County, city step up to address climate change as Trump retreats on Paris accord
On the same day President Donald Trump abandoned U.S. leadership of the worldwide fight against global warming, Portland City Council and Multnomah County Board of Commissioners jointly adopted one of the world's most ambitious goals to prevent catastrophic climate change.
Hours before Trump last Thursday announced the U.S. withdrawal from the Paris climate accords, the Multnomah County Board of Commissioners unanimously approved a resolution calling for 100 percent of the electricity consumed in the county — by people, government, and the private sector — to come from clean, renewable energy by 2035. By 2050, the county vowed to push for shifting all energy used for transportation, industry, and heating and cooling to renewable sources.
"When our federal authorities abandon their responsibility, we have to step in at the local level and take action," declared County Commissioner Jessica Vega Pederson.
The Portland City Council passed its own version of the resolution Thursday evening, after three hours of testimony.
"Now our climate leadership is needed more than ever," said Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler, declaring that Trump's action took the nation back "decades" in its efforts to counter global warming.
Chuck Johnson of Physicians for Social Responsibility declared the city and county actions render Trump's move "functionally irrelevant," because cities, counties and states are leading the way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S.
Now it's up to us, said Angus Duncan, chairman of the Oregon Global Warming Commission, to assure "that it just plain doesn't matter" what the "tweeter in chief" did.
The Western States Petroleum Association, the leading oil industry trade group in the region, declined an interview but submitted a brief prepared statement. "As the state works to eliminate all carbon-based fuels," the trade group reads, "Oregonians in rural communities still need fuel to get food on the table, to get to and from work and to support the state's fishing and timber industries."
Seventy cities around the world have already adopted resolutions to pursue only renewable forms of electricity in their communities, said Jaimes Valdez of Northwest SEED, which stands for Sustainable Energy for Economic Development. But the Multnomah County and Portland resolutions go farther, he said, by encompassing transportation and building heating and cooling.
Lacking legal teeth
Resolutions don't have the legal teeth of city or county ordinances, merely expressing the intent of both bodies. Neither the city or county has jurisdiction over electric and gas utilities serving the area, let alone trucking companies, industry, car makers or, for that matter, residents who heat or cool their homes.
But the two governments have already shown their influence, by openly pressing Portland General Electric to abandon plans for two natural gas-powered plants to replace the Boardman coal plant when it stops operating in 2020. PGE recently withdrew its applications to build both gas plants, which means the utility could rely on wind, solar and hydro power instead of natural gas over the next three decades to replace coal power and meet its growth needs.
The city can now be expected to push Trimet to convert to an all-electric bus fleet, said Michael Armstrong, deputy director of the Bureau of Planning and Sustainability.
The twin ordinances reject the use of nuclear energy — though that produces no carbon emissions — as well as energy derived from burning forest slash from public lands or municipal and medical waste. The latter was a preemptive move against Metro's interest in potentially sending much of the Portland area's garbage to the Covanta facility in Brooks, north of Salem, which burns trash and medical waste and converts it to electricity.
The resolutions urge the county and city to minimize the hit to low-income people if their energy bills rise in the transition to renewable energy, and to support worker retraining for those who lose their jobs in the switch to cleaner fuels.
Leading the way locally
In 1993, the city of Portland adopted the nation's first climate action plan, and was subsequently joined by the county as the plan was updated in subsequent years. That plan has been a "template" for others to follow, said John Wasiutynski, director of the Multnomah County Office of Sustainability. "We've never waited for others to take the lead on our behalf."
Last year, C-40 Cities Climate Leadership Group named the plan the best climate action plan in the world. That group, which includes many of the world's largest cities, argues that much of the greenhouse gas emissions in the world originate from large cities, so their actions can go a long way to stem the tide on climate change when nations, such as the U.S. under Trump, sit on their hands.
The city resolution includes a requirement that the Bureau of Planning and Sustainability report to the City Council every two years on progress to meet the new goals. The resolution also requires creation of a Climate Action Subcommittee of the city Planning and Sustainability Commission.
Implementing the resolutions will take decades of major efforts, Pederson said.
The most recent data shows coal power accounts for 43 percent of the electricity used in the county, and natural gas 24 percent. Hydro power supplies 25 percent, wind 6 percent, and solar 1 percent. That doesn't include gasoline and diesel used to power vehicles and natural gas and oil used to heat homes and buildings.
A rapid expansion of wind and solar power, plus emerging technologies such as geothermal and wave energy, will have to supplant coal, natural gas, oil and diesel if the county and city resolutions are successful.
"The only viable future is a future without fossil fuels," Wasiutynski said.