Seattle Gets Creative To Limit Methane Gas Pollution As Industry Pushes Back

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Methane gas, popularly known as natural gas, is nasty stuff. Proponents say it burns “clean,” but that doesn’t mean it is safe to breathe what is left behind after it is burned in a furnace to heat our homes or by a stove to cook our meals. In fact the dreck left behind when methane is burned is a major cause of asthma, especially in young children.

The other concern with methane gas is that a lot of it leaks out on its journey from the wells where it is produced to the buildings where it is burned. Methane is around 80 times more powerful at heating the atmosphere than carbon dioxide. Because of how much of it leaks during transmission, it is actually a dirtier fuel than coal. That fact has prompted many cities and towns to ban the use of methane gas for heating or cooking.

In 2019, Berkeley, California became the first US city to ban new buildings from connecting to methane gas lines. The California Restaurant Association quickly mobilized to file a lawsuit against the city for its policy, backed by more than $1 million in funding from SoCalGas, the nation’s largest gas distribution utility. In 2021, a federal district court ruled against the restaurant industry but in April 2023, a three judge panel of the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals overturned the lower court’s decision.

The appellate court judges ruled that because national efficiency standards for appliances under the federal Energy Policy Conservation Act prevent cities and states from setting their own standards, local governments can’t ban infrastructure to prevent the use of fossil fuel burning appliances.

“The decision does not make a lot of sense legally,” Jan Hasselman, a senior attorney at Earthjustice, wrote at the time. Since the ruling, other cities in California, including Encinitas, Santa Cruz, and San Luis Obispo, have pulled back their own natural gas bans. Eugene, which was the first city in Oregon to adopt a natural gas ban modeled on the Berkeley ordinance, also suspended its new law in June. The Berkeley city attorney’s office has requested a rehearing of the case before 11 judges on the 9th Circuit, which could result in a new decision, according to Grist.

Seattle is one city that wants to reduce the use of methane gas for heating and cooking but it has to deal with the 9th Circuit ban so long as it remains in effect. The learned justices may prohibit an outright ban on methane hookups, but the city clearly has the right to enact its own building code. And so, in a “don’t raise the bridge, lower the river” maneuver, it promulgated its new Building Emissions Performance Standard last week. Here is the preamble to the new regulation:

Climate change is impacting Seattle residents, disproportionately harming people of color and people with lower incomes. Buildings are responsible for more than one-third of Seattle’s carbon emissions and must be part of the solution. The City of Seattle developed the proposed Building Emissions Performance Standard (BEPS) policy with input from hundreds of building owners, managers, tenants, labor representatives, affordable housing proponents, environmental justice groups, and others in 2022 and 2023 to maximize benefits to building owners and tenants and to ensure equitable pathways to high quality green jobs, especially for people of color and women. A Building Emissions Performance Standard or “BEPS” is high impact solution to the climate crisis to create healthy and efficient buildings where we work and live.

New Standard Applies To Buildings Of More Than 20,000 Square Feet

Credit: EPA

The new standard will require existing commercial and multi-family residential buildings over 20,000 square feet to reach net-zero emissions by 2050. Meeting that target will effectively require building owners to replace oil and methane burning furnaces, water heaters, gas stoves, and other appliances with electric alternatives like heat pumps and induction stoves. Buildings in Seattle generate 37 percent of the city’s total emissions and the new law is expected to slash that number by more than a quarter.

“Elected officials’ and regulators’ resolve to address this issue has not gone away,” Dylan Plummer, a senior field organizing strategist with the Sierra Club told Grist. “They just need to work through new avenues that are legally defensible.”

Jan Hasselman told Grist that building emissions standards are one way for cities to dodge legal hurdles by avoiding an explicit ban on gas. The Seattle policy sets benchmarks that ramp up every five years for large buildings to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions, and lets building owners decide how they want to reach those standards. Theoretically, they could hold onto their oil and gas appliances, though Dylan Plummer pointed out that avoiding electrification will likely become more and more difficult over time.

Commercial buildings covered under Seattle’s new law must reach net-zero emissions by 2045, and multi-family buildings by 2050 — a requirement that would effectively require swapping out fossil fuel appliances with heat pumps and other electric options. A handful of other cities have also passed building performance standards to cut emissions, including Boston, New York, and Washington, D.C.

The Methane Gas Industry Fights Back

The Guardian this week published research that shows the methane gas industry is fighting back against efforts by cities like Seattle to lower the use of methane burning appliances. Its primary tactic is to offer builders and developers lavish trips to resort locations and other perks if they install those appliances in new homes and buildings.

“For decades, the gas utility industry has been deeply aware of the significance of the role of builders, contractors and developers in their bottom line,” said Karlee Weinmann, research and communications manager for the pro-electrification organization Energy and Policy Institute, which provided research and documents to The Guardian. “It is very effective for them to capture the middleman, so they don’t have to deal with convincing consumers.”

“For a gas utility, electrification is an existential threat,” said Leah Stokes, utilities researcher and political science professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara. “If people suddenly stop building new buildings with gas, that means they don’t have new customers. It’s even worse if people start removing gas from buildings and they have a shrinking base.”

In February, a group of builders will fly to Punta Cana, an idyllic beach destination in the Dominican Republic. Air fare and hotel costs will be covered, and guests will enjoy free meals and cocktail parties. To qualify, participants must accumulate more than 98,000 points through Builders Club North. The program offers 300 points for every home installed with gas fired heating equipment and water heaters. They can earn an additional 25 points for the installation of a gas fireplace, stove, clothes dryer, grill or garage heater and another 1,000 points for displaying methane gas marketing materials in homes they have for sale.

The Energy and Policy Institute and The Guardian found 27 similar programs from Florida to Ohio to California. Awards ranged from $50 for installing a gas stove in Georgia, courtesy of Austell Gas, to $150,000 for outfitting multifamily developments with gas appliances via SoCalGas in California. In Washington state, NW Natural offers up to $2,000 for each new single family home built and equipped with eligible natural gas appliances.

Leah Stokes said it should come as no surprise that utilities have created these incentive programs. “Gas interests are big opponents of clean energy,” she said, noting that they have also created front groups to fight policies that threaten their business models and promoted climate misinformation despite their knowledge of the climate crisis. “The stakes are higher for the industry now than they’ve ever been,” she said. “They’re like a wounded animal. They’re gonna fight back.”

The Takeaway

Fossil fuel companies are under pressure as never before. Of course they are going to use every means at their disposal to protect their profits, whether they are major oil companies or small methane distributors. Something in the DNA of capitalism says it is okay to profit from selling climate killing products and until that changes, these companies will fight for every nickel of profit they can. Fortunately there are clever people finding new and creative ways to transition away from burning methane gas, and not a moment too soon.

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Steve Hanley

Steve writes about the interface between technology and sustainability from his home in Florida or anywhere else The Force may lead him. He is proud to be "woke" and doesn't really give a damn why the glass broke. He believes passionately in what Socrates said 3000 years ago: "The secret to change is to focus all of your energy not on fighting the old but on building the new."

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