New energy bill at odds with city's stance

Seemingly at odds with the city’s declaration of a climate emergency, Flagstaff residents passed Proposition 434 with 67% of the vote. This development will extend the city’s natural gas contract for 25 years, although Flagstaff’s current deadline to offset emissions and reach carbon neutrality is 2030. 

The city’s primary elections were held Aug. 4, and one of two propositions on the ballot — Prop. 434 — sought to renew the lease on natural gas infrastructure for UniSource Energy’s parent company, UNS Energy Corporation. However, very little about the proposition was publicized before the election. The main public information about the ballot came from the Coconino County Democratic Party website, which discouraged voting for the proposal on the grounds that it was “out of step with that unanimous City Council Resolution.”

This statement was a reference to Flagstaff City Council’s climate emergency declaration, which was announced June 23. The resolution expedited the date for local carbon neutrality to 2030, while also committing to revise the city’s Climate Action Plan. According to the aforementioned council meeting, these changes were intended to reflect the urgent attitude expressed by scores of citizens who attended another council meeting in January and voiced their support for more aggressive action to mitigate the impacts of climate change. 

Local environmental activist Neha Khurana said she voted no on the proposition, but “had to look it up.” This sentiment was similar to the other Flagstaff locals who voted against it, and the lack of knowledge about this new policy was owed to a lack of publicity: No yard signs, pamphlets or commercials sought to alert voters about the issue.

Even the city’s sustainability section seemed caught off-guard by the proposal. Over an email interview, sustainability manager Nicole Antonopoulos said, “I only learned of the measure too late to propose any alternative strategies to the City Council.”   

Scouring the Internet for ballot information resulted only in a letter to the editor published by the Arizona Daily Sun and quoted on Coconino Democrat’s website. Written by a group of local climate activists, the letter encouraged locals to vote against the proposition.

“We believe that if it passes, it will have been a missed opportunity to increase much-needed city funding for climate action,” the letter stated.  

The publication suggested renegotiating the city’s contract with UNS and implementing higher charges, specifically from 2% to 4%. It also explained that half of these fees would go to maintaining the payment into the city’s general fund, allowing Flagstaff to keep a similar budgetary balance. Meanwhile, the other half could be allocated toward funding climate action policies that need to occur in order to reach the 2030 carbon neutrality deadline. 

Citing a current lack of alternative energy infrastructure, councilmember Austin Aslan said, “There are a lot of residents in Flagstaff that still use gas, and it’s going to be that way for a long time.” 

According to the Energy Information Administration (EIA), there are an estimated 12,907 natural gas customers in Flagstaff, while the United States Census Bureau approximated a population of 75,000 in 2019. Common sources of residential natural gas consumption include water heaters, stoves, gas-powered fireplaces and central heating systems used during winter months.

Flagstaff’s residential natural gas rates, according to the same EIA report, are about 15% higher than the national average. According to UniSource Energy, the increased fee on UNS’s lease would fall on the consumer, and this change would disproportionately affect those with lower income who may already struggle with winter’s high energy costs. 

Echoing the increasing concerns in climate activist circles about environmental justice, Aslan said, “It’s a social justice issue … there are a lot of folks in town that could not afford to upgrade their home or go all-electric.”  

Environmental justice is the notion that while the world’s wealthiest people are disproportionately responsible for the impacts of climate change, marginalized communities are unfairly affected. It contends that responsibility for environmental justice and climate action fall upon the shoulders of the wealthy first in order to buy time for those who are less responsible — but are more damaged — by climate change.

The city can still discourage the use of natural gas, though it likely missed the window to charge UNS for its contribution to Flagstaff’s carbon footprint.