This Republican Has a Good Point About Going Green

For sustainability to be successful, it must also be affordable. Spokane, Wash.'s mayor thinks it can be.
May 2019
David Condon
Spokane Mayor David Condon (AP)
By Mark Funkhouser  |  Publisher
Former mayor of Kansas City, Mo.

Environmental sustainability is a front-burner issue for cities these days, so it’s not hard to find news about what local governments are doing to address it. One city you might not expect to find among that group, given the business-friendly conservatism of its politics, is Spokane, Wash. But its mayor, David Condon, argues that his city is in fact a leader in sustainability, and he makes a pretty strong case.

A retired Army officer and a former top aide to a Republican congresswoman, Condon might seem to some an unlikely figure to be a champion of such policies. But achieving environmental sustainability while maintaining fiscal responsibility has been high on his agenda over his two terms as mayor.

A 10-point environmental sustainability plan his office released in 2017, for example, sets specific, quantifiable targets, and a regularly updated report card keeps residents up to date on progress toward those goals. Among the accomplishments so far: 100 percent of “green bin” waste is now being composted locally; 1.4 billion gallons of water were saved between 2014 and 2016 by reducing system losses; and converting garbage trucks to run on compressed natural gas has reduced carbon dioxide released annually by 660 metric tons.

A significant part of the city’s environmental effort is conversion of solid waste to energy. While European environmentalists see the practice as a critical component of sustainable energy development, burning waste remains controversial in the United States. But generating energy from waste instead of landfilling it has paid off for Spokane. Its program not only avoided 1.5 million tons of CO2 from 2014 to 2016, but also has generated enough energy -- more than 500 billion BTUs annually -- for the city’s governmental operations to achieve net positive energy consumption.

The shaping of Spokane’s environmental sustainability program started with a trip to Washington, D.C., in 2012. Like a lot of older cities, Spokane has a combined sewer system that was dumping untreated waste into the Spokane River during major storms. “It began when I sat in the [Environomental Protection Agency] offices in D.C.,” Condon told me. “They gave me two choices: Ask for a consent decree and blame it on us or do integrated planning. I called up our regional office of the EPA and began integrated planning.” The idea is to look at the city’s operations holistically. That resulted in some re-thinking of its governmental structure. To better control runoff from the streets into the sewers, for example, the streets department is now managed by the utilities department.

Central to the city’s sustainability plan has been a commitment to limit utility rate increases to 2.9 percent annually. “Our citizens want a clean Spokane River that can be used for fishing and swimming, and they want to protect the river for future generations,” Condon says. “But they don’t want to have to make a choice between a clean river and ensuring that they can afford their monthly bills.” The possibility of big rate hikes was one reason Condon vetoed a measure setting a 100 percent renewable energy goal for the city.

The city council overrode Condon’s veto, but his argument gets at a larger point: Environmental sustainability must be affordable in order to be successful. A significant threat to the environmental movement is a suspicion that its costs are something that the elites are shoving down the throats of regular folks. (Consider, for example, the current dust-up over plastic straws.) As cities pursue sustainability, they would do well to look beyond the usual suspects and consider what Spokane is doing.