Seattle’s Heating Oil Tax: A Missed Opportunity for Environmental Justice

by Tushar Khurana

In September 2019, Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan signed into law a tax on home heating oil sold within the city and could eventually require residents to upgrade or turn off heating oil tanks by 2028. The legislation was introduced to meet the city’s climate goals by accelerating the transition to heating The cleanest electric cottage around town. It was also praised in a mayor press release as a “bold and thoughtful approach” to environmental policy that “helps[s] Our most vulnerable residents are turning away from heating oil.” Revenue from the tax is intended to fund rebates for homeowners and help provide 1,000 fully paid electric heat pump installations to low-income residents.

While it has been framed as fair climate policy, closer examination of the heating oil tax in Seattle suggests otherwise. Environmental justice advocates acknowledge the climatic, health, and economic impacts of the oil heat, but assert that the bill’s mechanism places the burden of a clean energy transition on low-income and BIPOC city residents—a population already disproportionately affected by fossil fuels.

There are about 150,000 single-family homes within the city limits of Seattle, according to census data. in line with emerald, the Office of Sustainability and the Environment (OSE) estimated that 13,000-15,000 of these homes use oil heat, and that number is dwindling. Oil is the most polluting and expensive fuel for heating a home and can cost two to three times more electricity than a modern heat pump, which also supplies air conditioning. This additional feature is particularly important because a rapidly changing climate increases the potential for warming and extreme heat waves – such as the record-breaking and asphalt event experienced in the Pacific Northwest last summer.

Seattle oil heating systems—commonly found in older homes—were installed largely between the 1920s and 1950s, and stainless steel underground oil tanks have been known to corrode, leak, and contaminate soil and groundwater. The Washington Pollution Liability Insurance Agency insures leaking residential oil tanks throughout the state. In an email to emeraldThe agency said it paid an average of $17,000 for more than 5,000 systems from January to September 2021. The cost of cleaning up pollution sometimes is more than the $60,000 insurance limit it provides.

While heating oil drawbacks are plentiful, the Seattle OSE reports that the average cost of converting to an electric heat pump and turning off the oil tank is about $18,000. This is perhaps the main obstacle to the transition.

Given the pandemic, the resulting unemployment, and the rapid rise in housing prices that Seattle has experienced over the years, the expectation that residents will either adjust their energy systems or pay the consequences through an additional tax seems stark, and the city seems to agree. Originally scheduled to take effect in September 2020, the tax – which would have been 24 cents a gallon – has now been postponed twice and is currently scheduled to start in April 2022.

Community groups hope to do away with the tax altogether. “The tax aims to dampen the oil heat so that homeowners can move to alternative systems, and use the revenue earned to help ease the burden on low-income families,” said Depolina Banerjee, climate policy analyst at Puget Sound Sage. “For high-income and fairly middle-income families, it’s easier for them to move and avoid taxes.” They make this investment and quickly see a return on their heating bill. “Low-income families are getting stuck in the extra burden,” Banerjee continued. These families rarely have the cash or credit to upgrade their heating system. Landlords lack incentive to do so as long as tenants are left to foot the bill.

Environmental justice practitioners often refer to “energy burden,” or the percentage of household income that is spent on energy. The US Energy Information Administration has shown that energy costs are declining, which means that low income earners usually pay more for their energy than high income earners, because poor families tend to use less efficient energy systems and live in older, poorly insulated families. homes. One in four American households spends more than 6% of their income on energy and give up food and medicine to afford utility payments. Closer to home, a Puget Sound Sage survey confirms these findings, adding that respondents may also respond to increases in energy prices by not heating their homes, unplugging appliances, and cutting out basic necessities, such as rent, mortgage payments, elderly care, and childcare. .

In recognition of this extra burden, most utilities offer income-based assistance programs, but they tend to fall short. Even in Seattle—whose publicly owned facilities have higher rates of energy assistance enrollment than those of neighboring companies like Puget Sound Energy—Seattle City Light estimates that 90,000 families qualify for the utility discount program but only 35,000 families are enrolled, mostly because people simply don’t. they do it. I don’t know the programs exist.

“Access and support are often one of the most recently researched and least funded elements,” Banerjee said. “The reality is that there is no proactive approach from utilities to reach people, help them reach, or even keep a registry of low-income families.” Moreover, people on lower incomes may have more pressing priorities, such as securing housing and food, that prevent them from conducting in-depth research on household energy options.

Reducing carbon pollution, and doing it urgently, is imperative to stave off increasingly dire climate catastrophes. In Seattle, buildings are the second largest emitter of greenhouse gases. This is the sector where the transmission of energy reaches the house, literally. But homes are also in the crosshairs of the affordability crisis.

“One of the things policy makers fail to understand is that older single-family homes function as low-income housing — not affordable, but nonetheless low-income housing,” explained Maria Bataiola, Beacon Hill Council Chair and Environmental Justice Coordinator. For El Centro de la Raza.

By ignoring this perilous fact, the heating oil tax is leaving residents in a bind. On the other hand, the tax adds to the already high cost of living in Seattle. On the other hand, retrofitting and weathering of older homes increases home values ​​and rents and can lead to further displacement and gentrification unless explicitly coupled with preventive measures. This kind of policy outcome is what leads Batayola to ask the ominous question, “Is there a place in Seattle for the poor?”

In the wake of the 2020 uprisings for racial justice and the threat of pandemic-induced cuts in social spending, a coalition of community organizations came together to form the Solidarity Budget Platform and advocate for a city budget that “focuses on the needs of…the most vulnerable Seattle residents” and “prioritises for collective care and liberation.”

This year, one of the demands of Solidarity was an ambitious budget of $85 million annually over the next three years, which would fund the complete transition of all homes and buildings from fossil fuels. This number was arrived at by community groups in consultation with the OSE in Seattle. The city finally set aside $1.7 million just to move into this budget cycle.

By opposing the heating oil tax and offering an alternative, regulators are building on what is known in climate justice circles as a “fair transition” framework. According to the National Climate Justice Alliance Network, fair transition initiatives democratically transform us from dirty to clean energy, create purposeful work, redistribute resources and power, and redress historical damage. While the current heating oil tax imposes current patterns of oppression, a just transition requires deeper work to challenge those arrangements.

Jess Wallach of 350 Seattle says the city can start helping the “fair transition” framework with targeted investments in 14,000 affordable city-owned housing units, [where] More than 70% of households are below 30% of median income in the region, 60% are people of color.” Transforming our affordable housing stock can reverse environmental damage within this population by lowering carbon emissions and pollution Indoor air and utility bills These adjustments, combined with an anti-improvement policy, can deter rather than exacerbate displacement.

For the rest of the older single-family homes, Pataiola adds, these retrofits can easily complement the community’s pressing needs. At Beacon Hill, the weathering process—which is already included in the program—can include triple pane windows and HEPA filters to mitigate noise and air pollution from frequent air traffic.

In addition to health benefits and utility savings, a planned investment of this kind also promises much-needed jobs. Earlier this year, the city’s Economic Development Bureau issued a set of recommendations on developing a fair clean energy workforce. As Wallach suggests, a city-funded transition could put these proposals to good use by “ensuring that new clean energy jobs are unionized” and by “developing job pipelines, creative partnerships, apprenticeship programs, and employment pathways directly from Seattle public schools and housing projects.” Affordable to make sure women and BIPOC people get these jobs.”

In an effort to replace what Bataiola describes as a “middle-class solution” with these kinds of creative programs rooted in innovation, organizers are relying on a holistic, community-driven approach. Wallach says the coalition’s proposals came only because “we’ve succeeded in sparking a conversation with our communities and city leaders about what it will actually take” to equitably address this transition.

Tosher Khurana (He/She) lives, writes and organizes in South Seattle. He has a background in climate science, environmental policy, and clean energy.

📸 Featured image by kevin brine / Shutterstock.com

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