(April 6, 2020) — When Ben McWhorter of Sequoia Gas Co. learned that a plan was being developed to phase out the use of natural gas and propane in Arcata, Calif., he made sure others in the community learned this too. While the proposal was still being discussed in the energy committee that advises the city council, he made a presentation to the council. City council meetings can be watched live and viewed on demand on television and on the city’s website, so he knew he would reach an audience far beyond those in the room.
Sequoia Gas Company Family owned propane company since 1930
Sequoia Gas has offices in Arcata and Fortuna, Calif., and McWhorter is the Fortuna branch manager. Before making the presentation, he reached out to others. He went to two large businesses in the area—one a user of propane within the city and the other a user of natural gas just outside the city—to see if they knew about this proposal. They didn’t, and immediately said they were willing to get involved. He also called a city council member he knew had lived in a remote area and used propane. She invited him make the presentation before the council.

Having received that invitation, McWhorter began work on the presentation, “Propane Infrastructure in a Renewable Future.” He found the Western Propane Gas Association (WPGA) to be a great source of information and advice. WPGA had informed him of what the committee in Arcata was considering and provided data for his presentation. “Any marketers that are not involved in their association are missing out on an opportunity to give back and to know what’s going on,” McWhorter tells BPN. “We have to stay engaged.”

During the Feb. 5 meeting of the Arcata city council, he opened the presentation by introducing himself as the third generation of a family-run propane business in the county in which Arcata is located. He outlined the number of people in the country and in the state who use propane; the applications for which propane is used; and the affordability, reliability, and clean energy of propane.

He noted that Sequoia Gas has only about 30 customers in the city, because the city is fed by natural gas, but that those customers need propane. The city’s largest user of propane is a manufacturer that uses propane for space heating and in its manufacturing process. Other users are restaurants. He also noted a growing interest in backup generators.

Concluding his presentation, McWhorter said, “I think Arcata residents deserve access to a diverse energy portfolio. I think that they should be able to choose the energy choices that they would like, and that they can really afford. Propane is clean, it’s reliable, and it’s affordable. And it’s also a non-methane gas, which natural gas is. Propane can provide uninterrupted energy at a cheaper rate than electricity and can serve as a primary fuel or complement to solar and other things.”

Following McWhorter’s presentation, the mayor of Arcata, whose profession is energy engineer, said, “My long-term goal, and the council adopted related goals a year ago, was to phase out the use of natural gas, not to phase out the use of propane. We need to treat these two fuels very differently.” He added, “I see an important complementary role of propane to renewable energy, as you pointed out, and I don’t see that for natural gas.” Later, the mayor concluded, “In my ideal future, I actually see a role for propane in Arcata, and growth of use of propane within Arcata, and having it as an important complement, especially for people who choose to use a gaseous fuel for cooking in restaurants or in individual homes. So my target is natural gas rather than going after or being hostile to propane.”

While the response was good—and McWhorter thanked the mayor for these comments—there are more meetings to come as the energy committee develops a proposed ordinance and then hands it to the city council for a vote. McWhorter says he will stay engaged. In the meantime, he has succeeded in making others in the community aware of the proposed ban.

“These meetings are televised, so everyone can watch it,” McWhorter tells BPN. “It’s a good opportunity to get the word out that this is something the city is thinking about. People don’t get engaged until it is something that affects them. We think banning natural gas will get people fired up.”

Summing up his experience in the political arena so far, he says, “When you’re a small company going in a hundred directions at once, and it’s wintertime and you’re delivering propane and setting tanks, it’s hard to get out of the office and get engaged. But we all have to get together, represent our industry, and be in the room when these decisions are being made. It takes time, but you have to meet people and stay engaged.”

McWhorter’s presentation can be viewed on the City of Arcata’s website, within the video of the Feb. 5 regular meeting of the city council (his presentation starts at the 54:30 mark in the video): http://arcataca.iqm2.com/Citizens/SplitView.aspx?Mode=Video&MeetingID=3061&Format=Minutes. — Steve Relyea