Before making its way into your gas stove, natural gas begins its journey as super-heated, decomposed plants and animals deep beneath the Earth’s surface. From there, the methane-laden fossil fuel is extracted from the ground, processed and sent to homes through gas pipelines owned and operated by gas utilities. These companies typically pay fees to local governments in what are called franchise agreements, allowing them to freely lay and maintain pipes under the city’s roads.
Natural gas regulation and large-scale building electrification lie at the crux of the debate over how to wean Eugene off of fossil fuels. After years of failed negotiations with gas company NW Natural over the terms of a new franchise agreement, Mayor Lucy Vinis and the Eugene City Council are considering new ways to push the city towards full decarbonization, with or without an agreement with the gas utility.
The majority of residential homes in Eugene are heated by electricity, but for those that aren’t — which EWEB estimates is about one in four Eugene homes — the natural gas used to heat homes and water, as well as gas stovetops, is supplied by NW Natural.
In Vinis’ own house, gas from NW Natural powers her furnace and stove, though she says she’s in the process of swapping her gas stove for an electric one.
“I would very much like to convert my furnace to an electric one, too,” Vinis says, “but I have an older house, so it’s not a straightforward conversion.”
The 20-year franchise agreement — first negotiated in 1999 — expired in 2019, prompting city councilors and officials from NW Natural to begin meeting to discuss terms of a new agreement. In accordance with carbon reduction goals set in the city’s Climate Action Plan (CAP) 2.0, city councilors sought to limit the future expansion of natural gas infrastructure in Eugene and increase fees imposed on the utility.
But as negotiations dragged on, it became clear that the company was not going to cooperate.
“It goes without saying that any move from the city to promote electrification is perceived as threatening the business model for a gas utility,” Vinis says. “That’s why it’s so hard to do.”
After multiple six-month extensions, the city finally walked away from negotiations in May. NW Natural is currently operating in Eugene without a franchise agreement, meaning the company must apply for individual project permits every time it wants to repair its pipes or lay new ones.
According to statistics included in Eugene’s CAP 2.0, natural gas makes up 27.8 percent of the city’s carbon emissions, of which 30 percent comes from residential use and 70 percent from commercial and industrial uses. A 2020 EWEB study on the potential effects of electrification found that homes with electric appliances emit 56 percent less carbon than gas homes.
The same study found that, when combined with increased use of electric vehicles, widespread electrification of commercial and residential buildings could reduce carbon emissions enough to meet 14 percent of the city’s carbon reduction goals by 2030.
'If we want to take
on climate, then we
need the city to do
We just don’t have
any time left to
kick the can
down the road.'
— Dylan Plummer,
senior campaign manager,
So, how do we get there?
Dylan Plummer, a local grassroots organizer and a senior campaign manager for the Sierra Club, says it’s easier than the City Council makes it out to be. The city, he says, should dump the franchise agreement, and impose a higher fee on NW Natural to fund projects to electrify future building developments in Eugene and invest in research into how to electrify the city’s existing building stock.
“We shouldn’t be collaborating with fossil fuel corporations to reduce emissions,” Plummer says. “We should have our city regulating those corporations as a democratically elected body.”
Plummer and other climate organizers sent a letter to the City Council signed by representatives from 25 community organizations, in which activists outline a detailed plan for how the city can transition off fossil fuels.
By increasing the percentage of its revenue Northwest Natural pays the city from 5 to 7 percent, the letter states that the city could generate an additional $560,000 a year. This additional money could then be put towards a transitory fund to support the implementation of programs to increase efficiency of existing electric appliances in commercial buildings, it says, as well as converting natural gas households in Eugene to electric. The letter also asks that the city ban all future natural gas infrastructure, and that the City Council work to create a roadmap detailing the necessary steps to electrify Eugene’s entire building stock by 2045.
“If we want to take meaningful steps on climate, then we need the city to do everything in their power,” Plummer says. “We just don’t have any time left to kick the can down the road.”
EWEB General Manager Frank Lawson says the best way for the city to electrify is to make electricity cheaper for customers than natural gas. EWEB already provides financial incentives for using electricity over gas in the form of cash rebates for buying electric water heaters and charging electric vehicles. But the more the federal and local governments do to encourage electricity adoption, the quicker this transition will be, Lawson says.
“If you’re saving money, that payback is going to drive a lot of people’s decisions,” he says.
However, EWEB board commissioner Matt McRae says that full electrification will take time regardless. Because a large number of homes in Eugene are rental properties, it’s difficult for policy makers to incentivize electrification and building efficiency. Financial benefits would have to be split between property owners and tenants, making it difficult for the incentives to work as intended.
The transition is possible and necessary, McRae says, but the city has a long list of hurdles to clear before electrification will have a noticeable effect on carbon emissions.
“It’s not going to happen overnight,” he says. “It will probably require several decades to make that transition completely.”
Vinis points to funding as the major hang-up preventing the city from acting quickly on building electrification. Individuals will need to make lifestyle changes — like limiting use of fossil fuel vehicles and converting natural gas appliances to electric — if the city hopes to reach carbon neutrality in the coming decades, she says.
But they can’t do this without the city’s support. Even with additional revenue generated from increased fees, Vinis says the city doesn’t have the money to support households that can’t afford to electrify their houses.
“It’s the role of the city and of public policy to create a landscape that makes it easier for the community to do what they need to do,” she says. “The community cannot shoulder it on their own.”
After EW went to press, the Eugene City Council passed two motions at a Nov. 17 work session that begins the process of transitioning the city toward 100 percent electric buildings. Council voted 5-2 to have staff research how to implement a mandate of having all new construction buildings be 100 percent electric by 2023. The second motion has city staff equitably design a way to have all buildings transition to electricity.
This article has been updated.