PCUN director Reyna Lopez speaks at a rally in Salem protesting the latest Republican walkout.
PCUN director Reyna Lopez speaks at a rally in Salem protesting the latest Republican walkout. Image courtesy of PCUN.

Lawmakers in Salem are continuing a years-long battle over legislation that would aim to regulate and lessen carbon emissions. As Republican senators walk off their jobs for the third time in two years, a coalition that has championed that legislation is expressing their frustration with conservative lawmakers—and urging Democrats not to make a deal with them.

The fight is over Senate Bill 1530, which would establish a cap-and-trade policy for Oregon’s private industries. Under a cap-and-trade framework, the state government places a limit on how much carbon large corporations can emit into the atmosphere each year. The framework also establishes a marketplace of credits, or “allowances,” that companies can purchase in order to emit more carbon than their designated limit.

Like previous attempts to pass cap-and-trade in Oregon, SB 1530 has faced strong opposition from Republican lawmakers who say the policy would drive up gas prices and hurt critical state industries, including the timber business. So Republican senators, concerned the bill would pass if it reaches a floor vote, held a walk-out this week—denying Democratic leadership a quorum, meaning state senators cannot vote on 1530 or any other bill.

For Reyna Lopez, who is part of the Renew Oregon political coalition that supports and helped shape the cap-and-trade policy, the Republican walkout is like “a spit in the face.”

Lopez is the director of Pineros y Campesinos Unidos del Noroeste (PCUN), a union that represents Oregon farmworkers, primarily Latinx farmers in Marion County. She and other cap-and-trade proponents spent the months leading up to this year’s legislative session working with politicians to make sure SB 1530 would be palatable enough for Republicans that they wouldn’t abandon the capitol. Last year’s cap-and-trade bill, House Bill 2020, was also derailed by a walkout.

“We made a lot of sacrifices, and we actually came to the table in good faith,” Lopez told the Mercury. “We’re highly encouraging the Democrats to not make any backroom deals with these people… We don’t think we need any more input from the GOP.”

Lopez said she’s invested in passing legislation that addresses climate change because the workers in her union are among those most impacted by it.

“We’re seeing a lot more heat exhaustion of our workers,” Lopez said. “There’s a lack of access to clean water sometimes out there as well. … We know that the average life expectancy for a migrant farmworker is in their late 40s, and to me that is an equity and justice issue.”

The issue is also a personal one for Don Sampson, the climate change director of the Affiliated Tribes of NW Indians. His organization represents 57 Pacific Northwest tribes, nine of them in Oregon. Sampson says climate change threatens a way of life that has existed “for thousands of years, before there was even an Oregon.” One example he gives is the fact that the salmon population in Snake and Columbia Rivers has been declining due to drought and pollution.

“These are fish we rely on for our daily subsistence, for our cultural ceremonies, and our economic livelihoods,” Sampson said.

Sampson and Lopez both understand that some environmentalists are wary of cap-and-trade, worrying that the policy provides too many loopholes for the worst polluters and may not move the needle enough in terms of reducing carbon emissions. (Sunrise Movement PDX is the latest Portland environmental group to take this position.) They say they’d both prefer to see more aggressive action on the table—but that they’re trying to work within what Sampson calls the “reality of Oregon political perspectives.”

Lopez points to amendments Renew Oregon secured for SB 1530 that would ensure investment in union jobs, particularly for rural communities and communities of color.

“We knew there would be some compromises,” Lopez says, “but we believe in integral change, where we could start chipping away at things.”

But as Republicans hold yet another walkout, Sampson says the time for compromise has come to an endpoint.

“[Lawmakers have] weakened the legislation already,” he said. “We cannot continue to have climate deniers and the Republican leadership—the Republican cowards—to just say, 'Alright, let’s just go back to where we were. Let’s ignore all this stuff. Let’s weaken it even more.' There’s a point where you draw the line.”

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Sampson said that up until now, he was hopeful Oregon could live up to its reputation for being “the greenest state.”

But he's since grown pessimistic about trusting politicians to carry cap-and-trade across the finish line.

“Oregon could have been a leader,” he said. “[But the work of] our tribes who have been here for thousands of years will far exceed the work that our government will do.”