Natural Gas Furnaces, Water Heaters in Crosshairs for Northwest Policymakers

Pacific Northwest policy makers are taking aim at phasing out natural gas furnaces and water heaters for new construction. Cities from Eugene to Bellingham have teed up bans on natural gas in new commercial buildings. But natural gas has its defenders, too, who have beaten back proposed phase outs before.

Burning fossil fuels in homes and businesses is the second biggest source of global warming pollution in the Northwest, after the transportation sector. That prompted Washington Gov. Jay Inslee to propose an array of new measures to transition away from natural gas for heating and hot water. The new package of measures has the goal of requiring all-electric appliances for space and water heating. The statewide phase out of natural gas energy would apply to all new construction beginning in 2034.

As proposed, the building requirements do not extend to existing homes and buildings. The governor said he would like to see utilities expand incentives to entice property owners to switch from fossil fuel heating to cleaner electric heating.

Some Northwest cities are preparing to move much faster than their state governments. The Eugene City Council is out front in Oregon having taken an initial vote last month to require all new construction be electric-only beginning in 2023.

Seattle moved first in Washington earlier this year, followed by the suburb of Shoreline and now Bellingham. Under Washington state law, cities only have the authority to ban natural gas heating systems in commercial buildings and apartment blocks. The state building code council is separately working on single family homes and duplexes.

“It really is helpful when we see local governments that are ready to take a first step because that signals there is interest and excitement,” state Representative Alex Ramel said in an interview. “When we see one community do it, and then another community do it and another, we can see dominoes falling and coming towards us. At the state level, that’s something that gives us confidence to move forward and tell our colleagues this is the right idea.”

However, the home construction industry and labor unions in the construction and utility sectors are uneasy — if not outright pushing back.

“Natural gas is an affordable way to heat a home,” said Jan Himebaugh, government affairs director for the Building Industry Association of Washington. “When you remove that, you further increase the price of living in a home because you’re going to all-electrical or whatever it is.”

Himebaugh predicted tougher, climate-friendly energy codes will raise home sales prices even more into the unaffordable range. She also raised a separate issue, especially prominent east of the Cascades, of people wanting a natural gas hookup to stay warm during power outages.

“There are many places across the state that have frigid temperatures in the winter,” Himebaugh noted in an interview. “Removing their ability to have a consistent source of heat if the electric grid goes out should be really concerning to those people and our elected leadership.”

Himebaugh said no one wants the government telling them what countertops to put in their kitchen. Likewise, she argued the government should let people make their own choices about gas or electric appliances.

In Bellingham, city council member Michael Lilliquist countered that residents are demanding building electrification as a climate change response.

“When local government in conversation with the people we represent decides we need to take strong action on climate change, that’s not the government telling the people. That’s the government following the will of the people,” Lilliquist said in an interview.

Lilliquist is pushing an ordinance that would ban natural gas furnaces and gas water heating in new commercial construction and large apartment buildings beginning later next year. It received a public hearing Monday night.

This past summer in Washington’s state’s second largest city, Spokane, home builders associations from the area financed a successful signature drive to qualify a related ballot measure. It would have asked voters to preemptively block the city from restricting natural gas hookups. The city council president said the council had no intention to take such a step, but nevertheless the proponents said they wanted to stop the spread of what they called “Seattle-style” bans on natural gas.

But in late summer, a county judge struck the measure, called the Spokane Cleaner Energy Protection Act, off the November ballot because she ruled it went beyond the bounds of what a local initiative can do. [QHEAC]

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