By Eric Mortenson, The Oregonian

February 16, 2010, 9:23PM

Just pass it? Nike and other businesses, including Starbucks and Portland’s Gerding Edlen development firm, called on Congress to approve comprehensive climate change legislation this year and said a “clean energy economy” is the next great economic boom.

At a news conference on the Nike campus Tuesday, representatives from businesses, unions and youth groups, joined by U.S. Rep. Earl Blumenauer, D-Ore., announced a “Race for American Jobs” campaign that they hope will persuade the Senate to pass legislation similar to that passed in the House.

Speakers said the United States is in an economic arms race with China and must grasp the opportunity to create jobs, reduce its dependence on sometimes-hostile foreign oil suppliers and take advantage of technological innovation that will usher in a “low-carbon economy,” as Blumenauer described it.

“We are watching an opportunity that I think is unparalleled,” Blumenauer said. The alternative, he said, is for the U.S. to remain on the sidelines “and end up being China’s best customer for green products.”

He and others said a cohesive national energy policy of subsidies, regulations and incentives will result in thousands of jobs and pay for itself over time in the form of reduced energy consumption and a healthier environment.

Business representatives said their companies have a stake in climate change policies. Jim Hanna, director of environmental impact for Starbucks, said coffee beans grow in limited climate zones.

“Climate change poses a direct threat to our business; it puts our supply chain at risk,” he said.

The company’s new stores are energy efficient and water efficient, Hanna said, and Starbucks is retrofitting existing outlets. Simple steps such as replacing lighting with efficient LED devices reduce energy usage by 11 percent and will pay for themselves in a couple of years.

There are benefits beyond that: A company’s sustainability policies can attract high-quality employees, Hanna said. And Sarah Severn,  Nike’s stakeholder mobilization director, said the company’s youthful customer base is concerned about environmental business practices.

Mark Edlen,  a managing principal of Gerding Edlen, said a combination of extended tax credits and other incentives could produce thousands of jobs. In Portland alone, perhaps half of 75 million square feet of commercial office space needs to be retrofitted with efficient electrical, water and sewage systems, he said.

He proposed increasing the gas tax and dedicating a portion of it to energy efficiency projects, saying there is “a generation’s worth of work” for laborers, electricians, architects, engineers and those who arrange financing for such projects.

Joe Esmonde, renewable energy political liaison for the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers in Portland, said trained workers are available to rewire buildings and hook up solar panels and wind turbines. “A lot of growth could be done if the market had the right signals” that would come with passing climate change legislation, he said.

Passage of comprehensive energy and climate legislation could produce 13,000 to 26,000 new jobs in Oregon by 2020, according to 2009 research by the University of California, University of Illinois and Yale University. Nationally, the legislation would create 918,000 to 1.9 million jobs, according to the analysis.

Organizers of Tuesday’s event are taking the campaign to Denver; Columbus, Ohio; and Manchester, N.H., gathering signatures and business support for climate change legislation. The information will be delivered to Congress and the Obama administration March 10.

Eric Mortenson

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