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Washington anti-natural gas rule panned as 'end run' around Legislature

By Brett Davis

(The Center Square) – Washington is the first state in the nation to mandate that new commercial and multi-family construction be outfitted with all-electric space heating and hot water systems.

Effective July 1, 2023, that translates into an effective ban on traditional HVAC systems and natural gas in most new businesses and apartments. In new building construction that largely means an end to baseboard heaters, wall heaters, radiant heat systems, and electric furnaces. New businesses and apartments will have to mostly use heat pumps to warm air and water.

The all-electric mandate is the result of an 11-3 vote by the Washington State Building Code Council (SBCC) to update the state’s commercial energy code on April 22. State law requires the SBCC to update the energy code to reduce 70% of the annual energy consumption from buildings by 2031 compared to a 2006 baseline.

The move to all-electric is part of Gov. Jay Inslee’s clean energy agenda to combat climate change. On Thursday – the day before the SBCC’s vote – Inslee blasted the use of natural gas for heating during an online panel discussion on clean energy in homes and offices.

“Look, we have a looming catastrophe in the state of Washington,” he said. “And we know we have to make significant changes, and that includes over time weening ourselves off this dirty, noxious fossil fuel that right now we’re using in copious amounts that we know is incompatible with an ability to save our state – and that’s gas. And gas is a dangerous product right now today in the state of Washington and for many different reasons.”

The governor went on to say, “This is not debatable. It’s just a scientific fact. We have to make the transition, or we’re not going to have a livable Washington state.”

Dan Kirschner, executive director of the Northwest Gas Association, said Inslee was using scare tactics to push his agenda.

“It’s Inslee’s latest war on energy choice and energy affordability, all in the name of climate action,” Kirschner said, adding the governor’s negative characterization of natural gas was “out of bounds.”

“Full electrification – which is what Inslee wants – would negatively impact affordability,” he said.

Peter Godlewski, director of government affairs for energy, environment, and water at Association of Washington Business (AWB), agreed.

“Natural gas remains an efficient and reliable energy source for many Washington businesses and consumers,” he said in an email to The Center Square. “Estimates by Seattle City Light and the Seattle Department of Constructions and Inspections show that installing a heat pump (the alternative allowed by the code proposals) adds anywhere from $3,000 to $22,000 (building size and height dependent, higher and larger buildings require larger and more expensive units) to the cost of each apartment. As Washington struggles with housing affordability, we need policies that make houses more affordable, not less.”

That means higher costs across the board, according to Godlewski.

“These costs will also be shared by small business owners who lease shop space in the same buildings,” he said. “Their rent will need to increase into order to justify the higher construction costs this code requires. This adds another barrier to any small business owner looking to expand or jump start their own business. Proponents have argued that any costs will be made up for in lower utility bills, but electrical rates are increasing faster than natural gas and natural gas remains the most cost-effective way to heat large spaces and volumes of water, particularly on the east side of the mountains.”

Kirschner and Godlewski were critical of the process, with both men using the same verbiage in describing the SBCC vote as an “end run around the Legislature,” which during the last two sessions has declined to pass bills that would ban natural gas.

Kirschner called the SBCC “an obscure body nobody’s ever heard of” that is not accountable to the voters.

“The code proposal was able to pass after Gov. Jay Inslee suddenly appointed four new members to replace other members who had followed this process from the beginning and were planning on voting against the proposal,” AWB said Monday in its “Fast Facts” weekly digest.

The Center Square reached out to the Governor’s Office for comment.

Three members of the SBCC were replaced, Inslee’s press secretary Mike Faulk said in an email response.

“We had five terms end in January, which the office filled following the statutory requirements, including soliciting nominations from qualified trade associations where relevant,” he explained. “Two of those positions were reappointments of current SBCC members, who were eligible for reappointment.”

The SBCC will consider a similar proposal for smaller residential buildings later this year.

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