NW Natural and the other two companies that sell natural gas to Oregonians should stop suing the state and start complying with new climate regulations. At least that’s the view of the Oregon Citizens’ Utility Board, which represents the interests of gas customers and has done so since 1984, when it was created by voters.
NW Natural, Avista and Cascade Natural Gas sued the state March 18, saying that the Department of Environmental Quality has no authority to regulate greenhouse gases under the Climate Protection Program put in place by Gov. Kate Brown in 2020. Brown used her executive authority to create the rules after Republicans walked out of the Capitol to block climate legislation.
Brown’s order seeks to reduce emissions by 45% from 1990 levels by 2035, and by 80% from 1990 levels by 2050, by capping emissions from providers like NW Natural.
“I understand that it’s hard, but climate change is real, and we have to get serious about it,” said Bob Jenks, executive director of CUB, in an interview.
NW Natural has said it can cut emissions with renewable natural gas generated by the decomposition of organic matter like wood chips and cow manure. Like the fossil fuel that comes out of the ground, those gases are mostly methane. NW Natural is also pursuing hydrogen, which it can pump to customers through its network of pipes.
“We are on track to meet or exceed our voluntary carbon savings goal of 30% by 2035, associated with our own operations and the use of our product by residential and business sales customers from 2015 emission levels,” the company says on its website.
Jenks says the gas companies’ actions don’t match their words.
“Oregon’s gas utilities have been widely marketing their support of environmental stewardship and decarbonization goals,” Jenks wrote in a CUB blog post on March 24. “But if their suit is successful, these utilities will prevent landmark climate action.”
Tim Miller, director of Oregon Business for Climate, agrees.
“This pushback doesn’t seem to fit with their commitment to fight climate change,” Miller says. “We don’t need to change these rules. We need to move forward. It’s going to be challenging for lots of businesses. That’s why we have a 30-year window to do this.”
Miller was on the rulemaking committee that implemented the Climate Protection Program.
The three gas companies said their suit does nothing to diminish their commitment to fighting climate change. The issue, they say, is whether DEQ and its policymaking board, the Environmental Quality Commission, has the authority to enforce the new rules.
“Avista is committed to a greener future and decarbonization,” Avista CEO Dennis Vermillion said in a statement March 18. “This is why we and our partner utilities participated in the rulemaking process as the CPP was developed. Unfortunately, the CPP does not reflect our feedback or collaborative efforts, and it is not a constructive pathway for reducing emissions.”
Beyond the lawsuit, Jenks says his long-term concern is that NW Natural’s business will be gutted as more residential customers retire their gas furnaces and switch to ultra-efficient heat pumps, which heat and cool homes using electricity.
“As Oregon transitions to clean electricity, many customers will choose to switch from gas to electric appliances,” Jenks wrote. “Customers who cannot switch—specifically low-income households—may be left with ballooning costs as the gas system is funded by a shrinking customer base.”
Late last year, NW Natural asked the Oregon Public Utility Commission for permission to raise rates by 11%. If granted, it would be the utility’s second increase in three years. The increase would bring NW Natural an additional $81.8 million, the PUC said.