Battle brews over Wash. plan to ban natural gas

Source: By David Iaconangelo, E&E News reporter • Posted: Sunday, December 20, 2020

Washington Gov. and former Democratic presidential candidate Jay Inslee has proposed what would be the nation’s first statewide law banning natural gas in buildings, solidifying the state’s status as a center of the building electrification movement.

Unveiled earlier this week as part of a broader climate package, Inslee’s proposal would prohibit natural gas-powered space and water heating in all new homes and commercial buildings by 2030. Stoves could run on gas until 2050, at which point the entire existing building stock would have to switch to electric stovetops, heat pumps and boilers.

“We know these actions are required now. This is not something we can put off. We cannot kick this can down the road anymore,” Inslee said at a Tuesday press conference.

Inslee’s plan is a battle in a wider national war over building emissions that arose in 2019, when the California city of Berkeley outlawed gas hookups in new residences.

State legislators in Arizona, Louisiana, Oklahoma and Tennessee moved quickly after that to ban towns and cities from enacting similar laws.

But at least 39 other cities in California have since enacted gas restrictions of various kinds. On the East Coast, one Boston-area suburb approved a ban before it was quashed for conflicting with state codes. Perhaps more significantly, regulators in at least four states are probing the future of natural gas systems, in light of local climate laws that call for deep cuts in carbon dioxide emissions.

In Washington, it is unclear how much backing the Inslee bill will find in the Democratic-controlled Legislature, where the governor has a mixed track record in getting his priorities past the finish line.

And the plan could encounter vigorous opposition from gas suppliers.

Executives at Puget Sound Energy (PSE), a utility that delivers the fuel to 150,000 Seattle-area homes, as well as fossil fuel advocates at the Consumer Energy Alliance, have already spoken out against more limited restrictions considered in Seattle and the city of Bellingham.

Spokespeople for PSE and Cascade Natural Gas, two of the state’s four gas utilities, said their companies were still reviewing the package of laws.

Kim Heiting, senior vice president of operations at NW Natural, which has 85,000 gas customers in the state, said the company is working with other utilities and trade groups to convince policymakers of the gas system’s value.

Heiting pointed to grid experts’ warnings that the Pacific Northwest may face shortfalls of power capacity, even without an additional influx of demand from buildings.

“How much more renewable generation will be required to be built to meet the loads now provided by the gas system? Where is it all going to go — and how will it get approved when new transmission lines meet with such public resistance?” she wrote in an email.

‘A pivotal year’

If enacted into law, the ban would become the largest-scale effort to phase out fossil fuels in buildings — a sector that contributes more CO2 emissions than any other in most urban areas. And it comes on the eve of what national gas advocates have described as a “pivotal year” ahead for their fuel’s role in the energy system.

“As companies think about, plan for and work towards a carbon neutral future, we believe there is an important role ahead for natural gas distribution systems,” said David Anderson, incoming chair of the American Gas Association’s board of directors, following a media call yesterday.

But Anderson, who is also chief executive of NW Natural, also acknowledged the prospect of change for that role, saying the industry is “rapidly innovating toward having renewable natural gas and hydrogen play a bigger role in the system.”

Those two low-carbon fuels are the subject of intense attention from federal researchers, who aren’t sure if they could be mixed in large quantities into gas pipelines for a justifiably low cost. Some large utilities have promoted early-stage production of the fuels while simultaneously battling building electrification plans.

Heiting noted that the company plans to bring online three renewable natural gas projects in 2021. Those sources, paired with energy efficiency, are “the way the gas system will drive to carbon neutrality,” she wrote.

Many environmentalists insist that those technologies are likely to be more expensive than electric-powered ones in most of the country, and point out that they would need to be vastly scaled up in order to act as primary replacements for natural gas.

Jesse Piedfort, Washington chapter director at the Sierra Club, which has backed electrification as the principal pathway for buildings, applauded Inslee’s plan as one of the first in the country to grapple meaningfully with building emissions.

“This [emissions problem] is a significant hurdle to avoiding the worst impacts of the climate crisis, and we need to be planning now for an orderly and equitable transition that prioritizes low-income households and workers,” he wrote in an email.

In 2019, he noted, the state’s Legislature supported another of Inslee’s climate priorities in passing a 100% clean electricity law. “[W]e know that taking bold action on climate is possible,” he wrote.

“The bottom line is that utilities with climate mandates will not be able to achieve these goals by continuing to sell gas,” he added.

In some ways, Washington may be in a better position than other states to make a large-scale switch from gas to electricity as a fuel source for buildings.

The state gets about four-fifths of its power from hydropower, meaning buildings would draw energy from a grid that is unusually low-carbon by national standards. Electricity is also cheap, with residential rates costing 25% less than the national average, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. And over 55% of residences already use electricity for heating, compared with 34% that use utility gas.

Still, homes are the largest consumer of natural gas in the state, according to the EIA, and buildings contribute 27% of Washington’s total CO2 emissions, a higher percentage than the industrial sector.

In presenting the plan on Tuesday, Inslee posed the ban as a jobs creator for carpenters and engineers and linked it to the state’s coronavirus pandemic response.

“We have a long-term pandemic, if you will, of our state being on fire because of the pollution that causes climate change,” he said. “While we are dealing with this immediate pandemic, we have a longer one that we must attack to preserve the health of our state. That’s the fight against carbon pollution.”