By the time Alex Ramel took office in 2020, his fellow Democrats controlled Washington’s House of Representatives and had already divvied up the work on electric vehicles, clean fuels and carbon pricing.
So the new legislator, who previously worked on energy policy, decided he’d carve out a lane for himself by taking on one of the tougher challenges facing cities and states: slashing the 13% of U.S. emissions that come from heating buildings with fossil fuels and cooking with gas.
Ramel passed legislation requiring state-owned facilities to adopt electric heating, and proposed bills to increase rebates for ratepayers who swap oil or gas heating for electric heat pumps and force gas utilities to come up with public plans to quit fossil fuels. He championed building codes mandating electric heating in new commercial buildings.
Not everyone appreciated his efforts.
“I had some angry gas industry lobbyists come to my office the first year and try to explain things to the new kid,” Ramel, 44, said in a phone interview. “Then I started hearing rumors that the gas industry was reaching out to folks in the district, asking if there was someone who could run against me.”
The industry found its candidate in Trevor Smith, the ambitious and well-connected business agent at a local union representing about 1,300 gas and construction workers. And it has started spending the kind of money rarely seen in state-level races like this, setting up what will likely be seen across the country as a referendum on electrification.
In June, gas companies, construction trade groups, and unions representing their workers started pumping more than $300,000 into the Jackson Legacy Fund, a political action committee that supports business-friendly Democrats. Later that month, the fund transferred $150,000 to another PAC called Citizens For Legislative Accountability. Since the start of July, the latter PAC has spent over $82,000 on advertisements for Smith’s campaign.
The blitz supercharged Smith’s campaign, which last month had just $24,000 on hand, easily lapping the $86,000 Ramel received. The six-figure sum alone brings this race about halfway to challenging the Washington statehouse record for the most money spent to defeat an incumbent candidate. If the spending continues to climb, this could become one of the Evergreen State’s highest-dollar races this cycle.
More money appears to be in the pipeline. Citizens For Legislative Accountability is part of a network of fossil fuel-linked PACs called Washington Enterprise, according to the Washington Observer, which first reported the surge in political spending in the race. Last month, Marathon Petroleum, which owns one of the two refineries in Ramel’s district, donated another $150,000 to Enterprise Washington.
Citizens For Legislative Accountability and Washington Enterprise did not respond to emails requesting comment. The Jackson Legacy Fund directed HuffPost to the United Association of Plumbers and Pipefitters, one of its top five contributors this cycle.
“There’s nothing secret about this, nothing sinister about this. We’re there on our own workers’ behalf,” said Neil Hartman, government affairs director at the union’s Washington state association. “And we’re not going to just say, ‘Oh, we support Trevor’ and walk away.’ We want the guy to win.”
The two candidates will face off on Aug. 2 in a meaningless primary. As the only two contenders, they will both advance to the November general election. The outcome of next week’s vote, however, could affect fundraising and set the tone for the real race ahead. If Ramel loses, it could warn other state legislators off climate policies that fail to preserve the gas industry’s business model.
A Local Battle In A Nationwide War
The TV, newspaper and online ads link Ramel’s record of promoting electrification with the high gasoline prices stirring outrage among drivers across the country. It’s misleading ― automobile gasoline and natural gas are different fuels entirely ― but the messaging highlights the bigger picture of the fight for Washington’s 40th legislative district, which spans the San Juan Islands and nearby coastal communities in one of the continental United States’ northwesternmost reaches.
Since 2019, big cities across the country ― including Seattle, just 90 miles southeast of the district ― have started banning new construction from hooking up to the natural gas system.
The effort isn’t some tree-hugger vanity project. Electric heating is, in most cases, far more efficient than fuel heating, meaning that even if the power running a heat pump comes from a fossil-fueled generator, the process uses less energy than the average furnace burning oil or gas. Because methane, the main ingredient in natural gas, traps up to 80 times more heat than carbon dioxide during the first two decades it circulates in the atmosphere, its continued use at current levels threatens to push global warming over the edge. The network of pipelines and drilling rigs that feed the gas system frequently leaks. There are low-carbon gas alternatives that could, in theory, flow through existing pipes. But those fuels remain scarce, and even optimistic industry forecasts predict barely enough supply to make a single-digit dent in current gas demand.
There are health benefits, too. The gas that burns blue under cooking pans laces indoor air with tiny, disease-causing particles.
Gas is fashionable, thanks to decades of gas industry advertising, including recent campaigns with social media influencers. But high-end new electric stoves are quickly gaining exuberant fans among professional chefs.
There are also legitimate concerns about electrification.
Rich with hydroelectric dams, Washington enjoys some of the country’s cheapest average power rates. However, other cold states, including those in the Northeast, have some of the most expensive electricity, but moderately priced gas. At a time when large sections of the U.S. power grid are buckling as demand for power rises and the number of 24/7 power plants falls, depending on electricity for everything from transportation to warmth poses risks.
Hardware breakthroughs have only recently made commercially available heat pumps dependable during severe cold snaps when there’s less warmth to pull in from outside, and geothermal heating systems don’t work everywhere. Electric appliance prices in many places are higher than new gas furnaces, boilers or stoves. Rewiring older buildings to go electric adds a hefty extra cost.
Rebates like those Ramel proposed are helping to bring down the cost in many states. But those reasonable concerns are why environmentalists and policymakers have focused on stopping new gas hookups, or spurring big commercial buildings to make the switch to electric first. That way, as the window to avoid catastrophic global warming shrinks, emissions will start falling. In theory, if a breakthrough makes low-carbon fuel abundant, policies can readjust then.
That moderation hasn’t muted the backlash.
In what may have the widest fallout, gas and construction industry groups last year seized control over the process of writing the nation’s model energy codes. Rather than the federal government setting standards, every state adopts versions of the generic codes updated every three years by the International Code Council, a nonprofit consortium of industry groups, local governments and environmentalists. For years, public officials voted on the final version of the codes, and in 2019, they approved a host of electrification requirements for new buildings.
Outraged, gas and building groups appealed to the ICC to overturn measures mandating the circuitry for electric appliances and car chargers. Long accused of being deferential to industry, the ICC granted the appeals and struck the codes. It then went a step further, revoking governments’ right to vote on all future energy codes, eliminating what little advantage public officials enjoyed over corporations in the process. The next round of codes is now being written by committees where industry groups enjoy equal representation to governments.
At least 20 Republican-controlled states, meanwhile, have enacted laws prohibiting cities and towns from banning gas since 2019, when Berkeley, California, became the first city to ban gas hookups.
“Our grid was never built to supply the kind of power that it’s being asked to do right now. Further adding to that by removing natural gas from the system … is only going to exacerbate the problem.”
– Challenger Trevor Smith
In states Democrats rule, unions have formed the spear tip of the industry’s fight against electrification.
In New Jersey, gas unions appealed to a powerful Democrat in the state legislature to introduce legislation making it much harder for the state to enact electrification mandates.
In New York City, unions rallied in Brooklyn this summer to show support for maintaining the five boroughs’ natural gas pipelines.
In California, the leader of the union representing giant utility SoCalGas threatened to send protesters to violate COVID-19 distancing measures if the city of San Luis Obispo moved forward with electrification rules.
“This isn’t because we’re being puppeted by other interests,” Hartman said, arguing that transitioning away from a system of moving gas around via pipes would cost his members jobs.
The question of what to do with fossil fuel infrastructure and the workers who service it has long dogged decarbonization. In the early 2000s, auto manufacturers and oil companies promoted hydrogen fuel cells as their preferred alternative to electric vehicles, because hydrogen could use existing pipeline infrastructure and be sold at the pump like gasoline. The effort, for a number of reasons, failed ― unless, as some activists have accused, the industry promoted hydrogen fuel cells to delay the electric vehicle revolution. Studies now show hydrogen is unlikely to play a big role in automobiles, yet it held back battery-powered vehicles from going mainstream for years.
The debate over electrification does not necessarily pit low-carbon fuels against electricity. Even with big investments, reports from industry groups and environmentalists have suggested low-carbon fuels like renewable natural gas or emissions-free hydrogen will remain scarce in the decades to come, so the fuels should be treated as precious and saved for industrial purposes or aviation. Virtually all available evidence suggests there will not be enough to service the heating and cooking needs of everyday homes. That means the options for much of the built environment are either to continue relying on fossil gas with some low-carbon fuel mixed in for the foreseeable future, or go electric.
Hartman said he understood the industry’s advocacy for fuels like hydrogen had in the past been “seen as obstructionist” to climate policy in general. But Washington, he said, was well positioned to win a federal contest for one of five national hubs for hydrogen production. Permanently swapping molecules for megawatts in the Evergreen State’s homes and businesses, he feared, would kill a potential local market.
“We’re asking legislatures for more emphasis on replacing natural gas as a fuel source and focusing on the shortfalls associated with an immediate attempt at electrification,” Hartman said.
Despite Ramel’s support from other unions, Hartman and gas proponents felt the incumbent had “failed to stakeholder us, cut us out, and tried to steamroller our interests. So we’re in the position where we’ll kill a bill and not negotiate a bill.”
“He said he’s in the fight against natural gas,” Hartman said. “Whereas Trevor can come in and find out what we can come to as a mutually agreeable situation.”
The Opponent’s Pitch
Smith, the candidate the industry PAC backed to oust Ramel, had been vying to enter local politics for some time. At 45, the business agent and political director for Laborers’ Union Local 292 found he was talking to workers and advising state officials on legislation and policy so frequently he figured he might as well run for office himself. He was among the top three contenders in a recent unsuccessful bid for a legislative appointment that gave him some name recognition.
Before declaring his run against Ramel, he called the incumbent to let him know. The call only lasted 90 seconds or so, but the candidates agreed to avoid low-blow tactics, Ramel said.
Smith quickly turned to Ramel’s electrification policies when explaining his reasons for challenging a fellow Democrat.
“We can’t just tell people they can no longer have gas cooktops or gas heat,” Smith told HuffPost. “It’s making homeownership something that’s already really expensive, and makes it less affordable for those in the middle.”
The added cost of retrofitting an existing building, he said, could range from $15,000 to $45,000 ― which largely reflects the higher end of the possible costs in various states. Asked whether that meant new buildings should be electrified from the start to avoid those future expenses, he said he had heard from contractors that doing so added $15 per square foot to the new home’s price tag, but did not know.
“No, I don’t have hard numbers on this,” he said. “But I can tell you what our contractors are telling us.”
Advocates of electrification point to the long-term cost savings from not having to buy fuel. But Smith said he feared the power grid could not handle the increased demand electrification rules would spur. Washington’s electricity system is facing problems and needs more transmission lines, and some are now on the way.
“Our grid was never built to supply the kind of power that it’s being asked to do right now,” Smith said. “Further adding to that by removing natural gas from the system, whether we’re talking about power generation or heating and cooking in houses, is only going to exacerbate the problem. It’s going to put pressure on the grid when it already struggles.”
That message might hit home in the district. Since there is no public polling on the race, it’s hard to tell whether the more specious claims about gas prices from the PAC, which election laws bar Smith’s campaign from coordinating with, are persuading voters.
In audio HuffPost obtained of an automated campaign call, a self-declared “proud Republican and proud worker” in the district urges his fellow conservatives to back Smith over “activist Alex Ramel.” (In an email sent after publication, Smith said his campaign did not send the robocalls; HuffPost was unable to confirm which outside group was behind them.)
Meanwhile, Ramel said he has visited close to 2,000 households across the largely blue district and senses that voters are more concerned about local issues like improved ferry service than broader national debates over energy. Voters contributed nearly $30,000 in recent weeks after the campaign sent out fliers warning about the “outside money” warping the race.
“There’s been just a really huge outpouring of community support. I’ve probably had 100 new donors who jumped in,” Ramel said. “One lady sent in $7. Honestly, that $7 means a lot. It’s somebody who lives in the community, cares about the issue, and doesn’t want to see the election bought.”
The stakes, he said, are even higher than that.
“The epiphany moment for me was in 2017. My son was about 16 years old and got really sick when we had one of those really bad wildfire seasons. He had two rounds of antibiotics. It was a lung infection a lot of people got,” Ramel recalled. “I just realized that the climate crisis is even more urgent than I had been thinking, and I needed to step up and work harder.”
CORRECTION: A prior version of this story incorrectly said automated calls came from Smith’s campaign.