Bill to ban natural gas lines revived, passes in Washington House

Jan 22, 2024, 7:20 PM | Updated: Jan 26, 2024, 2:34 pm

Puget Sound Energy crews in action...

Puget Sound Energy crews in action in late 2022 (Photo: Sam Campbell, KIRO Newsradio)

(Photo: Sam Campbell, KIRO Newsradio)

State lawmakers took another step forward Tuesday on banning natural gas lines in Washington.

House Bill 1589, which failed to clear the legislature last year, is now getting a second look, with a revised version passing the House Monday by a 52-45 vote.

The bill would ban any gas company that serves more than 500,000 customers — specifically, Puget Sound Energy (PSE) — from connecting new natural gas lines to new residential or commercial buildings — with limited exemptions for certain manufacturing, medical care, correctional, and military facilities. PSE would also no longer be required to provide natural gas service to existing customers, which state law currently mandates.

The bill said the ban applies to any new construction after June 30, 2023. If approved, it would take effect immediately, due to an emergency clause included in the measure.

On the House floor, the bill’s primary sponsor Rep. Beth Doglio, D-Olympia, said this version “has tools that help to protect ratepayers and increases transparency. Rather than looking at their gas system and their electric system separately, they’ll be able to look at the system as an energy system.”

She acknowledged the bill is not perfect but said it has marked changes from the original measure, based on feedback from stakeholders.

Among them: A section concerning the ban on future natural gas was left blank. Doglio said that is to “continue the discussion about PSE’s obligation to serve natural gas as we approach 2050.”

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State lawmakers previously adopted a target of slashing energy consumption in new construction by 70% by 2031. And by 2050, in order to achieve Washington’s climate target of economy-wide carbon neutrality, buildings should not be producing greenhouse gas emissions.”

Numerous builders and developers are fiercely opposed to the idea — saying consumers have a right to choose their energy source.

“Not even two weeks have passed since thousands of Washington families fought bitter cold winter weather causing PSE to ask them to curb their energy use to reduce strain on the grid. Removing natural gas as a source of heating homes and water will cause our electrical grid to fail,” Greg Lane, executive vice president of the Building Industry Association of Washington (BIAW), said.

PSE’s recent request to reduce energy

Amid a historic cold snap the weekend of Jan. 13, Puget Sound Energy (PSE) on Saturday requested its customers reduce use of both natural gas and electricity. A spokesperson said at the time “the extreme cold facing the region has utilities experiencing higher energy use than forecast” and PSE needed to reduce strain on the grid.

PSE also alerted 260,000 customers of a “flex event” on Jan. 12 that occurred for four hours in the afternoon and evening due to energy demands related to the cold weather. Customers enrolled in Flex Smart allow PSE to automatically lower the thermostat during the flex events.

Lane and other builders said this proves the infrastructure to handle a natural gas ban simply isn’t there.

Republican lawmakers agree, saying now is not the time to consider limiting or restricting natural gas. Some lawmakers opposed to the bill are now warning of what they call the “serious threats” to the grid that would come from whole-home electrification.

Rep. Chris Corry, R-Yakima Valley, said in the newer development where he lives, “homes are basically forced into heat pumps to comply with building mandates that currently exist.”

And while that may seem like a good thing in Olympia, because heat pumps tend to work okay over here, in places where you have naturally varying temperatures between winter and summer heat pumps can’t keep up.”

Rep. Mary Dye, R-Pomeroy, chimed in, saying families living in the Puget Sound region struggling with increased housing and transportation costs will “now pay substantially more over time on their utility bills” and said the plan to fully electrify is insecure and unstable.

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New codes being considered

As the bill moves forward, Washington’s State Building Code Council (SBCC) is separately considering new codes significantly restricting access to natural gas— including approving energy codes restricting natural gas and propane in new residential and commercial construction, similar to what this bill would mandate.

The BIAW and a coalition of trade associations, union representatives, businesses and homeowners filed a lawsuit in Thurston County Superior Court last February to stop it. In the face of that as well as an additional federal legal challenge, the council voted to delay the codes’ implementation date to March 15, 2024.

The association says it expects to file new briefs in the Thurston County Superior Court case this week.

You can read more of Kate Stone’s stories here. Follow Kate on X, formerly known as Twitter, or email her here.

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Bill to ban natural gas lines revived, passes in Washington House