NW Natural, which has been criticized for its response to electrification efforts in Eugene and Milwaukie, calls Milwaukie’s resolutions ‘illogical’
Last week Milwaukie passed two resolutions requiring new constructions use electric heat only. The ordinances follow a similar, pending resolution in Eugene that would ban methane use in new constructions. Both cities’ efforts have drawn criticism from Oregon’s largest natural gas utility, and praise from activists who say NW Natural has engaged in misleading tactics to keep its toehold in the state’s energy sector.
The first resolution, which was adopted on a 3-2 vote, directs city staff to develop code changes that would eliminate new residential buildings from being connected to gas piping by March 1, 2024. The second resolution, which passed unanimously, requires all newly constructed city-owned and city-financed buildings to be all-electric; and to replace failing residential gas systems with electrical systems.
The city now faces the task of developing the required code changes by next spring — a challenge Milwaukie city council member Kathy Hyzy says is not within the city’s capacity.
Hyzy, who serves on the city’s climate-action committee, says she supports reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
Hyzy voted for the city-owned construction resolution because it would help lead the way for future electric building projects, but against the residential construction resolution because she says it asks too much of the city and its residents in too short of a timeframe, and doesn’t take into account the pending lawsuit by three utilities, including NW Natural, challenging the Climate Protection Program rules approved by the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality in December 2021.
“I think we're moving in a way that breaks relationships with some of our business community, and I think that we are moving in a way that is not transparent to our residents. Let Eugene's far more advanced ordinances work and go forward,” she says, referring to an ordinance drafted by Eugene’s City Council this summer that bans natural gas in most new construction. “Let people experience the 40% increase in their natural gas bills going forward, and then we can talk about whether banning new gas pickups makes sense for Milwaukie.”
Eugene’s natural gas ban still awaits a final approval from the city council.
Hyzy says a third Milwaukie resolution, which never progressed to a vote, would have allocated staff resources toward helping residents convert their homes to electric heat. She says she would have voted in favor of the resolution, which would have done the “necessary work of engaging community members in the electrification process,” but that the resolution was met with fierce opposition from members of the community after a push poll campaign from NW Natural.
“The poll asked a whole bunch of questions about, ‘What do you think about the city?’ ‘What do you think about Northwest Natural?’ and ‘What do you think about banning natural gas in homes?’ It put the resolution in an incorrect context, and people got worried that we were going to ban natural gas use in existing buildings. And that's never been in any resolutions,” says Hyzy.
“This just illustrates the confusion that has already been sown by NW Natural around this whole issue.”
Hyzy says she is still interested in bringing the third resolution to a vote, but that there would need to be substantial outreach to the community by the city to explain what the resolution would do and dispel any confusion.
In August a coalition of environmental groups and activists petitioned the Oregon Department of Justice to investigate NW Natural over its response to the Eugene electrification effort, saying the utility has spread false information about the safety of the gas.
Stefanie Week, public information officer at NW Natural, told Oregon Business over email the company was disappointed with the “illogical” decision from Milwaukie City Council to pass the resolutions.
“At a time when climate change requires our collective, urgent action, it appears some groups are more focused on a political agenda than effective decarbonization policies,” writes Week. “We are disappointed in the lack of scientific analysis, collaboration and public engagement leading up to Tuesday’s vote in favor of a proposal that moves the city toward removing energy choice from its own residents.”
Weeks says climate activists and city policymakers have misrepresented the scope of greenhouse gas emission caused by buildings, and included an analysis from the City of Eugene, which projected the residential new construction ban they are proposing would cut less than 0.1% of carbon emissions in 2037. The City of Eugene submitted a letter refuting NW Natural’s 0.1% claim, saying that NW Natural’s assertion “mischaracterizes” data submitted to the city.
Greer Ryan, clean building policy manager for Climate Solutions, a regional green energy nonprofit, says that by not including emissions projections over time, NW Natural is the party misrepresenting data. She says natural gas use is a growing concern for climate activists due to its comparatively heavy emissions toll over shorter timeframes.
“When we talk about emissions from methane gas, I encourage folks to look at it on a 20-year timeframe, when they're comparing it to carbon dioxide. Methane gas is approximately 86 times more potent over a 20-year timeframe,” says Ryan. “It’s really a more accurate timeframe for how the molecule lives in the atmosphere.”
The City of Eugene’s analysis also found the amount of natural gas emissions created by residential construction to have increased 13% since 2019, and projected commercial constructions would generate 160,000 Metric tons of carbon dioxide between 2022 and 2037 if left to grow.
The resolutions also faced opposition from the Portland Metropolitan Association of Realtors, which submitted a letter to the Milwaukie City Council in advance of the Dec. 6 vote. The letter said natural gas amenities are often “must haves” for potential homebuyers, and that Oregon’s ongoing housing crisis meant that “now is not the time to restrict options and increase barriers for the development of new housing.”
Ryan adds that all-electric constructions are cheaper on average, and that the resolution was unlikely to impede affordable housing efforts.
A 2022 review by clean energy nonprofit RMI found all-electric homes cost an average of $3,446 less than a mixed fuel home in the City of Eugene.
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