Oregon’s Department of Transportation has pledged to do its part for the climate by lowering carbon emissions on the state’s highways. But the agency’s own financial projections show it does not expect to make progress.
After Republicans shut down the Legislature last year to block a carbon cap bill, Gov. Kate Brown signed an executive order to require reductions. Specifically, she required every agency to reduce carbon emissions by 45% from 1990 levels by 2035.
For transportation, which accounts for nearly 40% of carbon emissions statewide, that’s a particularly ambitious target.
Environmentalists are quietly enthusiastic about the executive order’s power to push the state toward addressing climate change. But in the case of ODOT, records suggest the agency isn’t planning to make progress—at least not in this decade.
That’s how much Oregon’s carbon dioxide emissions from transportation in 2029 are projected to exceed steady progress toward the state’s climate goals.
Portland economist Joe Cortright, a longtime critic of ODOT policies, calculated how far the state is deviating from its pledged reductions in emissions.
“In my view, with any agency, the way you really understand what they’re doing is you look at their financial statement,” he says. “And their financial statement says, ‘Burn, baby, burn.’”
1.75 billion gallons
That’s roughly the amount of gasoline the Oregon Department of Transportation projects will be sold every year this decade, according to the agency’s April 2021 “ODOT State Highway Fund Transportation Revenue Forecast.” That’s a figure officials calculate to know how much revenue they can expect from the state’s fuel tax.
ODOT has made commitments to the financial markets where it sells bonds to finance road projects that make clear the agency is actually counting on emissions to continue. The revenue forecast doesn’t say emissions, but it readily translates to exhaust coming out of tailpipes. Instead, officials talk about the amount of gas Oregonians will buy for their cars and trucks, because ODOT makes money on the tax it collects on gas: Starting in January, it will be 38 cents a gallon.
Add diesel emissions and that translates into a minimum amount of carbon emissions (not including exhaust from ships, trains or planes) and you get a staggering figure.
19.3 million metric tons
That’s how many tons of CO2 cars and trucks will emit a year if ODOT’s projections from the fuel tax (and weight-mile tax for larger trucks) are correct.
To understand how far off that is from what the state has pledged, Cortright looked at total transportation emissions in 2018 and split them up over time, reducing emissions by just under 5% a year. The result: The state needs to cut 12 million metric tons of CO2 a year by 2029 to meet the 2035 goal.
ODOT officials note the agency “revenue estimates do not forecast carbon emissions, only gallons of fuel sold” and that “clean fuel” standards may impact future diesel emissions.
But the agency acknowledges the pattern identified by Cortright.
“ODOT revenue forecasts are based purely on consumer patterns and historical data,” says ODOT spokesman Don Hamilton. “They are not based on what we want to see.”
The forecasts also don’t take into account the reductions in driving that may come with “congestion pricing” or other ODOT initiatives, Hamilton says.
“As Oregon executes many of its climate-focused programs, we expect gas sales to decline, and we will revise our gas sales forecasts to reflect those changes as they occur.”