SOCAN Blog Q&A with Pam Marsh

2021 Oregon Legislative Session Ends with Major Advances for Climate and the Environment

An interview with Rep. Pam Marsh, June 27, 2021

By Lorrie Kaplan, Chair, Ashland Climate Action Project of Southern Oregon Climate Action Now.


Lorrie: Welcome and congratulations Representative Marsh! As the new Chair of the House Energy and Environment Committee, you were exceptionally well-positioned to lead the charge to achieve a number of climate action victories for Oregon. 

Rep. Marsh: Thank you!  I feel like it was a really successful session in focusing on the crisis issues that are in front of us as a community in Southern Oregon. We see it up close and personal. The climate is changing. We are endangered. We suffered massive losses in 2020. So we took that experience into the 2021 session, and I think we did work that really responds to what we’ve experienced on the ground.

I was appointed to be Chair of the Energy and Environment in December, which was a big surprise.  I didn’t expect that.  I had been on it bits and pieces over the last few years, and I’ve been involved in the climate work.

As I got in and looked around, it was clear to me that there were five key priorities that we needed to come out with, and we were able to deliver on all of them.

Lorrie: For starters, let’s talk about House Bill 2021, the 100% Clean Energy Bill, which passed on June 26. You were a lead sponsor and played an important role in shepherding this bill through the legislature. Tell us about it.

Rep. Marsh: House Bill 2021 puts the state on a course toward 100% renewable electricity by 2040, with intermediary targets along the way. By 2030, we aim to be 80% emissions below where we were in  2010-2012.  By 2035, 90% below and by 2040, 100% below.

The bill primarily affects the two biggest investor-owned utilities, which are Pacific Power and Portland General Electric, which account for 75% of the electricity market.  It does not affect the consumer-owned utilities, the other electric companies around the state, or the municipal utilities like Ashland Electric which are smaller and for the most part get their power from Bonneville and legacy hydroelectric, so they are already 89 or 90% renewable.

Also included are independent power producers. They account for only about 1% of the market, but it was important to include them because they are direct competitors for the big users that get power currently from PGE and Pacific Power.

The bill has a number of components to get us there.

First, it requires the utilities to set out clean power plans, which tell us how they expect to get to those goals. They’re already reporting to the Public Utility Commission (PUC) every two years, but now they’ll have a specific emphasis on clean power and the target dates. They’ll have to produce a plan that makes sense to the PUC and that gets us toward affordable, good-for-communities kind of power. They’ll have a combination of strategies included within those plans.

Our Department of Environmental Quality already monitors emissions from utilities, so we’ve already got that mechanism in place and we didn’t need to put even a single dollar into DEQ for this. The PUC is already working with the utilities to regulate them and can look at them for consistency with the clean power plans and so forth. So it’s pretty straightforward: Set the goals, develop the plans, monitor the plans, and look at what emissions are being produced.

There are a number of other elements in the legislation that really make it distinctly Oregonian in nature.

We know that vulnerable communities need to be brought into the clean energy future. The bill requires the utilities to develop community advisory panels made up of ratepayers, including people of color, rural communities, low-income rate payers, and so forth. A really important part of the planning process is making sure that our ratepayers and our environmental justice communities have a voice in the process of transitioning to a clean energy future.   Rural communities are included in the definition of environmental justice communities.

The bill has also negotiated what I call “green tariff” programs. There are communities around the state that want to work on their climate goals more quickly than others, or that want to support localized power, or have other objectives. The bill allows the utilities to contract with those communities to set up custom programs, and then as necessary to charge ratepayers for the additional expenses that might be involved in those programs. These programs would allow communities to look at what kind of power they want, to look for local ownership or jobs, or whatever the priority is in that community for their power grid. It’s a good thing for utilities and it’s a great thing for the communities that want to expedite their climate work.

We also have labor agreements for renewable projects. These are private projects over 10 megawatts. There are specific wage and benefit standards and a requirement to use apprenticeship programs, and an encouragement to use project labor agreements. What we want to have coming out of the renewable world is really good jobs. Labor agreements are a path toward that.

And then the last significant component is that we are setting pathways towards more community renewable development. The clean energy planning processes that will require utilities to address community resiliency projects and also require them to address how to change out fossil fuel development with community renewable development.  We’re not mandating the utilities do specific kinds of projects. We’re trying to understand how to make those local projects viable. Because if they’re viable, they’ll be part of the grid.

Lorrie: Are there other aspects of HB2021 we should know about?

Rep. Marsh: A strength of HB2021 is that it is technology-neutral. It’s not picking winners or losers, it’s just setting a standard that we are going to reduce emissions, everything that goes into the system is going to have to be constructed in that way. I think everyone expects that what that means is that there are energy sources that aren’t real yet, but will become real, and that will contribute a whole lot to the viability of the system going forward.

From a policy point of view, if we go to renewables, we have to take a regional approach. We need to do it in a way that contributes to the reliability of the system by diversifying the kinds of energy sources that are coming into the grid. So consumers are served in the best and most efficient way.  I think we’ll get some facts that we will be able to use in the next round of this discussion.

The bill also requires that the Department of Energy do a study of community-based renewable projects. We want to understand the challenges and the opportunities. They’ve been instructed to come back with recommendations for legislative action.

Another big thing in HB2021 is a $50-million community renewable investment fund that will issue grants to local governments or consumer-owned utilities or tribes to plan to develop projects under 20 megawatts.

Our hope is that we start to learn what makes sense, and have a much better handle on what level of subsidy is actually required for small projects. We don’t have agreement on what the numbers are. Without an agreement on the numbers, we can’t just throw out an expectation for those projects to be there because you don’t know what kind of burden you’re putting on the ratepayers who are ultimately the people who will have to pay for that.

Many of us think we need more resilience within our small communities. But we need to figure out what that is and how to do that. How you make it meet bottomline expectations.  I’m very optimistic that through all these steps, we’ll be able to come back in a couple of years with some actual data to help us figure out what actually required

So that’s the bill in a big nutshell.   We know that utilities are moving in this direction. We know the feds are going to make us… And we hope that they make us move toward renewables. But the bill is really constructed in a way that speaks to affected individuals and communities, the affected labor force, and then the opportunity for economic development out of local renewable projects.

Lorrie: How might HB2021 impact people here in your district?

Rep. Marsh: Ashland has a municipal utility, so it will not be affected from a regulatory point of view, but it will be eligible for the community renewable investment grants.

The balance of my district is served by Pacific Power. Before the fires, Talent was looking at how to expedite its climate goals. Things are different now as we regroup and try to rebuild the community, but that would have been a great example of a community that might have wanted to develop a green tariff program with Pacific Power to customize the mix of power coming into the community.

Southern Oregon, eastern Oregon, and coastal Oregon are places that are going to get renewable development.  There’s tremendous potential for getting projects here, and with projects come jobs — and very good jobs. So, there’s a lot to gain, and then, of course, there’s the overriding climate issue, and talking about how we change in a way that is very Oregonian.

We’re trying to really set communities on a path toward resiliency because we know that more disaster is around the corner. We are addressing the energy mix in our electricity, we are trying to mitigate the climate changes that are driving conditions on the ground. Because we’re experiencing climate change right here, right here, right now.

Lorrie: Previous attempts to pass climate legislation in Oregon failed spectacularly. Most notably, the 2019 legislative session ended prematurely in a dramatic walkout by Republican legislators in order to prevent passage of HB2020, often referred to as the “cap and invest” bill.

Rep. Marsh: Cap and invest was a much broader, more ambitious bill. It would have addressed the flow of all fossil fuel-based energy, and it would have directly affected many of our businesses and industries, and of course, we heard about that.

This bill picks off a share of the fossil market.

Electricity is about 30% of our state’s energy mix. The big utilities are 75+% — probably closer to 80%–of the actual emissions in that sector. So if we get to 100% by 2040 (and maybe sooner, depending on technology), that’s a very significant contributor towards reducing greenhouse gas emissions. It’s the low-hanging fruit, because renewables are cheaper than fossil in many or most cases now. We know we need to do this. It’s frankly much easier to figure out how to change the content of electricity than it is to figure out how to get us all into electric vehicles.

Lorrie: The Healthy Homes Bill (HB2842) also passed this weekend, establishing a Healthy Homes Program within the Oregon Health Authority to provide grants to entities to provide financial assistance to low-income households and landlords.

Rep. Marsh: The Healthy Homes bill is about the intersection of health and housing and it got a lot of support.

We’re trying to address the upstream elements of housing that create poor health outcomes for people. We will look at those outcomes and be able to document the effectiveness of the interventions. People who live in energy inefficient homes or homes that have lead or radon or homes that are susceptible to wildfire smoke, or the many issues that emerge when you have a house that is not well-maintained or where the roof is leaking or the sewage isn’t correct have tremendous health impacts.

We learned through the pandemic how important it is to have a home where people can be safe and be healthy, and that’s absolutely true during the changing climate conditions.

Look at our current 110 degree weather. What does it mean to have a house where you can be cool and breathe? That’s essential. I was thrilled that we finally got the right combination of support. We had a tremendous coalition supporting it.

Lorrie: Are the healthy home funds available to people in your district?

Rep. Marsh: Rural communities are included in the environmental justice definition. Oregon Health Authority grants can be applied for by non-profits, community agencies, and local governments. I can give you three organizations locally that I think would be prime for this:

  1. Habitat for Humanity
  2. The city of Ashland. Previously, we got $250,000 from the state to provide air filtration systems for smoke for low-income households. We clearly need to do more of that work.
  3. Local organization that helps seniors and disabled individuals who need help with ramps or other adjustments for their homes. That also would qualify for a healthy homes project for people on the right income level– to be able to transition your home so that you can stay there.  I hope our coordinated care organizations get involved in this work. For example, asthma is a tremendously expensive public health problem. if we invest in people’s homes to help them breathe better and ameliorate the impacts that are leading to asthma, that’s cost-effective, and it also is energy efficient.

Lorrie: What about tenants? Can they take advantage of these funds

Answers:  That’s a really important question. These weatherization programs are oriented toward people who own. That’s why we have put so much money into manufactured housing over the last few years–many of those people own their own homes and they all need weatherization, and many of them are low income.  That’s also why we also created these purchase programs for manufactured homes through Energy Trust.

We have to figure out how to make this work for tenants. The problem is that the person that benefits is [not the one who pays for the work] to pay.  So we specifically called out in this legislation that we have to figure out what kind of rules to create so that we can make investments for low-income tenants. If we don’t do that, we miss 40% of the market, because 40% of us are tenants. The vast majority are privately held rentals. It’s an issue that’s really close to my heart.

Lorrie: Tell us about other climate-related bills that passed this session.

Rep. Marsh: We also passed a big electric vehicle bill during the session as well. The EV bill, (HB2290) which will allow the utilities to develop EV infrastructure. It also expands the subsidies available to low-income folks who would like to buy EVs.

And then we passed a bill to reauthorize the public purpose charge (HB3141).  It’s kind of in the weeds, but it was definitely an energy priority.

The public purpose charge, [established originally in 1999] has been 3% on bills paid by the customers of the investor-owned utilities. It goes to Energy Trust of Oregon, a non-profit organization that develops incentives and supports energy efficiency investments. The public purpose charge expires in 2026, so there was a work group to talk about how to renew it.

We were actually able to reduce the public purpose charge to 1.5%, because energy efficiency has to be pursued by the utilities anyway, so we don’t need to pay extra for them to do that. It’s just folded into the rate process…which is a very in-the-weeds kind of idea.

The continuation of Energy Trust is huge because energy efficiency is frankly our cheapest way out of this mess, and they are positioned to do interesting innovative work. For example, Energy Trust has a manufactured home replacement program where they’ll give incentives for manufactured home replacements. We realized a long time ago that these older manufactured homes across the state were just leaching energy. It made more sense to help people buy new ones than to continually try to upgrade these old manufactured homes, and so Energy Trust has a program. If you upgrade, you can get some money for the process of doing that.

In Southern Oregon, people are replacing manufactured homes because they burned up. If they live in the Pacific Power territory, they should be eligible for these Energy Trust incentives.

Although it’s not sexy, the public purpose charge legislation is really important too. But no one ever wrote about it because it’s boring.

Those were the four really big bills of the session.  But there’s a fifth environmental bill that is also really important, and that is a revamping of our recycling system (SB582).

It’ll take a few years, but it will move us toward a system where we have the same baseline recycling services available all over the state.

And, we’re going to engage producers. It’s much like the bottle bill, in which producers figured out how to run the recycling system and do run the recycling system. We’re going to involve producers of certain items that normally are going into landfills to help us figure out how to recycle them.

So there’s a great hope that we will have not just a more robust recycling system, but that this approach will actually serve to reduce the amount of crap that we’re recycling. If you’re involving the producer and figuring out what happens to that packaging, there is a very strong incentive for the packaging to get sleeker and less invasive, and I hope that happens.

This is very much an energy issue at its base too, because petroleum is going into the production of a lot of that packaging.

Lorrie: The legislature also succeeded in passing major wildfire legislation. 

Rep. Marsh: Yes.  Jeff’s committee — [Senator Jeff Golden who chairs the Senate Committee on Natural Resources and Wildfire Recovery] was where the wildfire bill (SB762) got its start. Then we worked on it as it came through the House side. I carried it on the House floor on Saturday, which was fun. It was huge.

I consider the wildfire work and the climate work as partners. Wildfire is climate-driven. We’ve got to start doing all the preventive stuff that we possibly can. That bill is more directly related to wildfire: around stabilizing forests, creating defensible space, building codes, and emergency preparedness. It has many different elements to it, a number of them in the prevention front, although the parts that got the most attention were questions around defensible space.

Lorrie: Anything else?

Rep. Marsh:  There was a lot of other work as well. We revamped property tax for people who have suffered loss. I did insurance reforms to make sure that people have support and rebuilding. We did manufactured-home legislation to resolve some of the questions that came up around responsibility after a manufactured home park has been destroyed. And we have a whole lot of money to invest in rebuilding the communities.

What we tried to do was respond to the big underlying issues — the long-term crisis that’s fueling the short-term crisis. Otherwise, if we fail, we’ll just be here year after year after year, trying to pay for a lot of communities that have separate disasters.

Lorrie: Thank you so much for all your great work. I hope you get some rest.

Rep. Marsh:  Thanks! I’m sort of exhausted.

Lorrie: I imagine so.

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