Less Talk, More Walk

Eugene City Council’s “wait-and-see” mentality led by Councilor Alan Zelenka is slowing climate action

By Danny Noonan

Since last November, the city of Eugene has been actively considering adopting regulations requiring all-electric construction of new buildings — a policy more than 60 municipalities across the country have already adopted. 

On July 25, Eugene City Council will have another work session on the issue, with the opportunity to direct staff towards drafting ordinance language for adoption by the end of the year.

This latest work session comes after the City Council opted back on April 13 to delay further consideration of the policy for 90 days, ostensibly so that city staff can provide answers to the litany of questions posed to them during the session. Orchestrating this delay was Councilor Alan Zelenka, who persuaded his pro-electrification colleagues of the virtues of sitting on their hands by claiming that a patchwork of state and federal policies meant that the city should be “thoughtful and careful” in response to an urgent and unprecedented climate crisis. 

In particular, Zelenka — a career bureaucrat whose day job is at the Oregon Department of Energy — pointed to the state’s recently passed Climate Protection Program. Zelenka misleadingly stated that this program required reductions from “all fossil fuels” in Oregon. In fact, the program excludes Oregon’s largest stationary sources of emissions (fracked gas power plants). Zelenka also omitted that NW Natural is currently suing the state in an attempt to invalidate the program.

Zelenka failed to identify which federal laws or policies obviate the need for Eugene to reduce its emissions — because none exist. On the contrary, Congress’ attempts to pass climate legislation before November’s midterm election will continue to be stymied by the pro-coal Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia, and the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent decision in West Virginia v. EPA will be a thorn in the side of any attempts by the Executive Branch to further regulate greenhouse gas emissions.

Pleas for “thoughtful and careful” action have long been used by the fossil fuel industry as a strategy to slow down and lower the ambition of regulation. Zelenka’s insistence on waiting to see the effects of state and federal action plays right into this strategy. It is reckless for a government official who clearly has some grasp of climate science to frame emissions reductions as a zero-sum game, where action by one level of government excuses inaction elsewhere. Rather, the science is clear that, to avoid catastrophic levels of warming, all levels of government need to be using every policy lever at their disposal to reduce emissions as rapidly as possible.

Zelenka’s wait-and-see rhetoric was even more damning given that, earlier in the session, city staffers presented the City Council with clear evidence that almost every newly constructed home increases our city’s gas emissions. Specifically, data showed that over 80 percent of one- and two-family homes constructed in Eugene in 2021 had natural gas installed. NW Natural has been heavily incentivizing these new gas hookups. They know that once gas gets in a home it will stay there for a long time, as retrofits are much more costly than building all-electric from the outset. 

Further delay means that new buildings will remain a significant source of greenhouse gas emissions in our city, and the families living in those buildings will continue to be exposed to hazardous levels of nitrous oxides and other emissions. The policies Zelenka alluded to will do nothing in the short-term to address these emissions. On the other hand, a city ordinance would not only rapidly eliminate these emissions in new homes, but would lower construction costs and energy bills, and provide much-needed climate resiliency via the ability of electric heat pumps to also provide both home cooling and heating.

It is clear from April’s work session that Zelenka no longer deserves the benefit of the doubt when it comes to tackling climate change and standing up to the fossil fuel industry. On July 25, those councilors who support genuine climate action, electrifying our buildings and tackling harmful gas emissions should not be so easily duped, and should instead move this city towards an emissions-free future.

Danny Noonan is a Eugene resident and climate and energy strategist with the nonprofit Breach Collective.