ashland.news
June 14, 2024

Ashland City Council closer to tackling natural gas impacts on climate and health

Piper Banks, Kiera Retiz and Maroun Aguero (from left) were three of the Ashland High School student leaders at a ​​rally in front of the Civic Center Tuesday to pressure the city to lessen fossil fuel use in the city. Ashland.news photo by Bob Palermini
May 24, 2024

Emission standards, carbon charges and franchise fees all options to manage gas use

By Craig Breon for Ashland.news

Climate change again occupied the minds of the Ashland City Council and local residents at Tuesday night’s council meeting, leading to unanimous approval for city staff to begin preparing language for three paths forward to advance the transition from natural gas to electricity in home heating and other appliances.

The council chose to move forward on creating emission standards for furnaces and hot water heaters in new development, creating a carbon charge for new development, and exploring an increase in the city’s franchise fee for natural gas, the proceeds from which could be used to incentivize the conversion toward electricity.

Economics and potential exposure to lawsuits drove the council away from moving forward on more aggressive measures. Restaurants and other businesses have opposed restrictions on new natural gas hookups, citing cost concerns. In April 2023, a federal appeals court invalidated the city of Berkeley’s ban on new gas hookups, citing contradictions with federal law.

Tuesday’s result represents a major step forward for an effort launched in March 2023, when more than 400 students walked out of class at Ashland High School, demanding the city reduce reliance on natural gas to address both greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and health concerns associated with burning natural gas indoors.

Maroun Aquero (center, in blue shirt) an organizer for Rogue Climate, speaks at the rally at the council chamber building before Tuesday’s City Council meeting. Rogue Climate is a Southern Oregon-based community organization that organizes for climate justice. Ashland.news photo by Bob Palermini

Since those first, bold student proposals, the city has struggled to narrow the scope of change Ashland residents will see into the future while still tackling urgent climate concerns. Tuesday’s council action — if eventually enshrined in new ordinances and policies — will affect mostly new residential development, with possible programs for existing residents and businesses to make the transition away from gas.

Ashland’s council approved a Climate and Energy Action Plan in 2017, calling for the city to reduce emissions by 8% per year through 2050, from emissions of roughly 300,000 metrics tons in 2017 to just 20,000 metric tons by 2050. The city has fallen behind that emissions reduction goal, although Chad Woodward, Ashland Climate and Energy Analyst, acknowledged to the council that data gaps make determining the exact shortfall difficult.

In general, Ashland’s electricity use has decreased over the last several years, reflecting increased conservation, more efficient appliances, solar power installations, and COVID-19 impacts. Natural gas use, however, rose by 10% from 2015 to 2020, and the number of natural gas meters rose 5% over the same time period.

About half of Ashland’s GHG emissions come from sources difficult for the city to address, such as production of food and goods for local residents. The other half, however, includes a 13% contribution from residential energy use, 11% from commercial energy use, and 17% from residential road use — all issues the city is tackling.

A small group of youth climate organizers and their supporters were on hand to make their case outside the Ashland council chamber Tuesday. The Ashland Youth for Electrification Campaign has been working to pass climate policy since March 2023. Ashland.news photo by Bob Palermini

Prior to the council meeting, local youth led a small rally in front of the council chamber. Chants of “No coal, no oil, keep your carbon in the soil” rose from students wearing shirts calling for “Climate Justice Now!” and “¡Justicia Climatica Ahora!”

Speaking of Ashland’s natural gas use, Susie Garcia, Rogue Valley Coordinator for local nonprofit Rogue Climate, said, “Reduction would be great, but at least don’t increase it.” She also noted that the goal for that night was “to get the City Council to start drafting policy language.”

In January of this year, Ashland’s Climate and Environment Policy Advisory Committee approved recommendations to the City Council that emerged from research and proposals largely developed by student activists.

Natural gas is composed primarily of methane, a potent greenhouse gas when released into the atmosphere, with a shorter half-life but more potent short-term effect than carbon dioxide on global climate change. Natural gas can release methane at virtually all stages of its mining, processing, transportation and end use.

A 2022 Stanford University study found that gas stoves release considerably more methane than previously thought, largely due to leaks when stoves are turned off and incomplete combustion when they are turned on.

Burning natural gas also produces nitrous oxides, air pollutants with health effects primarily on the respiratory system. Depending on efficiency of combustion and ventilation, nitrous oxides can significantly increase rates of childhood asthma and contribute to thousands of premature deaths yearly in the United States.

It is far more economically efficient to install electric heating and appliances in new homes and businesses than to retrofit older buildings. A 2022 analysis by RMI looked at nine cities around the country, including Eugene, and found that, in all nine, electrifying new single-family homes was more economical to build and operate than installing natural gas.

The next step in this process will be a June City Council study session with a first look at draft ordinance and policy language from staff.

Mayor Tonya Graham ended the meeting with urgent words for the city to address climate change, saying “(it is) absolutely critical that we figure this out … The adults who run this country should have dealt with this long ago.”

There was also considerable praise for the young activists behind this effort, including Piper Banks and Kiera Retiz, who made an initial presentation to the council. Public speaker Ingrid Edstrom added, “I want everyone who is driving this initiative to get a huge pat on the back.”

Email Ashland resident, consultant and former environmental law instructor Craig Breon at ckbtravel@earthlink.net.

Related stories:

Many Hands: Climate and Environment Policy Advisory Committee works to reach climate goals (Nov. 10, 2023)

Second workshop on possible natural gas ordinance coming up Thursday (Oct. 24, 2023)

‘This campaign is for our futures’: Ashland students see small success with natural gas ordinance (Sept. 15, 2023)

Oregon youth join global climate strike, call on governor to declare emergency (Sept. 14, 2023)

Youth renew push to electrify new Ashland households (Sept. 12, 2023)

High school students march to Plaza, announce ‘Youth for Electrification Campaign’ (March 10, 2023)

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Bert Etling

Bert Etling is the executive editor of Ashland.news. Email him at betling@ashland.news.

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