Seattle should ban natural gas heat in some new buildings in response to a two-year increase in greenhouse gas emissions that's set the city back in its quest to combat climate change, Mayor Jenny Durkan said Thursday.
Road transportation accounts for much of Seattle's emissions, and emissions in that sector actually decreased slightly from 2016 to 2018, the most recent period for which the city has comprehensive data.
But emissions from buildings also are significant, and they grew by more than 8%, driving the overall increase and pulling the city away from its stated goal to become carbon neutral by 2050, says a new report the mayor released Thursday.
That spike is partly why Durkan wants to limit natural gas heat in new commercial buildings and large apartment buildings, she said Thursday, announcing a proposal to update the city's energy codes for construction projects. The changes would require such buildings to use efficient electric systems instead.
"We are facing a climate disaster," the mayor said in a news release, describing building electrification as "an important step" toward curbing climate change. "It is up to Seattle and other cities to make the bold changes necessary to lower our greenhouse gas emissions."
Environmentalists are hailing Durkan's proposal, though some are criticizing the move as too meek. The natural gas industry could object, but the labor movement is on board.
Under Durkan's proposal, gas for space heating would be barred in all newly constructed commercial buildings and in large apartment buildings. Gas for water heating would be barred in hotels and large apartment buildings.
Commercial buildings and large apartment buildings could still be constructed with gas for cooking. But electrical outlets would be required near stoves in new kitchens, so electric stoves could be installed later. Dealing with gas lines only for cooking might not be worthwhile for some developers.
Space heating and water heating with gas produce more emissions than cooking with gas, Jessica Finn Coven, director of Seattle's Office of Sustainability & Environment, said in an interview.
The city's proposed changes wouldn't affect newly constructed houses and town houses. Energy codes for those buildings are set by the state. They wouldn't affect existing buildings of any kind.
Still, the changes could prevent a 12% increase in emissions that would otherwise occur by 2050, Finn Coven said. The Durkan administration plans to send a bill with the changes to the City Council this month.
Seattle's interim goal, on the way to carbon neutrality, is a 58% reduction in emissions by 2035, compared to 2008. The city is nowhere near that target, because emissions in 2018 registered at about the same level as in 2008.
The city uses modeling to estimate transportation emissions, versus actual measurements from utilities for building emissions, which are more certain.
Though the city doesn't yet have comprehensive data for 2019 and 2020, there are indications that trends from prior years have persisted, Finn Coven said. To make progress, transportation emissions will need to be slashed much more.
"We're clearly not on track. But we haven't given up. We just need to do more, work harder," Finn Coven said. "We see emissions increasing largely because of gas in new buildings. We need to stop digging that hole deeper."
Praise and criticism
Seattle leaders have been eyeing restrictions on gas in buildings for some time. Last year, then-Councilmember Mike O'Brien introduced a bill that would have banned all gas systems in all newly constructed buildings. Most new houses are now built with electric heat, rather than gas heat.
But O'Brien shelved the measure after objections were raised by various opponents, including businesses that make and install gas heating systems, labor unions that represent workers in those industries, and Puget Sound Energy, a major local supplier of natural gas.
Durkan's new proposal also could face opposition. Partnership for Energy Progress, an industry-backed coalition created to combat such legislation in the Pacific Northwest, has been promoting natural gas on television and online, said Caleb Heeringa, a spokesperson with a Sierra Club clean-energy campaign.
"On cold winter days like this, natural gas is an essential part of the energy system — providing about 2/3 of the energy used by the city of Seattle on peak demand days," PSE spokesperson Janet Kim said in a statement when asked about the Seattle changes.
But the new proposal has support from the labor movement, as a whole. MLK Labor, an umbrella group for Seattle-area unions, hailed the changes Thursday, with executive secretary treasurer Nicole Grant describing them as "thoughtful steps" that will "mitigate climate change and protect workers."
In Durkan's news release, representatives from the Sierra Club's Seattle chapter and from the NW Energy Coalition praised the proposal as a crucial move while calling for additional changes.
"It is disappointing that Seattle's greenhouse emissions are continuing to rise, but this isn't the end of Seattle's climate story," said Amy Wheeless, senior policy associate at the NW Energy Coalition.
Other environmentalists were less complimentary. Many California cities have banned gas from new buildings outright (including Oakland and San Francisco in recent weeks), noted Jess Wallach, campaigns co-director with 350 Seattle.
In a news release, Wallach described Durkan's proposed changes as "low-hanging fruit" and said: If the mayor "is truly serious about climate action," she would try to ban gas from all new construction.
Millions of dollars from a big-business tax passed by the council this year have been earmarked, starting in 2022, to help replace oil and gas systems in existing houses with electric systems, Wallach pointed out.
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