After the reveal of a business connection between the University of Oregon and the Alliance of Western Energy Consumers, an industry lobbying group reported to oppose Governor Kate Brown's plans for addressing climate change, UO was quick to sever ties with the group.
The Oregonian first reported on May 12 that both UO and Oregon Health and Science University (OHSU) were members of the group, which identifies itself as “the leading advocate for member businesses in the west on issues related to the use, availability, and affordability of electricity and natural gas.”
OHSU subsequently separated from AWEC as well, with the Oregonian reporting that both institutions received criticism from faculty for the association.
UO spokesperson Molly Blancett told the Emerald that the university had started a membership with AWEC this past winter so as to gain information on dealing with price fluctuations in the natural gas market.
“Information and analysis from the AWEC membership helped the UO better understand short-term and long-term energy costs in the face of a natural gas supply chain disruption connected to a pipeline rupture in Canada,” Blancett wrote.
In the UO's statement provided by Blancett, UO President Michael Schill ordered the university's withdrawal from AWEC membership as “it does not match our community values with regard to climate change or the institutional goals outlined in the recently-updated Climate Action Plan (CAP).” The departure was effective on May 13.
“From the beginning, it was clear that [the university] did not endorse and would not participate in AWEC's legislative advocacy work,” Blancett wrote in an email.
Over 500 pages of public documents, including AWEC emails, memorandums, and meeting minutes, obtained by the Emerald show that Tony Hardenbrook, director of utilities and energy with UO Campus Planning and Facilities Management, often corresponded with AWEC executive director John Carr.
The records show that UO was interested in AWEC membership by late October of 2018; on October 24, UO Energy Manager Boz Van Houten wrote to Carr expressing this interest, before Hardenbrook made a formal request for membership on October 31. “Congrats! You are officially a member,” Carr wrote to Hardenbrook on November 13. AWEC meeting minutes from that date confirmed the entrance.
By January of 2019, Hardenbrook revealed to Carr that there was “internal strife” at the UO over the AWEC membership. “Given our status as a quasi-state entity and funding from the State of Oregon, there were concerns with the optics of our membership,” Hardenbrook wrote. “We would like to pursue a membership that does not put UO at odds with elected officials in Salem.”
“UO must remain neutral in issues involving state legislation,” Hardenbrook reaffirmed in a March 4 email, writing “please ensure University of Oregon is not listed as an AWEC member in AWEC communications regarding state legislation.
The UO declined to allow Hardenbrook to be interviewed for this story.
When asked for comment, Carr simply responded by emailing a link to an opinion piece authored by himself and AWEC natural gas director Ed Finklea that was published in the Oregonian.
Among the records acquired by the Emerald are analyses and projections by AWEC warning that HB 2020, the cap and trade legislation aimed at reducing state carbon emissions, would lead to increased electricity and natural gas costs, and job losses for certain AWEC members.
Environmental advocacy student groups on campus expressed disappointment with the affiliation, given the UO's efforts to promote institutional sustainability, but didn't necessarily consider it unprecedented.
“It's honestly pretty frustrating, partly because we've had issues with other groups [the university] has been part of and are still part of,” said Eloise Parish Mueller, co-director of Cascadia Action Network. Parish Mueller said the organization takes issue with the UO's association with the Portland Business Alliance, which supports the proposed Jordan Cove natural gas pipeline.
Cally Hutson, co-director of CAN, said that the group had petitioned Schill with over 600 signatures to withdraw the university from the Alliance or denounce the pipeline, but the petition was denied. The university is still listed in a membership directory for the Alliance. “I wasn't very surprised when I found out about this,” Hutson said, referring to the past AWEC association.
Brendan Adamczyk, co-director of the Climate Justice League, was “stunned” to learn of the affiliation. “Especially having done a lot of work to help the school make our climate action plan more aggressive in fighting climate change, and up-to-date with the best available science,” Adamczyk said, “so, hearing that we were in a group that was still fighting climate action on a state level, I was pretty shocked.”
In regards to the withdrawal, Adamczyk took it as an encouraging sign that student groups were making progress on climate action.
“For me this kind of shows the success of our work with the Climate Action Plan, because one of the things they cited when they were dropping out [of AWEC] was the commitments they had just made,” Adamczyk said. “To me it showed the power of the work that we're doing, to get the university to make these changes.”
Hutson and Parish Mueller said that they were uncertain how future environmental actions on campus would progress given the circumstances.
“We're going to have to see how things go,” Parish Mueller said, “and whether we continue to get similar responses to our efforts, or if there's respect for having students have a voice in these issues.”
“We're definitely not afraid to escalate or keep pressure on them at all,” said Hutson.