The city of Spokane legally challenged itself Monday night to receive all of its electricity from renewable sources by 2030, after a language change that addressed some of the concerns brought by business and utility interests.
City Council President Ben Stuckart referenced the wildfire-smoked-filled skies outside City Hall before the panel voted 6 to 1 to approve the directive, which is identified in law as an “aspirational strategic goal.” Under the law, the city will set up a sustainability panel tasked with developing policies in support of the standard, which was first envisioned by an environmental study the city conducted in 2009.
“Our health district tells us that it’s literally detrimental to our health to walk outside right now,” Stuckart said, beginning a roughly 10-minute, point-by-point rebuttal of a letter sent by business interests in opposition to the bill. “Restaurant patios sit open, our trail system sits unhiked. There’s people in surgical masks waiting for buses.”
City Councilman Breean Beggs was the main sponsor of the ordinance, and changed the language Monday afternoon to phrasing that earned the support of Avista Corp., which had previously expressed concerns about potential costs to ratepayers.
“We believe having an aspirational goal, such as Spokane is proposing, can help structure the ongoing discussion of making energy choices,” said Bruce Howard, director of environmental affairs for the utility.
Business interests, including Greater Spokane Incorporated, the city’s chamber of commerce, and Better Spokane Incorporated, a nonprofit that exerted political pressure previously on a ban on coal and oil rail transport in town, gathered signatures opposing the bill before the language change. Mayor David Condon echoed those concerns last week, saying uncertain costs and vesting city authority in an unelected panel to review environmental policies gave him pause.
Stuckart pushed back on the arguments about cost. The ordinance sets up the panel that will recommend policies, all of which will require a fiscal impact statement and approval by City Hall before they’re implemented.
“I’ve passed laws for the past seven years that encourage recycling,” Stuckart said. “I think a group of citizens and experts can come up with a lot more ideas than I can on my own.”
The 6-to-1 vote by the council means even if Condon vetoed the law, it would withstand an appeal back to the council. Condon elected last year not to sign an ordinance that, among other things, made it a city policy to “acknowledge and recognize the occurrence of human-caused climate change.” Condon pointed to several steps the city had already taken to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions, including converting the city’s garbage truck fleet to compressed natural gas and increasing bike lanes, in choosing not to sign the ordinance, which became law without his signature.
The lone vote against the proposal came from City Councilman Mike Fagan, who accused supporters of being alarmist.
Fagan said that he accepted climate change as an observable phenomenon, but doesn’t accept that it was human-caused.
Michael Cathcart, director of the group Better Spokane that helped organize the opposition to the ordinance, said he welcomed Beggs’ language change, despite still having concerns about the composition of the committee and what constitutes “renewable” energy.
City Councilwoman Kate Burke, who also worked on the development of the law, said she envisioned a panel that could go beyond just recommending renewable energy goals, suggesting members could also tackle water conservation efforts and other ecological concerns.
Representatives of the Upper Columbia chapter of the Sierra Club, the Spokane Riverkeeper and several science-based organizations testified in favor of the law. The group 350 Spokane, a local chapter of a national group that wants to eliminate fossil fuel use globally, organized adherents and helped Beggs draft the ordinance. Brian Henning, the co-chair of the group, called worries about potential litigation “overblown.”
The law requires updates every three years on the city’s progress toward the 100 percent goal. If progress isn’t made, the city and committee must regroup to come up with a new plan. There’s no penalty identified in the law.
According to the group, Spokane is the 79th city in the United States, and the second in Washington, to commit to exclusively use renewable sources by 2030. The new law applies to all electricity users, including private homes, businesses and government.