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Bargain Sustainability: The Oregon State Legislature’s 2011 Sustainability Agenda by Chris Rifer

Posted by: | April 6, 2011 Comments Off on Bargain Sustainability: The Oregon State Legislature’s 2011 Sustainability Agenda by Chris Rifer |

Over the course of the past several legislative sessions, perhaps no legislature has been as aggressive in pursuing sustainability measures as the Oregon State Legislature. Among many others, just in the past half decade, Oregon has passed measures to allocate one-and-a-half percent of all public building costs to solar power development,[1] establish a statewide system for electronics recycling,[2] and allocate additional funds to the Department of Environmental Quality to reduce the flow of toxic chemicals in Oregon rivers and set up a monitoring program for the Willamette River.[3] Any review of the Legislature’s record over the past several years reveals one conclusion: when it comes to environmental issues, the Oregon Legislature has frequently been willing to put its money where its sustainable mouth is.


Recently, the Legislature has been very aggressive – some say even a bit too aggressive – in pursuing sustainability goals. In 2007, Oregon passed a renewable energy bill that required large utilities to produce at least 25% of their electricity portfolio from renewable sources by 2025.[4] The State also created the Business Energy Tax Credit (BETC), which provides substantial tax breaks for sustainable energy projects including renewable energy development and energy conservation.

Since its passage, however, the BETC program has experienced cost overruns[5] that have generated substantial negative media attention, and caused the Legislature to amend the BETC program to limit its availability and place additional caps on its benefits.[6] The BETC program, however, remains a source of substantial tax credits for private parties who pursue sustainable projects or improve their business’s sustainability practices.

Whereas previous sessions have been marked by a willingness to devote substantial resources to sustainability programs, the 2011 Legislative Session is shaping up to be different from a sustainability perspective. Faced with a $3.5 billion budget deficit, relative political parity, and perhaps a little bit gun-shy from the political backlash from the BETC overruns, the Legislature appears to be taking a more regulatory approach to conservation and sustainability issues. Instead of promoting tax breaks or using the state’s spending power to promote sustainability and conservation, environmental groups and the Legislature appear to have prioritized bills that provide more eco-bang for the state buck, with the two most significant sustainability bills likely being proposals to ban plastic bags and update Oregon’s Bottle Bill.

The bag ban seeks to prohibit the use of “single-use” plastic bags at Oregon retailers.[7] More specifically, the bill bans the use of “single-use checkout bags” with an exception for paper bags made of at least 40% recycled fiber. The proposal also imposes a requirement on retailers to refrain from charging customers more than five cents for a recycled paper bag. The bag ban has earned early support from legislators on both sides of the aisle, as well as a variety of interest groups from environmental organizations[8] to grocers, small businesses, and – perhaps not surprisingly – paper manufacturers.[9] Therefore, the bag ban’s low impact on the budget and broad based support give it a good chance to be a landmark piece of legislation in the 2011 Legislative Session.

Although the result is less certain than the bag ban, the Legislature is trying to prove that there is life after 40 for Oregon’s Bottle Bill. In 2007, the Legislature pushed through the first update to the Bottle Bill since its original passage in 1971. The 2007 update added water bottles to the list of bottles for which consumers must pay a deposit which is recoverable on return of the bottle to a collector.[10] Now, just weeks after celebrating the original Bottle Bill’s 40th birthday, the Legislature is taking up a 2011 update which seeks to again expand the categories of bottles eligible for deposit to include coffee, tea, and sports drink containers.[11]

Some environmental groups, however, are pushing for more controversial changes in the 2011 update. First, some are looking to increase the amount of the deposit from five to ten cents. Second, many would like to require retailers to disclose the amount they pocket in unredeemed deposits. Legislators previously tried to pass a similar update during the 2009 Session, but eventually the bill stalled. The proposed 2009 legislation included the expansion of eligible bottles, the potential for a deposit increase, and additional disclosures by retailers.[12] Given that the bill stalled in 2009, it is far from assured that a nearly identical 2011 bill will fare substantially better, but Oregon’s strong environmental interest groups have put the 2011 bill at or near the top of their priorities list.

Both of these bills have the potential to deliver substantial environmental benefit for very little state money. In all likelihood neither bill would contain provisions that would substantially increase state costs or cut state revenue. At the same time, however, both bills could produce emptier landfills, cleaner streets and waterways, and more sustainable resource use through more efficient and prevalent recycling.

Given the potential for a protracted budget fight, environmental advocacy groups and legislators have targeted low-cost, high-impact legislation for the 2011 Legislative Session. Instead of using State coffers to invest in sustainable resources or incentivize sustainable practices, this year’s proposals would use the State’s police power to regulate economic activity to achieve a more sustainable result. The result is a 2011 legislative strategy that emphasizes bargain sustainability.

[1] 2007 HB 2620, available at http://www.leg.state.or.us/07reg/measpdf/hb2600.dir/hb2620.en.pdf

[2] 2007 HB 2626, available at http://www.leg.state.or.us/07reg/measpdf/hb2600.dir/hb2626.en.pdf

[3] 2007 SB 737, available at http://www.leg.state.or.us/07reg/measpdf/sb0700.dir/sb0737.en.pdf

[4] Oregon League of Conservation Voters, Promoting Renewable Energy in Oregon, http://olcv.org/legislative-session-scorecard/bill/2007/promoting-renewable-energy-oregon

[5] The Oregonian, State Lowballed Cost of Green Tax Breaks, http://www.oregonlive.com/news/index.ssf/2009/10/state_lowballed_cost_of_green.html

[6]The Oregonian, Oregon Governor Signs New Limits on Business Energy Tax Credit, http://www.oregonlive.com/politics/index.ssf/2010/03/oregon_energy_tax_incentives_f.html

[7] SB 536, http://www.leg.state.or.us/11reg/measpdf/sb0500.dir/sb0536.intro.pdf

[8] Oregon Conservation Network, http://www.olcveducationfund.org/work-legislature/2011-legislative-session; Environment Oregon, http://www.environmentoregon.org/legislature/legislative-agenda

[9] Eugene Weekly, Bills, Bills, Bills: What’s Green on Oregon’s Legislative Agenda, http://www.eugeneweekly.com/2011/01/27/coverstory.html

[10] 2007 SB 707, available at http://www.leg.state.or.us/07reg/measpdf/sb0700.dir/sb0707.en.pdf

[11] Environment Oregon, http://www.environmentoregon.org/legislature/legislative-agenda

[12] 2009 HB 2184, http://www.leg.state.or.us/09reg/measures/hb2100.dir/hb2184.b.html

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