What’s old is new: opposition edition

By Danny Schaffer

More than 40 years after its passage, the bottle bill remains one of Oregon’s most celebrated laws – elevating the state’s image as a national leader for environmental policy. The bill is also an enduring source of pride for the Oregon Environmental Council, which played a key role in its passage. As a fledgling organization, launched just five years earlier, the bottle bill’s success solidified OEC’s reputation as an effective voice for principled yet pragmatic environmental policies.

The bill, not surprisingly, was bitterly opposed by the beverage and container industries which dreaded that it would become a model for other states to follow. Unsubstantiated, exaggerated claims about the cost and inconvenience drove the opposition’s strategy – as did an uncompromising belief that they had a right to operate as they pleased, unfettered by common-sense rules and regulations. More than 20 national firms dispatched lobbyists to Oregon to influence the outcome of the debate. As Lee Johnson, Oregon’s attorney general at the time, noted: “I have never seen as much pressure exerted by so many vested interests against a single bill.”

What’s remarkable about industries’ fierce resistance to the bottle bill is not that they stood in the way of environmental and social progress, rather the rhetoric and tactics which they employed then remain strikingly similar to those that out-of-state industries use now to combat Oregon-led environmental legislation.

Do such opposition lobbyists’ claims have any relation to reality, then or now? You decide!

Check out these statements from both bottle bill and clean fuels opponents during the heated debates that took place both before and after both laws were passed. Over the decades, the playbook for thwarting environmental progress has remained the same, ready to be utilized again and again when Oregonians work for progress.

1. Jobs are always at stake… even when they’re not.

Then: “the evidence clearly shows that this bill…will cause severe economic dislocation and unemployment without lessening the problem of litter.” Opponents contended that Oregon could lose upwards of 500 jobs if the bill became law. Newsweek, June 14, 1971

What actually happened? The bottle bill created a net increase of 365 full-time jobs for handling, sanitizing, warehousing and trucking the bottles. These new jobs added an estimated $1.6 million to the state’s payroll.

Now: Clean Fuels “will hurt working Oregonians the most…With studies showing increased fuel costs, the proposed LCFS would force many small businesses to cut costs, defer hiring, or increase their prices and become less competitive than businesses operating outside of Oregon.”

What actually happened? An independent economic analysis of the Clean Fuels Standard shows the program can create thousands of jobs, keeping money in the state by creating jobs in construction, manufacturing, and agriculture. California’s low-carbon fuel standard was recently praised by their State Treasurer who noted that the program is projected to create over 9,000 jobs.

2. Industry will be hamstrung and consumers will be asked to pay more… even when the facts show that’s simply not true. Opponents flatly claimed that the bill would not work.

Then: The Oregon bottle bill “won’t materially improve either the litter or the solid-waste situation in the state of Oregon…” it “will be discriminatory and unfair” and “complex and expensive to administer.” In a story about the bottle bill in The Jerusalem Post (yes, the debate over the bottle bill drew international media attention), the beverage industry warned that it would cost $20 million a year to implement. The industry maintained that people, not bottles and cans, are the problem.

What actually happened? Within two years after the bottle bill passed, discarded beer bottles on roadsides, beeches and parks decreased 72% (as measured by volume); discarded soft drink bottles fell 83%. The share of roadside trash attributed bottles and cans fell from 40 percent to 6 percent. This dramatic transformation in consumer behavior, clearly visible for all who cared to look, took place even though expenditures for public pickups and enforcement did not increase at all. Beverage prices, moreover, remained lower in Oregon than in neighboring states.

Now: Opponents of the Clean Fuel Standard often argue the program will not make a difference. Despite a mountain of evidence to suggest otherwise, The Oregonian editorial board has repeatedly labeled the program as “environmentally useless”, claiming that it won’t make a dent in Oregon’s greenhouse gas emissions.

What actually happened? The transportation sector represents Oregon’s single largest source of climate changing pollution, and climate impacts threaten our drinking water, agriculture, coastal communities, and health. The Clean Fuels Standard creates demand for electric vehicles, sustainable biofuels, biogas, and other clean, low-carbon fuels. Many innovative fuel companies have been drawn to Oregon by this rule and are already investing in the state’s clean fuels infrastructure. All in all, the standard is expected to reduce air and climate pollution by the equivalent of taking 1.5 million cars off the road every year.

3. Oregon will be placed at an economic disadvantage and the bill will damage the state’s economy… even when the overall impacts prove to be beneficial.

Then: Opponents contended that the bottle bill would be “a nightmare” for both soft drink and bottle manufacturers and consumers “who would experience higher prices.” They ominously projected that the beverage industry would face a 10% decline in sales and that consumers would experience a 10% to 20% rise in prices.

What actually happened: Impartial studies conducted by university researchers concluded that the law had virtually no impact on the beverage and bottling industries’ bottom lines. What’s more, the bottle bill had virtually no impact on Oregon’s overall economy. Beverage sales rose at the same pace as they had in the years preceding the passage of the bill.

Now: When it comes to Clean Fuels, doing nothing is our most expensive option. Oregon has no control over oil markets, which makes our state’s economy vulnerable to price spikes from geopolitical unrest, or supply disruptions like the Feb. 2015 fire at the ExxonMobile refinery that caused west coast prices to jump 70 cents. Clean fuels cost less than oil, and protect Oregonians from the inevitable price increases and spikes associated with oil.

4. The bill is illegal and un-American… even when the courts consistently ruled that it was not and people unequivocally declared that it reflected their desire to protect Oregon’s natural beauty. From a legal perspective, opponents claimed that the bill violated the interstate commerce provision and undermined the principles of due process and equal protection. None of this was true.

What actually happened? Nearly 50 years following the bill’s passage, it’s difficult to understand how such a benign, forward-thinking law elicited such fierce and relentless opposition. After the bill was passed, interstate commerce continued to flourish, the beverage and bottle industries were not unfairly burdened – or even inconvenienced – by the new rules, and neither consumers nor industrialists were treated unfairly under the law’s provisions. In short, Oregon not only survived the bottle bill but, in fact, flourished in the years following its passage. The Constitutional principles of due process and equal protection remained firmly in place.

Now: Representatives of the oil industry have brought three different suits against Oregon’s Clean Fuels Standard – including claims that it violates the interstate commerce clause, is pre-empted by non-existent federal law, and that the 6-year rule-making process for the law was insufficient.

What actually happened: While litigation is ongoing at the state level, the oil industries federal claims have been dismissed. The federal court recognize – as Oregon voters do – that there is a legitimate need to address climate changing pollution and that Oregon’s Clean Fuels Standard is a key part of addressing that need, stating “the Oregon Program rewards all investment in innovative fuel production, irrespective of where that innovation occurs.”

Throughout these long years of legislative conflict, none of the fears and warnings issued by opponents of the bottle bill ever came to fruition. Within months of its passage, Oregon’s highways, beaches, parks and water fronts were markedly less littered with beverage bottles and cans; businesses and residents not only quickly learned to live with the law but even took pride in the nationwide recognition that Oregon received for its success; and employment levels continued to hold steady as jobs for collecting, cleaning, warehousing and distributing the returned bottles more than made up for any loses that may have taken place due to the demise of the old bottling system. Governor Tom McCall, who had led the charge for the passage of the bottle bill, hailed the law “a rip-roaring success” – and it has remained ever since.

The debate over the bottle bill may seem like a stodgy tale from a bygone era. But on closer inspection, the debate sheds revealing light on what we can expect from opponents when they raise their voices against current environmental legislation: There will be lots of hysterical bluster about a bleak future, marked by joblessness and economic decline, if the law is passed. There will be stark assertions that the bill threatens American values and violates legal principles. And when the grim and forbidding future that is depicted fails to materialize following the law’s enactment, there will be absolutely no apologies for the misguided, wrong-headed forecasts. Instead, the same arguments will be unabashedly rolled out when another environmental measure comes up for debate.

So, the next time you hear opponents speak out against an environmental bill. If you think you’ve heard the same fear-mongering before, you’re probably right.

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