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Another voter initiative? Washington’s natural gas rules may go to the ballot this fall

A line of people pass boxes to one another, standing in front of several signs that show support for a series of voter initiatives. The cardboard boxes have the orange Home Depot logo, and the man seen on the far right of the photo is smiling while holding one.
Jeanie Lindsay
NW News Network
Building Industry Association of Washington executive director Greg Lane (pictured right) and Let's Go Washington founder Brian Heywood (center right) help turn in boxes of signatures supporting I-2066, the initiative focused on protecting natural gas access, at the Secretary of State's office in Tumwater Tuesday, July 2, 2024.

Washington voters may have one more issue to weigh in on during this fall’s election: the future of natural gas. That’s because a group behind a new voter initiative says after less than two months of signature gathering, it’s ready to put the measure on the ballot.

The effort comes after the state Legislature narrowly approved a law earlier this year, House Bill 1589, to facilitate Puget Sound Energy’s movement away from fossil fuels. The legislation’s supporters call it a “planning bill” – including PSE, which serves around 900,000 natural gas customers in Western Washington.

Initiative 2066 seeks to undo parts of that bill and prevent local governments or utilities from discouraging or limiting the use of natural, or methane gas.

Greg Lane is the executive director of the Building Industry Association of Washington, which is backing the proposal with support from the initiative-focused group Let’s Go Washington.

“This is about keeping natural gas as a choice for consumers moving forward,” Lane said.

I-2066 organizers have pitched the measure as a way to reject a “gas ban.” Washington law does not ban the use of natural gas.

But Lane says recent changes to the state’s energy code make it too burdensome for people to include natural gas in new construction and thinks that HB 1589 is setting the stage for an eventual ban. Supporters of the initiative say natural gas is essential for cooking certain culturally-important foods and to help heat homes when electric systems fail.

“We would rather the consumers have the choice to put in either an electric heat pump or use natural gas,” Lane said. “The energy code doesn’t ban the use of natural gas but it disincentivizes it to the point it makes it so expensive for a consumer to have natural gas that it really becomes unfeasible.”

But critics of I-2066 say the measure could end up leaving PSE’s transition to more renewable energy sources more complicated and could lead to higher costs for certain energy customers.

Sen. Joe Nguyễn (D-White Center) chairs the Senate Environment, Energy and Technology Committee in the Legislature. He says if the initiative is successful, it could end up forcing people to keep natural gas even if they don’t want it.

“Probably wealthy folks will be able to decarbonize faster, and then the folks that are still on that system will pay more to maintain that system because there are fewer of them to do it,” Nguyễn said. “So instead of doing it thoughtfully, it’s going to be disjointed, it’s going to be expensive, it’s going to be confusing and we’re probably going to have to do this dance again in the future.”

Nguyễn also says he and other lawmakers do not want, nor plan, to take away natural gas from people who already use it, and that the initiative’s campaign so far has been based on misinformation about HB 1589’s contents.

Nonetheless, the initiative has gained widespread support over the past month and a half. Organizers behind Initiative 2066 delivered 431,063 signatures in support of the measure Tuesday– well above the state’s signature threshold to qualify an initiative for the ballot. Initiative backers plan to deliver more signatures ahead of the deadline this Friday.

If the Secretary of State’s office verifies that enough of those signatures came from registered Washington voters, the measure will appear on voters’ ballots alongside three other climate and tax initiatives this fall.

Jeanie Lindsay is a radio reporter based in Olympia who covers the Washington state government beat for the Northwest News Network, the Pacific Northwest's regional collaboration of NPR stations.