Spokane Residents Spark Fight Over Natural Gas Ban Proposal
The war over America’s energy future may have seen its first “shots” fired in, of all places, Spokane, Washington. Citizens there had crafted an initiative and obtained well over the legal minimum number of citizen signatures in an effort to bar the city council from imposing bans on the use of natural gas or hydropower without express consent of the governed.
On August 26th, they lost round 1 when Spokane Superior Court Judge Charnelle Bjelkengren agreed with the plaintiffs and ordered the city auditor not to place the initiative on the November ballot. The deadline for adding measures to the ballot is September 2.
One-term city council member Katherine Burke and the green group Protect Spokane Action sued to block the initiative. The claim was that the people do not have a right to interfere with the city council’s attempts to implement state climate policy.
Sponsors of the initiative, spearheaded by Jennifer Thomas and Isaiah Paine of the Spokane Home Builders Association, have filed a request for a stay of Judge Bjelkengren’s order with the Washington State Court of Appeals, Division III, which covers all of eastern Washington. If the stay is granted (pending the filing of a formal appeal), the initiative would remain on the November ballot. If it fails, the issue is moot; if it were to pass, then the courts could still decide whether it was a lawful initiative.
The final option is to seek relief in federal court, relying on the idea, embodied in the Declaration of Independence, that a government’s legitimacy and moral right to use state power is justified and lawful only when consented to by the people or society over which the political power is exercised. This principle, a rebuke to the “divine right” of kings, was included by the United Nations in 1948 in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
A Little Background
After Washington Governor Jay Inslee’s attempt to impose a statewide ban on new natural gas connections failed miserably during the 2021 legislative session, the Spokane City Council crafted a plan to impose its own ban on natural gas connections. They created an ad hoc “Sustainability Action Subcommittee” to recommend the ban via a process that eschewed ublic hearings. The people did not need to know what their elected leaders were about to impose.
Thomas and Paine, along with other local citizens, crafted the proposed City Charter amendment, dubbed the Cleaner Energy Protection Act, in an effort to stop the city council from banning the use of natural gas and hydropower (an important energy source in Washington State under attack from anti-dam activists).
In essence, the ordinance would, if citizens had a chance and voted in favor, permanently ban the city council from banning new natural gas connections until such time as local citizens voted to repeal the ordinance.
Thomas, a mother of four, has multiple reasons for the strict language in the proposal, which quickly obtained over 6,000 valid signatures. But she admits she had no idea at the vociferousness of the city council and its allies who insist on removing energy choices from Spokane’s citizens. The legal brutality of the judicial ruling has been demoralizing.
The Council Never Considered Economic Impacts
In an exclusive interview, Thomas explained that the city council has no idea of the cost or even the feasibility of replacing natural gas energy with renewable-based electricity to heat homes and run gas appliances. Nor do council members understand (or maybe even care) that such a ban would impose huge additional costs and diminish local housing affordability.
Paine, also in an exclusive interview, explained that the city council has not done any studies to see whether their planned bans would be sustainable. The citizens group did prepared a report for citywide distribution. Citizens are aware that a recent University of California, Davis, study found that switching from affordable gas-fired boilers (that run even during electric power outages) to expensive electric heat pumps would generate higher net carbon emissions. The reason: the city would have to significantly increase electricity generation.
Paine further explained that the unaccountable committee proposal included banning all new gas hookups by 2023 and requiring solar panels on every home in the city (regardless of their effectiveness). “Spokane homebuilders,” he noted, “must ensure buyers that they will be able to afford the costs of energy in the area’s cold winters and hot summers.”
Paine cited numerous reasons that an “all of the above” strategy makes common sense for Spokane residents, where temperatures range from minus 10 to 110 degrees and falling trees often knock out power lines. Local hospitals, too, rely on gas heat or gas backup during such times, and citizens cannot afford the heavy cost of heat pump installations. [A recent British government study indicated ground source heat pump installations can cost up to $47,000.]
Plaintiffs Claim Citizens Have No Right to Intervene
Protect Spokane Action and Burke claimed that the initiative should be thrown out because it would prevent the city from ever changing the local building code, a claim Thomas dismissed as laughable. Plaintiffs also said the initiative is a last-minute attempt to prevent the council from meeting clean energy standards, and that the council must retain the ability to make decisions without community input.
Unfortunately, Thomas, Paine, and friends found the state’s legal infrastructure more supportive of the state climate plan than due process, consent of the governed, or policy that yields negative economic impacts on society. The judicial rebuke was devastating, casting them as climate obstructionists.
Thomas said she had begun this project to educate the community about the real-world impacts of what she described as “more politics.” The people have a right to know how they will be impacted by their government’s actions. “If they break housing, they break everything. I am shocked at our rights being eroded right before our very eyes.”
Duggan Flanakin (email@example.com) is Director of Policy Research at the Committee for a Constructive Tomorrow.