By Eric de Place and Pauline DeStephano
Oregon is on the cusp of a climate protection breakthrough in 2018. The state legislature is weighing the Clean Energy Jobs bill, a remarkable opportunity to join its West Coast neighbors in lowering carbon pollution while raising money to invest in clean energy and transportation. The money raised would also provide assistance for low-income state residents. (Sightline’s Kristin Eberhard wrote an excellent summary of the legislation.)
Nevertheless, Oregon’s climate proposal has garnered backlash from a range of shadowy conservative groups determined to halt the bill’s progress. Many of these organizations are linked to anti-tax and anti-union politics, and many seem specifically designed to obscure their backers and operations from public view.
It’s a rogues’ gallery of climate-protection opponents in Oregon, and Sightline takes a hard look at who’s who in this movement and casts some light into the shadows.
Oregonians for Balanced Climate Policy
Oregonians for Balanced Climate Policy (OBCP) first surfaced in vocal opposition to a 2009 effort to curb greenhouse gas emissions in the state. What initially appeared to be a loose coalition representing the timber industry and agribusiness officially incorporated in 2014. Since then, OBCP has been fighting carbon reduction efforts by circulating lobbying materials and reports attacking Oregon’s Clean Energy Jobs Bill.
OBCP is registered as a 501(c)(4), a peculiar class of nonprofit organizations allowed by the US tax code to promote “social welfare” but often engage in political activity. Sometimes known as “dark money” groups because they are not required to disclose their donors, 501(c)(4)’s proliferated after the Citizens United decision allowed US corporations and nonprofits to spend unlimited sums on political activities. (By contrast, 501(c)(3) nonprofit organizations like Sightline Institute are required by law to disclose detailed financial information every year and must observe strict limits on political activity.)
Public Affairs Counsel
OBCP is not acting alone. In fact, it appears to be a puppet group animated by the Public Affairs Counsel, a lobbying firm that represents Koch Industries, Anheuser-Busch, Oregon Business & Industry, and Northwest Food Processors, among others. The firm has been at the forefront of numerous political battles in Oregon, working for tobacco companies to defeat a cigarette tax and fighting renewable energy standards, for example.
Some of the firm’s current clients are large polluters who may have to pay for their emissions if Oregon’s bill becomes law, such as Georgia-Pacific, a subsidiary of Koch Industries, and one of the largest emitters of carbon dioxide in Oregon.
Public Affairs Counsel lobbyists Mark Nelson and JL Wilson have each taken a turn leading OBCP. And OBCP also employs the legal services of Jill Gibson, the spokesperson for Priority Oregon.
The newest and most vocal opponent of climate action is Priority Oregon. Although politically influential, the organization is still largely shrouded in mystery because it has not filed the public tax forms that might reveal key elements of its operations, such as its financial assets and personnel. We do know, however, that Priority Oregon originated in April 2017 in opposition to legislative efforts in Oregon to levy a tax on corporate receipts after a similar ballot initiative, Measure 97, failed in 2016.
The group has since taken up a slew of conservative positions. It is behind puppet websites that repeat and amplify Priority Oregon’s anti-tax sentiments, including itsreallyjustasalestax.com, theycapyoupay.com, and the Oregon Accountability Project. It is a contact for the committee pushing for the passage of Measure 31, a ballot initiative designed to hamstring legislators’ ability to raise revenues. And more recently, Priority Oregon has spent over $100,000 producing and circulating ads opposing carbon pricing legislation and attacking Democratic Governor Kate Brown.
Erica Hetfeld Hagedorn
President of Priority Oregon, Hagedorn has a long track record of representing right-wing and industry-friendly interests in the state. She was Executive Director of Grow Oregon, a conservative political group that had more positive messaging than the scare-tactics oriented Priority Oregon. She acted as a spokesperson for OBCP, repeatedly speaking out against carbon pollution limits in 2008 and 2009. Prior to her involvement in political organizing, Hagedorn was a lobbyist at Public Affairs Counsel, where she worked closely with Mark Nelson.
Spokesperson for Priority Oregon, Gibson is a Portland-based lawyer with a background in opposition to worker protection laws. She filed four ballot initiatives in 2014 and 2016 trying to undercut unions and she sued the state of Oregon over union dues. Gibson has also regularly opposed protections for immigrants through her work representing Oregonians For Immigration Reform, a group that has drawn heat for receiving funds and hosting speakers from recognized hate groups.
In the current election cycle, Gibson is also working for several anti-tax or anti-union petition committees behind a suite of ballot measures that have received in-kind contributions from Priority Oregon. Digging into the funding for these petition committees is one of the best ways to unearth clues about where Priority Oregon gets its money and support.
One of these ballot initiatives is designed to make it hard for government to raise taxes. Another is meant to shrink public employee unions, and the third one increases unions’ reporting red tape. Petition committees for all three measures are supported by the Oregon Farm Bureau, which is also acting as a public face of opposition to climate legislation in the state in 2018. Oregonians for Affordable Housing, a political action committee, or PAC, that represents the interests of developers, is also backing the measures and gave $15,000 to Priority Oregon in 2017.
Priority Oregon lists other political players as members, including the Oregon Small Business Association and the Taxpayers Association of Oregon, and the group seems to enjoy support from some large companies as well. For example, media reports have tied the group to Entek, a battery manufacturer in Lebanon, Oregon, that is locked in legal battles for exposing employees to unsafe levels of pollutants. The co-founder of Entek, James Young, is a supporter of conservative causes, donating $537,000 to various campaigns since 2010. The current CEO of Entek, Larry Keith, is also a big-money donor, contributing $259,500 to conservative causes and candidates.
What’s happening should come as no surprise to those who have followed the influence of fossil fuel money in Northwest state politics. The industry has pumped at least $20 million in recent years into Oregon and Washington, proof that passing climate protection legislation must overcome an especially high hurdle: coordinated funding from the deep pockets of the dirty energy industry.Φ
Eric de Place, programs director, oversees Sightline’s research and communications teams. He is also a researcher, writer, speaker, and policy analyst who spearheads the Institute’s work on energy policy. Known as a leading expert on coal and oil export plans in the Pacific Northwest, he is considered an authority on a range of issues connected to fossil fuel transport, including carbon emissions, local pollution, transportation system impacts, rail policy, and economics. Paelina DeStephano aids organizations in their research needs, focusing her efforts on environmental policy and Puget Sound restoration. She’s a Seattle local with a background in international development and global health. This article appeared on February 28 here at Sightline Institute.