Representatives from businesses and labor unions that work in the natural-gas industry showed up in force Tuesday to request that Seattle City Councilmember Mike O’Brien slow down on his proposal to ban gas-piping systems in newly constructed homes and buildings and to voice concerns.
In response, O’Brien delayed a vote on the ban by his sustainability committee until December or later. That may not satisfy some opponents, who asked for a yearlong process to study and discuss the idea. O’Brien is leaving City Hall at the end of 2019.
“I want to make sure to take the time to have meaningful conversations,” he said. “I don’t want to pretend this will ever not be controversial but I think there’s more work to be done.”
The council member did advance a proposal by Mayor Jenny Durkan to adopt a 24 cents-per-gallon tax on home-heating oil, with some minor changes. The full council could adopt the tax next Monday.
Both measures are meant to help reduce climate pollution by moving more Seattle buildings to electric heating and cooking systems. Before he steps down, O’Brien is trying to pass legislation related to the Green New Deal that the council recently promised to pursue.
More than a third of Seattle’s greenhouse-gas emissions comes from buildings, and most of those building emissions come from natural gas, according to the city.
Though 66% of single-family homes now use gas heat and only 19% use electric heat, new residential construction is trending in the other direction. Builders installed electric heat in 65% of homes built last year and installed gas in only 33%, according to county records.
A council memo notes a number of examples of all-electric apartment buildings in Seattle but only one completed commercial building.
Berkeley, California, in July became the first city in the country to ban natural-gas lines from new homes. San Jose’s City Council voted Tuesday to prohibit natural gas in many new homes.
O’Brien has said prohibiting natural gas for new structures would protect the environment and public health. Representatives from the Sierra Club’s Seattle chapter and from nonprofit Climate Solutions shared support for the idea during a public-comment period Tuesday.
Another council memo says moving all new structures to electric heat could reduce Seattle’s greenhouse-gas emissions by 4.6% by 2030.
“We have access to ample clean electricity,” said Leah Missik with Climate Solutions, touting the area’s carbon-neutral hydro power and warning that natural-gas prices may be low now but are unstable.
Many more speakers voiced objections, however, with business and union representatives saying the ban could lead to lost jobs, asking why they hadn’t been consulted and recommending a stakeholder group be convened.
A Seattle King County Realtors lobbyist said the ban could curtail “consumer choice,” while a lobbyist for the Building Owners and Managers Association of Seattle King County said the proposal would change commercial development and should be studied more.
A spokesman for Puget Sound Energy, which provides natural gas to Seattle structures, requested “dialogue and a thoughtful plan.” Natural gas is cheaper today than five years ago, while Seattle City Light electricity rates have increased by leaps and bounds, he said.
Representatives from businesses that manufacture, sell and install gas heating systems and appliances also spoke out against the ban, telling O’Brien that thousands of workers depend on the industry. They said the council member neglected to ask for their input.
“No one has had a voice,” said Kip Rumens, with Mukilteo-based Travis Industries, which manufactures gas fireplaces.
“I’ve seen no analysis of how the decision will affect cost for taxpayers … no analysis of how it will affect the electrical grid,” said John Chapman with Rich’s for the Home, which sells stoves and fireplaces.
Seattle City Light, the public utility that provides electricity in the city, “has adequate generation resources” to deal with the consequences of O’Brien’s proposed ban, according to the council’s most recent memo.
There may be transmission and distribution constraints involved but the utility believes those can be resolved, according to the memo, which included no details about how much that could cost.
Speakers with UA Local 32, which represents plumbers, pipefitters and HVAC workers, from Laborers’ Local 242 and from the Washington Building Trades Council, an umbrella group for construction-worker unions, also urged O’Brien to delay.
Dennis Martinez, a retired UA Local 32 plumber and steamfitter, said a natural-gas ban could hurt a workforce that includes many people of color, LGBTQ people and military veterans. Martinez said the industry “provided me with a good union job” for multiple decades.
“We ask you to simply slow down a little bit,” said Mark Riker with the Building Trades Council, vowing to collaborate with O’Brien.
The council member tweaked Durkan’s tax on heating-oil providers, which would be used to help the 18,000 Seattle households that now rely on oil to switch to electric heat.
Households with up to 80% of the area median income would be eligible for grants, as opposed to households with up to 70% of the state median income, and the non-petroleum based portions of biodiesel blends would be exempt from the tax.
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