The Whatcom County Council voted 6-1 on Oct. 12 to reschedule until early January a decision renewing a franchise agreement with Cascade Natural Gas (CNG). The vote followed testimony by climate activists regarding the franchise’s effect on climate change goals and spirited discussion among council members. In the end, council member Ben Elenbaas cast the lone dissenting vote.
During the public hearing, Simon Bakke of environmental protection organization RE Sources said the county should charge CNG a franchise fee and shorten its agreement from 25 years to five years.
“The … proposed franchise agreement is basically a photocopy of the last franchise agreement,” Simon Vickery, climate and energy policy manager for RE Sources, said in an interview. The natural gas industry is a quickly changing industry, as is customers’ energy use, so a term of 25 years is impractical, he contended.
“Renegotiating in five years would give county staff an opportunity to make some updates and changes and doing it sooner,” Vickery said. “We think is very important from a climate change and energy transition point of view.”
“Fossil fuel use and energy demand … are undergoing transformational changes,” he wrote in a subsequent email. “The county’s own draft Climate Action Plan emphasizes reducing natural gas use as a priority for reaching emissions targets. In our view, a shorter franchise agreement will be an essential component of achieving the plan’s gas reductions.”
The City of Bellingham and Whatcom County’s previous franchise agreements expired this year. On Aug. 30, the city council approved the city’s new agreement with CNG which sets a 10-year term, and imposes a 6% utility tax on product sold and collects a reimbursement for contract administrative costs.
The city’s contract with CNG hasn’t changed much in the last two terms. Most changes in 2021 were related to safety and a result of city staff consulting with the Pipeline Safety Trust.
The utility tax paid by CNG goes into a general fund for services such as police and fire and climate action implementation, said Eric Johnston, Bellingham public works director.
RE Sources’ Vickery said that similar income could be used to fund climate-change-related initiatives in Whatcom County.
The world in 25 years?
Whatcom County community outreach facilitator Jed Holmes said he thinks public input in a county contracting process can be constructive.
“Sometimes it takes someone … to raise their hand and say, ‘Hey, we don’t know what the world is going to be like 25 years from now; maybe we need to do things differently,’ ” Holmes said. “That’s an important question and it’s good for the county council to consider.”
“Each jurisdiction individually pursues an agreement that best serves their unique interests related to the use of the rights of way,” Holmes said in an email.
Next January, county residents will see how Whatcom County and CNG come to an agreement on contract length, fees and safety and climate considerations.
“I don’t know where [discussion between county staff and CNG] is in terms of the progress, but there are still good faith talks going back and forth, so I would say in that regard, there’s progress,” said Mark Hanson, spokesperson for CNG.
— Reported by Mallory Biggar
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