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A person lights a gas burner. Davide Bonaldo/SOPA/LightRocket/Getty
This story was originally published by Gristand is reproduced here as part of the Climate Deskcollaboration.
Last month, Eugene became the first city in Oregon to pass an ordinance requiring new residential buildings to be fossil fuel-free. But the policy may never go into effect—not if the natural gas industry gets its way.
Ever since the electrification ordinance passed, a group funded by Oregon’s largest gas utility has been busy collecting petition signatures from Eugene residents in an attempt to rescind it. The group bears the hallmarks of astroturfing—when corporate interests create the illusion of grassroots support for their side of a political debate. If the group can collect 6,460 signatures by March 9—which it says it already has—the ordinance can be moved to a ballot referendum for the public to vote on this November, effectively stopping its scheduled implementation this summer and potentially canceling it for good.
Environmental advocates say the petition represents a cynical new strategy from the fossil fuel industry to not only preempt, but overturn electrification ordinances nationwide. “They’re thinking that if they can roll back climate policy in progressive, dark green Eugene, then they can do it anywhere,” Dylan Plummer, a senior campaign representative for the nonprofit Sierra Club, told Grist. “Our coalition is ready to fight and do whatever it takes…to show that our city supports climate justice and a transition off of fossil fuels.”
Eugene, with a population of roughly 175,000, is just one of more than 90 cities and counties across the United States that have adopted policies to electrify their residential, commercial, or municipal buildings, often as part of an effort to meet emissions reduction targets. Natural gas appliances contribute to climate change—both at the point of combustion in people’s homes and through the extensive leakage of unburned fuel from pipelines, storage facilities, and the appliances themselves.
Gas-powered appliances also come with heavy health risks. Stoves that run on gas, for example, leak cancer-causing benzene, as well as pollutants that contribute to respiratory problems, including nitrogen dioxide and fine particulate matter. Widely reported research published last December found that more than 1 in 10 cases of childhood asthma in the United States can be attributed to the use of gas stoves.
Eugene city councilors discussed these issues at length during a special meeting on February 6—and for many months before then. Under pressure to take concrete action to advance the city’s climate goals, including halving citywide fossil fuel use by 2030, compared to a 2010 baseline, the council eventually passed a policy 5-3 that would require new homes less than four stories high to be built without natural gas hookups.
“We’re building the city that we want to see in the future,” Councilor Lyndsie Leech told her colleagues at the time. The ordinance was signed by Eugene’s mayor shortly after it passed, and city councilors expected it to go into effect in June.
The opposition, however, has been fierce and well-organized. Many gas utilities nationwide have tried to stop local governments from phasing out fossil fuels in buildings by advocating for so-called preemption laws, state-level policies that take away city and county councils’ authority to mandate building electrification.
Others have filedlawsuits challenging statewide climate plans that would require them to reduce their emissions. But environmental advocates say the pushback in Eugene has been particularly zealous. A petition committee called Eugene Residents for Energy Choice is currently collecting thousands of signatures in an effort to walk back the City Council’s already-approved electrification ordinance.