A fight brewing in Oregon could decide how we heat our homes and cook

In Eugene, the natural gas industry plans to spend millions to defeat the city’s ban on gas in newly built homes. If it succeeds, the industry may take the fight to other U.S. cities and counties.

(Illustration by Emily Sabens/The Washington Post; iStock)
11 min

The liberal stronghold of Eugene, Ore., might seem like an unlikely place for the fossil fuel industry to flex its muscles. But in the months ahead, the gas industry is preparing to pour millions of dollars into a campaign to overturn Eugene’s ban on gas hookups in new homes, turning the city into a test case for blocking similar bans nationwide.

Last month, Sue Forrester, the American Gas Association’s vice president for advocacy, told a meeting of gas utilities, contractors and labor unions that gas advocates expect to spend $4 million on the Eugene campaign, according to an audio recording obtained by The Washington Post.

“This is something that we want you all to pay attention to because what happens here will spread across the country,” Forrester said. “If there’s a win here, it’s certainly going to help the case that you don’t need to be banning gas infrastructure, gas stoves, period, but especially in new construction.”

As climate activists push for electrification across the country, the future of gas-burning stoves, furnaces and other appliances is increasingly in doubt. Scientists and environmentalists say they are not just a climate concern, but also a health threat — a source of indoor air pollution that contributes to asthma. Dozens of cities and counties have adopted bans on gas hookups in new buildings, part of an effort to cut emissions from homes and businesses that account for about 11 percent of the nation’s carbon pollution.

But the gas industry isn’t letting this movement grow unchallenged. Its lobbyists and industry allies have persuaded 20 states to pass legislation preempting local gas restrictions, and they are hoping to undo existing bans.

A city of about 175,000 people, Eugene now finds itself girding for battle. Environmentalists, city leaders and high-school-student activists are organizing to defend Oregon’s first gas ban, which the city passed earlier this year.

Eugene, home to the University of Oregon, has a long history of enacting climate-friendly laws, including policies encouraging people to ditch their cars for cleaner transportation. But the local gas utility, NW Natural, argues the city has overstepped by banning gas and has funded a referendum campaign to overturn the law that has garnered more than enough signatures to appear on the city’s November ballot.

This means that, for the first time in the United States, voters will weigh in directly on the future of gas in new homes, turning a local ballot skirmish into one with national implications.

Environmentalists fear a gas industry victory here could cascade, stifling nascent efforts to get fossil fuels out of buildings in other parts of Oregon and in other U.S. cities and counties.

“I believe we’re the vanguard, that we are leading the way for other cities in the Northwest and the nation to follow, and that’s profoundly threatening to an industry that is built on expanding their customer base,” said Eugene Mayor Lucy Vinis. The ballot initiative “has a serious chilling effect,” she said, “and I think that’s the intention.”

David Roy, a spokesman for NW Natural, said the company believes Eugene voters should have a direct say in whether to ban gas in new homes. “Thousands of those residents have already weighed in with the same sentiment,” he said in an email, “which is why NW Natural supports the campaign.”

In a statement, Karen Harbert, president and chief executive of the American Gas Association, said Eugene’s gas ban would “drive up energy bills for Oregonians with little environmental gain.” Adam Kay, a spokesman for the group, confirmed that Forrester spoke at the meeting last month, but did not respond to a question about whether the industry group planned to contribute financially to the pro-gas campaign.

NW Natural has already spent more than $900,000 in cash and in-kind benefits to overturn the gas ban, according to campaign finance data. But as Forrester’s comments suggest, that may only be a start.

“Can you imagine what $4 million is gonna look like on a spend there?” she said last month, according to the audio recording. “And that’s just the assumption that the campaign on the ground on the pro-gas side is expecting to spend.”

Eugene’s ordinance could also face legal challenges. On Monday, a federal appeals court struck down the city of Berkeley’s first-in-the-nation gas ban, dealing a potential setback to that California city and 25 others with similar ordinances.

For NW Natural, the future of its business is on the ballot. For the gas industry nationwide, the stakes are also high, since its customers are clustered in urban, densely populated areas, where building gas lines has delivered the biggest payoff. These parts of the country also tend to have the most Democratic, climate-conscious voters, meaning the industry is facing a revolt from within its customer base.

Berkeley, Calif., kick-started the movement in 2019, and since then, dozens of cities and counties in California, Washington and Massachusetts have effectively banned gas in most new buildings. Big cities like Seattle, San Francisco and Washington, D.C., have joined the push and, in 2021, New York City became the largest municipality in the world to bar most new buildings from using gas.

While the gas industry has fought back aggressively, its push for preemption laws has been more successful in red states than blue states, where Democratic majorities in state capitals have largely rejected them. One such bill failed in Oregon’s legislature earlier this year.

To buck the trend, the industry is trying a different tactic: spending millions to convince liberals that gas is a clean energy source.

“Eugene is a dark-blue bastion for progressive politics in the state,” said Dylan Plummer, a senior campaign representative with the Sierra Club. “I think NW Natural picked Eugene to use it as a test balloon — to say if we can win in Eugene, we can win anywhere.”

Depending on whom you ask, the gas company’s campaign is either an attack on Eugene’s democratically elected leaders, or a needed intervention to rein in liberals who’ve lost touch with their constituents.

The gas industry-backed committee has framed its campaign as protecting consumer choice. Its supporters say that ditching gas for electricity in new homes will discourage developers from building in Eugene, leave residents in the cold during power outages and do little to lower the city’s greenhouse gas emissions.

“We have heard pretty clearly from the business community that this will definitely affect economic development and job growth,” said campaign manager Anne Marie Levis, adding that NW Natural is one member of a coalition that includes home builders, the restaurant industry, and two chambers of commerce groups.

Some residents, like Douglas Moorhead, fear this law is only the beginning. The council could eventually go further, he said, forcing homeowners to give up their gas stoves and furnaces. “To outlaw gas is fanatical,” he said.

Years ago, he developed a manufactured-home community in Eugene where incoming residents could choose electric or gas heating — the vast majority chose gas, he said. The 70-year-old project manager said he is skeptical of humans’ role in global warming, but even if he did agree with scientists’ calls for people to stop burning fossil fuels, he’s not convinced that banning gas would accomplish much.

“Even the city’s own studies have shown it’s going to reduce the carbon footprint for Eugene less than 1 percent — it’s very small,” Moorhead said. “And yet it’s an easy way of looking like you’re doing big things.”

Gas ban proponents counter that electrification would make it cheaper to build new homes, as developers would not have to pay for gas lines to be laid down, and that advances in heat pump technology have made them suitable for cold climates. Vinis said that Eugene’s gas usage has been increasing by about 2 percent annually, locking in years of higher emissions and ultimately making it more difficult for the city and homeowners to convert existing buildings to electricity.

“The advantage of drawing a line and saying from here on in new housing won’t have this fossil fuel infrastructure is we’re avoiding future costs,” she said. “It’s not insignificant, it’s worth doing,” she said of the ban, “and we’re not impacting current households.”

Whether Eugene residents will support or overturn the gas ban may come down to how the ballot measure is written. Soon after the city crafted ballot language, attorneys for environmental advocates filed a legal challenge calling it misleading and arguing that it did not make clear the gas prohibition only applies to new construction. They suggested alternative wording that would tell voters the gas ban is part of the city’s efforts to comply with its climate code, which requires a sharp reduction in fossil fuel use.

“They’re thinking that as long as people understand this is part of a broader strategy to reduce our fossil fuel emissions, it’ll survive the referendum. And I suspect that’s true,” said Craig Kauffman, an associate professor of environmental politics at the University of Oregon.

Eugene residents tend to support progressive causes, Kauffman said, and they have repeatedly backed city leaders who campaigned on addressing climate change. In recent years, the city, like much of the Pacific Northwest, has suffered drought, deadly heat waves and destructive wildfires in forests that historically have gotten too much rainfall to burn — events that scientists have linked to an overheating planet.

“NW Natural is hoping they can just frame this as ‘choice is good.’ And if you just frame it like that — ‘Do you want choice or no choice?’ — there’s a possibility you could get a majority of people saying, ‘Yeah, I want choice,’ ” Kauffman said. “That’s where I think the battle is headed.”

Eugene’s status as a college town could be another factor in the vote. Dozens of university students attended the two public hearings the City Council held on the gas ban late last year to speak in favor of the ordinance. Last month, high school junior Milla Vogelezang-Liu and other youth organizers participated in a walkout of local high school and college students protesting NW Natural’s anti-electrification efforts.

If college students turn out in force in November, it could be a problem for the gas industry.

“The youth vote is what is making the difference on the climate front. It’s flipping seats, flipping states,” said Victoria Whalen, a law student at the university, who attended one of the City Council hearings to support the gas ban. But like many students, Whalen is registered to vote in her home state, where she feels her voice is needed more than in liberal-leaning Oregon. And apart from when they coincide with the presidential cycle, Vinis said, city elections don’t usually draw university students in large numbers.

Forrester, the industry official, told her colleagues in last month’s meeting that student voter turnout “is something really to keep your eye on.”

“It’ll be interesting to see what they do with the students there, whether they will register to vote, whether they will turn out and vote,” she said in the recording.

Oregon has seen expensive ballot measures before, but the planned spending by the pro-gas campaign is unlike anything Eugene has experienced in recent memory, said local elected officials. In a typical citywide election, a candidate might raise between $100,000 to $150,000, Vinis said. The prospect of $4 million flooding a city of only 118,000 registered voters has some of the ban’s advocates wondering if it’s even possible to defend it.

“It’s really going to be an uphill, muddy battle. It’s the giant versus the little people,” said Emily Semple, a Eugene City Council member who voted in favor of the ban. “I don’t know how we’re going to stand up to that.”

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