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Coronavirus slows gas ban momentum, creates obstacles for pipeline opponents

The coronavirus pandemic has created new challenges for climate activists, disrupting attempts to limit natural gas use in buildings and forcing pipeline opponents to retrench in the digital realm.

Cities, towns and counties have spearheaded recent efforts to ban gas use or require electric heating in new buildings. But COVID-19 response is now consuming local lawmakers' attention, while restrictions on public gatherings hamper meetings required to craft the policies.

Meanwhile, environmentalists are scrambling to move meetings and public demonstrations to online venues as states order citizens to remain at home. The groups are simultaneously waging a new battle against oil and gas bailouts and positioning themselves to navigate the post-coronavirus landscape.

Gas bans slowed by black swan

The states where local gas bans are advancing — California, Massachusetts and Washingtonhave all taken aggressive measures to stop the spread of COVID-19, slowing the momentum of a climate change policy whose swift and sudden rise caught the gas industry off guard.

The Seattle City Council suspended committee meetings shortly after its Sustainability and Renters' Rights Committee agreed to resume work on a gas ban developed in 2019. Committee Chair Kshama Sawant is focused on virus response in the hard-hit Seattle metropolitan area and will likely continue gas ban discussions once meetings resume, the council's press office said.

READ MORE: Sign up for our weekly coronavirus newsletter here, and read our latest coverage on the crisis here.

City Council staff in Bellingham, Wash., are similarly focused on emergency response, according to Councilman Michael Lilliquist. He could not tell whether the reprioritization would substantially delay lawmakers from considering an electric heating retrofit requirement.

"It is possible that staff may be able to get back to work on it, but holding public meetings or a public hearing is out of the question for now," he said.

In Cambridge, Mass., the timeline for putting a gas ban in place by Jan. 1, 2021, has not changed, but the situation remains "extremely fluid," according to City Councilmember Quinton Zondervan. The lawmaker has advocated for swift implementation of the ban.

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"I remain hopeful for the moment that we will return to some semblance of a new normal in the next couple of months where we can get back to working on other things," he said.

In nearby Newton, Mass., City Council work is moving forward through remote video conferencing, said Councilwoman Emily Norton, one of several lawmakers spearheading a gas ban. That included identifying experts who could give presentations and answer questions about the policy before the Public Facilities Committee, she said.

Climate activists shift to digital battleground

The Bay State's first gas ban passed in the 240-member Brookline Town Meeting in November 2019, but just four months later, such a gathering has become virtually unimaginable.

Mothers Out Front, a climate activist group that fought for the ban, outlined a plan on March 11 to move meetings online, train members to organize in the digital realm, and offer tools for social media and call-in campaigns.

New York Communities for Change, a Brooklyn-based organization that typically organizes several public actions per week, is similarly training its members in digital activism amid the disruption. Many of those members are in their 50s and 60s and more accustomed to boots-on-the-ground work, said Patrick Houston, a climate and inequality campaigns organizer at NYCC.

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Patrick Houston was part of a large turnout of climate activists at a public meeting hosted by National Grid in Long Island, N.Y., on March 9. The company will hold its remaining meetings to discuss its gas supply plan online due to COVID-19 restrictions.

Source: S&P Global Market Intelligence.

"As an organization, our bread and butter is people in the streets, in-person action, but for a while we've been working towards ... the effort of getting our members more comfortable with online tools and strengthening our online community," he said.

Still, some activists worry about losing the ability to tap more traditional strategies as the pipeline projects they oppose advance.

Concern about the virus halted weekly protests at National Grid USA gas main construction sites in Brooklyn, according to Lee Ziesche, community engagement coordinator at renewables-focused organization the Sane Energy Project. Another group that recently disrupted work on the gas reliability project, Extinction Rebellion, has also ceased direct action, she said.

"We don't want to put workers at risk. We don't want to put the community at risk. This is all about protecting the community," Ziesche said. "But it is a little scary that National Grid could just keep building this pipeline, and we don't have the same ability to stop it the way we did."

Slowing energy infrastructure while flattening the curve

The Sane Energy Project asked the New York Department of Public Service to pause the public comment period on National Grid's long-term gas supply report until the company can resume community meetings. The department instead allowed National Grid to host online feedback sessions.

The Delaware Riverkeeper Network, a group that opposes fossil fuel projects, has similarly requested state and federal agencies stop the advance of any policy, project permit, rulemaking or regulation in Delaware, New Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania until public meetings can resume. The group's leader, Maya van Rossum, said regulators are tilting the playing field in the industry's favor by allowing proceedings to move forward even as they cancel the meetings and officials prohibit protests.

"We are being stymied on every front and there are huge accommodations being made to help the oil and gas industry and the pipeline companies and the LNG export facilities," she said.

Environmentalists said they are now racing to address new issues surfacing as a direct result of the COVID-19 response. That includes ensuring fiscal stimulus funds do not go to fossil fuel companies and opposing the Trump administration's efforts to throw a lifeline to U.S. shale drillers.

Van Rossum said it was critical to prevent taxpayer funds from supporting carbon polluters, especially because a looming global recession will likely limit environmentalists' ability to solicit grants and donations to fund their operations.

Ziesche said her group is also preparing to advocate for New Yorkers who may be out of work and facing large gas bills once utilities stop suspending service shutoffs. But climate advocates think the coming recession will also present a case for one of their biggest goals: passing a Green New Deal.

"When we get out of this, the stimulus we'll need is something like a Green New Deal," Ziesche said. "This would be a chance to put lots of people back to work building the renewable future we need."