Washington and Oregon natural-gas companies, rattled by local proposals that could shift more buildings to electricity, will spend $1 million on a public-relations campaign to promote their fuel as part of the region’s clean-energy future.
The gas companies are forming a coalition of unions, businesses and consumer groups to tout the benefits of natural gas and to help “prevent or defeat” initiatives that inhibit its use, according to internal industry documents obtained by The Seattle Times. They’re calling the coalition “Partners for Energy Progress,” and a public launch is scheduled next year.
The planning documents provide a window into the industry’s broader effort to ensure that natural gas continues to be piped into American homes and other buildings, even as municipal and state governments grapple with how to combat climate change.
“This will play out on a national scale much sooner than a lot of us have expected,” said Seattle City Councilmember Mike O’Brien, who in September proposed banning gas from new construction. “I think it’s the right time for us to be having this debate.”
In Seattle, Bellingham and other Northwest cities, gas companies and their allies already have begun fighting policy proposals, like O’Brien’s, that would place new restrictions on natural gas use in buildings as a way to reduce climate emissions.
Puget Sound Energy (PSE) joined other opponents to halt the Seattle proposal, and Cascade Natural Gas has attacked recommendations by a Bellingham task force that include phasing gas out of all buildings.
Dan Kirschner, executive director of the Northwest Gas Association, confirmed the $1 million push, which he said would be launched with funding from association members, including Bellevue-based PSE.
PSE provides electricity to a wide swath of Western Washington residents outside Seattle, but also is a major supplier of natural gas.
“We should be using every tool in the toolbox,” including gas, Kirschner said.
Natural gas, when combusted, releases roughly 50% fewer carbon emissions than coal. But that doesn’t tell the whole story. Natural gas vents and leaks release unburnt methane, a potent greenhouse gas, into the atmosphere, and anxieties about that phenomenon are growing.
Unburnt methane can warm the planet 84 times more in the first 20 years than the same amount of carbon dioxide. A leak at an Ohio well that received scant attention last year released more methane than the oil and gas industries of countries like France emit annually, scientists said this month.
In Washington, natural gas already has been deemed to be part of the climate problem, as a generator of electricity. A law passed earlier this year says coal and natural-gas plants must be purged from the state’s power supply as renewable power sources such as solar and wind farms become more available.
Environmentalists are hoping to build on that legislative momentum to cut the use of natural gas for space heating, hot water and cooking fuel. Buildings are responsible for 27% of Washington’s greenhouse emissions and are the fastest-growing source, according to a report by the governor’s office.
Caleb Heeringa, who works on Pacific Northwest energy issues for the Sierra Club, said curbing gas use in buildings is “the next natural progression of the fight” against climate pollution that began with lobbying against the coal industry.
A fight over public opinion
Local environmentalists are backed up by a November United Nations report that concluded the world’s countries are behind on the 2016 Paris Agreement goal of limiting global warming to less than 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit. A recommendation in the report calls for the United States to develop new standards requiring all new buildings to be 100% electric by 2030.
Industry officials say natural gas has played a key role in reducing greenhouse emissions by serving as an alternative to coal, and they contend their product should continue to be used as a complement to renewable fuels, including biogas made from manure and trash.
But they worry political winds in the Northwest are blowing in a different direction.
The gas association’s planning documents define “the problem” facing the industry as the environmental groups championing electric-building proposals, naming the Sierra Club, 350.org and the Natural Resources Defense Council.
The documents point to several Northwest cities considering policies and describe a multiyear campaign in which Partners for Energy Progress will aim paid advertising at “key audiences in Washington and Oregon” while mobilizing allies in policy debates. The regional campaign will push a “positive” message about gas, leaving attacks on specific proposals to local groups.
Target audiences will likely include Democratic-leaning suburban homeowners, particularity women. The documents note that many consumers like natural gas but dislike fracking and want to fight climate change.
Kirschner said the gas companies will use funds provided by shareholders for the new coalition, rather than ratepayer dollars.
The gas association and companies have selected Quinn-Thomas, a Northwest public relations firm, to organize the Partners campaign. Quinn-Thomas was involved with a 2015 coalition that successfully opposed carbon pricing legislation in Washington and a winning 2016 campaign that opposed a statewide carbon-tax initiative.
No gas company officials are named in the coalition’s Washington articles of incorporation, but PSE expects to have a representative serve as a Partners officer.
The company has been “closely involved” in setting up the Partners campaign, said Christina Donegan, a PSE spokeswoman.
The coalition’s unpaid president and spokeswoman will be Leanne Guier, who’s also political coordinator for the UA Local 32 Plumbers and Pipefitters union and mayor of Pacific.
“We want to tell the positive story of what this looks like,” she said about buildings continuing to rely at least partly on natural gas.
Natural-gas leaders here have received advice from California, where companies were alarmed this year by a measure in Berkeley that banned gas from many new buildings. During an October webinar sponsored by the Northwest Gas Association, the executive director of Californians for Balanced Energy Solutions issued a warning.
“Natural gas is under an existential threat that is sustained and will only become more acute,” Jon Switalski said, showing social media videos from his campaign with the tagline: “Want to keep your gas stove? Join us …”
Northwest environmentalists will seek to counter that message. “The idea that gas has a role in our transition is just misguided and dangerous,” said Alec Connon, with 350 Seattle. “It’s a classic case of putting profit over people and the planet.”
Unlike coal, which is burned in distant power plants, natural gas is a familiar presence for many Washington residents. It shows up each time they turn a kitchen dial that yields a blue flame or hear their furnace kick on.
Gas furnaces have long been a much cheaper option than electric baseboard heating in most single-family homes. And electric heat can also mean burning fossil fuels because PSE still relies on gas and coal to produce 56% of its power. But things are changing.
Under the state law passed earlier this year, PSE must be off coal-fired electricity by 2025 and will increase investments in wind and solar farms to try to meet a 2045 target date for ending power generation from gas. The company is shutting down two Montana coal-plant units this month. Seattle City Light already gets 97% of its power from hydroelectricity and other zero-carbon sources.
Meanwhile, technology is evolving for heat pumps, which cost more than gas furnaces to install but dramatically reduce the cost of electric heating. They can be three times more efficient than baseboard systems and can provide cooling, as well.
“You can certainly design with heat pumps and end up with a lower bill for space and water heating,” said Jonathan Heller, of Seattle-based Ecotope, which develops all-electric heating systems.
Though PSE representatives acknowledge heat pumps can deliver monthly savings in new homes with ductless systems, they say government shouldn’t dictate energy choices. In large buildings with heat pumps and ducts, monthly bills may remain higher than in buildings served by gas, PSE engineer Rem Husted said.
Transition heats up
In Seattle, a slow transition is underway. Though 66% of the city’s single-family homes now use gas heat, residential construction is evolving. Builders installed electric heat in 65% of homes built last year, according to county records.
For electric systems to completely take over, there will need to be cultural change, mostly because many people like to cook with gas, said developer Sam Lai.
“People want that blue ball of fire coming from a chef’s kitchen,” he said.
But Lai knows it’s possible to build all-electric housing. His company has developed about 200 new units in the Pacific Northwest.
“We don’t want to lock homeowners into fossil-fuel connections,” Lai said.
The Seattle City Council in August passed a Green New Deal resolution that established a goal of making the city climate pollution-free by 2030.
To speed up the shift, O’Brien in September proposed banning natural-gas lines in most new construction. But he ran into intense opposition and shelved the measure.
Critics of O’Brien’s proposal included PSE, which provides natural gas in Seattle and which has paid high-powered lobbyist Tim Ceis to make the company’s case at City Hall. In recent years, Ceis helped the soda industry carve diet pop out of a Seattle tax and helped large corporations like Amazon kill the city’s head tax. He declined to comment on his work for PSE.
Donegan, the PSE spokeswoman, said the company asked the city to start by studying the issue and listening to interested parties, sharing concerns about the reliability of the electric grid to heat the entire region on cold days when demand peaks. “In the conversations we’ve been having in Seattle,” she said, “We’re asking, ‘OK, what does the alternative (to gas) look like?’ “
Foes also included gas-fireplace companies and Guier’s Local 32 union, which raised questions about job losses.
“Conversations with some of our labor partners didn’t move as swiftly as we hoped,” O’Brien said. “It’s tough when you have an environmental community pushing one way and labor pushing the other.”
Last week was O’Brien’s last at City Hall, and it’s uncertain whether legislation will be considered by the council next year.
In the Northwest, some of the most far-reaching proposals to keep gas out of buildings have emerged in Bellingham, where a council-appointed task force recently spent more than a year drawing up a blueprint to achieve a total transition by 2040.
The panel’s Dec. 9 recommendations include both largely banning natural gas from new buildings and mandating that gas furnaces, as they wear out, be replaced with electric systems.
The proposals stirred a counteroffensive from a group of critics led by Whatcom County builder and Realtor associations and Cascade Natural Gas.
The opposition campaign included a mailer to city residents, which claimed that converting a typical 1,100-square-foot Bellingham home from gas to all electric utilities could cost $36,050 to $82,750.
Erin McDade, a task force member who works for the nonprofit Architecture 2030, said that estimate was greatly inflated by items not required for conversion, such as roof work, solar panels and renovated foundations.
McDade said task force members came up with their own high-end estimate of $11,100, citing construction experts and completed Bellingham projects. The city could provide assistance to low-income households, and residents would save on utility bills over time, she said.
Meanwhile, Cascade sent its own mailer to Bellingham customers, cautioning the panel’s proposals could result in “tax increases.”
PSE, which in Bellingham provides only electricity, has also criticized the task force. The company’s representative on the panel voted against measures to phase out gas and slammed the effort in a letter. At a hearing this month, several public commenters cited the industry’s talking points.
Still, the recommendations are expected to get serious consideration next year from the council and incoming Bellingham Mayor Seth Fleetwood, who campaigned on addressing climate change.
“We feel confident that they’re going to take this on,” McDade said. “But we all think this is going to be a huge battle.”