Can Oregon do cap-and-invest right?

Oregon’s Democratic leadership has committed to passing legislation in 2019 to cap greenhouse gas emissions and invest hundreds of millions in clean energy jobs.

“I’ve told everybody, we’re going to do this in ’19 or don’t bother coming,” said Senate President Peter Courtney, D-Salem.

One reason the bills failed in the 2018 session was time. It was a short session. It’s difficult to ram through such game-changing legislation in a hurry.

The deeper challenge for the 2019 session is to convince Oregonians that state government can pull off putting a price on climate pollution and reinvesting hundreds of millions — without messing it up.

Supporters have pointed to California and elsewhere, declaring carbon-pricing experiments have worked. They say the millions will be invested to help Oregon make an equitable and just transition to a clean energy economy. “History is proof of our success,” says Renew Oregon, an environmental group that backed the legislation.

But history is also proof of failures when Oregon government picks business winners and losers.

The Oregonian dove deeply into one of those state government mistakes over the weekend. State and federal officials poured some $12 million into a scheme backed by Portland environmental nonprofit EcoTrust to revitalize a sawmill in Cave Junction. EcoTrust aims to do things to help the environment and create jobs. The sawmill checked all the right boxes. Create jobs? Yes. Create jobs in rural Oregon where they are most needed? Yes. Good for the environment? Yes. Logs would be processed to keep forests healthy and reduce fire risk.

It all fell apart. The mill couldn’t get enough good deals on logs to process. It closed. About $7 million of the $12 million was wasted. Some $5 million was recouped by selling off the mill’s land and equipment.

State and federal officials concluded that too much money was spent with too little oversight. The mill had struggled to get a supply of logs before the new investment. Millions of dollars of new investment didn’t solve that issue. Oregon lawmakers had even set up the program instructing state bureaucrats not to dig into the details of projects — as long as it checked the right boxes.

Many Oregonians are eager to do what they can to improve the climate. That’s what makes a cap and invest plan attractive. But when the state promises to be a wise investor with hundreds of millions of dollars to create clean jobs, Oregonians shouldn’t count on it.

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