From climate justice organizing to legislating: How Rep. Khanh Pham helped pass Oregon’s 100% clean grid law

A Q&A with Pham on how building a wide-ranging coalition and sitting down with affected industries led to a clean energy victory.

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Oregon Governor Kate Brown (D) signed a bill at a public ceremony Tuesday to mandate 100% carbon-free electricity in the state by 2040. That law puts Oregon on the roster of states that have formalized ambitious clean grid commitments.

The state’s Democratic majority tried to pass economywide carbon cap-and-trade bills in 2019 and 2020, but both efforts failed. The new legislation, House Bill 2021, specifically targets the power sector and was passed in June with support from the major utilities that it affects. A cleaner grid could serve as a springboard for future efforts to decarbonize other segments of the economy by electrifying them.

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Oregon State Representative Khanh Pham (D), one of the bill’s chief sponsors, helped shepherd the landmark legislation to passage during her first months as a state lawmaker. She joined the Oregon legislature at the start of 2021 after years of work as a climate justice organizer.

Pham previously helped organize the Portland Clean Energy Fund ballot initiative in 2018, which imposed a surcharge on large retailers to raise tens of millions of dollars annually for clean energy investments that prioritize frontline communities. It passed by a 2 – 1 margin, thanks to a broad coalition spanning environmental organizations, environmental justice groups, communities of color, labor, small businesses and neighborhood associations. 

The fund’s passage showed that there was really an appetite for this vision of taking climate action, but in a way that really centers racial justice and economic justice,” Pham said. 

After that, she helped launch the Oregon Just Transition Alliance, which conducted a statewide listening tour to ask frontline communities what kind of Green New Deal would make sense for them. Those conversations led to the framework of a 100% clean electricity law. In January 2020, Pham decided to run for the state legislature in a district representing northeast and southeast Portland. She won the seat in November and co-sponsored HB 2021 in March.

Canary Media’s Julian Spector recently biked across Portland to talk with Pham about how this bill passed when others had failed and what lessons could apply in other states. Here’s the conversation, lightly edited for length and clarity.

Canary Media: What inspired you to run for office and try to build on your organizing work in that capacity?

Khanh Pham: I guess my passion for climate justice was bigger than my fear of running for office because I don’t think I’m a natural politician. Public speaking is still something that is a learning edge for me. If you talk to any of my friends from high school or college, it’s pretty shocking. 

But the climate crisis is something I’ve been worried about for over a decade. And I think we’re just all called to stretch ourselves beyond what we think is comfortable. And I was asked to run — this was never part of my world. But people who do pay attention to these things saw an opportunity to build power, not just for the climate justice movement but also for Asian and Pacific Islander communities who didn’t have any representation in the state legislature. 

I wanted to be able to make change. It really does help to have people on the inside who are working with grassroots activists and organizers pushing for change from the outside.

Khanh Pham was sworn into office in January 2021 and soon after co-sponsored the 100% clean electricity bill. (Photo courtesy of Khanh Pham)

Canary: What were the most important things you were hearing from people on the statewide listening tour that you brought to your work in the legislature?

Pham: We really talked about what their vision for Oregon was in 2030. It was in the middle of a pandemic, so things were really rough, but people talked about the need for jobs and investment because a lot of communities have been disinvested in for so long. And they did talk about the need for a transition to clean energy. 

We were near the tail end of the tour already experiencing the wildfires, and many communities in Oregon have been experiencing that for years now. There was an urgency in building both resilience to the impacts right now, immediately, and a more long-term strategy to make sure that we don’t worsen the impacts of climate change. 

People talked about building resilience to disasters — actually, much of the stuff that we ended up building into the 100% clean energy bill. How do you build microgrids and solar-powered disaster centers where you can have smoke shelters and cooling centers and things like that?

Canary: Previous attempts to pass sweeping, economywide climate legislation in Oregon failed in the last few years. What was different this time?

Pham: It was really about taking a sector-by-sector approach and being targeted. When your opposition is in every sector, it’s a lot harder. 

The utilities ended up being in support of this. Crafting something that’s really targeted to that particular sector allowed them to be at the table and feel heard. We had things to reassure them that their voices were reflected in the policy. 

Canary: I think the whole dynamic of having utility support for grid decarbonization is one of the great underappreciated stories here. How did you work with the utilities and get them on board?

Pham: We had weekly policy table meetings where we had to hash out a lot of questions in the bill: the timeline, how to define renewable,” clean,” community-based,” all these different labor standards, workforce hours. It was just a lot of conversations. And we had the Oregon Citizens’ Utility Board, a ratepayer advocacy group, and their interest is making sure that we didn’t do something that will totally jack up the prices for consumers. And we had cities, solar developers, environmental justice groups, all these different stakeholders.

One of the big questions was about in-state requirements. We ended up taking $50 million to go toward in-state projects, and the requirements for community-based projects will fund in-state projects. But some people wanted all of the energy to come from Oregon. That would have really spiked up the prices. So those are some of the compromises that we had to make.

Canary: Organized labor and clean energy advocates are not always in agreement, like when shutting down fossil-fueled plants threatens jobs. What did you learn about best practices for working with unions and workers?

Pham: Unions are diverse. Many of them, like [the Service Employees International Union], were supportive. Ultimately, some of the unions were able to offer support or were neutral, and none of them were in opposition, which is important. [Editor’s note: The law includes labor protections such as state prevailing wages and benefits for workers on clean energy projects of 10 megawatts or larger, apprenticeship standards and diverse hiring goals.]

It started with the Portland Clean Energy Fund. I honestly think we wouldn’t have been able to get to this point if we hadn’t done the initial relationship-building with PCEF. We hope that working on these win-win campaigns, it’ll help us toward eventually doing things that might be tougher.

Canary: So this law will clean up the electric grid. What’s still out there to do after that?

Pham: After this last heat wave, I’m feeling a real sense of urgency for building community renewable-powered cooling centers. There are so many disaster impacts, even in the last 10 months, that we’ve experienced, between the wildfires and the ice storms and now this heat wave. So I think we’re going to need to amp up some of our funding. 

And also we invested $10 million in a healthy homes initiative to make sure that low-income Oregonians can have access to weatherization, air filtration systems, any kind of home repairs that will help build resilience and improve public health. There’s a lot of strengthening we need to do.

We’re also looking at the transportation sector. Oregon has this constitutional restriction called the Highway Trust Fund where any kind of revenue that comes from gasoline has to be used toward building or maintaining highways or bridges. You can’t use it to build public transit infrastructure, for example. It’s very restricted. I think, given this climate moment that we’re in, we do have to really open up the Highway Trust Fund and also find new ways to totally reimagine our transportation system.

Forestry, agriculture, buildings and transportation are some of the next sectors to look at.

Canary: Zooming out a bit, is there a blueprint for how you built the coalition here that could work for other states that are trying to do ambitious climate legislation?

Pham: I don’t know all the conditions in other states, but I do feel like it was important that it was communities of color and [environmental justice] groups that led. We were able to bring together mainstream enviros, labor, utilities and frontline groups from around the state to come to a shared vision that centers racial justice and workers’ rights within climate justice.

Another lesson is to be strategic about who you want your opposition to be as you seek to transition different sectors of the economy.

Canary: Were you in touch with any national groups in this process, like groups that are working on a Green New Deal?

Pham: Not so much. We also didn’t call it a Green New Deal. We felt that it was important to do this in a way that works for Oregon and not to get caught up in jargon or buzzwords that cause some folks to turn off when there is so much that we share in common. We emphasized jobs, investments and disaster resilience because I think that’s something that’s deeply felt in Oregon right now.

Going through the heat wave, everyone turned on the AC and then the power went out. And it just highlights the vulnerability of our energy system unless we make it more decentralized and renewable. So self-sufficient microgrids are something that I’m really excited to help invest in through this legislation.

That’s a key lesson: It didn’t seem as partisan by not saying climate change” as much, but rather saying disaster resilience” and jobs,” and really focusing on this being a uniquely Oregon way of tackling the issue.

Everyone in Oregon deeply feels the worsening natural disasters. You cannot live in any place that hasn’t been touched by disaster in some form. I think that’s something that everyone’s concerned about and ready to do something about.

(Lead photo: Khanh Pham, at the microphone, campaigned for environmental justice measures like the Portland Clean Energy Fund before getting elected to the state legislature in 2020. Photo courtesy of Khanh Pham.)

Julian Spector is an editor at Canary Media and reports on the rise of clean energy. He worked at Greentech Media for nearly five years, and before that he reported for CityLab at The Atlantic.