IN A YEAR that promises its share of bruising political fights, a new push to transform Oregon's energy use looked like a heavyweight bout.
Back in October, a well-funded environmental coalition calling itself Renew Oregon announced a ballot measure aimed at making sure Oregonians weren't purchasing power created from dirty coal, and at forcing the state's largest utilities to ramp up their use of renewable energy.
The move put power companies and energy lobbyists on the defensive. They promptly began nitpicking language that might appear on the ballot—a sure sign a multi-million-dollar war was brewing.
Now, maybe it's not.
On Thursday, January 14, the would-be foes plan to sit side-by-side before lawmakers in Salem and explain that they've reached a surprising deal.
Following a set of hurried talks that occurred over the course of November and December, Renew Oregon—made up of more than 160 Oregon businesses and nonprofits—announced last week it had found agreement with Portland General Electric (PGE) and Pacific Power. The companies are far and away Oregon's largest power suppliers, accounting for nearly 70 percent of the state's energy. And they're ready to stop selling dirty coal energy to Oregonians by 2030. (Oregon's only got one coal plant—PGE's Boardman plant, slated to close in 2020—but companies frequently pipe in coal power over state lines.)
Not only that, but PGE and Pacific say they'll commit to tapping renewable energy like wind and solar for 50 percent of the electricity they sell to Oregonians by 2040—so long as the costs remain relatively stable.
If legislators are willing to play ball, all this can be accomplished in the next couple of months, without a single blaring TV ad assaulting your senses.
"We don't see this kind of thing anymore," says Bob Jenks, executive director of the Citizens' Utility Board of Oregon, which helped put together the deal. "The ability for stakeholders to get together and negotiate solutions—it doesn't happen very much."
Everyone involved in the new agreement offers some version of this sentiment. State Representative Jessica Vega Pederson (D-Portland), who's putting together legislation that would codify the deal, says the partnership is "the best of our process in Oregon."
But it's obviously not just goodwill that brought these groups together.
Oregon's power companies were already giving coal the side-eye, thanks to looming regulations that will make it increasingly costly. But they chafed at the requirements Renew Oregon was hoping to put before voters in November—provisions that would have meant rapidly ratcheting up renewable energy use, and taking some power plants offline for Oregon customers as early as 2022.
At the same time, the utilities had to acknowledge there was a good chance they'd be on the wrong side of that vote. Polling conducted by the Sierra Club last year suggested that 71 percent of Oregon voters favor moving away from coal energy, which currently accounts for a third of total energy statewide.
"Certainly the ballot measures and the timing for the legislative session drove the speed with which we needed to work with other parties," says PGE spokesperson Steve Corson.
So the companies made a deal: In exchange for slackened requirements, they'd abide by the bulk of Renew Oregon's goals.
The agreement, as explained in a fact sheet released by the parties, will accomplish the broad strokes of those goals, but offer the power companies slightly relaxed timelines for killing coal use and stepping up renewable power use.
Now, rather than having to cease providing coal power through certain out-of-state power plants by 2028 or sooner, Pacific Power—which uses coal for a whopping 67 percent of the power it generates for Oregonians and has fought policies that could increase solar energy production in Oregon—can use those plants until 2030.
"It offers more flexibility on the road to a coal-free Oregon," says Pacific Power spokesperson Ry Schwark. "In some cases that means we can use plants to supply Oregon longer, but overall the agreement does move coal out of Oregon faster than our currently published plans."
Meanwhile, PGE would have flexibility to keep using coal power from a plant in Montana until 2035. The deal also extends the life of energy credits that power companies can bank and use later to help meet state-mandated renewable energy requirements.
The people pushing the Renew Oregon measure acknowledge there are concessions, but say they are minuscule in the larger picture. Everyone seems a little surprised that there's a deal on the table at all.
Nik Blosser, president of Portland-based Celilo Group and a chief petitioner in the ballot measure push, says he learned early on that power companies were willing to negotiate when they learned what his proposal contained.
"Even at that point," Blosser says, "I don't think any of us thought it was gonna get worked out."
And it still might not. Following Thursday's hearing before a joint House-Senate committee, Pederson says she and other lawmakers will work toward crafting a bill.
Common sense suggests it'll be an easy sell—after all, the two principal parties agree on terms that would be beneficial to the entire state. But no one's ruling out opposition from the likes of industrial power customers, who might worry their bills will shoot up. And in a year when housing and the minimum wage promise to take up the bulk of the legislature's even-year "short session," the bill will have to muscle its way onto the agendas of Democratic leadership. House Speaker Tina Kotek (D-Portland), for example, is "aware of the deal and generally supportive of the goals," her office says—but she's withholding judgment until she sees a final bill.
In the meantime, that ballot fight everyone was anticipating until a week ago is still a possibility.
"Until the governor signs it, we'll be going on parallel paths where we're both fully geared up for a ballot measure campaign and even more confident in it," Blosser says. "Now we have validation that it's pretty reasonable."