by Bethany Cotton and Aya Cockram
Originally published on Oregon Capital Chronicle.com, October 24, 2023
Four years ago, local governments began taking on climate battles that state and federal leaders refused to touch, and to everyone’s surprise, they started winning. In just a few years, more than 100 cities across the nation overcame fierce gas industry opposition to pass local policies that ensure new homes are built to run on clean energy.
But as the climate movement and its local champions have grown more ambitious, the American Gas Association and its members have stepped up their efforts to block local action, and preserve their fossil fuel business model. Nowhere have their tactics been more egregious than in Oregon.
Look to Eugene: Local leaders spent years developing a thoughtful policy to transition new homes and buildings to climate-friendly electric heating equipment, developing Oregon’s first such policy, which enlivens the city’s groundbreaking Climate Recovery Ordinance. Before the ink was even dry on the ordinance, NW Natural, one of the state’s largest fossil fuel corporations, leapt into action to roll it back through an unprecedented $1 million dollar astroturfing effort, which involves hiding the sponsors of a message to make it appear as though it originates from a grassroots group.
Then the American Gas Association, which masterminded a decades-long campaign to obscure the health impacts from gas stoves, jumped into the fight. The fossil fuel trade association pledged to kick in more than $4 million to blanket the airways in Eugene, a community of just 175,000. In response, a local grassroots coalition of environmental justice, public health, and tenants’ rights organizations geared up for a grueling campaign to debunk fossil fuel propaganda and defend local climate leadership.
Eugene was on the frontlines of a fight with national implications over local climate leadership when a surprise ruling from a Republican-appointed panel of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals created a whole new level of chaos. In a widely criticized decision in a fossil fuel-funded lawsuit, the court struck down Berkeley, California’s green building code. Berkeley requested the court to reconsider, supported by many communities including Eugene and the Biden administration – but that process could easily take a year. Because Eugene’s ordinance was modeled on Berkeley’s, the city withdrew its ordinance, waiting to revisit the issue until the legal landscape is clear.
Eugene’s council remains committed to pursuing electrification and meeting the city’s climate goals.
Local climate champions working to make their communities more healthy and resilient should not have to contend with this level of fossil fuel industry interference to pass common sense clean energy policy. From ballot measures to lawsuits and astroturfing to paying doctors to mislead the public, it’s clear that the gas industry will stop at nothing to protect its toxic business.
Fortunately, it’s too late to stop the local clean energy movement from spreading. While Eugene works to bring new policies forward, Milwaukie and Ashland are exploring alternative pathways to ensure clean energy in new homes and buildings by limiting lung-damaging nitrogen oxide pollution from fossil fuel equipment. Just this week, the city of Ashland began a public participation process to talk with the community about their plans to reduce air pollution and advance the transition off of gas.
Policymakers across the state have made it clear that they will not be cowed as they take on powerful industries to meet their climate commitments and protect public health. Just this summer, the Oregon Legislature passed the Resilient Buildings package, codifying a goal to install half a million high efficiency electric heat pumps across the state and putting in place a building performance standard to transition existing commercial buildings off of polluting gas over the next two decades.
This momentum could not come at a better time, as research continues to expose the significant health threats and climate affects from burning gas in homes for heating and cooking. A first-of-its-kind study published this month in Environment Research from researchers at the University of Buffalo in New York found an association between developmental delays in children and exposure to unclean cooking fuels, including gas.
The negative outcomes caused by gas equipment in homes disproportionately burden vulnerable populations including children, the elderly, low income communities, communities of color and renters. Unlike pollution from the energy, transportation and industrial sectors, regulators have largely overlooked pollution from buildings. To protect public health and meet our climate targets, that must change – at the national, state and local levels.
No matter how hard the dying fossil fuel industry fights to obstruct the transition to clean energy, the writing is on the wall: Oregon’s future will be powered by clean, renewable electricity, and Oregon’s people will prevail over corporate interests.
Bethany Cotton Bethany Cotton is an environmental attorney and the conservation director for Cascadia Wildlands. A fifth generation Oregonian, she grew up in a cabin in rural southern Oregon, received her law degree from Lewis & Clark Law School in Portland and now lives in Eugene where she is electrifying her old house.
Aya Cockram Aya Cockram was born and raised in Eugene and is the coalition coordinator for Fossil Free Eugene. Before working in the nonprofit sector, she was an educator for seven years and received her graduate degree, focusing on the intersection between religion and environmental history, ethics and philosophy from the University of Florida.