BELLINGHAM — As a progressive-minded city nestled where the Cascade Mountains reach the sea, Bellingham has long been looking to scale back its contribution to climate change. In recent years, city leaders have converted the streetlights to low-power LEDs, provided bikes for city employees and made plans to halt the burning of sewage solids.
But while the efforts so far have lowered the city’s emissions, none has come close to erasing its carbon footprint. Now, Bellingham is looking to do something that no other city has yet attempted: adopt a ban on all residential heating by natural gas.
The ambitious plan set for consideration by the City Council in the coming weeks had already prompted vigorous debate over how much one small city should try to do to avert climate catastrophe, at a time when the federal government was putting less emphasis on halting the trajectory of rising temperatures.
“What we’ve got here is a conversation that is taking place in living rooms, in board rooms, in city councils around the country,” said Michael Lilliquist, a Bellingham City Council member. “What is the proportionate threat? What is the proportionate response?”
Natural gas has long been embraced as a cleaner alternative to coal-fired electricity. Years ago, power companies began phasing out coal, and natural gas emerged as the nation’s leading source of electricity. But natural gas offers its own troubling contribution of greenhouse gases — including methane leaks from natural gas infrastructure — and its production has begun to clash with environmental goals that now include not only cleaning up pollution, but also slowing the rise in global temperatures.
In places like the Northwest, which benefits from a robust network of hydropowered electricity, the move to detach from natural gas may be within reach — but at a cost.
Bellingham has become a growing destination for those looking to escape Seattle’s growth and cost while still wanting a similar base of progressive politics and environmental activism. It is a destination for outdoor enthusiasts who backpack the wilderness of the northern Cascades and kayak along the barnacled shores of the San Juan Islands.
Yet the move to phase out natural gas is not without opponents, even here.
The business community has mobilized to fight the plan and to establish a $1 million campaign to tout natural gas, especially as Seattle, 85 miles south, also begins discussions about its reliance on the fossil fuel.
Berkeley and Beyond
Along with other cities around the world, Bellingham adopted its first climate action plan more than a decade ago. Since then, the city has reported a substantial drop in emissions — eliminating more than two-thirds of the government’s greenhouse gas contributions compared to the year 2000.
Lilliquist said the city’s plans had put it on a path to carbon neutrality — zero net emissions — by 2050. While those plans may have seemed ambitious at the time, the unfolding global climate crisis has prompted city leaders since then to try to move the timeline up to 2035 or even 2030.
Last year, Berkeley, California, became the first city in the country to ban natural gas in newly constructed low-rise residential buildings. Dozens of other cities passed or proposed similar bans, including Seattle, where an increasing number of new homes have adopted electric heat. Proponents there argued that a ban on natural gas in new construction would lower the city’s emissions by an estimated 12% over the coming three decades. The City Council had not yet acted on the measure.
Bellingham is talking about going even further: banning natural gas heating not only in new construction but also in existing homes and businesses.
The city’s climate task force explored a number of ambitious targets, including requiring conversions to electric heating when people purchased existing homes, said Dr. Charles Barnhart, a task force member and an assistant professor of environmental sciences at Bellingham’s Western Washington University, which has one of the nation’s oldest environmental colleges. It also explored requiring transitions on all structures as soon as 2030.
In the end, the task force scaled back a bit. Natural gas cooking appliances would still be allowed, but owners of homes and commercial buildings would be required to convert to electric heat-pump technology — or something equivalent — by 2040, with the possibility that the city could accelerate that to 2035. The measure under consideration would require electric heat conversions earlier than that when replacing heating systems.
“This is about going to where we didn’t go before,” Lilliquist said. “We’ve grabbed the less controversial and low-hanging fruit. This fruit is higher on the tree.”
It is unclear whether the proposal has enough votes to clear the City Council. Lilliquist said he would first seek a series of meetings to get feedback from the public.
Opponents have questioned the value of focusing on home heating systems instead of other alternatives for reducing emissions.
Todd Myers, who focuses on environmental issues at the conservative Washington Policy Center, said the city could get much more climate improvement by investing in things like planting trees and capturing methane gas at landfills.
“They are saying we are going to bypass all the low-hanging fruit and climb to the very top of the tree,” Myers said.
A $1 Million Campaign
Bellingham’s task force found that the average cost of installing an electric heat pump system was about $6,200 to $13,100 more than a gas furnace.
Ronald Scott Colson, a financial adviser who lives outside of Bellingham, said he had been converting to electric heat to fulfill his commitment to migrating the planet away from fossil fuels.
Colson said he had spent about $28,000 to install a forced-air heat pump system in 2018. He is looking to spend about $8,000 to change the heating for his home’s hot water to heat pump technology. With human life on Earth at risk, Colson said, the globe needs catalysts for significant change.
“You’ve got to have a place where people step up and say, ‘Let’s show the world we can do it,’” Colson said.
But Colson also acknowledged that such a conversion might be a heavy burden for those who did not have as much income. Without federal tax credits or other ways to offset the cost for lower-income people, he wondered if a local mandate might have negative effects.
Mary Kay Robinson, a real estate agent who works with the local chamber of commerce, said that instead of a natural gas ban, she would like to see the city expand a program that helps people assess their properties for energy efficiency improvements and offers incentives to make needed changes. She said a mandate to convert home heating systems could create housing affordability challenges.
“What does that do other than we get bragging rights, but we’re burdening people who can’t afford this?” Robinson said.
The energy industry has also stepped up efforts. A Northwest coalition has been organizing a $1 million public-relations campaign to promote the benefits of natural gas, with a focus on its reliability. One graphic produced by businesses including Cascade Natural Gas, the provider in Bellingham, suggested that a full conversion from natural gas to electricity, including solar panels, could cost a typical homeowner as much as $82,750, something Lilliquist labeled propaganda intended to frighten people.
Still, Lilliquist said that as council members considered the conversion proposals in the coming weeks, they would have a discussion about incentives or other ways to mitigate costs, which he said would almost surely be less exorbitant than the industry’s claims.
“The real number may be one-tenth that cost, but that’s still a lot of money for most households,” he added.