UPDATE, 5:25 pm: The Bonneville Environmental Foundation canceled the Saturday training, according to an email sent to teachers that cited safety concerns.
“After review, we have concluded that the topics being protested are entirely unrelated to the training and our important work together with educators,” Parker Mullins, a program director at the foundation, said in the email. “We have heard and experienced time and again the strain on educators right now and we, in no way, want to add to that.”
ORIGINAL POST, 10:27 am: Oregon students plan to protest a utility-funded training session for teachers on renewable natural gas and hydrogen, two fuels that gas provider NW Natural is pursuing in a bid to remain viable as carbon regulations tighten.
Saturday’s event, to be held at NW Natural’s headquarters in downtown Portland, is titled “Clean Energy Teacher Training: Exploring Renewable Gas.” Participating teachers will get a $200 stipend for attending. Those who live more than 50 miles away will be reimbursed for mileage.
Organizers of the protest say the teacher training amounts to propaganda by NW Natural, which distributed booklets in the 2020-21 school year to students featuring a cartoon cat and mouse, Nat and Gus, who extoll the benefits of natural gas for heating homes and manufacturing products like “video games and baseball bats.” Another publication was titled “Natural Gas: Your Invisible Friend.”
“I think it’s pretty clear that this is going to be another part of NW Natural’s propaganda,” said Ben Stevenson, a senior at Cleveland High School and an organizer with the climate activist group Sunrise PDX. “We want teachers to know that this is part of a broader misinformation campaign about natural gas. It’s a little sinister.”
Once considered an acceptable fuel, natural gas has come under siege. In November, Multnomah County recommended replacing gas stoves because fumes from their use posed health risks, including asthma and emissions caused global warming. A month later, an official at the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission said the commission would consider regulating indoor pollution from the appliances.
NW Natural is fighting the movement in the classroom and the courtroom. Last year, the company sued the state of Oregon over rules that curb the use of natural gas and other fuels over time, arguing that the Department of Environmental Quality has no authority to regulate greenhouse gases under the Climate Protection Program put in place by then-Gov. Kate Brown in 2020.
The teacher training will be led by staff from the Bonneville Environmental Foundation’s Clean Energy Bright Futures education program. Bonneville is a Portland-based nonprofit that isn’t affiliated with the Bonneville Power Administration, the federal power agency that’s also based here.
“Equating this workshop with gas industry propaganda is a gross mischaracterization of the important work to build knowledge, awareness, and capacity for all citizens to proactively engage in clean energy and climate solutions,” Chaun MacQueen, senior director at Bonneville Environmental, said in an email. “This teacher workshop is neither developed nor created by NW Natural.”
NW Natural says it is one of many funders of the broader training program that includes Saturday’s training session.
“In pursuing funding from NW Natural, RNG and hydrogen were among the clean energy topics identified by Bonneville Environmental Foundation,” said NW Natural spokesman David Roy. “We support the Clean Energy Bright Futures program because the program supports educator leadership, illuminates energy career pathways, and eliminates opportunity gaps and inequitable access to these careers.”
Renewable natural gas, or RNG, comes from the decomposition of organic matter, such as cow manure or food waste. NW Natural says it can pump RNG and hydrogen gas into its network of pipes and become a provider of reliable, low-carbon fuels. Methane, the predominant component of natural gas, heats the atmosphere at 80 times the rate of carbon dioxide over a 20-year period, according to the United Nations.
Environmentalists say it will be impossible to produce enough RNG to replace natural gas that’s fracked from underground. The Natural Resources Defense Council estimates that RNG may replace just 3% to 7% of the “fossil gas” used today, at much higher costs. Even then, leaks from gas systems will still put climate-warming methane into the atmosphere.
Hydrogen gas, the other fuel NW Natural is betting on, is produced by splitting hydrogen from oxygen in water, a process that requires energy. A September study published in the journal Joule said technical challenges will make it hard to produce the fuel efficiently.
“Using hydrogen for heating may sound attractive at first glance,” study co-author Jan Rosenow told The Guardian. “However, all of the independent research on this topic comes to the same conclusion: Heating with hydrogen is a lot less efficient and more expensive than alternatives such as heat pumps, district heating and solar thermal.”
(Correction: An earlier version of this story said that NW Natural created the characters Nat and Gus and that the booklets were last distributed in 2022. The Nat and Gus booklets were created by a third-party vendor and were last distributed in the 2020-21 school year. WW regrets the errors.)