Environment, News, OREGON

2022 brought Oregon less wildfire, more drought and major clean energy investments

For Oregon and the nation, 2022 was a historic year for legislation and funding to combat climate change. 

The Inflation Reduction Act passed by Congress in August directed $385 billion toward efforts to reduce the country’s greenhouse gas emissions, largely through tax incentives, rebates and grants for renewable energy projects from the corporate to household level. 

2022 was a year of new laws to protect forests, new investments in electrifying transportation and increasing renewable energy development, record fines and atoning for environmental damages. 

State agencies in Oregon pursued billions in federal funding to grow electric vehicle charging infrastructure, turn the region into a green hydrogen hub and experiment with offshore wind power. The state invested in new programs to encourage homeowners, drivers and vehicle manufacturers to transition to electric power and away from fossil fuels. 

The state’s Global Warming Commission reported that Oregon is mostly on track to meet its goal of reducing overall greenhouse gas emissions to 45% below 1990 levels by 2035.

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2022 was also a year with fewer extreme weather events than previous years. The 2022 fire season was one of the mildest in the last decade, due in large part to heavy rains that continued into June. But they were not substantial enough to pull parts of the state out of a 22-year drought. Gov. Kate Brown issued six executive orders this summer increasing state aid for drought conditions in 17 counties.

Forest conservation

Oregon’s state and private forests saw some new legal protections from logging and new attacks from invasive species.

In February, state lawmakers passed legislation to turn Oregon’s first state forest into North America’s largest research forest, no longer requiring it to be logged to fund public education

The 91,000-acre Elliott State Research Forest near Coos Bay is home to some of the last and largest swathes of old-growth trees in the Oregon Coast Range and offers critical habitat for threatened species such as the marbled murrelet and the northern spotted owl. It’s been logged since the early 1900s to provide revenue for a state school fund but will now be studied for best conservation and habitat management practices by a new state agency and Oregon State University. 

In March the Legislature passed the Private Forest Accord, setting new conservation standards for how millions of acres of private forests in the state are logged. The rules will help to protect critical habitats and species, environmentalists said, and shield loggers from being sued under the Endangered Species Act. It was the final hurdle for the bill after a year of negotiations by a coalition of conservation groups and representatives from the timber industry, and is the first time the state’s regulations around private timber harvests have been updated since the ’90s.

North America’s most destructive bug found its way to the state, and by July the first sighting of the emerald ash borer was made at a parking lot in Forest Grove, about 25 miles west of Portland. The beetles have killed hundreds of millions of ash trees in 36 states and could cause local extinctions if not stopped, but the Oregon Invasive Species Council has a plan to confront the pests. 

Big year for electric vehicles

2021 closed with new regulations requiring cleaner trucks and cleaner fuels in Oregon to combat climate change. Both are part of the state’s mission to reduce carbon dioxide emissions from the transportation sector, the source of 40% of the state’s greenhouse gas emissions, and to shift to electric medium and heavy-duty vehicles. This year, the state doubled the rebate low-income buyers of used and new electric vehicles could get and used federal dollars to begin developing a network of electric vehicle charging stations every 50 miles on seven major highways. In October,Brown signed a pact with Washington and California’s governors and the premier of British Columbia to make the region the first on the continent to transition to 100% clean electricity and a low-carbon economy. It includes commitments to build out an interstate electric vehicle charging station network over the next five years and aligning emissions reduction targets for medium and heavy-duty vehicles. 

The biggest blow to gas-powered transport came Dec. 19, when Oregon’s Environmental Quality Commission voted to phase out the sale of new, 100% gas-powered vehicles by 2035. By that year, all new cars sold in Oregon must be fully powered by electric batteries or be plug-in hybrids that run on both electricity and gasoline. DEQ estimates that this will result in up to $13 million in health benefits for the state residents by reducing harmful air pollution and up to $6 billion in net economic benefits from decreased fuel consumption and reduced greenhouse gas emissions. 

Renewable energy

It was a big year for the possibilities of solar, wind and hydrogen power. The largest solar facility in Oregon, and what will be one of the largest in the nation, got its final approval. The facility’s owner, Obsidian Renewables, hopes to have it built and operational by 2024. The U.S. Department of Energy released a study this year looking to Oregon as a major source of offshore wind power by 2030, and has begun to grant scientists funding to study the possibilities. In a nationwide competition to develop regional hydrogen hubs, Oregon and Washington state agencies have teamed up to make a pitch for billions in investment from the federal government. The Pacific Northwest Regional Hydrogen Hub would focus on green hydrogen production, made emissions-free from renewable electricity and water, to power large transportation vessels and some manufacturing. But they face competition from Obsidian Renewables, which also pitched the feds a project to develop a regional green hydrogen hub between Oregon and Washington that would be emissions free.

Record environmental fines

In 2022, Oregon’s Department of Environmental Quality issued two of its largest fines in history. The first, in January, was for $1.3 million issued to the Port of Morrow for violating its wastewater permit and spreading 165 tons of excess nitrogen onto area farmland above an already contaminated aquifer. Well users in Morrow and Umatilla Counties, who are predominantly low-income and Latino, rely on the aquifer for their drinking water. Nitrogen turns into nitrate when it passes into groundwater and is not safe to drink over certain limits and for long periods of time. In June, the agency added $800,000 to the fine after it discovered the port continued to violate its permit through February 2022, allowing 98 more tons of excess nitrogen to be spread. An investigation by the Capital Chronicle revealed the port had been violating its permit for much of the last 15 years, adding more than 600 tons of excess nitrogen on top of the contaminated aquifer, and that the Environmental Quality Department had done little to try and stop them

Hundreds of people in Morrow County have now had their wells tested and discovered unsafe nitrate levels in their drinking water. In June, Morrow County declared an emergency over the drinking water contamination, hoping to usher in state aid. But the response has been slow, according to county officials, volunteers helping with testing and safe water distribution and residents. The Oregon Health Authority, which is the lead agency on getting residents’ water tested, getting them filters and supplying safe drinking water in the meantime, has still not tested any taps or delivered any filters, according to Jonathan Modie, an agency spokesperson. The counties and the health authority got nearly $882,000 in funding from the state’s Emergency Board in September, but won’t have a plan for spending it until January, Modie said. 

The second largest fine to come down this year from state environmental regulators was for $2.7 million for violations of a DEQ carbon crediting program. A Lincoln-city company that installs and services electric vehicle charging stations called Thompson Technical Services, or TTS, was found to have submitted false data to DEQ’s Clean Fuels Program, netting the company 16,000 carbon credits it sold for nearly $2 million to a Canadian oil and natural gas distributor. The company’s owner, Merlin Thompson, submitted data claiming the company had three chargers on highway 18 powering electric vehicles. But the chargers had never been installed. Thompson claimed he misunderstood the carbon crediting program and is appealing the fine

Atoning for environmental damage

This year, the EPA agreed to clean up a former dumping ground on the Columbia River, the largest dam removal project in the world was approved on the lower Klamath River and Monsanto paid Oregon nearly $700 million in damages caused by 90 years of chemical contamination.

In March, the EPA designated Bradford Island on the Columbia River Oregon’s 14th Superfund Site, agreeing to help clean up after 40 years of illegal dumping by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. From 1942 to 1982, the Corps dumped trash and electrical equipment into the river by the island, causing toxic chemicals to leach into the water and into fish. The Superfund designation comes after a long campaign led by the Yakama Nation to get federal support for the cleanup. 

In November, a nearly two-decades-long campaign by tribes and environmentalists to remove four hydroelectric dams and restore threatened and endangered fish on the lower Klamath River cleared its final hurdle. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission approved the $500 million plan to begin removing the dams this summer, and to remove all of them by the end of 2024. 

The year closed with Oregon Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum announcing in December a $698 million settlement with Monsanto to end a lawsuit alleging the company was responsible for 90 years of pollution in the state. Monsanto was the only manufacturer, seller and distributor of polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, that have damaged more than a dozen waterways in Oregon and are known to cause some cancers in animals and humans. PCBs were commonly used in coolants, electrical equipment, hydraulic oils and paint, caulking and copy paper, and though manufacturing of the chemicals stopped in 1977, they continue to pollute landfills and waterways. The money will be used to help with clean up costs. The company has not admitted liability or wrongdoing.

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