Diverse West Coast Leaders Concerned Over Proposed Gas Bans

The City of Seattle recently enacted an energy code that will ban natural gas space and water heating in new commercial and large multi-family buildings starting in March. Washington state lawmakers considered a bill that would ban natural gas in all construction projects starting in 2030. And the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality is developing rules as part of Governor Kate Brown’s Cap-and Reduce executive order that could lead to a similar ban on the commercial and residential use of natural gas.  California policymakers are also racing in the same direction.

Utility and business leaders in Washington testified at a January legislative hearing in Olympia on HB 1084, warning it would raise energy costs and encourage certain industries to move their facilities out of state, costing Washington families’ jobs.

Dan Kirschner, NWGA executive director, explained to the committee that the bill “is not the right approach” to reducing carbon emissions in the state. “Unnecessarily raising energy costs, eliminating energy choices, and ultimately abandoning a reliable energy system isn’t necessary to achieve meaningful decarbonization.”

Kirschner explained that Washington has some of the country’s cheapest energy rates, giving it a strong competitive advantage nationally for industries like food processors that rely on natural gas. “The bottom line is those food processing facilities in Central Washington rely on low-cost energy,” he said. “If [costs] go up, it’s entirely possible…that they’ll be looking for options where to shift that production to lower-cost states.” The food processing industry alone employs more than 30,000 people in Washington State, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Association of Washington Business (AWB) Energy Director Peter Godlewski warned the committee that if energy rates go up it will amount to “still yet another reason businesses leave Washington state. We cannot take a healthy grid for granted.”

President Nicole Kivisto of Cascade Natural Gas told the committee that utilities like Cascade are already reducing carbon through energy-saving innovations such as smart thermometers. She added that they should be “enhancing rather than abandoning” natural gas. “What we support is building upon energy efficiency programs.”

And Puget Sound Energy (PSE) State and Federal Affairs Director Janet Kelly noted “particular concerns about reliability and cost impacts. Electrification is not the preferred pathway to achieve carbon reduction.” She added that an E3 study released in December concluded that Washington faces a capacity shortage of up to 7,000 megawatts (MW) by 2025 and that new planned energy sources won’t fill that gap.

The bill in question, HB 1084, failed to make it out of the Appropriations Committee before the legislative deadline. Unions representing different construction and building trade labor interests were pivotal in opposing the measure.

In California, Assemblyman Jim Cooper (D-Elk Grove) has become one of the harshest critics of California’s climate policies and the environmental groups pushing them. The natural gas bans being adopted by California city councils have ignited a backlash from prominent Black and Latino leaders, who are concerned that the energy price increases caused by the prohibitions on the use of natural gas are a form of regressive tax on low- and middle-income residents. Cooper said the environmental groups pushing the bans on natural gas show “deliberate indifference” to California’s low- and middle-income consumers’ needs. “It’s outrageous,” he said.

Sierra Club responded to Cooper and Rubio in a letter saying, “the concerns expressed in your letter regarding the cost of utility bills are exactly those furthered by Sierra Club’s advocacy to assure SoCalGas does not improperly impose expenses on ratepayers.”  However, the Sierra Club says it wants a “gas-free future for our homes and buildings.”

A “gas-free future” ignores the cost impacts on the low and middle class in the California context while achieving minimal GHG reductions. A recent report by the UCLA Institute of the Environment and Sustainability found that “whole house electrification programs are likely to exacerbate daily peak electricity loads and increase total household expenditures on energy.” It continues, “Moreover, the state’s continued reliance on natural gas peaker-plants means that these efforts will likely only produce modest GHG emissions abatement benefits.”

Lastly, from the UCLA report, “Low-income residents of disadvantaged communities, who have the least flexible work schedules, the least access to high-efficiency appliances and energy management systems, and inhabit the most poorly insulated housing stock, will be most adversely affected by these changes.”  The same issues apply in Oregon and Washington as well.

Others in California who have spoken out against efforts to ban natural gas include Timothy Alan Simon, the chairman of the California Black Chamber of Commerce, and a former member of the California Public Utility Commission, and Assemblywoman Blanca Rubio, a Democrat from the Los Angeles area.  And The Two Hundred, a coalition of Latino civil-rights leaders, has sued California over its energy and housing policies, also opposes gas bans.  The California Restaurant Association has filed a lawsuit to stop the bans, as well as the utility SoCalGas.

The disparity between the haves and have-nots becomes more evident when considering that Californians pay the country’s highest energy prices. Whether in the Central Valley or the Los Angeles basin, temperatures are hotter and commutes to work are longer if you live inland. Californians pay over a dollar more per gallon of gas than the national average. When it comes to electricity, data from the U.S. Energy Information Agency shows Californians pay 55% more than the rest of the nation.

The more than 100,000 miles of safe, reliable infrastructure that is the natural gas system in the Northwest delivers energy to more than 2.5 million homes, 250,000 businesses and institutions, and 5,000 industrial facilities that employ thousands upon thousands of Northwesterners. The energy that the system delivers can and will change. The region’s low carbon goals can be achieved faster, more affordably, and with less disruption by adapting this robust system, rather than by abandoning it to build something new.