Policy Options for Low-Carbon Gas

This page houses a policy framework that Matt McRae (of Our Children’s Trust) and I have developed for the City of Eugene, as well as some supporting material. The specific policy proposal here can be understood as part of the current wave of policy activism around the country to reconsider the place of gas in our local energy systems, as well as a framework on which to base other local policies.

The foundation of the policy is that it attempts to enshrine the following elements in local law:

  • First and foremost, the policy creates a ‘fork in the road’ for the utility: either (a) phase in low-carbon , or (b) remain with the current system of fossil natural gas and face higher fees and no opportunities for growth.
  • The policy framework incentivizes this sourcing – and gradual increasing share – of low-carbon gas through a two-tiered franchise fee or equivalent agreement. If the utility chooses the low-carbon path, it faces a low franchise fee; if it chooses a high-carbon path, it faces a high franchise fee, and a ban on expanding its network to new areas and new buildings.
  • The framework further designates revenues to assist low-income households with this transition, either through energy efficiency or shifting to electricity as the source of space heating, water heating, and cooking.
  • The framework further suggests a “low carbon” definition. (more below)

As of early 2020, we are currently awaiting the outcome of confidential negotiations between the City of Eugene and NW Natural, the investor-owned utility that provides natural gas to Eugene.

Download the policy document here: NWN-FranchiseFee-McRae-Skov-v4-final-051919.pdf

There’s a lot of action nationally on this front. A few examples:

Please contact me for more information or to make suggestions: jskov[at]uoregon.edu

How low is low-carbon? A quick guide to thinking about “natural” gas and its alternatives

In discussions of alternate energy sources, we often default to a qualitative mindset, framing options as all good or all bad. Is it a biofuel or a fossil fuel? It is renewable or not? Is it low-carbon or…the usual? This mindset even appears in certain policies, from the federal Renewable Fuel Standard that subsidizes corn-based ethanol and soy-based biodiesel, to the many state-level Renewable Portfolio Standards that reward electricity sources as “renewable” when they come from certain qualifying sources.

Yet the truth is more complex. Some biofuels, such as biodiesel from waste cooking oil, are truly low-carbon alternatives, with just 10-20% of the life-cycle carbon footprint of fossil fuel alternatives. Electricity from solar and wind have less than 10% of the life-cycle carbon footprint of even the most efficient natural gas power plant . Other energy sources are decidedly only somewhat low-carbon, such as corn ethanol and soy biodiesel based on purpose-grown feedstocks from mega-scale monocultures. A few options, like biodiesel from palm oil grown on deforested tropical land, are far worse than conventional gasoline and diesel.

California’s Low Carbon Fuel Standard (LCFS) is the most significant policy mechanism that draws on life-cycle calculations for a wide range of transportation fuels. Since natural gas is included in the LCFS, and since Oregon’s Clean Fuel Program is based on the LCFS, we have used the widely accepted metric used by those policies, gCO2e/MJ (grams of CO2-equivalent emissions per megajoule of energy).

In our proposal, we set a threshold of 25 gCO2e/MJ. This is a significant reduction from fossil gas values that are typically 75-80 gCO2e/MJ. It is ambitious but achievable by some fuel pathways, such as biogas from biodigesters using organic waste, biomethane from landfill gas, and biogas from dairy waste biodigesters.