Cities and states fed up with Congress’ fumbling on climate change are taking their frustrations out on gas-burning stoves.
Having already reduced their greenhouse gas emissions by phasing out dirty heating oil and adding renewable energy largely without federal help, dozens of local governments are voting to drive down their carbon footprints by banning natural gas hookups in new buildings altogether. And it’s dividing Democrats and putting the party at odds with key allies.
What kicked off with the liberal enclave of Berkeley, Calif., in 2019 is now set to define U.S. real estate markets over the next decade where more than 15 million people live. And buoyed by a victory in New York City in December, climate activists nabbed not only their biggest prize in this effort but a key example that going all-electric isn’t just for fair-weather places.
“Natural gas is dying a death of a thousand cuts because there’s a couple thousand local governments [and] cities that are just moving forward,” California state Sen. Dave Cortese (D-San Jose) said in an interview. That city passed its own ban on new natural gas hookups in 2020.
Commercial and residential buildings represent 13 percent of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, making them critical vehicles for reining in climate change even if new rules don’t address existing structures. But just as the campaign to force developers to swear off natural gas has started to gain its footing, it’s beginning to feel its political limits: There is no federal building energy code, and while climate activists have found success in deep-blue cities like New York, Seattle and San Francisco, they’ve struggled with statewide adoption.
Even in Democratic-controlled states, the prospect of phasing out gas-fired stoves and furnaces has lit new tensions between moderates concerned about energy costs and progressives frustrated by the nation’s patchwork approach to global warming.
“What you have is legislators who care about the environment and climate change in particular who know natural gas is a serious problem,” Jeff Tittel, former director of the New Jersey Sierra Club, said in an interview. “On the other hand, you have Republicans and some Democrats who don’t believe in climate change, don’t see the urgency or are too close to the gas utilities.”
On paper, New Jersey would be a prime target for gas-free construction: Democrats hold the governor’s office and both chambers of the Legislature, and state clean energy mandates call for an economy-wide transformation that “electrifies new and existing buildings.”
But where 50 municipalities in California have banned natural gas in new buildings, not a single city in New Jersey has done so. Instead, the natural gas industry helped shepherd a bill through the state Senate in January that would’ve made it harder for state agencies to ban gas.
One of the sponsors, Democratic state Sen. Vin Gopal, plans to introduce another version of the bill soon that would stymie any sort of statewide ban. Gopal said his main concern is about how much it might cost consumers to switch when about 85 percent of the state relies on natural gas or fuel oil for heat.
“We need to make sure we understand the pricing because we don’t want to price anybody out,” he said in an interview.
A key climate advantage of using electricity is that it’s fuel-agnostic. An electric grid dominated by coal-fired power plants a generation ago now mostly runs on cleaner-burning natural gas, and emission-free renewables and nuclear units. But natural gas industry leaders argue that heating homes in the winter may turn out to be more expensive with electricity and that many people — including chefs — want to hold on to their gas stoves.
The American Gas Association has also suggested the grid may not be prepared for such a large increase in power demand, particularly as Americans accumulate gadgets and electric vehicles become more widespread — a concern grid operators monitor but consider overblown. The lack of hookups would also preclude using any cleaner gases in the future.
The industry is taking the threat to their business seriously: At least 19, mostly Republican-controlled, states have enacted laws backed by the fossil fuel industry that prevent cities from placing bans on natural gas. Similar bills have been introduced in Pennsylvania, Michigan and Virginia this year.
But even in California, where Democrats hold the Legislature by overwhelming margins, lawmakers have found it difficult to translate local activism into statehouse success. A proposal last year to ban natural gas in new state-owned properties faltered amid opposition from labor unions representing pipefitters and other trades who work on gas infrastructure — which typically back Democrats.
“It was an eye-opener to go from 12 years in county government, where honestly I could put together collaborative legislation on almost any topic involving labor in Santa Clara County and get it passed,” said Cortese, the state senator from San Jose, who sponsored the legislation. In the statehouse, however, he said, “we were going to have to entertain a different working definition of decarbonization other than removal of all-natural gas.”
Yet, San Jose’s 2020 rule expanding its residential gas ban to cover new commercial construction adopted exemptions for hospitals, restaurants and industrial facilities.
New York is similarly grappling with intraparty division as it positions itself to pass the first statewide ban on gas in new construction.
In New York City, new construction under seven stories must be fully electric beginning in 2024 and buildings over seven stories have to meet the standard in 2027. That time frame matches recommendations made by the state Climate Action Council, which is tasked with recommending policies so the state can meet its target of reducing emissions 40 percent by 2030 from 1990 levels.
“It just became an argument over how fast is too fast,” said Dan Zarrilli, New York City’s former senior director of climate policy, who helped craft the gas ban. “But we know the reality of what we need to do for climate change is land in a place as soon as possible.”
New York Gov. Kathy Hochul has voiced support for a ban by 2027, a timeline backed by moderate Democrats who say they’re worried about added costs for new buildings and energy bills. The powerful real estate lobby, REBNY, is also pushing for a slower approach, particularly after it failed to convince New York City regulators.
Left-leaning lawmakers contend 2027 is too late and are instead pushing a bill that would deny new gas permits in 2024. The debate is a central focus of state budget negotiations, which must be finalized by April 1.
“There’s an argument to be made that New York has the potential and has demonstrated itself as a model for other states to follow when it comes to climate and environmental issues,” said Liz Moran, the New York policy advocate for the nonprofit Earthjustice.
How this particular climate campaign turns out in New York — and how much intraparty bruising happens among Democrats — is likely to guide how these anti-gas policies are messaged to chilly-weather locales.
“It’s not a coincidence that this is happening in a place like Berkeley or San Francisco — these are places with mild climates,” said Lucas Davis, an economist at the University of California, Berkeley who studies natural gas and electricity policies. “There’s a lot of people who care about climate change in a place like Minnesota, but you don’t hear about it in Minnesota, and I think that’s a realization that it would be really expensive to force houses in Minnesota to use electric heating.”
That’s not to say colder places aren’t pursuing some measures. Minnesota is encouraging utilities to offer incentives for electric heat pumps under a law passed last year. Colorado passed a similar law in June creating a “clean heat standard” for gas utilities.
To progressives, a broad phaseout of gas is just a matter of time.
“More and more, as these disruptions and climate impacts keep happening,” said Zarrilli, the former New York City climate adviser, “there is going to be more demand to take bolder action to deal with those threats and deal with those problems at their root cause.“