Oil Industry Drops Ballot Measures Fighting Oregon Clean Fuels Law

The article below was originally published on March 31 in The Oregonian by Denis Theriault. Of all coverage on the oil industry dropping its ballot measure fight, this piece is the only one featuring quotes by Paul Romain, a lobbyist representing Oregon gas stations and fuel distributors.

Romain asserts that clean fuels must be amended in order for his clients to agree on a transportation package – an urgent priority for the 2017 legislative session. However the reality remains: Clean Fuels is a market-based, effective way to spur change, and create a level playing field for alternative fuel producers. Big oil chose to incorrectly link it to a transportation package; there is no reason that clean air and good roads should be pitted against one another.

“Shelving a fight over Oregon’s clean-fuel standards until 2017, oil industry lobbyists said Thursday they’ve withdrawn three ballot measures aimed at de-fanging the state’s newly enshrined rules.

One of the measures would have scrapped the low-carbon fuel standard — re-approved by lawmakers in 2015 despite threats from Republicans that it would doom talks over transportation funding.

The other measures would have softened the fuel standard, halving the state’s carbon reduction goal or tweaking its mechanics in ways that benefit fuel distributors. The program calls for cutting emissions by 10 percent over 10 years, a shift that could raise gas prices from four to 19 cents per gallon over the same span.

Instead, said Paul Romain of the Oregon Fuels Association, foes will ask lawmakers to make changes in 2017 — when Gov. Kate Brown and top legislative leaders are expected to revive transportation talks once again.

Without those adjustments, Romain said, Republicans will likely remain locked up against a gas tax increase, which needs a three-fifths supermajority to pass. And even if some Republicans do cross over, he added, petroleum interests would refer any new gas tax to the ballot.

“The stronger suit is working on a transportation package,” Romain told The Oregonian/OregonLive. “To get us to cooperate, we need to have the low-carbon fuel standard fixed.”

Officials with Renew Oregon, an advocacy organization that had promised to defeat the measures if they hit the November ballot, said they were “pleased, and not surprised” by the news. The group released internal polling last fall that showed nearly two-thirds support for keeping the clean fuels standard.

“It’s been clear all along Oregonians strongly support this clean air protection,” Renew Oregon campaign director Thomas Wheatley said in a statement. “The oil corporations are backing down because they know voters will always choose to protect clean air over out-of-state oil industry profits.”

The fuel industry’s decision all but ensures another showdown between business and environmental interests in the 2017 session, echoing tension in 2015 that saw debate not only between Democrats and Republicans but also among Democrats.

Gov. Kate Brown, who signed the clean-fuels bill weeks after assuming office, made waves late in the 2015 session when she met with lawmakers to talk about replacing it with a compromise full of alternate carbon reductions.

Those talks ran aground after time ran out to vet fuzzy and incorrect numbers. Pressure from environmental groups, a key to the expanded majorities Democrats won in 2014, also caused some House members to balk. The Oregonian/OregonLive reported last year that Brown spoke with billionaire climate activist Tom Steyer in June.

In recent months, Brown and Democratic leaders have insisted the two issues — clean fuels and transportation funding — should remain separate. Brown said in a December interview that her office hoped to have a framework for a transportation plan by mid-summer.

Asked about the oil industry’s announcement, a spokeswoman for Brown said the governor “is glad that the issue is settled and that we’re going to be moving forward.”

Advocates also insist that line should hold.

“Oregonians don’t need to choose between clean air and good roads, we need both,” said Jessica Moskovitz, spokeswoman for the Oregon Environmental Council. “The oil industry pitted these two important needs against each other in the last session. It didn’t work then and we see no reason it will work in 2017.”

Romain acknowledged the uphill climb awaiting the ballot measures, which could have landed alongside a handful of other expensive and controversial issues, including a measure that calls for taxing large corporations’ gross receipts to raise roughly $2.5 billion a year.

In particular, he said, the measure asking Oregonians to support repealing the clean-fuels program left voters confused. That’s because it asked for “a yes vote,” Romain said, “when you’re really asking people to get rid of something.”

“We found, in polling,” Romain said, “that people didn’t understand. It’s not worth the fight.”

Romain pointed to the discussions late in the 2015 session as an opening for changes — despite Brown’s stance that transportation funding should live or die on its own. If Democrats lose ground in the House or Senate this fall, they’ll need even more support from Republicans to pass a gas tax.

“They listened at the end of the 2015 session,” he said. “Unfortunately it got started too late.”

He also noted moves by the Department of Environmental Quality to delay its enforcement of the new standard until after the 2017 legislative session.

Though the program took effect Jan. 1, requiring oil distributors to begin reducing carbon “intensity” or offset those reductions by purchasing credits, they won’t face penalties if they’re not in compliance.

“We think they’d like to come to a resolution on this,” Romain said. “We’re certainly looking forward to it.”