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Bellingham considering banning natural gas in many buildings
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Bellingham considering banning natural gas in many buildings

Profile Image of Robert Mittendorf


Bellingham began its journey to electrification by holding a public hearing Monday, Dec. 13, on proposed changes in its building code.

A City Council measure would require new commercial buildings and apartment buildings higher than four stories to use electricity for heating water, meet certain energy reduction standards and use solar energy.

It’s based on recent code changes enacted recently in Seattle and Shoreline, and one that’s being discussed in King County, said Kurt Nabbefeld, development services manager.

“They do bring with them some challenges, such as increases in housing costs,” Nabbefeld said during an online City Council meeting Monday. “(But) they’re the right step in our fight against climate change.”

Seth Vidaña, the city’s climate and energy manager, told the council that these steps requiring electricity for heat and water heating in new construction are necessary if the city wants to meet its self-imposed goals of being 100% carbon-free by 2050.

“However you look at it, there’s a lot to do and not a whole lot of time,” he said.

Vidaña said 54 cities in California have passed similar legislation, and similar electrification measures are becoming more popular across the U.S. — with Burlington, Vermont; Brookline, Massachusetts; and New York City considering such laws.

States throughout the South and in parts of the Plains and Midwest are moving to prevent cities from enacting such electrification laws, however, Vidaña said.

About two dozen Bellingham residents spoke at a 90-minute public hearing on the proposal, many of them representatives of environmental-advocacy groups or the energy and construction industries.

As global warming impacts seasonal weather systems, environmental activists warned of more heatwaves in the summer, sky filled with wildfire smoke, and more frequent flooding on Nooksack River.

Energy officials and construction workers warned about job losses and steep rises in building costs due to a ban on natural gas for heating and heating water.

But Naomi Stelling, a junior at Bellingham High, was among a few residents who spoke personally and passionately about the Earth’s plight.

“I don’t have plans for 30 years from now because I didn’t think that our planet would last that long thanks to climate change. My future is vanishing every second,” Stelling told the council.

“Although this step might be small, it can have great significance,” Stelling said.

Joel Robinson told how her parents’ home in Nooksack flooded by more that a foot of water on Nov. 15 for the first time since her dad built it 50 years ago.

“I thank you for your leadership on the climate crisis that is presenting its impacts to us right now,” Robinson said.

Last week, the text of the proposed changes was made public for the first time. Several speakers urged council members to take their time and move slowly.

Electrification would “place a huge strain on the electrical grid,” said Carryn Vande Griend, a spokeswoman for Puget Sound Energy.

”Like everyone else here today, PSE has just started reviewing the draft ordinance language, and we will be offering more specific feedback in January, when the council takes this up for discussion,” Vande Griend said.

“We want to work alongside the city to ensure that their electrification policy is implemented in a way that reduces emissions, maintains grid reliability, and provides energy security for our customers. We can get there further faster by innovating with the infrastructure that’s currently in place than we can through complete electrification,” she told the council.

Derek Drake, a union plumber from Bellingham, urged the council not to approve the measure as it would increase energy prices and cost jobs.

“Many of my union brothers and sisters, our lives and livelihoods, like I said, are on the line,” he said. “I have daughters out renting — their prices will go up.”

After approximately 90 minutes of public testimony the measure was referred back to the Committee of the Whole for further discussions.

Pinky Vargas, Councilwoman, was present at her last meeting after she decided not to run for re-election. She asked her colleagues to concentrate on the people who would be affected by new building codes.

“I know that buildings are our highest energy use, and I understand that we have to make these changes,” Vargas said.

“I do want to make sure that we keep our housing affordable, that is important. But I also want to ensure that we focus on the just transition, and that includes all the laborers who are working in this industry,” she said.

Michael Lilliquist, the Councilman, was in agreement but he also wanted quick action.

“The key challenge here might not be crafting the right technical language, but working out the human and economic aspect of this,” Lilliquist said.

“Our economy has always been built on skilled people like you, so will the future, so let’s figure out how to get that done,” he said. “I don’t think we can slow down on this too much. We need to move as fast as we possibly can, and it still might take a pretty long amount of time.”

Robert Mittendorf is a journalist who covers weather, traffic, and how people deal with high housing costs for The Bellingham Herald. A journalist since 1984, he’s also a volunteer firefighter for South Whatcom Fire Authority.


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