In Congress, Oregon has a few voices in key climate negotiations

WASHINGTON — To Sen. Jeff Merkley, federal action to slow U.S. greenhouse gas emissions isn’t just necessary for the planet. It could ignite a Beaver State explosion of green manufacturing jobs and spur wind, solar and geothermal energy production across the state.

Done correctly, a bill capping carbon emissions would position the U.S. and Oregon “on the front of the curve so that we’ll be producing wind turbines, we’ll be producing so- lar arrays to sell, we’ll be patenting the geothermal technology,” Merkley said. “We’ll be building the products and shipping them to the world, as opposed to being a consumer nation.”

U.S. Rep. Greg Walden, R-Hood River, doesn’t disagree that we should move to slow global warming. But he worries that Democrats’ solutions could amount to a fatal blow to the nation’s wounded economy.

“I think the question isn’t so much about the need — and I can concur that temperatures are rising, and we should take action,” Walden said.

“I’m just not convinced that hemorrhaging our economy in such a unilateral, destructive move is the appropriate course of action,” Walden continued.

With positions on key committees to influence the climate debate, both lawmakers are poised to have a say in hhow their parties approach the problem, and what shape legislation takes. Their disagreements preview, to a degree, where the battle lines will be drawn in the next few months, when climate change legislation is expected to be introduced in Congress.

In interviews earlier this month, Walden and Merkley discussed the president’s proposal, their preferred ways to address global warming, and potential pitfalls and opportunities the issue poses for Oregon.

Crucial to the process

Merkley sits on the Senate Budget Committee, where the first outlines of a cap-and-trade bill will appear, and on the Environment and Public Works Committee, which will write the legislation. In the House, Walden is on the Energy and Commerce Committee, which would write a climate change bill, and on the Select Committee for Energy Independence and Global Warming, which has examined climate change issues for the past two years.

The starting point for the debate has been President Barack Obama’s 2010 budget, which outlines a cap-and-trade plan to limit greenhouse gas emissions (see box above). Obama would force companies to buy the rights to emit carbon dioxide and other gases. If firms can reduce their emissions below their pollution allotment, they would be able to sell their rights to other companies that can’t cut emissions as easily.

The idea is that by increasing the price of carbon-based energy, consumers will turn to greener options on their own. A similar plan in the 1970s helped limit the gases that cause acid rain. That’s a better approach than having the government outlaw practices that depend on fossil fuels, Merkley said.

“The core idea of cap and trade is you put a price tag on putting carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, and therefore the market adjusts accordingly,” Merkley said. “It’s far more cost-effective than saying, ‘Here’s this tailpipe or smoke stack. … We’re going to ban it.’”

Merkley and Walden are not the only Oregon lawmakers with views on the debate, of course. U.S. Rep. Earl Blumenauer, D-Portland, is also on the Energy and Commerce Committee. There, he has pushed for greater investment in urban planning and mass transportation as a way to reduce energy consumption. Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Springfield, and Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., have each proposed managing federal forests in ways that would benefit the planet’s carbon balance. DeFazio has also bucked Democratic orthodoxy by speaking against a cap-and-trade plan.

Obama would send some of the $646 billion raised by selling greenhouse gas credits to low- and middle-income households to soften the impact of higher energy costs.

Walden said that amounts to raising energy costs and shifting money around, with the brokers who trade pollution rights likely to get the most benefit.

“If you’re going to generate $646 billion out of an auction of carbon dioxide credits, and then you’re going to rebate it back to different people, all you’re doing is moving the shells around,” Walden said. “The people who are salivating the most, and rubbing their hands and wallets together, are the traders.”

Several high-profile companies, including General Electric, have come out in support of a carbon-reduction plan. But if energy costs are higher in the U.S., jobs and pollution are likely to move overseas, Walden said. He’s asked CEOs if they would commit to keep jobs in the U.S. even if energy prices increase.

“They sure didn’t step up and say, ‘Yes, we’ll commit to that,’” Walden said.

Merkley’s solution to that problem is to levy a carbon tax on products made in countries that don’t limit greenhouse gases.

“You have to account for the fact that if products are made outside of an international framework, then that tax has to be paid when they come into our economy,” Merkley said.

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