By Dylan Plummer
Despite yet another summer of climate-driven wildfires, droughts, and a heatwave that killed more than 100 people across the region, the methane gas utility NW Natural is still working to expand the network of fossil fuel pipelines running beneath our city.
Eugene has had ambitious climate action targets in place since 2014, but it has yet to bridge the gap between ambition and action. This is due, in part, to the decision the City Council made two years ago when it directed its sustainability staff to pause work on all strategies regulating methane gas use in Eugene.
It instead opted to pursue emissions reductions by negotiating with NW Natural over the terms of a new franchise agreement — a contract that would give the corporation a blanket permit to operate in the city in exchange for a fee.
In that time, NW Natural has refused to allow emissions reductions to be a component of that agreement. Instead, it has tried to sell the city on continued infrastructure expansion and a series of fanciful technologies including “renewable” natural gas and “green” hydrogen.
These technologies are not a silver bullet for emissions reductions, nor do they address the myriad public health and justice issues surrounding the extraction and combustion of methane gas. Rather, they are merely a distraction as NW Natural works to keep the gas flowing under our homes and ratepayer money flowing into the utility’s coffers. And NW Natural is committed to locking in as many customers as it can, offering cash incentives to switch to gas and working non-stop with the American Gas Association to fight climate policy at all levels of government.
After two years of failed negotiations, it is clear that NW Natural is more interested in protecting the profits of its shareholders on Wall Street than it is in protecting the communities it claims to serve. And after back to back climate disasters, there is no time left to waste negotiating with the fossil fuel corporation. We need to take bold action to regulate these companies and transition our society to clean renewable electricity right now.
Eugene has never been better positioned to be a climate leader in Oregon. Our City Council can be the first in the state to pass common-sense climate policies to transition our homes and buildings off of fossil fuels and mandate that new construction be built 100 percent electric. This is a critical step for reducing climate-polluting greenhouse gas emissions, as the use of methane gas in buildings has been the fastest growing source of GHG emissions in the city and the state over the past decade.
Eugene is not alone in considering these policies: As electric appliances become more efficient and affordable, there has been a wave of cities passing policies to mandate electrification in new construction, and developing programs to retrofit existing buildings. As of last month, 50 cities in California alone have passed some form of building electrification policy.
Policies to encourage electrification are especially important in light of developments at the state level. The passage of a suite of environmental and social justice bills spearheaded by the frontline-led Oregon Clean Energy Opportunity Campaign, including a landmark bill which requires electricity providers in the state to supply 100 percent renewable electricity by 2040, Oregon is leading the way to a clean energy future.
Now, Eugene can build on that momentum, and set a precedent for cities across the state to take full advantage of the clean energy transformation sparked with the passing of the 100 percent legislation. The council must pass an ordinance to mandate all new construction be built with clean electricity, and begin developing a plan to equitably transition our city’s existing building stock off of fossil fuels, while prioritizing low-income and Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC) households and creating good paying union jobs in the process.
Dylan Plummer is an organizer working at the intersection of climate and social justice issues and a co-founder of the Breach Collective, an organization fighting for a just transition off fossil fuels.