Timber Towers or Clean Air? Oregon Gov. Kate Brown’s Big Priorities Don’t Go Together

Observers say Cleaner Air Oregon could gut the nascent cross-laminated timber industry.

Framework drawings (Lever Architecture)

Two of Oregon Gov. Kate Brown's top priorities are on a collision course.

Earlier this month, the Portland Housing Bureau announced public financing for the latest in a series of record-setting wooden skyscrapers. The Framework, a 12-story Pearl District high-rise, will eclipse another Portland building, the Carbon12, as the tallest building in the country made of wood.

That announcement marks a success for Brown: During the past two years, she has invested considerable energy and state resources into promoting the development of a product called cross-laminated timber, which will be used to build the Framework.

(Rosie Struve)

At the same time, Brown has also pursued an aggressive environmental agenda. In February, after a yearlong process, Brown's Department of Environmental Quality will seek legislative approval and funding for Cleaner Air Oregon, an initiative aimed at making Oregon's air quality standards the nation's highest.

The problem: Observers say Cleaner Air Oregon could gut the nascent cross-laminated timber industry, which as part of its manufacturing process produces exactly the kind of emissions Cleaner Air Oregon proposes to limit.

Brown has helped make Oregon the nation's leader in producing and using cross-laminated timber, an industry poised to create thousands of jobs. She also wants the state to take pole position in the fight against air pollution.

Those two agenda items do not easily coexist.

Framework drawings (Lever Architecture)

"Promotion of cross-laminated timber by the state was intended to help rural Oregon businesses, employees and communities," says Mark Johnson, CEO of Oregon Business & Industry. "Sadly, state overreach will cause more harm to rural Oregon by putting cross-laminated timber and other manufacturing at risk."

A spokesman for Brown says such concerns are misguided.

"Protecting public health and supporting a thriving economy are not mutually exclusive, and Gov. Brown will continue pursuing both of these priorities," says Bryan Hockaday, her spokesman. "Oregonians deserve to know the air in our communities and workplaces is safe, and Cleaner Air Oregon aims meet that expectation."

Last year, D.R. Johnson Lumber, located three hours south of Portland in the Douglas County town of Riddle, became the United States' first certified cross-laminated timber producer.

D.R. Johnson glues together between three and seven perpendicular layers of lumber, which are pressed at high pressure and temperature, forming panels up to 24 feet long. Such panels can take the place of the steel and concrete historically used in high-rise construction.

CLT wall panel structural testing at Oregon State University (Lever Architecture)

Proponents tout the benefits of using renewable resources—trees—rather than mining and processing materials with larger carbon footprints.

A federal study produced in Oregon earlier this year found that developing a robust CLT industry could create between 2,000 and 6,000 direct jobs in Oregon and nearly twice that number in support industries, producing a total economic benefit of as much as $1 billion a year.

Even a small percentage of that figure would be huge for rural Oregon, much of which has still not fully recovered from the recession of 2007 to 2011.

Brown has thrown the state's heft behind cross-laminated timber. In 2015, she dedicated $300,000 to a design competition and to helping D.R. Johnson gear up for production. This year, Brown showed up at the dedication of the Carbon12, the 85-foot-tall residential building on Northeast Fremont Street that is currently the nation's tallest wood-framed building.

This summer, Brown welcomed engineers, architects and builders from around the world to Portland for the International Mass Timber Conference. (Mass timber includes CLT and other new engineered wood products.)

"Mass timber presents a new opportunity for Oregon, one that we are perfectly suited to take on," Brown said in statement before the conference. "Our forests grow the most desirable species for mass timber, and we're ahead of the pack in use and production in the U.S. This creates a great opportunity for both rural and urban Oregon alike."

And later in the summer, Brown hailed plans for the Framework, the wooden skyscraper planned for the Pearl.

Framework drawings (Lever Architecture)

"Oregon's forests are a tried and true resource that may again be the key to economic stability for rural Oregon," Brown said in a July statement.

But supporters of the timber industry worry that just as developers of the Framework are preparing to break ground, Brown's vision for the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality will stop the mass timber industry short.

In April 2016, in the aftermath of panic about emissions from Bullseye Glass in Southeast Portland, Brown announced an initiative called Cleaner Air Oregon.
Brown got rid of senior management at DEQ and ordered the agency to follow the examples of other states, such as California and Washington, which attach emissions limits to specific facilities.

Industry experts fear Cleaner Air Oregon could apply standards appropriate for densely populated Southeast Portland to rural Oregon. That could cripple the cross-laminated timber business.

DEQ spokeswoman Jennifer Flynt says industry concerns about overregulation of cross-laminated timber are premature. Flynt says Cleaner Air Oregon will focus for the first five years on the 80 most hazardous facilities in the state. She says CLT producers are unlikely to make that list, and as new regulations take effect, the state will work with CLT producers so that the cost of compliance is manageable. "If there are problems, there are options to address them," Flynt says.

The wood used to produce CLT must be dried about one-third more than lumber typically used in construction, and the kiln-drying process—essentially putting wood in a big room and turning the heat way up—produces volatile, polluting organic compounds.

Mass timber beam-to-column seismic testing at Portland State University. (Lever Architecture)

Although specific emissions levels for kiln-drying facilities have not yet been established, the Oregon Forest & Industries Council is worried.

"OFIC is very concerned about DEQ's response to revelations about toxic air emissions from colored art glass manufacturers in Portland," says Heath Curtiss, general counsel for the trade association. "We sincerely hope that the governor's air toxics program does not handicap efforts to bring new manufactured wood products to market."

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