Building for a Better Future

Right now, there is an important conversation happening in Oregon, and around the country, about buildings. The buildings in which we live and work are a critical piece of the climate puzzle. They are both vital to reducing climate change causing fossil fuels and our first line of defense against climate harms like extreme heat, wildfire smoke, and air pollution. 

Buildings are the second largest–and growing–source of climate pollution in Oregon, responsible for 34 percent of the state’s total greenhouse gas emissions. This is due to the fossil fuels used for electricity to power our homes and buildings, and the fossil gas piped in for heating and cooking. 

Thanks to recent state climate policy actions like 100% Clean Electricity For All, our electric grid is on track to be 100% clean and carbon-free by 2040. However, there is much more to do to rein in the rising use of fossil “natural” gas in buildings. Thankfully, we have the opportunity to transform Oregon’s building stock in a way that will reduce climate pollution, protect public health for today and future generations, and improve energy affordability.

Reducing Climate Pollution

To cut to the chase, what we have all known as “natural” gas is actually mainly methane, an explosive fuel that creates indoor air pollution and is on the rise in Oregon. Unfortunately, the gas industry has been extremely effective in their decades-long branding campaign to cover up the fact that gas is neither as clean nor as healthy as claimed. The scary truth is that methane is a super pollutant that is heating our planet at up to 86 times the rate of carbon dioxide. The methane pollution from so-called “natural” gas operations in the U.S. alone impacts climate change as much as the annual tailpipe emissions from about 70 million cars. 

What is more aptly known as fossil gas has been incorporated into the structures where we live and work. Buildings are often used for over 50 years, and buildings constructed today are expected to account for 25 to 30 percent of all buildings in 2050. As the buildings of our future are constructed, critical decisions are being made about the materials, infrastructure, insulation, efficiency, and fuels or energy sources they will use. In sum, the buildings we construct today can either lock us into reliance on dirty fuels or expensive future retrofits, or they can be built smart from the start to use more efficient, less polluting options that support healthier, more affordable living environments for now and years to come.

Protecting Public Health

Transitioning to cleaner, more efficient buildings that do not rely on burning fossil gas also has important health benefits. When fossil gas is burned, it releases the same harmful pollutants that come out of a car exhaust pipe like carbon monoxide, formaldehyde, volatile organic compounds, NOx, and particulate matter. This is true for fossil gas as well as so-called “renewable natural gas”, as both are primarily methane. 

When fossil gas is used to power our stoves, furnaces, and other appliances, these harmful pollutants are released directly into our homes and surrounding neighborhoods, posing a direct threat to our health. Nitrogen dioxide decreases lung health and can worsen asthma symptoms. Fine particulates can lead to heart attacks and strokes. Children, the elderly, and people with underlying health conditions are especially at risk. 

Indoor air quality issues are more concentrated in small units with poor ventilation, which means these impacts are often exacerbated for low-income residents. People of color and communities living on lower incomes in Oregon disproportionately shoulder exposure to outdoor air pollution and the associated health risks making it especially urgent to ensure these harms are minimized in the home.

Buildings also provide shelter in the face of climate-fueled extreme temperatures and wildfire smoke. Energy-efficient buildings keep wildfire smoke and other outdoor air pollution out, while helping to regulate indoor temperatures. 

Energy Affordability

heat pump installationBuilding smart from the start and upgrading our existing buildings to be energy efficient and use electric systems and appliances also carry substantial cost savings. Renters, homeowners, and businesses can save money on their utility bills when we reduce the energy needed to power buildings. For example, electric heat pumps–which provide both cooling and heating–can be up to five times more efficient and save Oregon consumers roughly $2,000 – $3,000 over the systems’ lifetime compared to their gas counterparts. Research from Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI) shows that a new all-electric home in the Northwest can save $4,300 over 15 years compared to a house using gas. These savings can make a huge difference for renters and low-income households who are disproportionately burdened by high energy costs.

So How Do We Get There?

OEC is working with partners to advance the equitable decarbonization of new and existing buildings in Oregon. Reining in the use of fossil gas in buildings and increasing energy efficiency will improve health and energy affordability while creating good paying jobs for Oregon workers. 

To get there, we’ll need bold action and smart investments from all levels of government. State and federal funding can be harnessed to ensure an equitable transition to efficient and electric buildings, including through incentives for low-income consumers and investments in workforce development programs. It is also critical that decision-makers in the Oregon legislature and state agencies are committed to delivering on Oregon’s climate policies. The Oregon Public Utility Commission (OPUC) and Building Codes Division (BCD) are two state agencies that play an important role in ensuring an equitable and timely transition to decarbonizing our buildings. The OPUC is the regulatory agency for the state’s investor-owned utility companies which includes electric, gas, and telephone utilities. BCD updates the state’s building codes which is the standard for the construction of new buildings. Building codes determine the minimum energy efficiency standard of Oregon’s new homes and buildings.


The gas industry claims we can cut emissions through the use of renewable natural gas (RNG), which is still primarily methane. The truth is that there is not enough RNG to replace our existing fossil gas use in buildings and the gas industry wants to keep expanding its footprint. RNG is costly, between 4 to 17 times more expensive than fossil gas, and there is a limited supply. Even the most optimistic gas industry-funded studies suggest RNG could, at most, replace 13% of domestic fossil gas consumption. While there may be a role for RNG to play in a transition to more sustainable fuels in harder to electrify sectors, like industrial manufacturing, RNG can’t be relied upon to replace fossil gas in buildings. 

Another barrier is the make-up of important decision-making bodies within Oregon. Specifically, the BCD and its advisory boards, which determine energy efficiency standards for homes and buildings in Oregon, have long been plagued by an inequitable leadership structure, power imbalances, and a lack of diverse representation. BCD and its boards have long been led by the very industry they have been put in charge of regulating. For example, BCD was for many years led by Administrator Mark Long, who had a track record of favoring industry interests. Long ultimately left his role as Administrator to take a new job as CEO of the Oregon Home Builders Association, the lobbying arm of one of the primary industries BCD is charged with regulating. Today, the BCD’s advisory board structure continues to tilt widely to industry and lacks representation from the Oregon communities it is meant to serve, including affordable housing, climate science, and environmental justice. Ensuring more diverse representation and greater transparency around decision-making at the BCD is in the best interest of all Oregonians. 

Opportunities: Advocacy tools to advance the transition

  • The Resilient, Efficient Buildings (REBuilding) Task Force 
    • Earlier this year, the Oregon legislature established a task force charged with developing policy recommendations for the 2023 legislative session that will reduce climate pollution from buildings. The REBuilding Task Force is bringing together important voices–including home builders, utilities, labor, public health, environmental justice, climate, and housing affordability representatives–to ensure these policy proposals help achieve our state climate goals and support more resilient, affordable, and healthy homes and buildings for people across Oregon.
  • Future of Gas Proceeding
    • The Oregon Public Utility Commission (OPUC) initiated a “Natural Gas Fact Finding” process with the goal of identifying a plan for how Oregon’s gas utilities will meet their mandatory climate pollution reduction targets and protect consumers. 
    • OEC has joined partners in encouraging the OPUC to approach these proceedings with a realistic view of what we want for the future of our energy system. This clean energy transition should result in the rapid reduction of climate pollution, improved public health, and mitigation of the cost impacts to ratepayers, especially low-income people in Oregon. 
  • NW Natural Rate Case
    • Oregon’s largest fossil-gas utility, NW Natural, is seeking to raise their rates by $81 million to fund, among other things, shareholder profits, executive bonuses, expanded gas infrastructure, and pro-gas advertising
    • If successful, these proposed rate hikes would increase monthly residential energy bills by about 12 percent, on top of the 13 percent increase that NW Natural put in place last year. 
    • Before utilities can change the amount they charge for energy, they must submit a request to the OPUC for approval in a formal proceeding called a rate case. OEC has joined with other climate, environmental justice, and community-based organizations as an official intervener in this rate case. The coalition of intervenors, led by Earthjustice and Green Energy Institute, are working to stop ratepayer subsidies for gas infrastructure, promote opportunities to invest in energy efficiency, advocate for low-income customers, and oppose using customer funds for advertising costs and lobbying expenses.
  • Local Momentum
    • There is significant momentum in cities and municipalities across the state who want to move farther and faster in the transition to more efficient, gas-free buildings. OEC applauds grassroots partners who are leading the charge on these efforts, which include:
      1. Multnomah County passed a policy prohibiting new gas hookups in any newly-constructed or majorly renovated county-owned buildings. 
      2. The City of Portland is developing climate and health standards that will reduce climate and air pollution and create healthy, resilient, and safe housing for existing rental apartments and large commercial buildings.  
      3. The City of Eugene is developing requirements for NW Natural to pay into a climate mitigation fund and is considering draft ordinance language mandating all electric new construction in residential, commercial, and industrial buildings.
    • These local efforts follow over fifty cities across the county, including St. Louis, San Francisco, Denver, New York, Seattle, and Olympia, which have adopted policies to transition to healthier, efficient, and gas-free buildings.

The work to transition to cleaner, healthier, more affordable buildings in Oregon is just beginning. OEC will be diving deeper into this work and providing updates and opportunities for OEC members to plug in along the way. Stay tuned for more!

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