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Showtime for the Apollo

GOP Lawmaker Pitches in for Green Energy

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In mid-January, two ballot initiatives were filed with the aim of promoting sustainable energy in Oregon—both part of the national "Apollo Project." But get this: It was co-sponsored by a Republican.

In fairness, though, State Senator Ben Westlund (R-Bend) isn't what you'd call a right-winger. In the last year, he's broken ranks with his GOP colleagues on a number of earth-shaking issues—for example, he was the chief mover behind SB1000, the civil unions/anti-discrimination against sexual minorities bill that died in the conservative House. And he hasn't been quiet about the distinct possibility of dropping his party affiliation altogether.

Still, in a state that is becoming increasingly polarized along party lines, the fact that he would throw his weight behind an unabashedly lefty idea is somewhat surprising. And get this: his co-sponsor on the bill is former Democratic Governor John Kitzhaber.

For Westlund, both biofuels proposals—which are designed to attract renewable energy companies and set standards for biofuel use and consumption—are perhaps more about the creation of jobs than protecting the environment.

"In the simplest terms, what this does is provide incentives for biofuels industries to locate in Oregon," Westlund says, adding that it could lead to an influx of hundreds of millions of dollars in private investment in the state. Dan Carol, campaign strategist for Oregon Apollo, the group organizing the campaign, estimates that it could add 5,000 to 10,000 new jobs.

In more complicated terms, here's what the proposal would do: Create several "Centers of Excellence" around the state that will train workers in renewable energy industries and actively attract companies to move here; provide tax credits to farmers who grow crops that can be used for clean fuel; and set gradual standards for biofuel use in the state—eight percent of fuel sales by 2010, 25 percent by 2025.

The standards "mandate a fairly significant market" for the biofuel crops, Westlund says. In other words, the state will ensure there is a stable need for what farmers will be growing.

What may give pause to some environmentalists is the use of forest-derived "biomass" for fuel. Essentially, materials from forests (such as trimming live growth from trees) would be harvested for fuel—but it would come from "strategically located" areas that could act as a fire-zone buffer between residences and forests, according to Westlund.

"This is forest management," he said. "People in central and eastern Oregon live in terror during the fire season."

Much of this initiative was salvaged from last year's legislative session, where a biofuels package (tax credits for farmers and standards for usage) failed to pass—and because of the biannual scheduling of sessions it wouldn't come up again until 2007. As with many other bills that stalled in the legislature, its legislative defenders are attempting to bring the issue directly to the voters.

It's still very early in the process for the Apollo initiatives—they've just been filed and are not yet approved for signature circulation. But the plans managed to gain the support of the Oregon Bus Project at last month's "Rebooting Democracy" conference, beating out other distinctly progressive plans like payday loan reform and campaign finance limits. And, weirdly, the initiatives won the lefty support of the Bus Project due at least in part to Westlund's (a Republican!) championing of the issue.

Or perhaps his involvement isn't so weird, when one considers that Westlund is still actively considering a run for governor as an independent. Along the way, his path has crossed with Kitzhaber's on numerous occasions, on numerous issues. For instance, Kitzhaber is pushing a complete overhaul to Oregon's health care system that would provide basic care to every person in the state. Simultaneously, Westlund is promoting a ballot initiative called "HOPE for Oregon Families," which would amend the state's constitution to require that health care be made available to everyone. It would also mandate that the legislature draft a framework—like, say, Kitzhaber's plan—in the 2007 session.

Both politicians also support the idea of open primary elections. And maybe most significantly, both have considered running for governor this year. After months of indecision, Kitzhaber finally decided not to run, but Westlund is still on the fence.

When asked for a concrete answer, Westlund would only say, cryptically, "I have my wife's permission to answer that question, but I don't have permission to tell you what the answer is."

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