Natural gas phaseout will cost consumers billions – will we be next?

The following op-ed appeared in The (Longview) Daily News on April 27, 2024.

By Sen. Jeff Wilson

Remember that big run-up in gas prices last year when cap-and-trade took effect? Folks, we’re just getting started. This year your Legislature passed a law that builds upon Washington’s grand tradition of climate legislation that costs a fortune and accomplishes next to nothing. This one’s really going to hurt.

House Bill 1589, the most divisive measure of the last legislative session, aims to phase out natural gas in the central Puget Sound area. It will impose ruinous costs on nearly 1 million residential and business customers, drive up rents and make our electric grid less reliable. Yet it will make no difference to world climate and Mother Earth.

For now, this law applies to areas served by Puget Sound Energy, and does not affect us directly in Southwest Washington. But no one with a gas furnace should feel safe. The holy war on natural gas has begun, and once this law inflicts pain on the state’s most politically powerful regions, we can be sure they will find a way for us to share their misery.

The easiest way to explain it is that the state’s biggest gas-and-electric utility wants out of the natural gas business. This was not driven by previous energy-policy laws passed by the Legislature, despite vague claims to the contrary. PSE may simply have decided fossil fuels don’t have a future in the current political climate. Yet it can’t just walk away – as a regulated monopoly it has a legal obligation to provide gas to customers within its territory who request gas service.

So PSE approached the Legislature with a proposal allowing an exit under favorable terms. The law directs it to make a proposal to state regulators by 2027 to merge its gas and electric businesses. In this way, PSE can make its combined customer base pay for the gas-system shutdown, and force everyone to convert to electricity.

What a splendid solution for PSE and a terrible one for consumers! Power rates will skyrocket – a 37 percent increase for electricity and a 151 percent increase for gas – until the gas ultimately is shut off, one community at a time.

But this isn’t the worst part. Homeowners will have to replace furnaces, water heaters, stoves and other appliances, at an average cost of $40,000, according to the Building Industry Association of Washington. In older homes, costs will be much higher because wiring, electrical panels and other equipment likely will need to be replaced.

Business will face the same burden on a larger scale, and some problems will be insurmountable. Electricity just won’t work for some applications, from heating industrial boilers to cooking ramen noodles. Then there’s a practical problem. Where do we get the electricity we need? Remember, this comes as my colleagues are trying to push us into electric cars and demolish the Snake River dams.

But in Olympia pragmatism isn’t as important as the politics. All Republicans voted no, including me, but Democrats had the votes. What bothered me the most during the Senate debate was what wasn’t said. No one claimed this will accomplish anything, because it won’t.

Even if natural gas is banned statewide, it will make no measurable difference to world climate. Washington produces just two-tenths of one percent of world carbon, and this would reduce it a smidge. All we’re really doing is banishing a supremely useful form of energy, ducking any discussion of whether this makes sense, and abandoning the principle that utility regulation should reduce costs for consumers. All so that we can say we did something about climate, without doing anything at all.

Sen. Jeff Wilson, R-Longview, has represented the 19th Legislative District since 2021. He is the ranking Republican member of the Senate State Government and Elections Committee.