As Locales Move to Decarbonize Buildings, Will States Ban Gas Bans?

October 13, 2021
Bans on new construction with natural gas hookups, like that used in the stove burner above, are popping up around the country over concerns about the fossil fuel's contribution to global warming. Photo: Federico Cardoner, Flickr Creative Comons. Click to enlarge.

TipSheet: As Locales Move to Decarbonize Buildings, Will States Ban Gas Bans?

By Joseph A. Davis

One of the biggest climate change fights brewing on the homefront involves natural gas and home appliances, raising the prospect that a legitimate effort to electrify while reducing greenhouse gas emissions could turn into a front in the culture wars.

One of the first shots was fired back in July 2019 in Berkeley, Calif., when the city banned natural gas in newly constructed buildings. It was the first such ban in the United States.

But it wasn’t just some tie-dyed New Age whim. Similar bans quickly popped up all over the country — as did lawsuits challenging them, along with actions by state legislatures to ban such bans. Now it’s a big issue.

 

Why it matters

It hardly needs stating that human-caused climate change threatens to make human life on the planet worse in many ways (we all hear about this in the media quite often, of course), and two-thirds of Americans think the government should do more to address climate change, polls show.

One estimate is that fossil fuel combustion from residential buildings amounts to 29 percent of all emissions from the United States (the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has put it lower).

Although coal and oil once contributed a major share from home heating, the burning of natural gas (fossil methane) is now the biggest contributor.

A lot of it is used in furnaces for heating, but more is used for hot water, clothes dryers and gas cooking ranges. Many chefs like gas (you might even know a cook who will mutter something about prying his or her gas stove from his or her cold, dead hands).

 

The fossil fuel methane is itself

a greenhouse gas, more powerful

in some ways than CO2 itself.

 

Natural gas is a climate issue for several reasons. When it burns, it produces the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide (although less than fuels like coal). But the fossil fuel methane is itself a greenhouse gas, more powerful in some ways than CO2 itself.

But the nationwide network of pipes and pumps that delivers gas is full of leaks, emitting much of its methane before it ever gets to any user. Climate activists see the whole natural gas system as lacking effective methane control rules (as the United States does at the moment), so argue it is in need of tightening and downsizing.

In theory, the alternative is electricity. But electricity only helps quell climate change if it is generated from clean sources like wind turbines and solar voltaic panels. The U.S. grid does not yet deliver a majority of its power from clean sources, although it seems headed in that direction.

The point is that theory and practice differ. The current chaotic consideration of climate legislation in Congress only shows how hard it may be to defossilize and decarbonize the U.S. system. Stay tuned.

 

The backstory

The 2019 ordinance in Berkeley banned permits for gas hookups (the pipes that connect buildings to street mains) in certain new construction, including low-rise residential, after Jan. 1, 2020. Over time it would apply to other types of new buildings.

Berkeley’s ordinance was quickly challenged in court by the California Restaurant Association. It argued that chefs needed gas stoves for the precise, fast temperature control good cooking demanded.

They may have been right, although cooking preference is a complex and subjective thing. No matter. By July 2021, a federal judge had tossed that lawsuit, and the industry promptly appealed.

Slowly at first, and then more rapidly, other local jurisdictions adopted similar bans or restrictions into their building codes. By April 2021, some 40 other municipalities in California had passed similar measures.

More were under consideration in other states, like Colorado, Washington and Massachusetts. California’s statewide building code avoided an outright gas ban when it was re-drafted in summer 2021, but kept a strong preference for electricity.

But the conflict has indeed escalated to the state level. Climate activists are hoping to win gas bans in other states. But various industry and anti-regulatory lobbies have already preempted them in some states, by banning gas bans. Those include Arizona, Texas, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Kansas and Louisiana.

 

Story ideas

  • Start by looking into the building codes in the localities you report on. What do they say about the requirements for electricity and gas, as well as heating, air conditioning, hot water and cooking appliances?
  • Look at city and county councils to see whether there is any movement for (or against) gas bans in building codes and other rules.
  • Look at your state legislature and try to identify lawmakers who are working either for or against gas bans statewide.
  • Talk to a variety of cooks (professional or otherwise) about what kind of cooking setup they prefer — and why.
  • Talk to HVAC companies locally about the comparative advantages of various modes of heating. What do they say about heat pumps?

 

Reporting resources

  • Your local government bodies, which enact and enforce building codes — including councils, boards and staff.
  • Your state legislators and their staff, who may be working on building electrification or ban-the-bans.
  • Building Electrification Institute, an alliance of cities working at the city level to find and offer resources to support cities in switching to electricity for buildings.
  • Building Decarbonization Coalition, a California-centric group (in a state with a highly non-fossil fuel energy diet) that while pro-electrification includes many industry groups, including some that sell gas.
  • American Gas Association, the main lobby group of the U.S. gas industry.
  • American Petroleum Institute, the lobbying arm of the U.S. oil and gas industry, funder for a large campaign of TV ads that portray gas as a clean fuel.
  • Clean Energy Group, a nonprofit advocacy group supporting clean energy and connected to the Clean Energy States Alliance.
  • American Council on Renewable Energy, a nonprofit think tank and policy group supporting a transition to renewable energy.

Joseph A. Davis is a freelance writer/editor in Washington, D.C. who has been writing about the environment since 1976. He writes SEJournal Online's TipSheet, Reporter's Toolbox and Issue Backgrounder, and curates SEJ's weekday news headlines service EJToday and @EJTodayNews. Davis also directs SEJ's Freedom of Information Project and writes the WatchDog opinion column.


* From the weekly news magazine SEJournal Online, Vol. 6, No. 36. Content from each new issue of SEJournal Online is available to the public via the SEJournal Online main page. Subscribe to the e-newsletter here. And see past issues of the SEJournal archived here.

SEJ Publication Types: 
Visibility: