targeted climate bill. 

Electricity was responsible for 30% of Oregon’s greenhouse gas emissions in 2019. The newly-passed bill seeks to reduce that figure by requiring Oregon’s two investor-owned utilities to get 100% of their electricity from zero-emissions sources by 2040. Along the way, it sets interim goals of 80% clean energy by 2030 and 90% by 2035. It also requires the utilities to make actual plans for meeting these goals and empowers state agencies to check that the utilities are meeting their targets. If everything goes as expected, the bill will add 2,700 new megawatts of renewable power to the Oregon grid by 2030, enough to power 700,000 homes.

Marsh acknowledges that the single-sector approach of HB 2021 is “less ambitious” than the failed cap-and-trade scheme, which is likely one reason for its success. Beyer adds that the drafting process brought more people to the table, including some Republicans.

But another factor is that renewable energy is getting cheaper. Utilities were able to testify that following an ambitious timeline would not cause rates to rise beyond normal price fluctuation, and there is a growing awareness that wind and solar installations will be the energy projects of the future in rural areas. 

“[The] environment on energy has changed,” Beyer says.

An Oregon Flavor

If the state’s utilities are moving towards renewable energy sources anyway, then how big a victory is the new bill? 

Marsh argues it provides a transparent transition and a clear timeline, but the bill is more than just its headline goal. It also includes environmental justice provisions that bring an “Oregon flavor” to the legislation, Marsh says. 

These include:

  1. Setting “significant labor standards” for projects over 10 megawatts. 
  2. Establishing “community advisory panels” of utility customers, especially in low-income or frontline communities, to counsel the utilities on reduced rates and clean energy plans.
  3. Supporting small scale community renewable projects through a state Department of Energy study and $50 million in grant funding.

Rep. Khanh Pham, D-Portland, another bill sponsor who began working on it as an organizer with the Oregon Just Transition Alliance, said the environmental justice elements were integral to the bill’s development from the beginning. They emerged from a state-wide listening tour in 2020, conducted virtually, in which communities across the state were encouraged to share their vision for 2030.

“Communities were already facing the impacts of climate change and really expressed a need to envision a transition to 100% renewable energy that really gave their communities jobs and real investments,” Pham tells Treehugger. 

Projects that frontline communities dreamed up included smoke or heat shelters powered by renewable energy, microgrids, and renewably-powered community centers. These are the kinds of initiatives the bill might fund.

The bill’s focus on making sure the clean energy transition is also a “just transition” may also have helped it pass. Organizers connected frontline communities in both the Portland metro area and rural parts of the state, which meant lawmakers across Oregon received comments from constituents in support of the bill.

“With strong policy support from the utilities and then getting really strong grassroots advocacy, I think legislators didn’t have a reason to say no,” Pham says.

National Momentum 

The bill is also important for its impacts outside of Oregon. 

“This bill is building on an existing national trend,” Emma Searson, the Director of Environment America’s 100% Renewable Campaign, tells Treehugger. 

The bill’s passage makes Oregon the eighth state to set a 100% renewable goal, and it is tied with New York for the fastest timeline. There is also the sense that it is part of a growing movement. The same month that Oregon passed its bill, a similar bill was debated in the Rhode Island legislature, though it did not leave the state’s House. 

Searson said that actions like Oregon’s can have a national impact first because it encourages other states to up their ambitions and second because state action writ large can go on to shape national policy. 

“It’s often the case with environmental and other issues that we make progress on over the years that states can help blaze the trail for federal action,” she says. 

View Article Sources
  1. "State Climate Summaries: Oregon." NOAA National Centers for Environmental Information.

  2. "Western North American Extreme Heat Virtually Impossible Without Human-Caused Climate Change." World Weather Attribution, 2021.