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Boston will pursue natural gas ban in new buildings

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Boston will pursue natural gas ban in new buildings

Boston will seek to restrict natural gas use in new buildings by taking part in a new program that allows Massachusetts towns and cities to adopt local gas bans.

Mayor Michelle Wu on Aug. 16 announced her plan for securing one of the 10 slots reserved for Bay State communities. Massachusetts approved the program Aug. 11 as part of a larger climate law, capping a roughly three-year effort spearheaded by Boston-area communities to secure authority to prohibit gas use in buildings.

Boston would become the largest northeast city after New York City to adopt a building gas ban. On-site fossil fuel combustion accounts for more than one-third of Boston's greenhouse gas emissions, according to the mayor's office. The city wants to provide a model for equitably transitioning to fossil fuel-free construction that all of New England can replicate, the office said in a news release.

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"Boston must lead by taking every possible step for climate action," Wu said. "We are eager to carry out the intent of this state legislation and maximize its benefit by including the commonwealth's largest city."

Mayor outlines path forward

The gas ban pilot program was part of House Bill 5060, aimed at driving clean energy and offshore wind. To participate, cities must secure state authority to regulate gas use in buildings through a so-called home rule petition and pass a local ordinance. Cities must also meet an affordable housing threshold and agree to exempt labs and healthcare facilities.

Wu intends to file a home rule petition and launch a community and stakeholder engagement process. Through that process, the city will "define fossil fuel-free building standards, determine applicability, and set the multi-year timeline for phasing out the use of fossil fuels."

Wu plans to convene an advisory committee to develop local fossil fuel-free standards that provide economic opportunities. The committee will include environmental justice, labor, and workers' rights groups as well as representatives from fields spanning building engineering and energy, real estate, architecture, urban design, distributed energy systems and healthcare.

The mayor will also task the committee with integrating "decarbonization, housing affordability, equity, and a just transition for workers" into the fossil fuel phaseout. Wu will file a fossil fuel-free ordinance after consulting with the committee, which she anticipates will wrap its initial work after a "months-long" process.

Massachusetts still draws much of its electric power from fossil fuel sources, but the state intends to reduce grid emissions by 70% from 1990 levels by 2030. With grid goals like that in the works, the building electrification movement seeks to avoid locking in emissions tied to on-site combustion in buildings over the roughly 15-20 year life of fossil fuel furnaces.

Boston aims to "abandon" fossil fuels

The scope of that ordinance remains uncertain, but the mayor's office communicated a focus on small building construction, saying developers know how to build to a net-zero standard in these structures. Gas bans and electrification codes typically include feasibility exemptions for larger building systems, where full electrification can be more complicated.

City officials also indicated their ambition to eliminate gas use in new construction, potentially signaling a different approach than the one taken in Burlington, Vt., which has focused on hybrid heating to achieve rapid building decarbonization.

"The climate crisis requires us to abandon the fossil fuels that are choking the planet and polluting our communities," Mariama White-Hammond, Boston's chief of environment, energy, and open space, said in the release.

National Grid PLC, which operates local gas distributor Boston Gas Co., has pushed for a low-carbon fuels approach, vowing to operate a fossil fuel-free gas distribution system in Massachusetts and New York by 2050.

Boston is also developing a building performance standard, which requires owners of existing buildings to achieve progressively tougher greenhouse gas emissions reductions until they reach net-zero in 2050. The city is also working with the state on its revamp of a stretch energy code that seeks to drive building electrification, the mayor's office said.

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