Reprinted from E&E News with permission from POLITICO, LLC. Copyright 2023. E&E News provides essential news for energy and environment professionals.
Eugene became the first city in Oregon to prohibit fossil fuels in new residences this week, marking the spread of gas bans across the West coast.
Enacted by a 5-3 vote on the Eugene City Council on Monday, the ban is expected to go into effect in June and outlaws fossil fuel hookups in new single-family homes and apartments three stories or smaller. The plan will make electricity the de facto energy source for space heat, water heat and cooking in the city.
In an email, Eugene Mayor Lucy Vinis said she signed the ordinance Tuesday morning, adding that “burning fossil fuels in homes poses an imminent threat to our health and climate.”
“It’s clear we cannot let this source of pollution grow unchecked,” she said.
The move follows a protracted battle between national environmental groups and the state’s largest gas utility, NW Natural, which called the gas restrictions meaningless for emission reductions. After the vote, the utility said it was evaluating next steps.
Eugene’s ban also comes as the use of gas in buildings is under national scrutiny. The Consumer Product Safety Commission has begun gathering information that could eventually result in new regulations on gas stoves’ emissions. Comments last year from CPSC Commissioner Richard Trumka Jr. that a prohibition on gas stoves might be a positive step for public health became a lightning rod for conservatives.
The ban in Eugene, a 175,000-person city located about 110 miles south of Portland, puts Oregon in line with its deep-blue West Coast neighbors, where similar restrictions on fossil fuel heat are widespread. Several dozen cities in California, for example, have banned fossil fuels in new buildings dating back to 2019, when the city of Berkeley enacted the nation’s first such ordinance.
Washington state officials also approved changes last year that position electric heat pumps as the first choice for many new homes and commercial buildings, while allowing gas for backup.
Backers of Eugene’s policy say it could serve as a model for other parts of Oregon. Officials in 800,000-resident Multnomah County — where most of Portland is located — have passed a nonbinding resolution to stop using fossil fuels in new city-owned buildings, and the city of Milwaukie has made a similar pledge for new privately owned properties.
“I am proud of our City’s leadership in paving the way for local governments across Oregon to take this step in transitioning new homes to clean energy,” said Vinis.
Gas interests dig in
On the East Coast, cities like New York and Washington have also passed laws that put an end to fossil fuel heat for most new buildings.
On the other side of the issue, 20 U.S. states controlled by conservative legislatures have made it illegal for cities to restrict fossil fuel use in buildings.
Eugene’s ban was one of the most bitterly contested in recent memory, however.
Consultants for NW Natural, which serves some 2.5 million gas customers across its Pacific Northwest territories, sent letters to the City Council criticizing the idea that indoor gas appliances could have adverse effects on human health — a concept that many air experts say is established in scientific literature.
NW Natural also pushed back against gas restrictions in Multnomah County, where the utility sent a paid consultant to undermine studies linking gas stoves to health hazards, according to a January article in The New York Times.
In letters to state officials and the public, the company and its allies in real estate trades rejected the notion that eliminating fossil fuels in new buildings would contribute meaningfully to climate action.
Reports cited by environmentalists and public health advocates suggest otherwise. According to a 2021 analysis, eliminating natural gas from new residences and commercial buildings in Eugene would, over the next 15 years, slash the equivalent of 34,000 gas cars’ annual carbon emissions, Eugene officials said in a letter to the City Council last year.
Spokespeople for NW Natural did not rule out a legal challenge against the ban.
In an email, company spokesperson David Roy wrote that the Eugene vote “eliminates energy choice for new homes” despite company-commissioned polls finding that 70 percent of voters in Eugene opposed bans on new gas hookups.
“By being unwilling to put this issue out for a public vote, the council also ignored the thousands of residents, workers and community leaders that registered their opposition in writing and in public comment,” he wrote.
The company has pushed for natural gas on multiple fronts. NW Natural is one of three Oregon utilities that sued the state over its cap-and-invest program, for example.
Its stance has made it a foe of national green groups, which applauded the passage of Eugene’s ban yesterday.
Dylan Plummer, a senior campaign representative with the Sierra Club, credited local leaders for taking “a bold step to achieve [Eugene’s] climate targets and protect the public from air pollution.”
Backers of the plan say they expect the city to expand the restrictions to commercial buildings as well, while sparking similar legislation across the state.
“We’re doing this in stages. We’ll be focusing on commercial and industrial next,” said Emily Semple, the Eugene city councilor who sponsored the motion to vote on the ban, in an email to E&E News.