A coalition of political, environmental, and racial justice groups published an open letter addressed to the City of Eugene urging officials to reconsider the ongoing use of natural gas infrastructure.
The letter–which is cosigned by groups such as the Eugene-Springfield NAACP, Sunrise Eugene, Cascadia Wildlands, and the Cascadia Action Network–calls on the city to both prohibit the installation of new natural gas hookups in Eugene and prevent future construction of fossil fuel infrastructure.
“As the climate crisis worsens, we believe it is of utmost importance for the city to be taking extensive measures to eliminate its carbon emissions, and provide for a just transition to renewable energies,” the letter reads.
The coalition released the letter as city officials continue to negotiate a new franchise agreement with Northwest Natural, Oregon’s largest natural gas utility. Already, the city has asked for three extensions in the negotiations. Currently, the two parties have until May 2021 to strike a deal.
But the negotiations are being held out of the public eye, which worries some activists pushing for more urgent action on the climate crisis.
At the Nov. 18 meeting of the city’s Sustainability Commission, Councillor Emily Semple said the negotiations with the gas utility were confidential, while admitting that little progress has been made since September. Semple also acknowledged that the city’s franchise agreement would not be the city’s main path to greenhouse gas reduction.
Though NW Natural has pointed to its investments in renewable biofuels as evidence of its sustainable practices, much of its gas is obtained through the controversial practice of hydraulic fracturing, also known as fracking.
Though the Oregon legislature passed a five-year moratorium on natural gas and oil fracking in 2019, much of the natural gas used to power the state is merely brought in from beyond its borders.
The bitter battle over the Jordan Cove natural gas pipeline in Coos Bay has been raging for years, and construction began earlier this month on a power plant in the Columbia Gorge. Both would lead to the transport and use of fracked Canadian gas in Oregon.
Though natural gas is regarded as cleaner than coal, the transport and storage of the “clean” fossil fuel causes the leakage of methane, one of the worst culprits of global warming. And, according to Jim Neu of 350 Eugene, the so-called renewable natural gas projects touted by NW Natural and the methane capture project being built by Lane County’s Metropolitan Wastewater Commission are not enough to replace the entirety of Oregon’s gas supply.
“Most of the RNG is destined for transportation fuels because of state and federal credits which make it more profitable than putting it back into the gas lines,” Neu said. “The best case scenario, according to the Oregon Department of Energy, is for [5 to 17 percent of available RNG in Oregon] to go back into [NW Natural’s] system, which leaves an 80% gap in emissions.”
ODOE’s own numbers support his claim.
Eugene has long been regarded as a leader when it comes to finding municipal solutions to the climate crisis. But according to Neu and other activists, the City has failed to live up to its own lofty expectations.
“The City council has the intention to be climate champions but is hesitant to make the necessary climate decisions for fear of unpopularity,” Neu said. “For the same reason, Council fails to hold [NW Natural] Gas and other polluting companies accountable for their carbon emissions which blocks Eugene from reaching its climate goals,” adding that “there isn’t enough staff or funding dedicated to implementation and education of the Climate Action Plan.”
In 2014, city officials passed the Climate Recovery Ordinance, which aims to reduce Eugene’s greenhouse gas emissions by 50% of 2010 levels by 2030. It also aims to make all city-owned infrastructure carbon-neutral by 2020. The city updated the CRO in 2016 and created a series of Climate Action Plans to achieve their ambitious goals.
According to the city’s own reports, Eugene’s greenhouse gas emissions have been significantly reduced over the last decade. However, the share of emissions from natural gas has increased in the same period, leading to local environmental groups urging the city to take more action.
In 2019, the City of Eugene’s Sustainability Commission recommended a series of policies that would push the city ever closer to achieving its climate goals, many of which pertained to the franchise agreement with NW Natural. These policies were echoed in the letter released by the coalition of local activist groups.
But at the current rate of action, it is unlikely that Eugene will achieve either of these goals.
“The city is behind at the start [of Climate Action Plan 2.0] by a 40% gap and [is] not achieving the 7.6% reduction per year [since 2016],” Neu said. “Most importantly, the city continues to authorize new gas infrastructure and hook-ups which commit it to another 50 years of fracked gas methane emissions running opposite of the Climate Recovery Ordinance goals adopted in 2016.”
You can read the entirety of the public letter below.