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Aimée Okotie-Oyekan is the Eugene/Springfield NAACP environmental and climate justice coordinator. Representatives from local climate change action groups share their thoughts as Eugene could potentially be the first city in Oregon to ban natural gas hook-ups. (Mary Grosswendt/Emerald)

The Eugene City Council approved two motions at a Nov. 17 work session that will begin a process that could lead to the city adopting a number of new environmental infrastructure policies.

Those policies include a ban on natural gas hook-ups in all newly constructed commercial and residential buildings beginning Jan. 1, 2023 as well as  equitably electrifying all buildings in the city by 2045.

If the ban succeeds, Eugene would be the first city in Oregon to advance gas bans and electrification codes, according to data from S&P Global Marketing Intelligence.

The motions follow two years of unsuccessful negotiations with NW Natural, a natural gas company which had a 20-year franchise agreement with the city of Eugene that expired in 2019.

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“I’ve kind of run out of patience with that process, and I don’t have confidence that we’re going to get anywhere soon,” Councilor Alan Zelenka said. “So, I think it’s time to pull out plan B.”

Zelenka said the initiatives would help achieve the city’s climate recovery ordinance's goal to reduce community fossil fuel use by 50% of 2010 levels by 2030. However, going forward with the motions may or may not result in a lawsuit from NW Natural, Zelenka said.

“Building electrification will get us cleaner air, healthier homes and will support good jobs in our community,” Councilor Jennifer Yeh said. “Requiring electrification, combined with funding to help low-to-moderate income residents and our business community to fuel switch will create an equitable and feasible plan for decarbonizing our buildings. And when we combine that with these ongoing energy efficiency improvements, it’s easy to see how all these things line up to support our triple bottom-line of environment, equity and economy.”

Councilors revised the first motion regarding a ban on natural gas hookups in all newly constructed commercial and residential buildings to include industrial buildings and the opportunity for multiple work sessions.

Although the first motion passed unanimously, some councilors had concerns.

“I am concerned about doing it at the community level where you can step across a human-made line and instantly not have the same regulations apply to you as you do within our 43 square miles that is the city of Eugene,” Councilor Randy Groves said. “That impacts our local economy, which is jobs. These are important to the people who live here.”

Groves said everyone is free to electrify their buildings on their own without any mandates. In response, Councilor Matt Keating said not all people can voluntarily electrify their homes, and some people must endure a gas hook-up that could be harmful to one’s health.

The council passed a second motion, six to two, that directs City Manager Sarah Medary to provide a roadmap for how the city can achieve decarbonization of the existing commercial and residential building stock by 2045 with particular consideration for how low income and historically marginalized households will be impacted and included in this process.

Councilor Claire Syrett, who proposed both motions, said she specifically called out low-income and historically marginalized households because it is imperative to consider environmental justice in this initiative. She included rental housing because of extreme challenges with getting property owners of rental housing to participate in energy efficiency programs, she said.

More than 20 members of the public spoke in support of the two motions at a Nov. 8 city council meeting. Many speakers were from Fossil Free Eugene, a coalition of various environmental groups in Eugene.

Activists also sent a letter to the city council in support of the motions days before the work session. “Eugene has an opportunity to take bold climate action,” the letter said. “We strongly encourage the council to take this opportunity and lead the state on the transition off of fossil fuels.”

Danny Noonan, a climate and energy strategist at Breach Collective — part of the larger Fossil Free Eugene — said the passed motions were a win for the coalition.

Although the groups originally asked for the council to direct staff to draft an ordinance concerning the motions, Noonan said it is understandable the city would want to ensure the ordinance has strong legal and policy grounds in defense of a potential lawsuit from NW Natural.

However, Noonan said he is concerned about the initiatives losing momentum if the process is dragged out for too long.

Eugene/Springfield NAACP environmental and climate justice coordinator Aimée Okotie-Oyekan said she is happy with the motions, but would have ideally liked to see a motion that directed actions towards an ordinance.

Okotie-Oyekan said the city must develop a built-in structure to make sure low income and historically-burdened households are buffered from any added energy and housing costs.She hopes the city will create a plan to electrify in a way that expands affordable home ownership and affordable rental properties, Okotie-Oyekan said.

The city should also consider the labor justice element of this work by giving preferential contracting to minority-owned businesses, Okotie Oyekan said. She also said the city should consider providing green workforce services and skills-training to people previously employed by extractive industries to help electrify the city.