Eugene, OR

City of Eugene reconsiders its contract with gas utility amid green energy campaign

Melanie Henshaw
A gas stove burns.(Kwan Junho/Unsplash)

(EUGENE, Ore.) In June, the City of Eugene advanced an agreement with its gas utility company, temporarily ending a dispute amid a movement by a coalition of community groups to convince the city to end its contract, but signaled it would reconsider major provisions of the contract.

Activists with the coalition group Fossil Free Eugene are urging the city of Eugene to cancel its contract with natural gas company Northwest Natural and convert to 100% renewable energy by 2030. The coalition wants to switch from natural gas to lessen the negative effects of greenhouse gas emissions.

Northwest Natural Gas Company, which supplies gas to the entirety of Eugene, obtained its first contract with the city in 1999.

In 2019, Eugene released a Climate Access Plan. The plan outlines a number of steps the city can take to improve its approach to slowing climate change, which includes methods for reducing carbon output and converting to more renewable energy.

In November 2020, a coalition of groups, in a campaign called Fossil Free Eugene, sent a letter to Mayor Lucy Vinis calling on the city to place a moratorium on construction of new natural gas infrastructure and to not renegotiate its standing 10-year contract with NW Natural.

The Fossil Free Eugene coalition is made up of a variety of groups, including Sunrise Eugene, the Springfield Eugene Tenants Association and the Eugene NAACP.

Their goal is for the city to halt all further natural gas infrastructure from being built, convert the city to completely renewable energy by 2030 and for the city to levy a fee on NW Natural and other companies that emit pollution. Money collected through the fee would go towards creating a fund to switch low income housing and marginalized communities from natural gas to electricity.

The coalition is urging the city to commit to a fully-electric Eugene by 2030 for a variety of reasons, like trying to avoid the negative effects of fossil fuels on pollution and climate change.

“The intersection between climate justice, housing justice and equitable human rights are more important now than ever,” said Timothy Morris, executive director for the Springfield Eugene Tenants Association. NW Natural emits 6% of Oregon's greenhouse gas emissions alone. “Renters, particularly BIPOC [Black and Indigenous People of Color] and low-income renters, often find themselves with few choices with their housing and are frequently forced to live alongside some of the worst polluters in our city.”

Supporters of Fossil Free Eugene say their efforts are part of a broader effort to transition to renewable energy. Selena Blick is the Fossil Free Eugene coordinator for Eugene 350, a climate justice organization, and said the movement is something her group is proud to be a part of.

“Grassroots organizing is all about making small changes that lead to bigger movements, which is exactly what we’re seeing with individual cities starting to transition off of fossil fuels,” said Blick. “Our goal for Eugene to transition off of fracked gas is not only about doing our part in the climate movement, but also about creating a healthier and more just city and providing an example for other cities to follow.”

The city’s old contract with NW Natural gave the gas company the ability to build infrastructure in the city limits without requesting a permit, providing broad latitude to install new infrastructure throughout the city.

During comment periods at city meetings, members of the public and coalition groups spoke out mostly against the renewal of the existing NW Natural contract.

In a meeting on Feb. 9, the city declined to renew its contract with Northwest Natural pending further negotiation. The city council members considered implementing a Carbon Reduction Agreement with an associated fee for NW Natural, but did not come to a decision.

NW Natural obtains a vast majority of its revenue from gas utility fees. Neighboring states California and Washington have banned gas in new building construction, and NW Natural is fighting a similar effort in Oregon.

Critics of total building electrification argue that natural gas is clean energy, and that gas utilities provide an alternative heat and cooking source when the electric grid is unavailable. NW Natural says it is on a “low carbon pathway” and aims for a voluntary carbon savings goal of 35% by 2035.

The city council discussed the NW Natural contract again in a meeting on June 16. In a shift from the Carbon Reduction Agreement proposal of February, city manager Sarah Medary suggested an alternative plan which included higher fees for the utility attached to greenhouse gas output.

Medary also proposed the first-ever use of Oregon Senate Bill 844, which is a voluntary incentive program for natural gas utilities to commit to projects that reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Additionally, Medary’s proposed contract would have a length of four years instead of 10, and includes a 90 day escape clause which would allow either party to terminate the contract before it expires.

“What is the motive, ultimately, of a for-profit industry to reduce the one thing that they’re in business to advance, to make a profit?” asked Councilor Matt Keating of the agreement, urging the council to take a strong position in limiting the gas utility. “That’s what I’d like our work session to explore. What we can reasonably, and legally do to meet our carbon reduction goals, provide proper oversight and transition off of fossil fuel for the future of our planet.”

The council ultimately passed a motion to advance the compromise agreement including Medary.s suggestions with NW Natural. But, in a hopeful sign for the Fossil Free Eugene movement, Vinis and several council members expressed feeling that the agreement was not enough in limiting the utility, and that the city needs to consider gas elimination in new building construction and restricting further infrastructure development.

Members of the Fossil Free Eugene coalition are not stopping until its goals are met. Coalition groups are continuing to hold meetings and urging their supporters to write letters to the city.

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Multimedia journalist passionate about covering issues regarding the environment and Indigenous rights, and food. Always searching for the next great meal.

Eugene, OR

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