More than 40 cities have enacted bans on new gas infrastructure, but in the Pacific Northwest one company is trying a new tactic to head off climate policy.
By Nick Cunningham | DeSmog
Originally published on DeSmog.com, May 6, 2021
If you live in Oregon, it’s likely you’ve been bombarded with misleading PR from the local utility company, Northwest Natural, about the potential for what the industry is calling renewable natural gas (RNG) — methane captured from places like landfills and repurposed into energy for homes.
In recent months, the Pacific Northwest utility rolled out its “Less We Can” campaign to promote the company’s low-carbon future. In a promotional ad, a family harvests some radishes from their backyard garden, and then cooks dinner with natural gas as the narrator talks about lowering emissions.
In another ad, the narrator talks about how population growth has resulted in more waste, pollution, and greenhouse gases. “But now those gases can be captured and converted into renewable natural gas so there will be less harmful emissions in the air and more clean burning energy where we need it,” the narrator says, leaving the impression that NW Natural is already delivering RNG to customers.
The utility’s campaign to promote its green image comes on the heels of a contentious effort by the City of Eugene to require carbon emissions reductions from the company, which NW Natural has resisted.
“We are fighting for a just and livable future for all. Northwest Natural, the fossil fuel company, is standing in our way,” said Sophia Trotter with Sunrise Eugene, an environmental group, according to The Register-Guard. Trotter was among a group of youth activists protesting in March against the utility.
The backdrop in Eugene was the looming expiration of a franchise agreement between the city and NW Natural, an arrangement that allows the utility easy access to maintain its infrastructure in the city’s right-of-way. Without it, the company would need to obtain permits every time it wanted to dig a trench or inspect a pipe.
In the past, this agreement’s renewal would have been a formality. However, since 2019, Eugene’s City Council has been negotiating with NW Natural, seeking to tie the renewal of the franchise agreement with requirements on the utility to slash carbon emissions. The city’s Climate Recovery Ordinance calls for cutting fossil fuel use by 50 percent by 2030.
Those negotiations fell apart earlier this year after NW Natural balked at binding commitments on emissions, citing its voluntary goals as sufficient. The agreement expires on May 11 and negotiations are at a stalemate.
But the arguments over the franchise agreement, which consumed multiple city council meetings this year, are a smaller skirmish in a much larger war over the future of gas infrastructure in Oregon and the United States.
On April 12, more than 25 Oregon-based environmental and social justice organizations sent a letter calling on the Eugene Mayor and City Council to go beyond simply a new franchise agreement with climate strings attached. Instead, they called for a moratorium on new gas infrastructure in an effort to accelerate a shift towards electrification in order to draw down carbon emissions.
“The time for using the franchise agreement to come to an agreement with the fossil fuel industry to regulate themselves is far gone. And now it’s time to put forward binding ordinances,” Dylan Plummer, a Eugene-based organizer with Cascadia Wildlands, told DeSmog.
According to the utility, no regulations are needed because NW Natural is in the process of decarbonizing, and soon the gas pipes feeding into homes and businesses will be filled with renewable natural gas.
Renewable natural gas, also known as biomethane, is very similar to the fossil natural gas, but instead of drilling for it, RNG is derived from the methane generated during decomposition at landfills, manure lagoons on farms, and wastewater treatment plants. The argument in support of RNG is that it comes from methane that would otherwise escape into — and dramatically warm — the atmosphere, so if it can be captured and used in place of natural gas, there could be a climate benefit.
But it doesn’t take a long look under the hood for the lofty claims about RNG’s potential as a climate solution to quickly fall apart. According to independent analysts, the state of Oregon, and even some of the industry’s own studies, RNG is not readily available, too costly, and too limited as a source of energy to play a major role in decarbonization.
The purpose of promoting RNG is to prevent regulation in an effort to prolong the use of fossil gas and extend the life of natural gas infrastructure, activists and analysts say, dismissing it as just another greenwashing campaign aimed at boosting corporate profits and heading off more stringent climate action.
To meet climate targets, fossil fuel use needs to be phased out. Electric utilities can pivot to renewables, cleaning up their generation. But gas-only utilities like NW Natural have their fortunes tied up in the network of fossil fuel pipelines connected to homes and businesses, and there is no obvious way to transition to clean energy.
“They’ve got one move to make and that’s somehow to get RNG into homes, call themselves a renewables company, get ratepayers to pay for that, lock in as much as possible, and then just delay anybody regulating them for as long as possible and then just ride off of the free rents,” Nick Caleb, an attorney with Breach Collective, a climate justice advocacy organization, told DeSmog.
Pushback on Gas Hookup Bans
Since Berkeley, California, enacted the first substantial phaseout on gas hookups in new residential buildings in 2019, more than 40 cities have followed suit. Bans on new gas hookups have quickly become one of the most hotly contested battles between climate activists and utilities.
Early on, many bans on new gas infrastructure were concentrated in California, but the Pacific Northwest is quickly emerging as a new battleground, with restrictions passing this year in Seattle, Tacoma, and Multnomah County, where Portland is located.
All of this has now put NW Natural and other gas utilities on the defensive.
In an effort to combat the transition away from natural gas, several Republican-controlled states, such as Arizona, Tennessee, and Oklahoma, have passed “pre-emption laws,” which prohibit municipalities from banning gas hookups. These “bans on bans” are aimed at staunching the bleeding for the gas industry.
Meanwhile, the gas industry and its associated trade groups have also been organizing against restrictions on gas in buildings around the country. On May 3, for example, E&E News reported on an industry-led effort to fight electrification efforts in New England, where the region’s largest utility, Eversource Energy, “touts its carbon neutrality goals” in public, but has plotted behind closed doors with industry allies as part of a “Consortium to Combat Electrification.”
And in August 2020, The Guardian reported that Puget Sound Energy, the gas supplier in Seattle, hired lobbying firm CBE Strategic to develop a campaign aimed at “stopping local governments” from placing restrictions on gas.
The Guardian also reported that the American Gas Association (AGA), an industry lobby, holds monthly calls with appliance, home-builder, fuel, and other trade associations “to push back on decarbonization and electrification issues.”
And in October, AGA named NW Natural’s CEO David Anderson as their new chair.
Promoting Hypothetical RNG
In the Pacific Northwest, opposition to electrification efforts has taken on a novel strategy: aggressively promoting renewable natural gas. NW Natural champions RNG, along with hydrogen, as one of the main ways that its pipeline system will become carbon neutral by mid-century.
But RNG has “four fatal flaws,” according to Laura Feinstein, a fellow at Seattle-based sustainability think tank Sightline Institute: availability, cost, carbon intensity, and industry obfuscation.
On the first point, there is simply not enough RNG supply for it to play a major role in decarbonization efforts. A 2018 report from the Oregon Department of Energy finds that, in theory, the state could have a gross potential of 50 billion cubic feet of RNG per year at some later date, only enough to displace roughly 22 percent of the state’s needs.
But even that figure is wildly optimistic as nearly 80 percent of that theoretical supply rests on expensive technology not currently in wide use, Feinstein told DeSmog. She added that much of the limited (but in demand) RNG supply today is used in transportation fuels, not for home cooking and heating.
The cost barriers are even more daunting. RNG comes from sources spread out around the region – farms, wastewater treatment plants, and landfills – which would involve an enormous amount of labor and new infrastructure to gather it. A 2019 study from the American Gas Foundation pegged RNG costs at between $7 and $45 per million British thermal units (MMBtu). That’s compared to natural gas which costs between $3 and $4 in Oregon, meaning RNG is not even close to being economically viable on a large scale.
Even if those hurdles could be overcome, RNG would still emit greenhouse gases. It’s “renewable” in the sense that the feedstock could theoretically continue in perpetuity and could convert climate-warming methane to the less potent greenhouse gas carbon dioxide. But emissions reductions vary widely depending on the project.
RNG also raises other environmental questions, as it would provide incentives for industrial activities that are riddled with different problems. “As long as they’re getting the gas off the landfills, they may not run programs that encourage people to use less or have a circular economy,” Feinstein said. Similarly, sourcing the gas from farm manure could encourage the environmentally harmful practices of large factory farms that produce the methane.
NW Natural did not respond to specific questions from DeSmog, but instead issued a statement. “Renewable gas resources have great potential to decrease in cost as we continue to see a very active development landscape,” Mary Moerlins, Director of Environmental Policy and Corporate Responsibility at NW Natural, wrote in an email. She added that RNG is “just one piece of the puzzle.”
In January 2021, NW Natural signed an agreement with Tyson Foods to produce RNG at a facility in Nebraska. But the utility is looking for new projects in Oregon. According to data from the Coalition for Renewable Natural Gas, there are 157 operational RNG facilities in the country. Two projects are under development in Oregon, and only one is operational, and the fuel is used for transportation, not for homes and businesses.
When Eugene began mulling new restrictions on gas infrastructure, residents received letters from NW Natural warning them that gas bans and a push for electrification “are an ineffective and expensive way to combat climate change.” Instead, the utility’s CEO David Anderson wrote, new advancements in RNG and renewable hydrogen are “newer than wind and solar and offer similar climate benefits.”
Both RNG and hydrogen, however, are not commercially available in any substantial way today, nor are they expected to be anytime soon.
In the letter, NW Natural encouraged residents to “share your thoughts with Mayor [Lucy] Vinis, Eugene City Council members and the Eugene City Manager” regarding potential restrictions on gas.
In another mailer, the company states “with Renewable Natural Gas, we can help the environment by turning waste into low-carbon, reliable energy.”
There are some potential uses for RNG in sectors that are very difficult to decarbonize, such as certain heavy industrial activities where electrification is difficult. But those applications are niche, and any RNG supply that materializes in the future should be dedicated for those uses only, Feinstein of Sightline Institute told DeSmog.
Without context, however, NW Natural’s claims about RNG supply “leave the viewer with the belief that this really is a large and key solution to decarbonization,” she added. “This marketing campaign is especially targeted towards residential use, which is actually the least useful place for it to happen because residential heating and cooking needs can easily be done with electricity.”
All the while, NW Natural continues to court new customers for its traditional gas. The company’s website says you can “live the good life with natural gas at home.” Under a page called “Get Natural Gas,” the company lists the benefits of gas, including hot showers, the joys of cooking with gas, and how to make the switch to gas.
In the wake of widespread power outages in Oregon in February, the utility has also emphasized how gas works when the power goes out. “Losing power doesn’t mean you have to stop cooking … you can use your gas cooktop to create a home-cooked candlelight dinner,” the company’s website states.
NW Natural has joined the Partnership for Energy Progress, an astroturf organization made up of utilities, farm groups, real estate, labor organizations, and oil and gas lobby groups, with the goal of promoting natural gas. They heavily promote RNG and hydrogen as a climate solution, while also stating that “electricity can cost up to twice as much as natural gas.” The Guardian reported last year that the group was spending millions of dollars to convince consumers that “natural gas is part of a clean energy future.”
In a statement to DeSmog, Leanne Guier, president of Partnership for Energy Progress, noted that wind power costs have declined over the past 20 years. “The same will be true of renewable natural gas and hydrogen. The Pacific Northwest is already home to 75,000 miles of installed natural gas infrastructure. This is a resource that can help transition us to cleaner energy,” Guier said.
Activists fear that the broader gas industry is watching what’s happening in Oregon and will try to replicate NW Natural’s efforts. “They’re recognizing the efficacy by which the natural gas industry in the Pacific Northwest has greenwashed itself using renewable natural gas,” Dylan Plummer of Cascadia Wildlands said. “So, we’re going to start seeing the Pacific Northwest strategy employed across the country.”
He said RNG is a “bait and switch” that would allow NW Natural to continue to expand natural gas pipelines.
In February, at a time when NW Natural was blanketing Oregon in advertisements about RNG, NW Natural’s CEO boasted about growing gas sales on a call with investors. “At Northwest Natural, we continue to see good customer growth,” David Anderson told investors on the company’s fourth quarter earnings call.
According to activists, NW Natural’s greenwashing campaign over RNG is not just about clever PR spin intended to put a positive sheen on the company. It amounts to a gambit to convince regulators and the public to keep existing gas infrastructure online and to remove obstacles to expansion, they say.
“This is NW Natural trying to get a free ride. Basically, it would just subsidize fossil fuel infrastructure,” Nick Caleb of Breach Collective said.
If NW Natural doesn’t deliver on RNG, Oregon residents will have ended up subsidizing new gas infrastructure, and allowing the utility to lock in gas sales, he said. “Oregon is a real testing ground for whether gas utilities can rebrand themselves into renewables corporations. But it’s all hypothetical unproven technology,” Caleb warned. “Do we want to prop up these investors? That’s ultimately what’s going on.”
Nick Cunningham is an independent journalist covering the oil and gas industry, climate change and international politics. He has been featured in Oilprice.com, The Fuse, YaleE360 and NACLA.