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How Seattle stakeholders put the brakes on the city's proposed gas ban

A diverse group of stakeholders succeeded in delaying a proposed natural gas ban in Seattle, showing how industry and labor groups are learning to push back against the sudden rise of municipal ordinances that prohibit gas for heating and cooking in new buildings.

The effort halted the advance of legislation that took the Seattle business community by surprise when City Councilman Mike O'Brien unveiled it in early September. O'Brien had planned to advance the bill through the Sustainability and Transportation Committee on Sept. 17 and hold a full council vote Sept. 23.

But O'Brien delayed the committee vote last week amid an outcry from labor unions, real estate groups, appliance manufacturers and retailers, and local gas utility Puget Sound Energy Inc. The stakeholders succeeded by turning the truncated timeline into a rallying call, arguing that lawmakers were rushing to the finish line without doing due diligence.

SNL Image

City Councilman Mike O'Brien pledged to find a way to meet Seattle's climate goals in a way that provides a "just transition" from fossil fuels.
Source: AP Images

"There are other ways to figure out ways that we can still meet our climate goals, but you're never going to really figure out how to get there unless you have collaboration, communication and compromise, and there was none of that with this whole thing," said Daniel Hammer, owner of Sutter Home and Hearth, a Seattle company that sells and services fireplaces, stoves and barbecues.

Hammer and two dozen other representatives from stakeholder groups spoke out against the bill during the Sept. 17 committee meeting, easily outnumbering environmentalists. One after another, they voiced a shared complaint: lawmakers had neither sought their input on the legislation nor produced adequate analysis on its potential impacts on ratepayers, their businesses, and electric and gas systems. They were united in their calls for O'Brien to convene a stakeholder panel to study the ordinance.

If it becomes law, the bill bar developers from installing natural gas systems in new residential and commercial buildings beginning July 1, 2020. The legislation is modeled after an ordinance adopted in Berkeley, Calif., that has inspired bans elsewhere and unsettled the natural gas industry. Concern over Berkeley-style bans has fueled calls for the gas industry to form alliances with organizations such as restaurants, real estate groups and unions.

Hammer mobilized industry peers before the Sept. 17 meeting, but there were signs of coalition-building across sectors in Seattle. Puget Sound Energy organized a conference call a day before the gathering, during which businesses and organizations crafted a message and settled on a clear request for action to delay the vote and gather more input, participants said.

The message, delivered largely by small businesses and union workers, appeared to resonate. O'Brien stressed that climate change requires swift action but acknowledged that a pillar of the Green New Deal — a sweeping climate change policy Seattle has embraced — is an equitable shift to 100% renewable energy.

"A critical piece is that this transition away from fossil fuels can't be disproportionately on the backs of people that are on the front line, whether those are workers or small business owners or folks who rely on fossil fuels for heat or transportation," O'Brien said.

"There will be impacts, but it's absolutely fair of you ... to say we want to make sure you understand how this will impact my business, and I want to try to craft legislation that minimizes those impacts and finds alternatives where possible," he said.

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Still, opponents of the bill expressed concern that O'Brien will try to pass the legislation before the end of the year, when he and several other council members will leave office.

The groups' core demands to convene a stakeholder group and conduct substantial research will take more than a few months, so any attempt to pass legislation by year-end would signal a lack of sincerity, said Leanne Guier, business development specialist at UA Local 32, a Washington plumbers and pipefitters union.

Rod Kauffman, president of the Building Owners and Managers Association for Seattle and surrounding King County, said it was critical to communicate with new council members once they are elected Nov. 5. There is still no formal coalition to unite industries, but Puget Sound Energy will continue to keep lines of communication open and organize stakeholders, said Janet Kim, a spokesperson for the company.

"In any political topic, any political ordinance or issue, alliance partners start to seek each other out," Kauffman said.

"Everyone went in independently, but naturally if it goes forward, those that support the idea will come together, and those that oppose the idea will come together," Kauffman said.