After Senate Republicans fled the state in June to deny a quorum to pass climate legislation, Oregon Gov. Kate Brown said she would use her executive powers to ensure that Oregon moves forward to address climate change. She should do so, on terms that leave no question about Oregon’s direction: Forward! With or without Senate Republicans.
Two months have passed since the walkout. Senate Republicans have faced no consequences for their undemocratic behavior. As a result, any future efforts to pass effective climate legislation must anticipate similar Republican obstructionism.
Oregon desperately needs an ambitious climate strategy. Earlier this summer, a new study demonstrated that Oregon is already suffering disproportionate consequences of climate change. Oregon’s average temperatures have increased by 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit over the past century — more than Washington and Montana — and Harney and Lake counties are warming faster than the rest of Oregon and the United States on average.
A year ago, climate scientists issued a stark warning to the world that we have about 12 years to cut greenhouse gas emissions in half if we are to prevent catastrophic outcomes. Now it’s 11. While this may seem daunting, an ambitious program to replace fossil fuels with renewable energy resources will bring jobs, economic growth and innovation to our state. Unfortunately, under Oregon’s current policy landscape, state emissions will continue to climb, particularly from transportation, and clean energy innovators will look to other markets in states with more progressive climate policies.
The next step
Gov. Brown has the power and legal authority to reverse these dynamics. For Oregon to make progress on climate, the governor must follow through on her promise to take action by issuing a strong, enforceable executive order directing state agencies to act on climate change now. A gubernatorial executive order is a normal order of business, and it is a necessary next step in Oregon’s fight against climate change.
Under Oregon’s Constitution, the governor is the state’s chief executive officer responsible for overseeing Oregon’s administrative agencies and ensuring that Oregon’s existing laws are faithfully executed. Within statutory limits, Oregon governors may fulfill these responsibilities by issuing executive orders directing their agencies to take certain actions.
Past Republican and Democratic governors have issued executive orders prohibiting state agencies from discriminating on the basis of sexual orientation, directing Oregon agencies to protect coastal communities when siting marine reserves and wave energy projects, and requiring state agencies to comply with sustainability guidelines. Gov. Brown herself has issued executive orders that direct agency activities; most notably, a forward-looking executive order in 2017 requiring Oregon agencies to accelerate efficiency requirements and integrate zero-carbon technologies in state-owned and state-regulated buildings.
In response to the obstructionism of Senate Republicans, the governor should draft an executive order that directs state agencies to use their existing legal authority to pursue ambitious climate change strategies. The order should, for example, direct the Department of Environmental Quality to establish emissions caps and mandate all-source greenhouse gas emissions reductions to the fullest extent allowed by existing air quality laws. DEQ can use this authority to limit emissions from power plants, oil terminals and holding tanks, industrial facilities, construction sites, and other types of industrial and mobile sources. The order should also direct the Oregon Department of Transportation and Department of Land Conservation and Development to use their untapped legal authority to facilitate deeper reductions in transportation emissions by limiting investments in infrastructure that will lead to increased driving and pollution, improving public transportation infrastructure and access, making walking and bicycling safer and easier, and explicitly requiring land use plans and decisions to prioritize decarbonization and reduced fossil fuel use as a condition of access to discretionary ODOT funding. The order should issue similar directions to other agencies, like the Oregon Department of Energy, the Public Utility Commission, and the Board of Forestry, which all have critical roles to play in Oregon’s transition to clean energy.
These agencies have the ability to develop ambitious strategies, but currently, none fully integrates climate change, or the costs of climate change, into decision-making processes. An executive order could direct them to change their practices so that Oregon’s carbon emissions, including from transportation, finally drop. An executive order will ensure that Oregon pursues decarbonization regardless of Republican obstructionism.
A strong executive order will also demonstrate the governor is serious about following through on her promise to use all her authority to act on climate. While a legislative pathway is preferable, its absence should not discourage Oregon from exercising its existing authorities to the fullest extent allowed by law.
Gov. Brown should make it clear that, one way or another, Oregon is going to take decisive action to address climate change. We do not have time to spare.
Powers is a Jeffrey Bain Faculty Scholar and a law professor at Lewis & Clark Law School.