Has Eugene, Oregon, found a ‘superpower’ for climate action?

The city’s eyeing changes to its natural gas contract to fund climate ambitions.

 

Tyee Williams has been on the frontlines of climate change as a wildland firefighter. He helped battle the Pine Gulch Fire, one of three record-setting fires in Colorado last summer and fall — all scorching examples of how the climate crisis is intensifying wildfires in the Western U.S.

Back home in Eugene, Oregon, Williams is on another vanguard of the climate fight: a push for the city to cut fossil fuel consumption. That work includes pressing the Eugene City Council to revamp its operating agreement with the local gas utility, Northwest Natural, to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.  

In testimony before the city council in February, Williams shared his experience, which included digging a fire line to protect natural gas infrastructure. “On one side I could see the glow of the wildfire, and on the other hillside I could see flares from the gas wellheads from fracked gas,” Williams said during a virtual public meeting. To him, the connection between fossil fuel emissions and worsening wildfires is clear. “As someone who will have jobs created by Northwest Natural, I would like to say, I’m not appreciative of it.” 

The current operating agreement with Northwest Natural is set to expire in May. Renegotiations, however, are stalled, in part because the city is pushing to include funding for its ambitious climate plans in the contract. Natural gas accounts for about 40% of fossil fuel use in the city, so the city sees reducing gas burning as a key to reaching climate commitments. By tying climate action funding to the gas company’s operating agreement, the city is testing a new tool for municipalities across the Western U.S. looking to phase out fossil fuels.

Organizer Dylan Plummer addresses the crowd during a March protest outside the offices of Northwest Natural, the Eugene, Oregon, gas utility. Activists are pressing the city council to integrate climate action into Eugene’s operating agreement with the utility.
Robert Scherle

The contract dispute between Eugene and Northwest Natural is over the utility’s franchise agreement, which grants it the ability to bypass certain bureaucratic hurdles: for example, filing a permit or getting an inspection every time it installs a new hookup. The expiration of the agreement doesn’t mean gas customers will suddenly have their gas shutoff. But it would mean the gas company will face more red tape, and Eugene will miss out on the approximately $1.4 million the gas company pays each year under the agreement. 

One of the main sticking points in the negotiations, which started in 2019, is a carbon fee program proposed by the city. It would add at least $740,000 per year to existing franchise fees charged to Northwest Natural, and would primarily fund residential energy efficiency programs. It would also pay for carbon offsets and investments in renewable natural gas — gas from non-fossil fuel sources like landfills and feedlots. Eugene asserted that the fund is a condition of any new contract, while Northwest Natural argued that the fund should be separate from the franchise agreement.

Climate and environmental justice advocates see the negotiations as part of a just transition away from fossil fuels. “We can’t just say we don’t want natural gas,” said Aimee Okotie-Oyekan, the environmental and climate justice coordinator for the Eugene-Springfield chapter of the NAACP. “We need to be building the alternative.” The carbon fee program would pay for home improvements like insulation, which reduces energy consumption and lowers bills.

Avery Temple of the climate justice advocacy group Breach Collective speaks during a March protest outside the offices of Northwest Natural, the Eugene, Oregon, gas utility. The "die-in" represented deaths due to fossil fuel pollution.
Robert Scherle

Throughout the ongoing contract disputes, Northwest Natural has maintained its infrastructure can be part of climate solutions, particularly with renewable natural gas. “No matter the outcome of discussions with the City of Eugene, we are moving forward with our vision of a carbon-neutral pipeline by 2050,” Kim Heiting, Northwest Natural’s senior vice president of operations, wrote in an email. 

But Eugene isn’t content waiting for an uncertain future of cleaner gas. In 2014, the city passed an ordinance to reduce fossil fuel use to 50% of 2010 levels by 2030. Despite overall emissions reductions in recent years, natural gas emissions in the city continue to grow. Not reaching an agreement with Northwest Natural could lead to protracted court fights, increased energy bills for customers and more work for city staff as they deal with an influx of permits, but Eugene Mayor Lucy Vinis said that isn’t what she worries about most. “My biggest concern is that we’re facing a climate crisis,” she said. 

Standing firm against the gas company is about climate leadership, Vinis added. “That’s why we want to succeed — this is an important pathway, and we’d hope other cities would follow.” Policy experts see Eugene leading the way for other municipalities, like King County, where Seattle is located, by providing an example of how to leverage franchise agreements as a tool for climate action, said Eric de Place, the director of the nonprofit Sightline Instititute’s Thin Green Line program, which fights fossil fuel infrastructure expansion in the Northwest. Making gas companies pay for climate resilience as a condition of franchise agreements “is a superpower when it comes to decarbonization,” he said. “It changes the nature of the conversation dramatically.” 

Carl Segerstrom is an assistant editor at High Country News, covering Alaska, the Pacific Northwest and the Northern Rockies from Spokane, Washington. Email him at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor

High Country News Classifieds
  • WATER PROJECT MANAGER, UPPER SAN PEDRO (ARIZONA)
    Based in Tucson or Sierra Vista, AZ., the Upper San Pedro Project Manager develops, manages, and advances freshwater conservation programs, plans, and methods focusing on...
  • CAMPAIGNS DIRECTOR
    Southeast Alaska Conservation is hiring. Visit https://www.seacc.org/about/hiring for info. 907-586-6942 [email protected]
  • FINANCE & GRANTS MANAGER
    The Blackfoot Challenge, located in Ovando, MT, seeks a self-motivated, detail-oriented individual to conduct bookkeeping, financial analysis and reporting, and grant oversight and management. Competitive...
  • WADE LAKE CABINS, CAMERON MT
    A once in a lifetime opportunity to live and run a business on the shore of one of the most beautiful lakes in SW Montana....
  • CONTRIBUTING EDITOR, BOOKS, CULTURE AND COMMENTARY (PART-TIME, CONTRACT)
    High Country News is seeking a Contributing Editor for Books, Culture and Commentary to assign and edit inquisitive, inspiring, and thought-provoking content for HCN in...
  • STATEWIDE COMMUNITY ORGANIZER
    ABOUT US Better Wyoming is a nonprofit, nonpartisan advocacy organization that educates, organizes, and mobilizes Wyoming residents on behalf of statewide change. Learn more at...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    TwispWorks is a 501(c)3 that promotes economic and cultural vitality in the mountainous Methow Valley, the eastern gateway to North Cascades National Park in Washington...
  • CLEAN ENERGY ADVOCATE OR DIRECTOR
    Location: Helena, Montana Type: Permanent, full time after 1-year probationary period. Reports to: Director of Policy and Legislative Affairs. Travel: Some overnight travel, both in-state...
  • PROFESSIONAL GIS SERVICES
    Custom Geospatial Solutions is available for all of your GIS needs. Affordable, flexible and accurate data visualization and analysis for any sized project.
  • DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    Restore Hetch Hetchy, a 501 (c)(3) nonprofit organization, seeks experienced development professional to identify and engage individuals and institutions who are inspired to help underwrite...
  • PUBLIC LANDS COUNSEL
    The successful candidate will be the organization's lead counsel on public lands issues, including reviewing federal administrative actions and proposed policy and helping to shape...
  • HUMAN RESOURCES DIRECTOR
    Solar Energy International (SEI) is a 501(c)3 non-profit education organization with a mission to provide industry-leading technical training and expertise in renewable energy to empower...
  • TRAINING MANAGER
    This is a full-time position based out of our Paonia office. This position is responsible for organizing all of Solar Energy International's renewable energy trainings....
  • RANCH HAND & HOUSING OPPORTUNITY IN DURANGO, CO
    Remodeled home with the opportunity to work off part of rent. Renter(s) must be available to help with lifting, irrigation & outdoor chores, 15-40 hrs...
  • GUIDE TO WESTERN NATIONAL MONUMENTS
    NEW BOOK showcases 70 national monuments across the western United States. Use "Guide10" for 10% off at cmcpress.org
  • RARE CHIRICAHUA RIPARIAN LAND FOR SALE
    40 acres: 110 miles from Tucson: native trees, grasses: birder's heaven::dark sky/ borders state lease & National forest/5100 ft/13-16 per annum rain
  • ENVIRONMENTAL GEOPHYSICS
    "More Data, Less Digging" Find groundwater and reduce excavation costs!
  • LUNATEC ODOR-FREE DISHCLOTHS
    are a must try. They stay odor-free, dry fast, are durable and don't require machine washing. Try today.
  • 10 ACRES OF NEW MEXICO HIGH DESERT
    10 Acres of undeveloped high desert land in central NM, about 45 minutes from downtown Albuquerque. Mixed cedar and piñon pine cover. Some dirt roadways...
  • OPERATIONS DIRECTOR
    We are a Santa Fe-based nonprofit that builds resilience on arid working lands. We foster ecological, economic, and social health through education, innovation, and collaboration....