U.S. States on Energy and Climate: Oregon

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A conversation series from the CSIS Clean Resilient States Initiative

Morgan Higman: Good afternoon and thank you for joining us. My name is Morgan Higman, and I am a fellow in the Energy Security and Climate Change Program here at CSIS.

With me today is Janine Benner, the director of the Oregon Department of Energy. And we are so glad to have her as our third speaker in this four-day series. Director Benner joined the Oregon Department of Energy in 2017 as the assistant director of planning and innovation before becoming the director in 2018. Prior to that, she worked for the U.S. Department of Energy as an associate assistant secretary of – in the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy. She also served for 12 years under Oregon Congressman Earl Blumenauer. We are so glad to have you here today, Janine.

As our audience might know, this series is part of our Clean Resilient States Initiative, which is funded by the Sloan Foundation. And we are really grateful for their support. In the last year or so, we’ve been looking at how a variety of states have been considering three climate-related imperatives. They are emissions reduction, economic development around clean energy technologies, and energy resilience. I hope that we can begin our conversation today with some discussion about how Oregon is thinking about these imperatives.

Janine Benner: Thank you, Morgan. It’s really great to be here. I appreciate the opportunity to share some of what my state of Oregon has been up to, and the Oregon Department of Energy’s role in that. So there’s so much going on in Oregon, it’s hard to boil it down into a few minutes. But I did want to highlight three examples. And I picked one, executive leadership from our governor, one legislative action, and then one program being developed by an agency in the state.

So for the first example, Governor Kate Brown has been a leader on climate change during her time as governor in Oregon. And in 2020, right before the pandemic struck, she issued an executive order having to do with climate change. And it called on Oregon state agencies to take action to reduce and regulate greenhouse gas emissions to meet reduction goals of at least 45 percent below 1990 levels by 2035, and 80 percent below 1990 by 2050. So that was an increase in the ambition for the state.

And the executive order included a number of general directives to all agencies to do things like exercise any and all authority and discretion vested in them by law to facilitate achievement of Oregon’s greenhouse gas goals, and to prioritize and expedite any processes and procedures to accelerate reductions, and to think about climate change in planning, and budgets investment, and policymaking decisions. But there were also some specific directives to a number of agencies, including mine.

So, for example, the Oregon Department of Energy, or ODOE, was directed to pursue emissions reductions by establishing and updating energy efficiency standards for products, at least to levels equivalent to the most stringent standards among West Coast jurisdictions. So we wanted to make sure we’re keeping up with our neighbors on appliance standards. And my agency did this in 2020 through rulemaking, and then the legislature in Oregon followed up by adding the new standards into statute in 2021. So as part of this executive order, agencies were required to submit implementation plans to the governor. And part of those included outlining how we were going to prioritize actions to help communities that are especially vulnerable to the effects of climate change. So that’s one example.

The second example is legislative action. So after years of attempts to pass climate legislation that were stymied by politics, including when one political party actually fled the state to prevent climate action, the Oregon legislature in 2021 passed H.B. 2021, the 100 percent clean energy for all. And that bill requires Oregon’s large investor-owned utilities and electricity service suppliers, who provide electricity to the majority of Oregonians, to basically reduce emissions 100 percent by 2040. So the state’s utilities are working now with the Oregon Public Utility Commission on clean-energy planning and compliance.

And for my agency, this bill did a few things; is it prohibited us – it prohibits us, going forward, from permitting new fossil-fuel power plants in the state. So we said we’re going to go all clean. It also created a $50 million fund at our department to provide competitive grants for planning or developing community renewable energy projects that increase resilience and provide benefits to communities, so sort of getting at that economic part of the question.

And the last example is Oregon’s Department of Environmental Quality has created a new program called the Climate Protection Program that establishes limits on fossil-fuel providers and suppliers and large industrial sources. So it sets up a declining greenhouse-gas emissions cap, basically, from fossil fuels, including diesel, gas, natural gas, and propane that are used in transportation, residential, commercial, and industrial settings. And it also regulates site-specific greenhouse-gas emissions at manufacturing facilities.

I could go on, but I’ve already provided kind of a long answer to your short question. So I’ll stop there.

Ms. Higman: That’s a terrific overview. Thank you so much for that. So it sounds like there’s a lot of support and interest from the executive, legislative branches as well as in your office.

I wondered, when our audience looks at Oregon, do you think there are specific institutions or authorities that are especially sort of influential or noteworthy in advancing some of this progress around clean energy?

Ms. Benner: Yeah. Great question. I would encourage the audience to start by looking at the Oregon Global Warming Commission. The commission was established back in 2007 and it’s staffed by my agency, the Oregon Department of Energy. It has 11 voting members appointed by the governor and a number of nonvoting agency director members like myself.

And the mission of the commission is to recommend ways to coordinate state and local efforts to reduce Oregon’s greenhouse-gas emissions, but also to help the state and local governments, businesses and other Oregonians prepare for the effects of climate change. The commission also tracks and evaluates assessments of global-warming impacts on Oregon and the Northwest, existing greenhouse-gas reduction policies and the advancement of regional, national, and international policies, costs, risks and benefits of various strategies, progress towards meeting those reduction goals, technological advances, and other related tasks.

So that’s really a great place to start when you’re trying to figure out, OK, what is the state of Oregon doing. But as I mentioned, there’s a lot going on at other agencies as well, some of which will show up there, but the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality, the Oregon Public Utility Commission.

And then the Oregon Department of Energy, it’s in our statute and mission to be a central repository of energy data, information, and analysis. So we are another good place to start. And every two years my department releases a Biennial Energy Report which basically tells you everything you want to know about energy in Oregon. And the 2020 report had a piece on energy and climate activities taken by Oregon cities and counties. So that’s a great compendium there for local leadership.

And the 2022 report, which is coming out in November, will include a discussion of climate actions taken by the state. I haven’t counted them up, but I think there’s probably maybe even as many as a hundred different programs within state government. And this report will organize them by topic. We’ll look at, you know, emissions reduction and sequestration, assessment of climate-change risks and vulnerabilities, resiliency in sustainable practices, and education.

Ms. Higman: Yes. I can say, having spent about a year looking at various state programs, there is – there are not a lot of reports across states that are as comprehensive as that Biennial Energy Report that your office puts out. It is really a terrific resource for understanding the sort of energy history as well as programs that are sort of unfolding in Oregon. I think that’s a terrific resource.

We’ve got a question for a link to that resource. I don’t know if you could supply that at a later date. But I’m pretty sure if you just Google it you’ll get it pretty quickly.

So we’ve talked a little bit about institutions and authorities maybe within those reports or in other areas of your work. Could you talk about how you’re measuring your performance around some of these goals? And in particular, I think in my work I’ve found that it’s very easy to measure emissions. There’s a lot of consensus on what should be measured and how we can do it. When it comes to economic opportunity and resilience, there’s a lot more uncertainty. So do you have specific performance indicators or goals in those areas?

Ms. Benner: Great question. I would say statewide we have definitely experienced the same thing that you mentioned with some of these things are easier to track than others, and each agency kind of has their own way of tracking their own programs. And our legislature is really good about following up on legislation that they’ve passed, and requires agencies to come in and provide updates on new programs and regulations and submit reports to the legislature on those programs.

For greenhouse gas reduction specifically, as I mentioned, the Oregon Global Warming Commission tracks and evaluates state progress, including through biennial reports to the legislature. And actually, this is very timely because this summer the commission is wrapping up a project that includes an assessment of how close the programs that we have on the books today get us to our 2035 goals. It’s a project called the Roadmap to 2035. And we’re going to unveil that assessment and modeling this afternoon at a commission meeting, so I don’t think I should share the details yet because the commission members haven’t seen it, but I can tell you the news is really good. The state is actually doing really well in terms of our greenhouse gas reduction goals.

Those other economic community benefits are definitely harder to measure. The agency has a strategic plan, and one of the initiatives under our strategic plan is to develop a set of key performance metrics to really identify some of those indicators that can show us whether we’re going in the right direction – so how much renewable energy is in the state, what do electricity bills look like, those types of things – and we haven’t started on that initiative yet. It’s still in the planning stages, but we’ll be working with stakeholders around Oregon to say, you know, what – how can – how can we show where Oregon is in meeting some of those other goals.

Ms. Higman: Very good. Well, we look forward to that, to the report coming out soon and the development of those indicators as they unfold.

Another sort of common topic of performance and climate and energy goals relates to environmental justice and just transitions, and this is another area where measurement maybe is harder but sort of recognizing the priority and creating some engagement around it has really gained a lot of traction. Could you tell us about your work in this area?

Ms. Benner: Yes, and this has been a huge priority for our governor during her time in office. She has established new positions, an office within the governor’s office, and really provided a number of directives and tools to help her state agencies work towards addressing the existing inequities and ensuring that everyone can benefit from a clean-energy transition.

So she’s encouraged state agencies not only to prioritize helping currently and historically underserved communities, but actually centering them in our work. She has an analogy – and I’ve heard her use it a few times – about baking a cake, and you know, it used to be the icing on the cake and then we talked about, no, it’s actually a key ingredient. She’s gone back and said, well, I’ve realized it needs to be part of the recipe. So it’s really – to carry that example on, she’s baking it in there. And I think she’s trying to do it in a way that is going to institutionalize some of this work to outlast her time as governor, because she – her term will be up in November – or, January, I guess.

One of the things she did was establish a Racial Justice Council to advise her and to provide recommendations to inform state budget and the legislative agenda. And this council meets very frequently and provides recommendations, and she really does take them. They show up in her budget proposals. And that council includes an environmental equity subcommittee that works with agencies like mine to provide feedback on programs and budgets.

You mentioned the challenge of tracking some of these things. And one barrier which is a challenge that we have identified is – it’s hard to know sometimes how our programs affect the types of communities that we’re trying to serve here because it’s hard to collect demographic data on that. And we’ve been starting to gather some proxy data, we’ve been doing some surveys, but it’s really sort of a new thing for us to try to collect that demographic information.

I should add, this is also an area that’s been a priority for the Oregon legislature in recent years, and we’ve seen a number of the climate and energy bills that they passed incorporate concepts of equity and environmental justice. So one example I’ll give of that is the Community Renewable grant fund that was established in the Clean Energy For All bill that I mentioned earlier – requires that at least half of the dollars from that program be allocated to environmental justice communities, and the bill defines environmental justice communities very broadly: communities of color, communities experiencing lower incomes, tribal communities, rural communities, coastal communities, communities with limited infrastructure, and other communities traditionally underrepresented in public processes and adversely harmed by environmental and health hazards. So big, broad definition, but really makes sure that as we’re looking at applications for the funding that the state has we can prioritize and focus on the people who need it the most.

And then I’ll just go back to our strategic plan. One of the five key focus areas for my agency in that plan has to do with equity and it – we have an imperative to build practices and processes to achieve more inclusive and equitable outcomes. And that really underscores the opportunity for the Oregon Department of Energy to examine our own programs, processes, and practices, and measure our impact across the state with a focus on historically and currently underserved populations and communities.

Ms. Higman: Sounds like you’re off to a good start on advancing that clean energy for all.

You mentioned wanting to be sort of a leader in the Pacific Northwest or in the western region of the United States. I wondered if you could talk a little bit about how some of your initiatives carry over to interstate collaboration, and then also, you know, having come from the U.S. Department of Energy, what can you offer us about sort of state-federal coordination on some of this work?

Ms. Benner: Yeah. You know, we have a little bit of friendly competition with our neighbors from the north and the south, although it’s really hard to compete with California because they are so big. But we do have a number of partnerships with states within our region and a key one is the Pacific Coast Collaborative, which was established back in 2008 and includes California, Oregon, Washington, and the province of British Columbia, and then also engages key cities in that region. And the PCC is meant to build on each jurisdiction’s goals for reducing greenhouse gas emissions by at least 80 percent by 2050. So the jurisdictions, you know, get together frequently and talk about where climate policy and investments can be leveraged, talk about responding to emerging opportunities and challenges for regional climate action. You know, the West Coast states have been leaders in addressing climate change and clean energy, and this is one of the venues that we do that through.

We also work very closely with our National Association of State Energy Officials, so that’s a group of – the heads of the energy offices from around the country. And you mentioned working with the federal government. NASEO, the National Association of State Energy Officials, is really a great link for us sort of translating what comes out of the federal government representing the interests of the state, making sure we’re getting our questions answered. We also have the Western Interstate Energy Board which hosts conversations about regional issues like transmission planning, for example.

And then one other specific area of regional collaboration for my agency is emergency preparedness for transportation fuels. So ODOE is responsible for making sure that after a natural disaster or something that disrupts the fuel supply, we have the transportation fuels, the petroleum that we need to meet the needs of emergency responders and sort of get all that back up as quickly as possible. And the vast majority of the refined petroleum products coming into our state come through refineries in Washington, so it’s natural that we work very closely with the energy office up there on fuel planning in the event of a disaster that disrupts fuel supply.

And I would say, to your question about working with the federal government, the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act is – has been a game changer for us in terms of providing energy offices with the resources that they need to tackle some of these energy and climate issues. And right now the relationship is very much a, you know, here’s some money – (laughs) – and we say thank you, although it’s – I wish it were as simple as that. There’s a lot of strings attached to that money, a lot of planning and coordination we need to do to get access to it, to meet the requirements that Congress set out in that bill. But right now, I think having the federal government sort of fund the states doing some of this action on the ground is not a bad way to go.

Ms. Higman: Yeah, I’ve heard the infrastructure funding described as drinking from a firehose for states. I wondered, could you talk a little bit about what it is that you’re doing to kind of organize maybe the best opportunities first, or the most money for the best thing? I know that you’ve had a couple of public meetings talking about how it is that you plan to tackle all of this funding.

Ms. Benner: Yeah. You’re observant, from our website. We did actually host a public meeting yesterday on the – sort of twofold purpose. One was to provide information to stakeholders and community members about the type of funding that’s going to come to us. So we sort of went over – there’s some pots of funding we know are coming. Like, the state energy program is going to, through a formula, send a bunch of additional money to states. And there’s a grid resilience funding opportunity announcement that’s out there right now that’s going to send a lot of money to the state. And so we need to put together an application that involves a whole public process and a prioritization framework and development of criteria, submit that by September.

So there’s some known things, and then there’s some unknown things. A lot of programs that the U.S. Department of Energy still has to set up. And I think drinking from a firehose is a great way to put it because there’s just so much. And the Oregon Department of Energy is one of the bigger state energy offices. We have about 80 people. So even for us, you know, we have one person who’s our federal grants officer, who’s fantastic. And she – her role is to try to keep track of all of it. And it’s a lot. It’s a lot for one person. And then we’re going to probably need to bring people on staff to distribute some of the money that we get.

So it’s really a challenge to sort of figure out how to – I think people don’t necessarily understand how much work it is to receive money, which sounds kind of funny. But the public meetings that we’re having before we even see all the money are to help inform places where we do have discretion on how to spend some of this money. So what are the priorities for the state in terms of how we want to use state energy program dollars, for example, and also where there are opportunities for the department to apply for competitive grants. Which of those should we prioritize? Because we probably aren’t going to be able to go after all of the money, but we want to – if there’s money out there, we want to bring it to the state to have those climate and economic benefits.

Ms. Higman: Absolutely. I think the infrastructure funding is a great segue to thinking about what’s next for Oregon. So we talked a little bit about that biennial energy report, which is kind of a great retrospective, but also has some policy briefs and ideas about what the future might look like. Your office also does a lot of terrific sort of future studies, either commissioned by the legislature or inspired by experts in your office. I’m thinking about hydrogen, floating offshore wind, small-scale renewables, regional transmission organization participation. What could you tell us about maybe those topics or other topics that are at the front of your mind right now?

Ms. Benner: Yeah. Those are great examples of some of the ways in which we work to be – my department was called the think tank for the legislature on energy. And it’s a moniker we really like. So we like it when the legislature assigns us studies. And what – the studies that you mentioned and those topics are really – looking forward, as you said, what are some of the technologies that are going to help create an equitable transition for Oregonians as we move to clean energy, and as we start addressing the impacts that we’re already seeing with climate change.

So floating off-shore wind is something that doesn’t exist yet in Oregon, doesn’t exist on the West Coast, but it’s coming. And so the legislature asked us to look at how can the state plan for it? And so we’ve been hosting conversations. At the same time, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management is hosting conversations on the coast about where offshore wind could go. And we’re looking at how could we get it to shore, how could we get the electricity around. Hydrogen is another sort of out-there technology that we see as potentially having a role in Oregon. And so our study is looking at the opportunities and challenges associated with that.

And then that small-scale renewable energy project. You know, we’ve got a lot of huge solar farms in the eastern part of the state where it’s really sunny. We’ve got a lot of huge wind farms in the gorge where it’s really windy. And this study is really looking at, what about some of those smaller projects that are community scale sized? What are the benefits of those and how are they different from some of the bigger types of facilities?

So I would say that is definitely an area, and it’s being headed by our Planning and Innovation Division. And I just love that – I love the name of that division because we need to plan and we need to innovate or we’re just sort of going to be overtaken by events.

There’s always more work to do to make sure that this transition to clean energy is equitable. And I mentioned some of the efforts before across the state, led by the governor, but it’s an area where we acknowledge that we have a lot of work to do to be a better partner to communities, to build trust and develop relationships that will enable us to meaningfully engage with diverse communities across the state. And it’s especially challenging because a lot of these communities are dealing with other issues that are more pressing, more health and safety issues especially right now with, you know, COVID and the economy. So to have someone, you know, send an email saying, hey, talk to us about the future of energy, it’s sometimes hard to make the value proposition that they should engage. But it’s so incredibly important to have all of the voices at the table, and so we’re sort of trying everything to engage with those communities.

And then sort of the flipside of it, I’d say, is, yes, Oregon’s been a leader. We’re very ambitious. We’re doing a lot. But I don’t know that everybody in the state necessarily recognizes the economic and community benefits of climate action. There is some division in the state. And I think we’ve got our work cut out for us to demonstrate how being on the leading edge of this transition can really help our state’s economy and can be accessible to everyone.

Ms. Higman: Yeah. I think that’s a really important note to end on.

One of the things that I’ve been thinking a lot about is sort of all the opportunities wrapped up in this infrastructure funding and the difficulty of translating it to state-level goals, and then also states to communities. So just as a final note, could you give us an example or two or how you’re conducting some of that community outreach or trying to make sure that everyone in Oregon both has some of the benefits of this funding and the state’s goals as well as an understanding of, you know, what it could mean for the prosperity of everyone in Oregon?

Ms. Benner: Sure. So I can tell you about a few things we’re doing and then a few things we’d like to do.

We found that we’ve been doing over the past two years, as you can imagine, a lot more virtual events. So having webinars, for example, like the one we had yesterday on federal funding opportunities, is a key new strategy. And I’ve found that that actually enables some people to attend who wouldn’t necessarily make the drive to Salem to sit in a conference room for two hours, so I think that is a way that we’ve been able to be more accessible. And we also have tools associated with some of that technology that can, for example, translate our materials into another language, one that we don’t necessarily have the capacity within the department to offer.

Another best practice that we’re seeing is from other states and from some – from some of our sister agencies is to compensate people for their time. So there, you know, are some folks who work for utilities who get paid to follow what the Oregon Department of Energy does. Other people may not. And so for us to able to offer them a stipend, for example. And we’re looking at this in an advisory committee or an evaluation committee we’re putting together to work on those renewable energy development grants – excuse me, community renewable energy grants – really saying, you know, we want the voice of the community, we understand that finances could be a barrier; what can we do to help you overcome that barrier?

And I see there’s questions about links. Happy to put those in. I would say, you know, start with our website, oregon.gov/energy. You can find, if you spend time – if you go to the climate change section, you can find all the links to the executive order, and there’s all sorts of other resources on there.

Ms. Higman: Very good.

We really appreciate your time today, Dr. Benner. Thank you so much for telling us about some of Oregon’s progress and opportunities. We hope that those of us who have joined today can tune in tomorrow to hear from New Mexico. In the meantime, thank you so much and have a terrific afternoon.

Ms. Benner: Thanks for the conversation.