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Banning the ban: Spokane citizen’s initiative looks to protect natural gas indefinitely

Workers tend to oil pump jacks behind a natural gas flare near Watford City, N.D. on Oct. 22, 2015.  (Eric Gay/Associated Press)
Workers tend to oil pump jacks behind a natural gas flare near Watford City, N.D. on Oct. 22, 2015. (Eric Gay/Associated Press)

It was one idea tucked into a volunteer subcommittee’s nonbinding draft proposal to address climate change in Spokane.

But the mere mention of a future ban on natural gas connections to new city businesses and homes sparked an immediate reaction and is now bound to become an election-year issue.

A citizens’ initiative heading toward the November general election ballot looks to permanently – and preemptively – prevent elected city leaders from ever implementing a natural gas connection ban.

The proposed City Charter amendment, dubbed the Cleaner Energy Protection Act, naturally raises questions about the city’s role in the fight to stem climate change. Are electric heat pumps and furnaces an environmentally friendlier and viable alternative to the natural gas appliances enjoyed by Spokane residents? And what’s the price of a government-mandated transition away from fossil fuels versus a failure to take decisive action on climate change?

But even if they agree that a ban on natural gas connections is wrong, voters will have to decide if they want to permanently write it into what functionally serves as the city’s constitution.

The initiative’s proponents argue that installation and operation of natural gas appliances is cheaper, and it’s imperative to stymie any actions that could lead to increased housing prices. They question the electric grid’s ability to handle increasing electrification and the reliability of electric appliances during power outages.

“I know our electric prices are going to be dramatically impacted by banning natural gas and the infrastructure is not ready,” said Jennifer Thomas, the initiative’s sponsor.

Environmental advocates question that math and counter that the long-term financial consequences of runaway climate change will be even more devastating. They believe using the City Charter to set energy policy would handcuff the city’s climate change response.

“We’re getting huge weather shocks, so acting with urgency would make sense,” said Brian Henning, Gonzaga University professor and director of the Gonzaga Center for Climate, Society, and the Environment. “That this is hard is true; the alternatives of doing nothing are much harder, are much worse.”

Thomas, director of membership services for the Spokane Home Builders Association, said she agreed to sponsor the initiative earlier this year after being approached by a political consultant, although she maintains that she is advocating for this charter amendment as a private and impassioned citizen.

The signature-gathering effort was spearheaded by political consulting firm Camelback Strategy Group, which has worked for conservative politicians like Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers and has an affiliate company that works on political campaigns like this one.

The Cleaner Energy Protection Act is a direct response to the draft sustainability action plan, a product of the Sustainability Action Subcommittee.

The plan is still in draft form and the Sustainability Action Subcommittee – a group formed by the Spokane City Council – will review months of public input before finalizing it this year. Even when approved by the City Council, the plan’s components would not immediately be enacted. For example, the passage of the sustainability plan would not directly result in a natural gas hookup ban; that would require subsequent action by the Spokane City Council.

In its current form, the draft plan contemplates eliminating “gas hookups from all new commercial and multifamily residential buildings by 2023, and from all new construction by 2028.”

“City Council has no plans to restrict natural gas. It’s not a real issue currently. It’s really just an issue to get people riled up,” said Spokane City Council President Breean Beggs.

The cost of a ban – and doing nothing

Right now, it costs two to three times as much money to furnish a new home with fully electric appliances than their natural gas counterparts, according to Isaiah Paine, government affairs director for the Spokane Home Builders Association.

Though estimates of the exact price difference vary, the premium for electric appliances is ultimately passed on to consumers, Paine argued. To consider any policy that would increase the cost of a new home during a housing crisis, he contended, is indefensible. The association estimates that for every $1,000 added to the price of a new home, nearly 200 potential buyers are priced out.

“We can’t make housing more affordable by making it more expensive, and this is something that’s going to make it more expensive,” Paine said.

But the lack of decisive action to limit carbon emissions also carries consequences.

“We need to stop using fossil fuels. We’ve got ourselves in a deep climate hole and the first thing to do when you’re in a deep hole is to stop digging,” Henning said.

Though she’s sponsoring the initiative, Thomas said she is not a climate change denier. But she also doesn’t want to pass her children a “broken solution” that costs tens of millions of dollars, she said.

“We absolutely have to do something about climate change,” Thomas said. “I’m not arguing that. But if we just do a reactive move – let’s ban natural gas because carbon is bad – whoa, whoa, what are the unintended consequences?”

But opponents of the initiative argue that its backers are reactionary, given that there is no active proposal before the City Council to ban natural gas hookups.

Rather than ever consider banning natural gas, Thomas said there should be incentives for weaning off of fossil fuels.

“I know carbon is killing the planet. I would rather encourage the community to do what’s right and create solutions to help the planet to regain its health,” Thomas said.

Incentives are something on which she and Beggs can agree. But they are not mutually exclusive with government action, according to Beggs.

“Incentives are usually the best thing, but there are times when just (offering incentives) is not fast enough,” Beggs said, pointing to deaths of people during the unprecedented heat wave in recent days.

Incentives already are part of the draft sustainability plan, which describes a strategy to “offer education and incentives for installing electric air and water heating systems, including heat pumps.”

It’s in the same section that describes a future natural gas hookup ban.

Viability

Banning natural gas hookups from new construction would require more reliance on electric appliances like furnaces and heat pumps.

Heat pumps work by converting the mechanical energy of heat in the ambient air and transferring it inside. They can also work in reverse, essentially acting an as an air conditioner by converting the heat inside and sending it outside.

But whether heat pumps are suitable for the weather extremes of the Inland Northwest is still up for discussion. They tend to struggle at very low temperatures, which can lead a homeowner to rely on a furnace – powered by either natural gas or electricity – as a backup.

In an op-ed in The Spokesman-Review in May, Avista’s vice president of energy resources cited a University of California, Davis study that concluded Washington would actually see more carbon emissions if everyone switched to an electric heat pump.

But carbon emissions from electrification depend on what’s generating the electricity. Avista’s own plans call for it to have a carbon-neutral supply of electricity by 2027, and state law will completely ban the use of fossil fuels to generate electricity by 2045. If Avista’s energy supply is truly carbon neutral, then electrification could be the cleaner way to go.

Gonzaga’s Climate Center has invited the UC Davis researchers to a Zoom event this month that’s free and open to the public, to discuss the topic of heating homes and addressing climate change.

If the city ever did adopt a natural gas hookup ban, Henning said it should be done carefully and in a phased approach to ensure that Avista is able to adequately prepare for the additional strain on energy supply.

Avista told The Spokesman-Review last week that full electrification of its natural gas customers would double its electrical load.

“We would need to build additional generation and additional/upgraded infrastructure to deliver that electricity to customers’ homes and businesses,” Annie Gannon, an Avista spokesperson, wrote in an email.

In a statement to The Spokesman-Review, Avista spokesperson Casey Fielder said the company had not taken a stance on the initiative.

“As an electric and natural gas utility, Avista supports a clean energy future and energy choice for our customers and believes that natural gas is an important part of the clean energy future,” Fielder wrote. “We are reviewing the specifics of this new initiative to understand what it means for our customers, and we are considering our position on it moving forward.”

Process

The initiative is backed almost entirely thus far by a $26,117.12 donation from Spokane Good Government Alliance Political Action Committee , according to Public Disclosure Commission records. The PAC’s major donors this year include hotelier Walt Worthy, Washington Trust Bank and industry groups like the Spokane Home Builders Association PAC.

The Spokane Good Government Alliance PAC also played a major role in the 2019 city elections, spending $54,600 in independent expenditures to support Mayor Nadine Woodward.

Ultimately, the citizens’ initiative isn’t asking voters to vote for or against a ban on natural gas hookups in new construction. It’s asking voters to never consider one.

But proponents of the initiative argue they felt uninvited to the sustainability action subcommittee’s process, and a charter amendment is the best tool available to them.

“It should be up to the people of Spokane instead of seven folks sitting in a room not getting a whole lot of input,” Paine said.

With enough signatures to qualify, proponents expect the City Council to formally place the initiative on the November ballot later this month.

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