A Confluence on Energy Policy

Two Oregon leaders are stepping into leadership roles on energy policy, which always has played a key role in job creation, regional affordability and quality of life.Oregon Governor John Kitzhaber has advanced a 10-year energy policy just as Oregon Senator Ron Wyden has assumed the chairmanship of a Senate committee that will design an updated national energy strategy. The economic and environmental stakes of both are huge for Oregon and the country.

Kitzhaber's 10-year energy plan will go before the 2013 Oregon legislature for review. Wyden will reveal some of his thoughts on national energy policy in a speech this week to the Portland City Club.

The emergence of Oregon leadership on energy issues comes after several decades of relative quiescence. It would be fair to say energy policy hasn't been a top-rung focal point for Oregon elected officials at the state or federal level for quite a while.

In years past, energy policy consisted of talking about the Bonneville Power Administration (BPA). While the dams generating relatively inexpensive electricity remain important to the region, the range of energy issues on the table has vastly expanded to include renewable energy, expansive natural gas resources, a drive for national energy independence and calls to combat greenhouse-induced climate change.

Old debates about BPA, such as its role in salmon preservation, pale compared to the more multi-sided debates of today over whether to allow more offshore oil drilling, switch to hybrid-fuel vehicles, close coal-fired plants and export surplus natural gas resources.

Like other states, Oregon's economic future is heavily influenced by energy choices. Unlike many states in West and Southwest, Oregon doesn't produce much of the power it consumers. There aren't coal mines, offshore oil drilling sites or shale formations yielding natural gas. Yet the state has sampled a lot of energy generation sources, including nuclear power, a coal-fired plant, wind farms, solar installations, wave generation, biomass co-generation and geothermal heating systems. And Oregon has placed a heavy emphasis, which is redoubled in Kitzhaber's proposed 10-year plan, on energy conservation.

Hardly anyone is left out of debates about energy policies. Regional and state economies are impacted by policies on what energy resources can be extracted. Industry relies on reliable and competitive energy rates. Motorists are influenced by the price of gas and the cost of alternative fuel vehicles. Homeowners contend with the price of heating or cooling their houses.

Given all that, it is surprising energy policy hasn't been a more dominant topic in recent business plans or political campaigns. Now that appears to be changing, as reflected by the growing engagement of Kitzhaber and Wyden. 

There are ambitious national and state energy policy goals, such as Oregon's commitment to serve 25 percent of its electricity load with renewable resources by 2025. Moving from aspiration to achievement of this and other goals will demand some choices. For example, does Oregon have an electricity distribution system up to the task of delivering renewable energy from remote parts of the state to load centers such as Portland? Is there a need for a more fail-safe natural gas distribution system serving the populated Willamette Valley? Can the feed-in tariff be successful in convincing Oregonians to make personal choices about installing solar panels on their homes and businesses? Should Oregon be an export platform for coal or natural gas? 

At the national level, energy policy has even more complexities. What would make the United States energy independent — more domestic oil drilling, exploiting vast underground reservoirs of natural gas or a massive investment in renewable energy? Finding workable incentives for individuals and businesses to switch in significant numbers to alternative fuel vehicles? How to ensure a robust, smart electricity grid that can transport power from large plants as well as from smaller, decentralized sources?

The answers aren't always obvious and don’t attract universal agreement. There are significant regional differences of opinion inside Oregon and throughout the nation. But it is an encouraging sign that Oregon's elected leaders are wading into the deep end of this important policy pool, which historically has been and remains a critical determining factor for job creation, regional affordability and quality of life.