Has Eugene, Oregon, found a ‘superpower’ for climate action?
The city’s eyeing changes to its natural gas contract to fund climate ambitions.
Tyee Williams has been on the frontlines of climate change as a wildland firefighter. He helped battle the Pine Gulch Fire, one of three record-setting fires in Colorado last summer and fall — all scorching examples of how the climate crisis is intensifying wildfires in the Western U.S.
Back home in Eugene, Oregon, Williams is on another vanguard of the climate fight: a push for the city to cut fossil fuel consumption. That work includes pressing the Eugene City Council to revamp its operating agreement with the local gas utility, Northwest Natural, to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
In testimony before the city council in February, Williams shared his experience, which included digging a fire line to protect natural gas infrastructure. “On one side I could see the glow of the wildfire, and on the other hillside I could see flares from the gas wellheads from fracked gas,” Williams said during a virtual public meeting. To him, the connection between fossil fuel emissions and worsening wildfires is clear. “As someone who will have jobs created by Northwest Natural, I would like to say, I’m not appreciative of it.”
The current operating agreement with Northwest Natural is set to expire in May. Renegotiations, however, are stalled, in part because the city is pushing to include funding for its ambitious climate plans in the contract. Natural gas accounts for about 40% of fossil fuel use in the city, so the city sees reducing gas burning as a key to reaching climate commitments. By tying climate action funding to the gas company’s operating agreement, the city is testing a new tool for municipalities across the Western U.S. looking to phase out fossil fuels.