The Eugene City Council will be renewing the debate over acting on climate change and other environmental issues

Improved glass recycling. Reduced carbon emissions. Divestment from fossil fuel companies.

The Eugene City Council will tackle an ambitious list of environmental topics in the first part of the year, starting with a discussion tonight.

At the conclusion of its regular meeting, the council will discuss whether the city should pull its funds that are invested in companies that have oil, gas or coal holdings. It could be the first of several meetings on the subject.

At other upcoming discussions, the council will debate whether to make mandatory its now-voluntary goals to cut fossil fuel use and carbon emissions, and analyze the status of curbside glass recycling.

The potential review of what happens to nondeposit glass collected at curbside by refuse haulers was inspired by recent Register-Guard articles that showed that most glass in Eugene, Springfield and other Lane County communities is not recycled.

The council’s main environmental proponents, Mayor Kitty Piercy and southeast Councilor Alan Zelenka, are bringing the topics to the council’s attention.

“It just keeps us moving down the road of the goals that we have already set,” Piercy said of the impending discussions.

How Eugene would go about divesting from oil companies, making carbon emission reductions mandatory and improving glass recycling may raise more questions than answers at this point. But each of the subjects has the potential to affect residents and businesses, as well as how the city handles some of its money.

Here’s a review of each topic:

Curbside conundrum

Zelenka has asked the council to review curbside glass recycling.

Under curbside pickup programs in Eugene and Springfield, residents mix different colors of glass — brown, green, clear — into a single pickup box. Sometimes they toss in other waste, too — plastics, metal, cardboard.

Eugene’s recycling rules say refuse haulers who pick up the glass and other recyclables can dispose of the materials in any way the state Department of Environmental Quality allows.

In November, a pair of Register-Guard articles revealed that most nondeposit glass collected curbside in Eugene, Springfield and other Lane County communities is not recycled and turned into bottles, but is instead crushed at landfills — mainly Coffin Butte near Corvallis — to make roadways and drainage systems.

The articles reported that glass needs to be sorted by color before smelting, and the mixing of glass colors makes it difficult and expensive to send the bottles to facilities that would melt them for new glass containers.

Statewide, about 46 percent of all nondeposit curbside-collected glass is dumped at landfills and crushed for use as road and drainage material, according to the state Department of Environmental Quality. The practice is allowed by the DEQ, although some officials at the agency frown on it.

Zelenka said he was shocked by The Register-Guard articles.

“I had assumed, like most everybody else, that they were being recycled into new bottles and jars, and not sent to the landfill to build their roads,” he said. “The next day when I was washing out my bottles for the recycling bin, I felt really angry that all this time I was really not accomplishing much, and thought I might as well just throw my bottles in the trash — but I didn’t.”

Zelenka said he has requested a council work session to explore options “so we can make sure that glass actually gets recycled.”

He also said he’s interested in learning if it’s possible to create a glass recycling business in the Eugene area.

A date has yet to be set for the glass recycling work session, but Zelenka said it would most likely take place in April or later.

Oil divestments

Concerned about the connection between carbon emissions and climate change, environmentalists are asking governments to pull investments from companies with large oil, coal and natural gas reserves.

The divestment strategy is modeled after the movement that put pressure on corporations during the 1980s to stop doing business in South Africa as a way to end apartheid.

“We are making the moral case that these companies are profiting off the destruction of the planet and we, as citizens, and public institutions should not benefit or profit from that destruction,” said James Irwin, a senior associate at The Mayors Innovation Project, a University of Wisconsin think tank and adviser to the divestment effort.

So far, 25 local governments have committed to withdrawing funds from the world’s largest holders of oil, coal and natural gas reserves, Irwin said. Those firms include such energy giants as Chevron, Exxon­Mobil and Peabody Energy.

Piercy was asked to bring the divestment proposal to the Eugene City Council by 350.org and the Mayors Innovation Project.

The divestment movement began on college campuses and was led by environmentalist Bill McKibben, author of “The End of Nature.” He’s also the co-founder of 350.org, named for what many climate scientists believe is the safe level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, 350 parts per million.

Eugene invests money that it receives from property taxes and several other sources before spending it.

State law doesn’t allow cities to own stock in individual companies.

But Eugene, like other local governments, is an indirect investor in oil companies through its participation in a state-sponsored investment pool.

At the end of December, the city had about $37 million in the pool, Finance Director Sue Cutsogeorge said.

Based on the pool’s overall investments of 1.43 percent of assets invested in fossil fuel firms, about $526,000 in city funds is likely invested in oil, gas and coal companies.

In her written report to the City Council on the subject, Cutsogeorge recommended that the city keep investing in the local government pool.

If the city had to move funds to other investments, such as corporate bonds, certificates of deposits or banks, “these alternatives would be more risky, would provide less liquidity and would offer much lower yields” than the pool, she wrote.

Also, depositing city funds in banks wouldn’t necessarily prevent city funds from being invested in oil companies, Cutsogeorge said in an interview.

That’s because banks typically take deposits and make loans to corporations, including oil companies, she said.

“There is no guarantee that the money wouldn’t be used in that way,” Cutsogeorge said.

Irwin said there are a growing number of environmentally conscious investment opportunities for governments that don’t include oil and coal companies in their portfolios.

Local and state governments are being asked to pull their funds from oil, coal and gas company stocks over five years, Irwin said.

That way, any costs related to the change can be kept to a minimum and it can be done in a financially responsible manner, he said.

Carbon footprint

In 2010, the City Council approved a plan with 78 ideas to help Eugene businesses and residents cut carbon emissions and fossil fuel use in the years ahead to lessen the effects of climate change.

The plan’s goals are to reduce community­wide greenhouse gas emissions to 10 percent less than 1990 levels by 2020 and 75 percent less than 1990 levels by 2050.

It also calls for the community to cut fossil fuel use by 50 percent by 2030.

But the plan is voluntary, with city leaders urging residents and businesses to take steps to reduce their carbon footprint.

Now, Our Children’s Trust, an environmental group based in Eugene, is proposing that the council put the goals in an ordinance. That would require the city to meet the greenhouse gas emission and fossil fuel goals.

The City Council is to take up the matter on Feb. 26.

The proposed ordinance to reduce carbon emissions and cut fossil fuel use raises many questions. Those include the possibility of new local regulations to reach the targeted reduction goals, and what would happen if city did not meet the goals by the specified dates.

If Eugene failed to reach its goals, someone could sue the city said, Gordon Levitt, a law clerk with Our Children’s Trust.

“One of the crucial parts of our democracy is that we have a third branch of government that citizens can go to when laws are not upheld,” he said.

However, the city could defend itself by showing what it has done to meet the goals, Levitt said.

“The relevant action that the city had taken to try and meet the goals would be examined,” he said.

“But this ordinance does not set the city up to fail,” he said. “It sets the city up to succeed by meeting goals it has already determined it can meet and by planning for our city’s future in the face of climate change.”

City Councilor Chris Pryor said the “devil would be in the details” of turning what are now voluntary goals into an ordinance with legal obligations for the city.

“What the council has tried to do so far is pursue a carrot versus stick approach,” he said. Ordinance proponents may say “the carrot approach doesn’t work,” so that is why an ordinance, or stick, is needed, Pryor said.

But he said he’s going to have to be convinced that an ordinance is needed. “I want to explore every opportunity for the carrot to work before I reach for the stick,” he said.

The proposal by Our Children’s Trust is related to a lawsuit it helped organize two years ago.

In that case, two Eugene students, Olivia Chernaik and Kelsey Juliana, and their mothers alleged that the state of Oregon is violating the public trust by failing to take adequate steps to prevent climate change. Similar lawsuits have been filed against the federal government and several other state governments. The Oregon case is on appeal after Lane County Circuit Judge Karsten Rasmussen in 2012 dismissed the girls’ lawsuit.

On Thursday, Tanya Sanerib, an attorney from the Center for Biological Diversity, will argue the case before the Oregon Court of Appeals, which will meet at the University of Oregon Law School.

Meanwhile, the City Council soon will review municipal government’s progress toward meeting its own energy use and emission goals.

A 2010 greenhouse gas inventory showed that the city was not on track to meet its internal targets, said Matt McRae, the city’s climate and energy analyst.

At a Feb. 19 meeting, city officials will discuss other steps municipal government can take to meet its goals.

WHAT’S NEXT

Eugene City Council will discuss divesting from companies with oil, coal and natural gas holdings
When: At end of tonight’s council meeting, which begins at 7:30 p.m.
Where: Harris Hall, Lane County Public Service Building, 125 E. Eighth Ave.; or watch on MetroTV, Comcast Channel 21

Rob Romig/The Register-Guard