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School district finds eliminating natural gas from new buildings is complicated

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

An Oregon school district promised to eliminate natural gas from new buildings. No more gas stoves or boilers. But making good on that commitment is proving complicated. Here's NPR's Katia Riddle.

KATIA RIDDLE, BYLINE: Climate activism came easily to Adah Crandall. She was in seventh grade when she organized her first protest.

ADAH CRANDALL: People ask, like, what are your extracurriculars? And I'm like, oh, climate organizing.

RIDDLE: Recently, Crandall was outside Portland's Grant High School in the pouring rain. She's a sophomore here. She says once she understood the magnitude of the climate crisis, she couldn't ignore it.

CRANDALL: I do feel like I sort of exist in two separate worlds at this point. Like, there's, like, my student world where I'm like at school, like, being a teenager to the best of my ability and then like, go home and, like, feel like I kind of have to be an adult in a way.

RIDDLE: She was part of a large coalition of people who worked to establish the new school policy at Portland Public Schools. It took three years. Goals include electric school buses, curriculum for students on climate justice and net zero emissions by 2040. Liam Castles is a fellow organizer.

LIAM CASTLES: That policy, you know, on paper is really, really good, right? Like, there's a reason it was celebrated as one of the best policies in the nation.

RIDDLE: Cassells graduated high school last year. He's taking a year off to do climate activism before college. Castles says even when the policy passed, he worried the district wouldn't follow through.

CASTLES: But there's exactly one thing it was missing, and that was that accountability piece.

RIDDLE: Now he and fellow activists are taking issue with another high school that's under renovation. Benson Polytechnic is a few miles away. When it's finished, the building will not look like the energy-efficient buildings the policy describes. It will burn fossil fuels. Mike Rosen is a retired environmental engineer and volunteer who worked on the policy. He says he feels betrayed by the school district.

MIKE ROSEN: And then they do this 180-degree about-face on their own policy that they just passed.

RIDDLE: Rosen is standing outside Benson High. Behind him, workers stand on scaffolding amidst cranes and other equipment. He says it's important for the schools to set a good example for kids.

ROSEN: It's time for grown-ups to walk their talk.

RIDDLE: Dan Jung is the chief operating officer at Portland Public Schools.

DAN JUNG: The Benson project does not stop the district from reaching the climate policy goals.

RIDDLE: When the policy passed, plans for the building had been in place for years. Construction had started months previous. Jung says changing course now would cost between 6 and $8 million. Eventually, he says, the district will retrofit this high school with cleaner, all-electric power. It's unclear when that will be, but right now, he says it's too expensive.

JUNG: It's the cost of stopping a very large capital construction project.

RIDDLE: Activist Adah Crandall says $8 million may sound like a lot, but the total cost of this project was close to 300 million. With the impacts of climate change already being felt around the world, she says this generation has more to lose than their elders.

CRANDALL: I used to, like, do theater and play sports and, like, really loved those things. And I try to make time for them still, but it's like this is my priority.

RIDDLE: That's why Crandall says she's doubling down on holding people in power accountable for their impact on the climate. In this case, it's the administrators at her school district. Next time, it may be someone higher up. Crandall is graduating early. She's thinking seriously about running for office. Katia Riddle, NPR News, Portland.

(SOUNDBIE OF CODES IN THE CLOUDS' "YOUR PANOPTICON") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Katia Riddle