CitySpeak Review: Local Sustainability & Climate Crisis Amidst Pandemic 

The Corvallis Advocate called in local sustainability experts Tuesday evening for a progress report on how government and institutions are addressing the climate crisis in the face of the global coronavirus pandemic. There was also an update on the Jordan Cove LNG development. 

OSU, Corvallis, Benton County 

As the Oregon State University sustainability coordinator since 2005, Brandon Trelstad’s work is focused on carbon emissions reductions as well as other areas. He said there is an emphasis on student engagement and social justice in the sustainability-related courses at OSU.  

According to Trelstad, during a decade of unprecedented growth, the college has managed to cut emissions by 12 percent, ranking highly among other schools for sustainability. During the pandemic, sustainability metrics show around $750,000 in savings on utility costs due to strategies OSU has used while there is a limited presence on campus. 

“We’ve experienced massive growth,” Trelstad said. “And if you normalize for that growth per student enrolled and per square foot, we’ve actually been able to reduce carbon emissions by 41 percent.” 

City of Corvallis Sustainability Coordinator Scott Dybvad works on internal sustainability. In 2011, five goal areas were designated for tracking sustainability: facilities, purchasing, vehicle carbon footprint, waste reduction, and social wellness. This year’s success included using 70 million gallons of water less than in 2008, and around a million gallons less than the previous year.  

“It’s almost hard to imagine where that water was being used now that we’ve got new practices and methods,” Dybvad said. “You get used to the efficiency you create.”  

However, while City-generated waste has increased by only a small amount, public waste the city removes – in large part from the unhoused community – has increased significantly, according to Dybvad. 

Sean McGuire, Benton County Sustainability Coordinator, said sustainability has grown to a broad definition that includes the economy, equity, the environment, and livability. At the county level, three resolutions have been passed in three years regarding sustainability.  

McGuire noted several successes in reducing the county’s carbon footprint, but said the purchase of just a few vehicles pushed it back up noticeably. He and other panelists questioned how the carbon emissions statistics will be affected between reductions from staff who have been working from home during the pandemic versus new safety precautions that force increased emissions. 

Jordan Cove 

Long-time activist Trish Weber provided an update on the Jordan Cove LNG terminal that is proposed in the Coos Bay area. The project involves a liquid natural gas pipeline coming from Canada. Numerous complicated permits are required for the project, and the process was met with an ongoing battle from environmental activists. The federal government has signed off, but state and local permits are still needed to proceed, and a number of lawsuits must be resolved, according to Weber. 

Weber said projects of the Jordan Cove type are being eliminated by energy markets, citing frequent media reports of failed liquid natural gas proposals and developments. “It’s looking worse and worse for this project every day economically,” Weber said. 

A Global Reality Check 

OSU Crop and Soil Science Instructor Jillian Gregg is a climate change researcher. At some point, she realized another scientific research paper wasn’t what the world needs – it needs action. She currently teaches a course on introduction to climate change for non-science majors, busting myths and showing students how to seek out and interpret climate data themselves.  

Prior to the pandemic and shutdowns, Gregg said the indicators of threats to environmental sustainability were all increasing. She said COVID-19 resulted in reductions of emissions globally, but that doesn’t mean a decline in CO2 in the atmosphere, just that slightly less was added. Gregg said there has to be net-zero emissions and 100 percent renewable energy in order to see any atmospheric carbon reduction, meaning all of the earth’s energy must be switched over to renewable resources for at least 30 years before any change is seen. 

“This is why the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) says we’ve got to start now, and we have until 2030 to make these large changes,” Gregg said.  

A Corvallis School District employee and a parent, Sustainability Specialist Bailey Payne said it’s emotional to think about the important work of protecting the environment to give the coming generations a better world.  

“It’s really hard to think about the future that they’re going to have,” Payne said.  

With the state of confusion around the pandemic, Payne said it’s hard to know what the next steps will be for school district, which adds to the difficulties for parents who are trying to plan for the coming school year. He noted a positive sense around the accomplishments the school district has made in terms of sustainability.  

Renewable Energy, Refugees, and What You Can Do 

Dispelling a popular myth, Gregg said as of recently, the means of production for renewable energy sources are now cheaper to start from scratch than fossil fuels. The exception comes in accounting for the existing infrastructure used by traditional energy sources. Renewable energy infrastructure is limited and must expand to be effective. 

Nuclear power is another factor in the quest for sustainability. Corvallis-based nuclear power company NuScale was given as an example of a reliable, non-carbon emitting energy source that could be utilized even by smaller rural towns. Trelstad said at a conference just before the pandemic outbreak, he picked up two key words for the nuclear power option: baseload and bridge fuel. Nuclear is not renewable, not good for the long-term, but serves as a temporary solution as the renewable energy sources overtake fossil fuels. 

In the anticipated event that the Pacific Northwest should become a destination for climate crisis refugees, Dybvad said that state and local governments have tried to anticipate a potential population influx, noting a strong push to improve building codes by including sustainability measures. McGuire said his initial work was around identifying and preparing for the exacerbating factors on the current housing crisis of a population boom forced by climate change.  

The panel suggested the public could make an impact on climate change in a number of ways – use solar power, reduce meat and dairy consumption, and avoid using fossil fuels. And register to vote – elections matter. Because the climate crisis is contentious in government, voice your opinions to local, state, and federal public officials. Organizing at the community level has been successful in the past – plastic bag bans being example. Most importantly, consider your individual actions and how they contribute to the climate crisis.

The full CitySpeak session can also be viewed and shared from The Corvallis Advocate Facebook page. 

By Cody Mann