GUEST BLOG: Rethinking Natural Gas Bans

By Don C. Brunell

Sometimes being first isn’t good. Such is the case with legislation making Washington the only state to ban natural gas in new homes and commercial buildings.

Thankfully, the legislators ended their session in Olympia and left that bad idea on the table. However, it is destined to come back next year.

The issue is complicated and expensive. Earlier this year, Gov. Jay Inslee (D) unveiled it as part of a package to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. It included a phase-out of natural gas for space and water heating by forbidding the use of fossil fuels for heating and hot water in new buildings by 2030.

The ban trickled down from Seattle. Last month, the city adopted a partial gas ban with an update to its building code that says all new commercial and multifamily buildings four stories or taller must use electricity for heating. Among the questions not answered is new construction in smaller buildings and in houses, although it didn’t restrict the use of gas for cooking.

The natural gas ban was initiated by Berkeley city leaders in 2019. The idea spread to other California cities and more recently to Seattle. But opponents also were at work, and they helped to pass laws in four states — Arizona, Louisiana, Oklahoma and Tennessee — that restrict the ability of cities to ban gas hookups, Dan Gearino, Inside Climate News, reported.

Switching from natural gas to electricity is complicated and will impact everyone. Natural gas dependency is widespread.

With reference to Washington, Rep. Mary Dye (R-Pomroy) told KIRO’s Dori Monson: “It’s a big industry because it provides warmth for about 1.2 million residences, there’s 107,000 commercial buildings and 3,500 industrial buildings that are working under clean, efficient, reliable natural gas. Plus, it fires about 11 percent of our electricity grid. So you’re talking a very large labor force.”

For example, one-third of Clark Public Utilities electricity is generated at the River Road natural gas-fired generating plant. Clark PUD provides power to more than 203,000 customers in Vancouver and throughout Clark County.

Puget Sound Energy is our state’s largest energy utility providing electric power to more than one million customers. PSE also generates one-third of its electricity at nine natural gas-fired power plants.

Nationally, natural gas produced the most electricity in 2020—more than 40 percent. Renewables, including hydro, wind and solar, accounted for 20 percent.

At present, electricity is affordable in Washington but adding new generating capacity is expensive and will drive power rates higher.

In 2019, Washington had the fourth-lowest average electricity retail prices in the nation, while 56 percent of the state’s households used electricity as their primary home heating fuel. Getting to total electricity dependency is difficult especially if the Lower Snake River dams are breached.

While natural gas electrical generation is important, natural gas availability is vital to some smaller communities. For example, the cities of Enumclaw and Ellensburg are the natural gas providers to nearly 9,000 customers.

Renewable natural gas (RNG) from farms, garbage landfills and waste conversion systems feed gas into the current pipeline system. That gas would otherwise dissipate in the atmosphere.

Finally, switching to cleaner burning natural gas has improved our air quality. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released its new Inventory of U.S. Greenhouse Gas Emissions and Sinks. It shows that annual greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) from the natural gas distribution system declined 69 percent from 1990 to 2019. During this same period, natural gas utility companies added more than 788,000 miles of pipeline to serve 21 million more customers.

Thankfully, lawmakers acted wisely and set the issue aside. There is just too much at stake to act hastily.

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Don C. Brunell is a business analyst, writer, and columnist. He retired as president of the Association of Washington Business, the state’s oldest and largest business organization, and now lives in Vancouver. He can be contacted at theBrunells@msn.com

APRIL SAFETY MONTH — CALL BEFORE YOU DIG (Cont.)

Neglect one simple step and you could dig yourself into deep trouble. So “call before you dig.” It’s the law.  This one simple step can prevent damage, service disruptions, and potential disaster from uncharted digging into buried service facilities.  It’s the law for all of us: contractors, excavators, and homeowners.

Each utility sends employees to locate underground lines near the project with color-coded paint that identifies what kind of utility is underground. Failure to call and receive necessary guidance can prove messy at the very least, disrupt essential services, and may be downright hazardous. Everyone, including homeowners, must call when planning to dig. Neighborhoods, especially new ones, have extensive utility lines crisscrossing under their yards.

Here’s what happens next after you call to have underground utilities located.

  • A utility locator comes out to your home or business.
  • The contractor locates natural gas and utility lines on your property—for free.
  • The contractor uses visual markers to identify the lines so you know where it’s safe to dig, and areas you should avoid.

Each state or province in our region has its own convenient number for its location service:

OREGON

Oregon law created a statewide, one-call service – (800) 332-2344 or simply 811.  For more information, you can also visit online www.callbeforeyoudig.org/oregon/.

WASHINGTON

In Washington, you can call (800) 424-5555 or 811.  For additional online information, visit www.callbeforeyoudig.org/washington/.

IDAHO

Idaho has established it’s Digline service which you can reach at (800) 342-1585 or 811, with a Digline website www.digline.com.

BRITISH COLUMBIA

British Columbia has its own easy-to-use “BC 1 Call” service at (800) 474-6886 or visit the website at www.bc1c.ca.

Finally, once the utilities have been to your home or business and marked any underground utility lines – RESPECT THE MARKS.  Don’t dig within 12-inches of the markings.  Also, below is a handy chart for understanding what the different colored markings identify:

Stay Safe – Call before you dig

811 is the LAW.  Digging a new flower bed or garden – Call 811. Even if it is just a small flower bed? How about installing a post call 811.  Is it any different if you hire a landscaper or contractor?  No – call 811.

Even if you are worried about slowing down your project, please call 811.  Safety.  Safety.  Safety.  Digging without knowing the approximate location of underground utilities.  What gets damaged?  Natural gas pipelines.  Electric lines.  Phone, internet, and other communication cables.  Water lines.  Sewer lines.  This can result in service disruptions to your own home or business, and your neighbors, as well as serious injuries and costly repairs.

You may not know, but according to data collected by Common Ground Alliance (CGA), an underground utility line is damaged once every six minutes nationwide because someone decided to dig without first calling 811.

CALL BEFORE YOU DIG.  Please.  It is actually federal law to call 811 at least two business days before digging.

Every time you dig follow these steps:

  1. Notify – call 811.
  2. Wait – utilities will do the marking in 2-3 days.
  3. Confirm – that all of the affected utility operators have responded to your request by comparing the marks to the list of utilities the one-call center notified. If they are, dig safely.  If not, call again.
  4. Respect the marks – State laws generally prohibit the use of mechanized equipment within 18-24 inches of a marked utility, which is called the “tolerance zone” (click here for information from your state).
  5. Dig Safely – Avoid digging near the marks (within 18-24 inches on all sides, depending on state law), or consider moving your project to another part of your yard.

Making a call to 811 is the easiest way to make sure you keep you and your neighbors safe!!!