The unexpectedly close race for governor in Oregon has environmentalists worried that a Republican win could roll back the state’s ambitious climate response, much of which could easily be erased by the next occupant of the governor’s mansion.
Oregon’s gubernatorial election is catching national attention this year, with Republican nominee Christine Drazan on polling less than a percentage point ahead of Tina Kotek, her Democratic counterpart and former House speaker credited with helping pass the state’s ambitious Clean Fuels Program.
The candidates’ final debate last week highlighted how Drazan is casting herself in the race—courting environmentally-concerned voters, despite her history of killing green bills as a state lawmaker.
Campaigning on a platform that is more centrist than many of her fellow Republicans, Drazan said that she intends to restore balance to Oregon politics after a long run of Democratic dominance. She acknowledged the risks presented by climate change, but supported slowing down mitigation measures to invest time and innovation in longer term solutions.
This competitive race is unusual for Oregon, which has reliably voted blue in both presidential and gubernatorial elections since 1986. But this year, former Democrat turned independent candidate Betsy Johnson is upsetting the norm. She is projected to pick up a share of the Democratic vote and give the Republican party its best shot at the governor’s mansion in years.
This possibility has local environmentalists concerned about the longevity of the state’s ambitious climate policies, which have been largely shaped by an executive order signed by Gov. Kate Brown in 2020.
“If Drazen is elected governor, Oregon will go back a decade in terms of its action on climate change,” said Alan Journet, co-facilitator of Southern Oregon Climate Action Now. A target passed in 2007 requires that Oregon reduce emissions 75 percent below 1990 levels by 2050, but does not provide any interim emissions targets or pathways to achieving the goal.
Brown’s sweeping order introduced a number of measures, without which Oregon would have no chance of meeting its greenhouse gas reduction goals, according to Doug Moore, executive director for the Oregon League of Conservation Voters.
It established an interim statewide emissions reduction target of 45 percent by 2035, increased the 2050 target to 80 percent and created a Climate Protection Program within the Department of Environmental Quality, which establishes a declining greenhouse-gas emissions cap for auto fuel suppliers, factories and natural gas companies.
However, as an executive action, these provisions are vulnerable to the will of future governors. “All of that was just the stroke of a pen,” said Moore. “A new governor could get rid of all of that progress. The threat is existential.”
Brown’s executive action followed a seven-year campaign to pass comprehensive climate legislation in the state, explained Moore. That legislation was ultimately blocked by GOP lawmakers, led by Drazan, who staged walkouts in 2019 and 2020 to prevent voting on the bill.
In her campaign, Drazan is pursuing a platform that acknowledges the threats posed by climate change, but advocates against heavy restrictions on fossil fuel and diesel-powered vehicles.
She has pledged to repeal the executive order if elected next month. “I would tear up Governor Brown’s cap-and-trade executive order on day one,” she told Oregon Public Broadcasting. “It is an extraordinary abuse of power by the executive branch that will, in the end, provide little in the way of environmental benefits while harming businesses, consumers, and our overall state economy.”
Her approach at the final debate last week, where weekly interest in the candidates peaked, according to Google Trends data, was less divisive. “It is very important that, as Oregonians choose options that are more climate friendly, we take opportunities to have a strong energy grid to support that,” she said.
This tempered approach to climate action appears to be picking up support among voters. But environmentalists remain concerned she would continue to obstruct progress, if elected.
Kotek, Drazan’s Democratic opponent, agreed, calling out her comparatively subdued response at the debate and pointing to her financial support from the oil industry—largely through the Republican Governors Association.
When she was speaker of the Oregon House of Representatives, Kotek helped pass the state’s Clean Fuels Program. The law required a 10 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions from the transportation sector—increasing to 25 percent in Brown’s executive order. With transportation comprising 40 percent of Oregon’s carbon emissions, this was a significant step, according to Moore.
“The number one program we have in the state right now that is reducing our transportation emissions is the Clean Fuels Program,” Kotek said. “Talking about the electricity grid is great, but [Drazan] wants to suspend the program because Big Oil doesn’t like it and she’s taking support from Big Oil.”
Johnson, the independent candidate who left the Democrat Party to run in this election, said the Clean Fuels Program was one of numerous “outrageously progressive policies” pursued by Kotek. She believes that vehicle emission standards should be addressed on a federal level, to ensure Oregon businesses continue to compete on an even playing field. Initiatives like this are the reason she was motivated to run as an independent, she said.
Based on current polling, Johnson’s presence in the race could impair Kotek’s chances of success while she looks unlikely to win herself. But she does not consider herself to be a “spoiler” candidate. “I’m in this race until the absolute end,” she said during this week’s debate.
Damon Motz-Storey, of Building Power for Communities of Color, who uses they/them pronouns, said that both Johnson and Drazan pose a real threat to progress on climate change. “The impacts of climate disasters ranging from heavy smoke from wildfires, to heat waves, to ice storms, have been bombarding Oregonians already,” they said. “Oregonians of color in particular … experience negative impacts from climate disasters at much higher rates than white communities. We need a governor who is going to take action accordingly.”
Keep Environmental Journalism Alive
ICN provides award-winning climate coverage free of charge and advertising. We rely on donations from readers like you to keep going.Donate Now
Motz-Storey’s organization has endorsed Kotek for the election, calling her a pivotal player in Oregon’s climate action to date.
Kotek was integral in the passage of one climate policy that is not on the ballot—Oregon’s 100 percent clean electricity standard. Passed during the last legislative session while Kotak was speaker, this bill commits the state to ensuring 100 percent clean electricity by 2040.
According to Journet, the progress that is guaranteed by this bill should not detract from the other policies at stake. The state still lacks a cross-industry, comprehensive effort, set in law, to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in line with targets, he said.
Oregon comprised less than 1 percent of the greenhouse gas emissions emitted across the U.S. in 2020, and had the fifth lowest carbon emissions per capita a year later. Widely considered a leader in the climate space, environmentalists say a reversal of advancements achieved by Brown could hinder progress for the whole country.
“There are only so many states that have taken bold steps forward on climate, and we are one of them,” said Moore. “I think there would be a really negative impact on other states if one of the frontrunners decided to take back their progress.”
Motz-Storey considered this point to be an imperative reminder for voters of what is at stake next month. “This election is the difference between [Oregon] continuing to take a lead with model policy for other states to draw inspiration from, versus becoming a cautionary tale of a government that is unable to protect its citizens from the climate catastrophe that we’re in,” they said.
Emma Ricketts is a graduate student at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism. She focuses on politics, policy and foreign affairs reporting, with a particular interest in climate change and environmental issues. Previously, she practiced as a lawyer in a New Zealand-based commercial litigation team where she focused on climate-related risk.