The week before last, King County Executive Dow Constantine took a swing at natural gas (or, as environmentalists prefer to call it, “fracked gas”) by proposing changes to county building codes that would ban new gas-based heating and water heating in some buildings. Environmentalists applauded the move but acknowledged it was only a tiny step toward addressing emissions.
Contrary to decades of greenwashing messages from the industry, natural gas isn’t a clean fuel. It’s a growing source of emissions that contribute to climate change. Natural gas use in commercial and residential buildings accounts for 24% of greenhouse emissions in King County, and the 2-3% leakage rate from the US fracking industry is a huge concern: methane is more than 80 times as potent a greenhouse gas as carbon dioxide.
The county’s proposed changes mirror legislation adopted in Seattle earlier this year, including a ton of caveats: the law would only apply to unincorporated areas of the county (meaning cities such as Bellevue or Renton wouldn’t be affected), and the limits only cover space and water heating in commercial and multi-family residential buildings over four stories. Plus, restaurants and the snobs who say they can only cook with gas can rest easy — the new rules don’t apply to gas cooktops.
Laura Feinstein, a fellow at the sustainability think tank, Sightline Institute, says the new rules are a good thing. “We need to start somewhere,” she says. “Unincorporated King County is something, but there are a lot of incorporated areas that need to start mobilizing as well.”
Feinstein insists the county needs to work toward completely banning new installation of gas, as well as offering incentives to homeowners for converting appliances from gas to electric. Thanks to a clean energy law enacted in 2019, Washington State must draw all of its electricity from carbon-free sources by 2045, so every gas furnace, water heater, and stove converted to electric will reduce emissions that are causing record heat waves and more frequent wildfire smoke.
Andrew Padula, a spokesperson for Puget Sound Energy, says that a better alternative would be to improve insulation and efficiency of buildings that currently use gas. “By leveraging the natural gas delivery system — infrastructure our customers’ have already invested in — we can reduce carbon emissions faster and at a lower cost than complete electrification,” Padula said in an email.
Advocates for reducing emissions disagree, and a UN report issued in May made it clear that fossil gas needs to be ditched in order to meet the goals of the Paris climate agreement.
But stronger local efforts to limit fracked gas have fallen short. In 2019, Seattle City Councilmember Mike O’Brien introduced legislation that would have prohibited natural gas installation in all new buildings. But facing noisy opposition from PSE, real estate agents, the Building Owners and Managers Association, and UA Local 32 (the union that represents plumbers and pipefitters) the measure failed to pass.
And despite vigorous protests by environmental groups and the Puyallup Tribe, PSE is building a massive liquefied natural gas storage facility at the Port of Tacoma. With support of the state attorney general’s office, in April the tribe and environmental groups filed an appeal of the facility’s permit before the state’s Pollution Control Hearings Board. “Tacoma LNG is in a densely populated area, but no authority has looked at the consequences of a catastrophic incident,” said Bill Sterud, chairman of the Puyallup Tribal Council, “That is unfair and dangerous.
Anna Doty, a spokesperson for the Washington Environmental Council, said they expect a decision from the hearing board in the next three weeks. Closing down gas infrastructure and transitioning to electric need to accelerate if the state actually plans to meet its goals of a 45% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2030, she says. “We know we have clean energy solutions, especially in the building sector, that make fracked gas unnecessary. I don’t think there’s any reason to dig a deeper hole by building new fracked gas infrastructure.”
Needless to say, the state’s gas industry isn’t thrilled about these proposals. You’ve most likely seen a proliferation of billboards popping up around Seattle and ads on social media touting all the nifty jobs that destroying the earth’s climate creates. That’s a result of a $1 million publicity campaign launched two years ago by an organization called the Partnership for Energy Progress, a coalition of natural gas companies, business associations and trade unions.
Bellevue-based Puget Sound Energy, which serves up most of the region’s fracked gas, is a huge backer of the publicity effort. It’s all part of PSE’s massive influence campaign to keep the gas turned on in Washington. In a 2018 study, Sightline Institute researcher Eric de Place found that between 2008 and 2018, the gas industry pumped close to $14 million into statewide politics. PSE spent $7 million in ten years on direct political donations, PAC donations, and lobbying efforts in Olympia, which dwarfs corporate influence campaigns by Microsoft and Amazon.
According to the state’s Public Disclosure Commission (PDC) database, since 2008, Puget Sound Energy has given nearly $4 million to candidates across the state. 43rd Legislative District Rep. Frank Chopp has accepted nearly $10,000 in the past ten years, and even 36th District Senator Reuven Carlyle — the prime mover behind passage of Washington’s cap-and-trade climate bill in the legislature this past year — has accepted $8,000 from PSE over the past decade.
Carlyle points to passage of that bill and the HEAL Act, which requires all state agencies to meet environmental equity goals, as evidence that natural gas companies aren’t driving the agenda. “We have passed the strongest climate legislation dealing with the utility sector in the United States. Period. Full stop,” says Carlyle. He justifies accepting the campaign donations by noting that PSE is “one of the premier companies in the Puget Sound region. . . Just like I work with Microsoft and many other companies that are also under the purview of my committee, they’ve been at the table when it came to passing historic legislation.” Carlyle also notes that he’s one of the top “surplussers” who share campaign donations with Democratic candidates in swing districts.
Puget Sound Energy backed Carlyle’s climate bill, perhaps sensing the political winds were changing, or relieved with a gradual phase-in for the natural gas sector, which gives the industry free allowances that are gradually phased out in the program’s first ten years. Another bill in the legislature, which would have phased out all natural gas installation by 2030, died in committee. Carlyle won’t say if he’ll push that bill again next year, but he notes that gas is on its way out. “I think natural gas, at this stage, is important to grid reliability,” he says. “But there is unequivocally clear acknowledgement across the board that we need to have a deep decarbonization plan for natural gas, similar to what we have for the electricity sector.”
County Executive Dow Constantine, who announced the proposed natural gas regulations at the Yesler Terrace affordable housing complex last month, has received more than $5,000 in donations from PSE over his career — but this year he signed a Fossil Fuel Money Pledge and returned $1,250 from the gas company, says campaign spokesperson Jaime Housen.
When asked why the executive isn’t pushing stronger limits on natural gas installation, Housen said in an email that new environmental policies demand “real work and require involvement and input from many stakeholders,” — likely meaning building managers, trade unions, and yes, gas companies.
In addition to campaign donations, those companies hire a fleet of lobbyists. According to the PDC, in the past legislative session PSE paid 10 lobbyists in Olympia, and, according to Sightline, PSE spent a whopping $8.5 million lobbying Olympia from 2008 to 2018.
“If you’ve seen anything in the Legislature related to gas,” said Feinstein, “you’ll see their lobbyists. You’ll also see PSE or other utility employees testifying that the time is never right to make a dramatic change.”
That may be why the city and county are still taking baby steps while more people die in summer heat waves, the state’s forests burn to a crisp, and the glaciers on Mount Rainier wither away.