NW Natural Fights Climate Policy to Maintain Their Dirty Business Model

Gas utility faces existential crisis with over 50 percent of its hookups in jurisdictions considering or actively pursuing electrification

Protesters at Youth Climate Strike in Portland 2022

 

Earlier this month, the City of Eugene became the first city in Oregon, and the 97th city nation-wide, to pass a policy to require that new residential buildings be constructed all-electric. 

The vote came after a years-long campaign from local grassroots social, economic, and climate justice organizations including NAACP Eugene-Springfield, the Springfield Eugene Tenants Association, and Sunrise Eugene, and is a critical step for the city to meet its 2014 Climate Recovery Ordinance goals to reduce emissions by 50 percent by 2030. 

Simultaneously, other jurisdictions across the state are looking at similar policies. The City of Milwaukie passed a resolution to pursue a future ordinance last December, and Multnomah County released a report on the health impacts of burning gas in buildings, which includes recommendations to the County Commissioners to limit the use of gas. The Oregon state legislature is also considering key policies to encourage electrification, with multiple bills introduced which would expand subsidies for high efficiency heat pumps, support publicly owned buildings to go all electric, and protect cities interested in electrification from costly litigation from the gas industry.

But this wave of electrification is facing major opposition from one corporation – NW Natural, the state’s largest gas utility, is aggressively using misinformation, astroturfing, and corporate dollars to protect their climate-wrecking business model. 

That’s because NW Natural has the most to lose, as a gas-only utility with little to fall back on if the use of gas in homes declines in coming decades. 

According to a Sierra Club analysis, while only three percent of NW Natural's estimated gas connections are in Eugene, an additional 31 percent are in other cities and jurisdictions explicitly talking about electrification, including Multnomah County, Salem, Corvallis, Hood River, Milwaukie, Eugene, and Lake Oswego. If other major blue cities concerned about climate in Oregon also move to electrify, another nine percent of NW Natural connections could be impacted. With areas already considering electrification, this would amount to 43 percent of NW Natural’s total gas connections at risk. 

To make things worse for NW Natural, the State of Washington, where NW Natural has about 12 percent of its building connections, is moving even faster than Oregon to transition its buildings off of polluting methane gas. Recently approved changes to the building codes in Washington State will take effect in the middle of this year, requiring virtually all new construction across the state to use electric heat pumps for water and space heating. Additionally, the Washington legislature is considering programs and policies to improve energy efficiency and cut pollution, further reducing gas demand. 

When looking at the gas utility’s entire distribution area, 55 percent of NW Natural's total connections are in jeopardy due to electrification policies that have already passed, or are currently being considered.

Just like when the tobacco industry saw the writing on the wall, NW Natural is throwing everything into a dirty and deceptive campaign to stop progress on public health and climate in its tracks. 

NW Natural has made a name for itself as a true blue climate villain. NW Natural paid mercenary toxicologist Dr. Julie Goodman to publicly play down the health impacts of burning gas indoors to the Multnomah County Commission (landing the company on the front page of the New York Times). NW Natural also developed workbooks to propagandize children into associating "natural" gas with the good things in life like pizza and baseball, ignoring the climate and health harms it causes. 

Now, in response to Eugene City Council's clean buildings vote, NW Natural hired canvassers around the city to collect signatures to force an "energy choice" ballot, which could create an opportunity to overturn the ordinance. In all the cities Sierra Club has tracked for climate-friendly building legislation, this is the first time a gas company has actively tried to overturn a democratically settled matter using a ballot initiative, using corporate dollars to create a fake grassroots group.  

Clean buildings policies threaten not only NW Natural but other companies throughout the US that rely on dirty fuels. The transition from fossil fuels to clean energy alternatives is likely to spur more bad faith politics, astroturfing, and desperate misinformation campaigns in communities hoping to make climate and air quality progress. 

That's why it's so important journalists, public officials, and regulators are highly skeptical of companies like NW Natural. What studies do they cite? What polling questions are they using? Did they or other fossil fuel companies fund those studies? Who testifies on their behalf? How are they preparing their hardworking employees for big changes ahead? How are they held accountable for misleading the public?

Sierra Club will defend the Eugene ordinance and promote electrification efforts throughout NW Natural's service territory in order to reduce climate pollution, improve public health, and make way for more clean, affordable energy. 


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