Meanwhile, supporters of the ordinance say they’re confident that should it qualify for the ballot, Eugene voters will decide to approve it, rather than overturn it.
The group that’s organized in opposition to the fossil fuels ordinance has until March 10 to collect the signatures of at least 6,460 registered Eugene voters. That number is equivalent to ten percent of the votes cast for mayor at the most recent mayoral election, according to the City of Eugene Recorder’s office.
Because petitions usually include some invalid signatures, the group will likely need to collect well over 7,000 signatures in order to qualify for the ballot.
If that threshold is reached, the ordinance would be put on hold until an election is held at a date to be determined. That would most likely be an existing election, either in May or November, depending on when the signatures are verified by the Lane County Elections office.
The election date is important because the main provision of the new ordinance is set to take effect on June 30, and if a November election is scheduled, it would effectively delay the implementation of the law for about five months, even if voters approve it.
At its meeting on Feb. 6, Eugene City Council members discussed whether to put the natural gas ordinance to a public vote. In fact, the only item on the agenda for that meeting was titled “A Resolution Calling a City Election,” which would have sent the ordinance to voters for their approval or rejection.
That resolution failed, and council members subsequently voted 5-3 to directly approve the ordinance without sending it to voters. The proposal had been the subject of public hearings last fall, which meant that it could be passed by the council at any time.
The ordinance bans “fossil fuel infrastructure” in new, “low-rise” residential buildings, which are defined as having three stories or less. It applies to building permits submitted on or after June 30, 2023, and does not affect existing buildings.
While Eugene’s ordinance is the first of its kind in Oregon, dozens of other municipalities across the country have a similar law in place.
Gas utility bankrolls referendum
The political action committee behind the effort to overturn the ordinance is called “Eugene Residents for Energy Choice.” As of Wednesday, state campaign finance records did not show any expenditures or donations to the group, though the deadline for the committee to disclose such transactions has not yet passed.
But even before the formation of the committee, a group with that name has been active in opposition to the ordinance. Previous press releases from “Eugene Residents for Energy Choice” describe it as “a concerned group of workers and organizations who want to make sure residents are aware of this issue so their voice can be heard.”
The coalition lists among its members the Eugene Area Chamber of Commerce, several building contractor organizations, and unions representing construction workers.
It also includes gas utility Northwest Natural.
“They are one of the main funders,” said Anne Marie Levis, the campaign chair for Eugene Residents for Energy Choice.
Levis said the campaign will use a mix of paid and volunteer signature gatherers.
The group plans to hold a public launch event next week. She said the group was caught off guard by the fact that an up-or-down vote on the ordinance wasn’t on the council agenda on Feb. 6.
“If the residents of Eugene believe that new natural gas infrastructure should be banned for (new) residences, it should be a public vote,” she said. “It shouldn’t just be passed by a surprise motion by the council.”
One of the chief petitioners of the referendum effort, Eugene resident James Ball, said he wasn’t very familiar with the funding behind the campaign to gather signatures.
Ball, a retired engineer who helped design energy systems in new buildings, testified against the ordinance during one of the hearings last year. He disagrees with both the policy and the fact that council members declined to send it to the ballot.
“Why not just let everybody in Eugene learn about this and make the choice?” he said.
Supporters remain confident
Supporters of the fossil fuels ordinance say there’s already been public input, pointing to both the hearings last fall and the fact that the law was approved by democratically elected council members.
“We vote to have these folks represent us on decisions that will help our city meet its long-term goals,” said Dylan Plummer, a senior campaign representative with the Sierra Club. “And that’s just what they did. They voted for a policy that’s been publicly discussed for over two and a half years.”
If it does qualify for the ballot, Plummer said the coalition of groups that worked to pass the ordinance will mount “the strongest campaign possible” to convince the public to uphold it.
“We’re confident that Eugene voters will see through this fossil-fuel industry propaganda and vote for climate action,” he said.
It’s far from certain whether the effort to overturn the ordinance will even result in a public vote.
According to the Lane County elections website, the last time a referendum even qualified for the ballot in Eugene was 1995, when voters approved a tax on video lottery proceeds.