The Seattle City Council will consider a ban on natural gas for newly constructed homes and buildings, favoring the use of electricity for heating and cooking.
Councilmember Mike O’Brien plans to introduce legislation this week that would prohibit natural-gas piping systems in new structures, starting next summer. The ban would take effect for permitting on July 1, 2020, according to a draft of the legislation.
In July, Berkeley, California, became the first city in the country to ban natural-gas lines from new homes.
In an interview Wednesday, O’Brien said the legislation would help the city protect the environment and public health. He said climate activists support the idea and he expects his council colleagues to back a version of the measure, which could see opposition from some developers and Puget Sound Energy, which supplies Seattle buildings with gas.
His sustainability committee will discuss the legislation Friday. Restaurants could be exempted from the ban, at least initially, because “some of the construction experts we’ve talked to say there aren’t great alternatives at the moment for commercial-scale cooking without gas,” O’Brien said.
Natural-gas use in buildings is contributing to climate change, accounting for a quarter of Seattle’s total greenhouse-gas emissions, according to the council member’s legislation, which cites a 2016 city report. Natural-gas stoves can emit nitrogen dioxide, carbon monoxide and formaldehyde, which reduce air quality, the legislation also says.
Much natural gas used in Seattle now comes from the controversial practice of hydraulic fracturing, also known as fracking, O’Brien said. And natural-gas infrastructure can catch fire and explode during earthquakes, his legislation says.
In contrast, Seattle City Light, which provides electricity, has been carbon neutral since 2005, the legislation says.
Fifty five percent of Seattle’s existing single-family houses were heated by natural gas in 2018, while 28% percent used oil and 16% used electricity, according to O’Brien, who cited the King County Assessor’s Office for the data.
Natural gas has become cheaper in recent years because of fracking, and many people prefer cooking with natural gas, O’Brien said. He chose natural-gas appliances for his own house in Fremont a number of years ago partly because he considered it environmentally benign compared with oil and coal but now wishes he hadn’t, he said.
“We know that some people rely on natural gas at home and on the natural-gas industry for jobs, so we want to be thoughtful about how we transition,” the council member said. “But in the meantime, let’s not continue to make the problem worse.”
The Master Builders Association of King and Snohomish Counties didn’t immediately comment Wednesday.
“Natural gas is what our customers use every day to heat their homes, to cook, and to do laundry. It’s an essential part of our energy mix that ensures the lights stay on and the heat is running when our customers need it most,” PSE spokeswoman Janet Kim said in a statement.
“Before deciding any new policy, there are several key questions to consider. How the decision would impact reliability, affordability and safety need to be well understood, as well as protecting customer energy choices. We look forward to working with policymakers on a thorough analysis,” Kim added.
“The commercial real estate community is concerned about last-minute proposals made entirely without stakeholder input,” said Peggi Lewis Fu, executive director of the NAIOP Commercial Real Estate Development Association’s Washington state chapter.
“It is not clear that there are realistic alternatives. We welcome the opportunity to continue discussions around new ideas and options for energy efficiency with the City. This legislation, however, should not be passed.”
The council is also considering legislation, recently proposed by Mayor Jenny Durkan and supported by O’Brien, that would tax home-heating oil.
Revenue from a tax of 24 cents per gallon on heating-oil providers would be used to help the 18,000 Seattle households that now rely on oil to switch to electric heat.
O’Brien said he hopes the council will pass both the natural-gas and heating-oil measures by the end of this year. Along with legislation adopted by the council Monday that requires the city to build bike lanes along with some paving projects, the measures represent initial attempts by the council to follow through on a Green New Deal resolution.
Passed last month, the resolution inspired by a proposal with the same name in Congress, says the city will try to eliminate all climate pollution in Seattle by 2030 and meet other environmental goals while prioritizing jobs and assistance for historically disadvantaged communities.
O’Brien isn’t running for reelection and will leave City Hall at the end of this year.
In 2013, Seattle set of a goal of reducing greenhouse-gas emissions from residential buildings by 32% and commercial buildings by 45%, compared to 2008 levels. The city isn’t on track to meet those targets, according to O’Brien’s legislation.
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