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New group says it's not sure yet whether to pursue a carbon tax or a market-based cap and trade system

TRIBUNE PHOTO: OLIVIA SANCHEZ - Tom Kelly of the Neil Kelly Co. touts the formation of the Oregon Business Alliance for Climate, at a press conference Thursday at Umpqua Bank. Two days after Exxon Mobil and three other oil giants publicly backed a carbon tax to fight global warming, a group of 27 mostly local companies unveiled a new business group to pursue carbon pricing in Oregon.

"We are a single-focus business organization that is tasked with helping our legislature pass carbon pricing," said Tom Kelly of the Neil Kelly Co., the lead organizer of the newly formed Oregon Business Alliance for Climate.

Kelly, who will soon step down as board chairman of Prosper Portland (formerly the Portland Development Commission), said one reason he didn't seek another term is to work on the new business alliance.

"We don't think there is going to be a lot of climate legislation happening in Washington D.C. any time soon, no matter what Exxon Mobil says," Kelly said. So that leaves it up to states like Oregon to lead the way, alliance leaders said.

The alliance hasn't decided whether to pursue a simple tax on fossil fuels or a more complicated carbon credits cap and trade system, Kelly said at Thursday's press conference at Umpqua Bank, one of the founding members.

Nor has it decided whether it's best to work through the Legislature or mount a ballot measure campaign, he said, though he prefers the legislative process.

Either approach, if successful, will add to the cost of gasoline and other goods and services that contribute to greenhouse gas emissions.

Polls show a carbon tax has good support from Oregonians if some of the proceeds are used to offset the higher costs for low-income people and people of color, Kelly said, and "that's one of our charges."

Despite Tuesday's public announcement by Exxon-Mobil, BP, Royal Dutch Shell and Total S.A. that they support a carbon tax advanced by the Climate Leadership Council, alliance leaders say Oregon must step up to do its part. "We think that legislation like this is an innovation stimulator" and will boost the Oregon economy, said Steve Clem, vice president for pre-construction at the Portland office of Skanska USA Building Inc., a Swedish-owned construction company. Oregon has the kind of "thought leadership" that can influence other parts of the country, he said.

Many of the founding businesses have reputations as environmentally minded companies, such as New Seasons grocery stores, or have business in the green energy and sustainability fields, such as Neil Kelly Co, which does solar installations and energy retrofits, among other projects; biofuels maker SeQuential and green building leader Gerding Edlen.

When told the list of founders largely consists of the "usual suspects," Kelly and others did not dispute that, but said their ranks will surely grow after they get up and running. "It's so far been a really easy sell," Kelly said of recruiting founding members.

Jim Bernau, chief executive of Willamette Valley Vineyard, said the group will draw from businesses that do not all agree on other basis policies, such as whether or not the state needs more revenue to address its fiscal crisis.

Alliance members acknowledged the current carbon pricing bills before the 2017 Oregon Legislature are not going to pass this session, though a carbon tax could be sold as a way to help resolve the state's fiscal crisis and achieve environmental objectives.

"I think there's a lot of momentum in the Legislature for this," Kelly said, but lawmakers are too focused now on balancing the budget and adopting a transportation package.

"If they're not successful with revenue this time, maybe that will change," said Andrea Durbin, executive director of the Oregon Environmental Council, who has worked closely with businesses to get them more involved in the climate movement and attended the founding press conference.

Kelly said he's optimistic the issue will ultimately gain traction in Salem, noting that the man who originally was his "co-conspirator" in forming the Oregon Business Alliance for Climate is Nik Blosser, now serving as Gov. Kate Brown's chief of staff.

"We hope for and expect the governor's support on this," Kelly said.

The coalition hired Steve Baczko to serve as its acting director. Baczko said he'll retain his current job with Nature Bank in Vancouver B.C. while working to get the alliance off the ground. Baczko previously worked in environmental business markets for Eco Securities and the World Bank.

Kelly was a cofounder of the Oregon Business Association, which largely consisted of Portland-area businesses that wanted to pursue more centrist or liberal policies than the conservative Salem-based group, Associated Oregon Industries, or AOI.

AOI has been closely aligned with Republicans, and currently is trying to fend off tougher air pollution regulations proposed by Gov. Brown, called Cleaner Air Oregon.

The Oregon Business Association, or OBA, recently voted to disband and merge back with the AOI, in a new group called Oregon Business & Industry.

"Will that group be as progressive as the OBA? No, it won't," Kelly acknowledged.

"I will be really happy if they come out for carbon pricing," he said, "and I don't want to characterize that as impossible."

Mark Hester, AOI communications director declined an interview and instead issued a brief statement. "We look forward to continuing our mission of strengthening Oregon's economy in order to achieve a healthy, prosperous and competitive Oregon for the benefit of present and future generations. We wish Oregon Business Alliance for Climate the best and hope they, too, are able to contribute to a stronger Oregon economy."

Durbin, of the Oregon Environmental Council, said now is the time for companies to "lean in" to press for carbon pricing to address climate change, "as opposed to companies that are sitting on the sidelines trying to prevent action."

But, coming in a week that Exxon Mobil endorsed a carbon tax, after working in the past to discredit the science documenting global warming, she is optimistic the business alliance will gain more supporters. "I think that just speaks to the fact that this is inevitable," Durbin said.

Steve Law can be reached at 971-204-7866 or This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it., or Twitter at https://twitter.com/SteveLawTrib

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