Washington State’s Shortcut to Ban Natural Gas
On April 22, the Washington State Building Code Council adopted two revisions to the state’s energy code, blocking natural gas appliances for space and water heating in large buildings. The ruling skirts substantive policy debate in the state legislature on natural gas bans, and leaves the decision to an appointed committee, something board member and Spokane County Commissioner Al French cited in his nay vote on the measure. According to Commissioner French, a decision of this magnitude should ultimately be up to the Legislature:
“One of the criticisms I’ve had of this board for a long time is it’s not accountable,” French said at the meeting. “It’s not accountable to the Legislature, it’s not accountable to the public, and yet they make decisions that are far reaching.”
Notably, the Washington legislature failed to pass Gov. Jay Inslee’s 2021 gas ban attempt out of committee when it was last introduced.
Washington’s new rule would mandate electric heat pumps for new multifamily and commercial buildings with four or more stories starting July 2023. A last-minute amendment to the rule was adopted to allow developments built after 2023 to meet 50 percent of water heating capacity, instead of their full need, with heat pumps.
Spokane residents had proposed a pre-emptive effort to protect natural gas hookups within their city though a November ballot initiative following the suggestion of a natural gas ban by the city council. The plan to eliminate gas hookups in Spokane was eventually eliminated following residential backlash, but not before electrification advocates petitioned the courts to throw out the ballot initiative.
An ‘End Run’ Around The Legislature
Following the SBCC’s vote, a representative from the Association of Washington Business (AWB) explained how a natural gas ban can hurt working families in an email to the Center Square:
“Estimates by Seattle City Light and the Seattle Department of Constructions and Inspections show that installing a heat pump (the alternative allowed by the code proposals) adds anywhere from $3,000 to $22,000 (building size and height dependent, higher and larger buildings require larger and more expensive units) to the cost of each apartment. As Washington struggles with housing affordability, we need policies that make houses more affordable, not less.”
The council’s limited scope doesn’t enable it to consider the economic implications and wider implementation of such a far-reaching plan. The decision was made in spite of the more than 6,800 written comments submitted and over 100 testimonies at public hearings on the issue. And, interestingly enough, the decision comes months after Gov. Inslee appointed three new members of the SBCC earlier this year, after the previous representatives’ terms expired.
In addition to Commissioner French, community stakeholders Dan Kirschner, executive director of Northwest Gas Association, and Peter Godlewski, government affairs director of Association of Washington Business (AWB), were critical of the process, calling the SBCC vote, “an end run around the legislature.”
Washington policymakers are failing to take the best interests of local residents into full account when crafting the state’s natural gas policies, preferring to leave decisions on residential and commercial natural gas use to unaccountable officials. They may have taken a cue from advocates in other states, who have failed to jam natural gas bans through their legislatures.
When left to debate the concerns of residents by representatives, Maryland’s Climate Solutions Now Act removed language mandating building electrification by 2035, substituting a phase out of natural gas for improved building efficiency in order to pass the bill.
New York also wisely chose a different path from Washington last month, when they moved a prospective natural gas ban out of the budget and onto the floor for larger debate. The issue was so charged that it was partially responsible for holding up budgetary proceedings in the state and had to be removed for the budget to pass.
After multiple high-profile failures of natural gas bans to pass through otherwise favorable legislatures, Washington policymakers have chosen to advance a natural gas ban by removing voters from the equation altogether.
Correction: The previous version mistakenly listed Dan Kirschner and Peter Godlewski as State Building Code Council Members.