By COLIN STAUB
The cities of Eugene and Milwaukie are looking at regulations to ban natural gas connections in new residential construction. A handful of unions say that’s a bad idea, for workers, for energy diversity and for cost.
The Oregon cities would follow similar regulations in Washington and California. In Washington, the state building code will bar installation of pipes for natural gas in new commercial construction beginning in July 2023. In California, at least 68 municipalities have local ordinances that will restrict or ban natural gas hookups in new construction over the coming years. The regulations are framed as a move to reduce carbon emissions by reducing reliance on fossil fuels. They’re supported by progressive city officials and environmental advocacy groups like the Sierra Club.
But unions involved in the natural gas business say the regulations are misguided. UA Local 290 members install and weld all the underground pipelines used for natural gas delivery, as well as the pipes within buildings that convey gas to appliances. Natural gas bans would be “absolutely detrimental” for UA 290, said Jeff McGillivray, business agent for UA Local 290. “That work goes away, or reduces severely,” McGillivray said.
Other unions opposing the bans include Office and Professional Employees International Union (OPEIU) Local 11, whose members include more than 600 Northwest Natural workers, as well as Operating Engineers 701 and Ironworkers 29.
It’s not that the unions are against transitioning to a green economy. In fact, in many ways they’re playing a key role in that shift. Ironworkers (Local 37) members, for instance, worked on the first offshore wind farm in the U.S., off of Block Island east of New York. Trade unions including UA 290 are supporting similar offshore wind projects off the Oregon Coast. It’s a safe bet that union labor will play a large part in future green energy infrastructure development, particularly if it receives government funding.
But for the trade unions speaking out against gas bans, simply banning the fuel as an energy source is a step too far at this point.
“We need to be cognizant of people having options and using transitional fuels,” says Lorne Bulling, political coordinator for Ironworkers Local 29. Natural gas is appealing as a transitional fuel because it can be used for low-impact fuels like blue hydrogen, Bulling says. Hydrogen can be produced from natural gas through processes that convert the methane within natural gas. Hydrogen doesn’t emit carbon when it’s burned for energy (although its production has a carbon output, which energy companies must mitigate through carbon capture to create clean hydrogen).
Up to 25% hydrogen can be mixed with natural gas and supplied to homes without any changes to pipe infrastructure or appliances, McGillivray said. UA 290 is in favor of doing a natural gas blend for some period of time, before transitioning fully to hydrogen.
The trade unions are also concerned with over-reliance on one energy source, leading to unintended consequences. One prominent recent example came in Europe as a result of the Russia-Ukraine war. NPR reported in September that Germany is reopening or extending the operation of at least 20 coal-fired power plants nationwide to ensure Germany has enough energy to get through the winter—now that Russia has cut natural gas deliveries to Europe.
In Eugene, McGillivray says the electrical system currently can’t handle the additional demand the gas ban would create. Without multiple energy sources, he anticipates Eugene will have to buy power from elsewhere, and that it’s unlikely to be clean energy. A similar scenario unfolded in California over the summer. “Faced with a fragile electrical grid and the prospect of summertime blackouts, the state agreed to put aside hundreds of millions of dollars to buy power from fossil fuel plants that are scheduled to shut down as soon as next year,” Politico reported.
“We need a redundant energy system,” McGillivray says. “We need backups.”
The Milwaukie City Council voted on Dec. 6 to begin the process of changing city code to ban new natural gas connections to residential buildings by March 2024.
The Eugene City Council is currently holding hearings on a proposed gas ban for new residential construction. January is the earliest the council could vote on it.