Two sides in battle over natural gas geared up for fight in Eugene, then issue crumbled 

That experience over excluding new natural gas-powered residential buildings holds lessons for other policymakers interested in treading the same path

October 18, 2023 5:45 am
A residential natural gas hookup.

The Eugene City Council adopted then pulled an ordinance banning natural gas on some new residential buildings. (Lynne Terry/Oregon Capital Chronicle)

Eugene was all set to host, just about now, one of Oregon’s top culture war battles of the year … and then it evaporated.

Is this an indicator that culture warriors on the left are a little less eager now than they once were, even in places like Eugene, to push at the edges of contentious policy?

The story of natural gas in Eugene may be something of a harbinger. 

The political matter started on Feb. 6, when the Eugene City Council passed, on a 5-3 vote, an ordinance banning the use of fossil fuels, which mainly meant natural gas, in newly built low-rise residential buildings. The ordinance was intentionally limited in scope, allowing only electric power and appliances in newly built residential structures with three or fewer floors. Existing residential buildings were exempt as well as commercial and industrial structures. The ordinance was needed, advocates said, as part of an effort to diminish carbon emissions. 

It would have been be the first ordinance of its kind in the state, and a number of city officials were happy to push it forward. Eugene Mayor Lucy Vinis was quoted, “We have a governor who has pledged to build 36,000 new houses a year. We do not want those houses with natural gas hookups. And we can lead the way in the city of Eugene to say this is how it’s done.”

It was intended to be step one in moving away from natural gas; at least one council member alluded to the idea of eventually retrofitting existing buildings to be powered with electricity since by far the majority of gas emissions come from them rather than new structures. 

Natural gas consists mainly of methane, and when it burns – usually to create heat – carbon dioxide is produced. The fuel can also cause methane leaks, though no one knows how large that problem is.

Desirée Plata, associate professor of civil and environmental engineering and director of the MIT Methane Network, said: “Leaks are so poorly quantified. Nobody knows that number for sure. It’s hard to sense methane comprehensively and finding those pipe-based leaks can be trickier than it sounds.”

The ordinance should not come as a great surprise in one of the green-minded centers of Oregon. If Eugene succeeded with the effort, similar approaches would be easy to imagine in Portland, Beaverton, Corvallis and other places. 

But even as they passed the ordinance, the council in Eugene appears to have had a sense of unease. The Feb. 6 meeting originally was set up only to consider placing a natural gas question on the November election ballot, to allow the public to weigh in. Only during the meeting did the course change, and the council decided to adopt the ordinance outright. 

The public proceeded to weigh in anyway. 

Business interests involved with natural gas spoke in opposition, of course, but so did a number of labor union locals, and a broader group called Eugene for Energy Choice quickly organized. 

It declared an effort to place a petition on the November ballot to kill the new ordinance. That effort was not easy, needing 6,460 valid signatures (almost 4% of the city’s total population) to take the case to ballot. 

By early March, the anti-ordinance group had collected about 12,000 signatures. The group’s argument: “We believe having the option of using natural gas, along with other energy sources, keeps us all on a better path to a renewable future. Voting in favor of any gas ban will deprive Eugene residents of their ability to choose the system that works best for their family or business – and pave the way for a complete natural gas ban across all of Eugene.” The petition’s response suggested the group had a good shot at repeal.

The issue was set for the November ballot and a big political showdown. Both sides started to pitch their case, and in an odd-numbered year’s November season when elections are usually quiet, the prospect of a big culture war squabble was strong. Environmental groups weighed in, too, in support of a measure seen as helping with climate change. 

And then, as abruptly as the conflict had started, it went away.

On July 10, the Eugene council revisited the issue and – this time unanimously – repealed the ordinance, which had the effect of removing the ballot question in November. 

Councilor Emily Semple said, “I think it was a pragmatic decision. We need to wait for the right time.”

That suggests the city’s efforts on energy regulation aren’t necessarily over, and at least one council member said she would like to revisit the subject next year. 

But if they do, their experience of 2023 might persuade them to move more cautiously. By averting a pitched battle in the culture wars, Eugene may be able to show a sounder path forward by developing energy policy through working with the full range of public interests in the city. Other cities, and even states, could draw a lesson from that. 

CORRECTION: This story has been updated to include emission problems linked to methane.

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Randy Stapilus

Randy Stapilus has researched and written about Northwest politics and issues since 1976 for a long list of newspapers and other publications. A former newspaper reporter and editor, and more recently an author and book publisher, he lives in Carlton.