Environmental and climate change activists sporting matching T-shirts and tags packed Sen. Jeff Merkley's town hall Sunday at the Carnegie Building in downtown Medford.
The generally supportive constituents of Oregon's junior senator peppered him with comments and questions concerning natural gas exploration and delivery systems, and effects of carbon emissions.
Extracting natural gas via fracking presents many issues, he said. The industry was granted an exemption from the Clean Water Act, leaving regulation up to the states.
"Experts will say we need to close the exemption from the Clean Water Act, and I'll say that," Merkley, D-Ore., said, drawing an outburst of applause of the nearly 200 attendees.
"Any form of this drilling should be carefully regulated," he said. "I'm not in a position to say it should be ended 100 percent. It may be possible to do it responsibly, but certainly right now it's being done irresponsibly in many parts of the country and creating a lot of problems."
Asked about the probability of carbon tax legislation being enacted, Merkley said it wasn't going to happen. Nonetheless, he said it was necessary to take action.
"We cannot wait until our children — who understand the dimensions of this challenge better than their parents do — make the decisions down the road," the senator said. "We need to be elevated in our concern and push forward on multiple fronts."
He said carbon pollution is rapidly growing, reaching nearly 350 parts per million.
"By the time we hit 400, we need to be coming back down. Our rate of carbon pollution has doubled in the last three years," he said. "We haven't tapered off and come back down. Three years ago, we were increasing one part per year, and now we're increasing two parts per year. This is not some futuristic issue, some concern of what might happen three generations, or seven generations from now — it's here right now. It's a huge problem for our farmers, for our fishermen, for our forests."
He said lack of snow pack will lead to smaller, warmer streams, hampering fish activity. Oysters are having difficulty forming shells because oceans absorb carbon dioxide and create carbonic acid, he noted.
"That's a harbinger of a lot of problems to come," Merkley said. "The effects are here now ... we can not sit back and wait for other nations to act."
Buildings and power production also contribute to the carbon activity, he said. "Coal plants need to be brought up to the best available technology, or shut down."
The possibility of an earthquake and tsunami damaging a potential gas terminal on the coast was raised as well.
"Most of the time I've heard of the dangers concerning buildings," the senator said. "I don't know what the safety measures are that are in place."
Asked about his views on American relations with Saudi Arabia, Merkley said he didn't have specific expertise and wasn't a member of Senate committees that would make him privy to recent information.
"Our relationship has been deeply colored by our dependence on oil in the past," he said. "That has not always been a good thing."
When asked about the issue of cooperation between police and immigration authorities when one member of a household has legal status and another illegal, Merkley had a quick response and simple solution.
"The best thing for us to do is to pass the national immigration bill," Merkley said, again drawing applause. "In the near-term, it's a local decision how the local police work with the national (system), and it varies all over the board."
When challenged by a questioner about his votes being swayed by corporate contributions, Merkley said he remained firm in the beliefs that led him to run six years ago.
"I ran for the things I believe in and fight for the things I believe in," Merkley said. "I hope people who agree will help me stay in office, otherwise someone with different views will be there."
He encouraged shareholders to see how companies spend resources on political campaigns.
After the hour-long session, Merkley said the emphasis on environmental issues here was greater than in some of the other town hall meetings.
"Folks in different counties have very different local issues," Merkley said before departing for Eugene. "Certainly the environmental issues here have larger, more organized groups. More and more people recognizing the carbon pollution is impacting rural America. That is a change, folks are starting to realize this is not a concern that's some generations away or an urban issue, this is a rural, natural resource issue."