The Spokane City Council is scheduled to once again take up the issue of environmental sustainability Monday night, and familiar battle lines already are drawn.
The panel will debate a plan calling for the city to use 100 percent renewable energy within 12 years. While the city has said it’s already met that goal for government functions, the law would apply to private citizens and businesses as well.
Supporters say Spokane must do its part to counteract the effects of a changing climate, while business interests and Spokane Mayor David Condon are concerned about the potential price and possible litigation of committing to such a goal by law.
The debate echoes one that was kicked around City Hall at the end of last summer, when lawmakers pushed for codification of greenhouse gas reductions following the federal government’s departure from an international environmental agreement. That resolution passed, but Condon refused to sign it, saying Spokane already had taken substantial steps toward green policies and he was worried about costs.
The law the council will consider Monday not only establishes a renewable energy goal, but also sets up an independent panel to determine the best course of action toward achieving it.
“We’re going to set a goal,” City Council President Ben Stuckart said Friday. “You don’t get forward motion if you don’t set a goal.”
The recommendations of the panel won’t be binding, Stuckart said. Each policy request will require a fiscal analysis that includes not only a cost in dollars, but also the potential costs of inaction. That’s a key piece of the legislation, said Brian Henning, co-chairman of the group 350 Spokane, which has pushed for the ordinance.
“Economical analyses frequently don’t look at the cost of doing nothing,” Henning said. “That’s increasing very fast.”
It’s unclear how much the committee’s recommendations could cost, which is one of the provisions of the law that is giving Condon pause. In an email to council members sent Friday afternoon, the mayor pointed to a joint promise from his office and the council to hold the growth of utility rates at 2.9 percent annually. That could be jeopardized by whatever actions the panel took, he said.
“I have gotten mixed messages around the anticipated costs of supporting the committee, but more importantly, we don’t have a sense of what the 2030 goal means to our households,” Condon wrote.
City Councilman Breean Beggs, the lead sponsor of the proposal, said changes were made to accommodate concerns the mayor raised before sending his email to lawmakers. That included clarifying that the panel’s role was advisory.
“This a very pragmatic step, to set up a committee and get some advice,” Beggs said.
Avista Corp., the private utility that provides electricity to city customers, participated in the drafting of the ordinance. But the company remains concerned that the language of the law could be read as a future mandate, which would put ratepayers on the hook for potential cost increases to comply with the law’s definition of what constitutes renewable energy.
“We would prefer to see it very clearly as an aspirational goal,” said Bruce Howard, director of environmental affairs for Avista. “We fully support getting the sustainability work going together, and having a climate action plan.”
The main hurdle, Howard said, is storage of energy produced by wind, sun and other renewable sources. It’s uncertain whether those issues would be solved within 12 years with technology that’s affordable for customers.
Greater Spokane Inc., the city’s chamber of commerce, and Better Spokane, a nonprofit that is active politically on what it calls pro-business issues, have suggested that the potential cost to the city is $20 million
Stuckart called that figure “ridiculous” and said it was floated to scare the public into opposing a policy that would give experts a role in shaping the city’s future environmental policies.
“The 20 million dollar figure is pulled out of thin air. There is zero fiscal impact to this,” said Stuckart, who worked with City Councilwoman Kate Burke and Beggs on the proposal.
Michael Cathcart, director of the Better Spokane group, said the figure was brought up in discussion with city officials about the potential costs of buying renewable energy.
“They would have to recoup it somewhere,” he said.
Beggs said it appeared there were united business interests that were attacking a policy that doesn’t resemble what the council will vote on.
“There’s certain economic interests that don’t want a discussion, but a majority of the people do,” Beggs said. “And we were elected to represent a majority of the people.”
Condon also raised concerns about the authority the committee would have and whether putting the renewable energy goal – which was included in the final sustainability report prepared in 2009 by a group assembled by Mayor Mary Verner – might open the city to legal trouble if the goal isn’t met.
Stuckart countered that the group would function largely the same as the city’s Plan Commission, which doesn’t make urban growth policy but provides input to lawmakers, who are then responsible for enacting legislation. The law also doesn’t include penalties if the renewable energy goal isn’t met, he said.
“Everyone’s just using fear and no facts,” Stuckart said. “It looks like they actually haven’t read it.”
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