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Gas ban monitor: Calif. commission approves 5 measures; 2nd Mass. ban advances

A number of municipality-level gas ban or electrification-focused measures moved forward recently despite opposition, finding support from policymakers in both California and Massachusetts.

The growing debate over gas bans is both ideological and procedural. It touches on natural gas' role in the energy space and in climate policy, and also the appropriate role of local jurisdictions in steering energy efficiency and customer choice. As gas ban proposals have proliferated in recent months, this ranging debate has spanned the U.S., and within the past week alone, there have been developments on both coasts as states, business advocates, environmental groups and policymakers have advanced their priorities.

5 Calif. gas bans, building electrification measures move forward

The California Energy Commission, or CEC, on Dec. 11 approved building electrification ordinances in four cities and one county. The green light from the state's energy policy and planning agency clears the way for the jurisdictions to implement measures that prohibit or dissuade developers from including natural gas systems in new buildings.

The ordinance in Menlo Park, Calif., requires electric space and water heating but allows gas hookups for cooking and fireplaces in new residential buildings. It requires all-electric systems and solar generation in new commercial buildings, with some exceptions.

Three other San Francisco Bay area jurisdictions — San Jose, San Mateo and Marin County — as well as Santa Monica in Southern California, took a different approach. Their ordinances require new buildings that include natural gas systems to achieve higher energy efficiency standards than all-electric buildings. The measures aim to make gas less attractive to real estate developers.

The CEC reviews ordinances that take advantage of authority granted to local governments to set building energy efficiency standards above state minimum standards. The commission said these so-called reach codes are gaining momentum and called the current wave of local decarbonization-focused standards "unprecedented."

"There is a clear mandate to decarbonize our energy systems and our economy. At the state level, we should partner with, learn from, and support local jurisdictions who develop innovative solutions to improve the energy performance of their communities," Commissioner Andrew McAllister said in a statement.

Opposition in California heats up

Three chambers of commerce representing minority-owned businesses in California lodged their opposition to the measures in a Dec. 10 letter to CEC Chair David Hochschild. The business groups raised concerns that gas bans and electrification codes would increase energy costs, creating an acute burden for working families, and adversely impact the state's growing number of small restaurants.

The groups also said the CEC did not do sufficient outreach ahead of the meeting.

"We are shocked to learn that this discussion is happening without truly engaging the public directly and having a thorough discussion about this possibility and potential options and impacts that consumers need to consider," said the leaders of the California Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, the California Black Chamber of Commerce and the California Asian Pacific Chamber of Commerce.

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Nineteen labor, religious and business groups also urged Hochschild to slow the approval of the measures in a Dec. 11 letter organized by Californians for Balanced Energy Solutions, a coalition that opposes gas bans. The groups cited the CEC's mandate "to encourage the balanced use of all sources of energy to meet the state's needs, and to seek to avoid possible undesirable consequences of reliance on a single source of energy."

Meanwhile, Southern California Gas Co. announced on Dec. 11 that its outreach has led to 114 cities, towns and counties passing resolutions urging state policymakers to reject efforts to prohibit the use of gas in buildings.

Cambridge, Mass., advances another Boston-area gas ban

The City Council Ordinance Committee in Cambridge, Mass., passed a motion on Dec. 11 to advance a proposed gas ban to the full council, a key step towards passing the second Boston-area prohibition into law.

The committee resolved to flesh out the legislation in the coming months and voted to request the city manager convene stakeholder meetings. Councilman Quinton Zondervan, who is spearheading the effort, said he would seek to limit exemptions to the ordinance, which would prohibit gas heating and cooking in new buildings.

"I think it's an important victory and I think it's really important for all the towns and municipalities to really stick together on this and say: [It] is really critical that we deal with this, and if the state won't act, we will," Zondervan said in an interview.

The legislation moved forward despite an opinion from the city solicitor that state law governing building permitting and access to gas service would likely preempt the ordinance if it were challenged in court.

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The measure drew support from environmentalists and climate activists such as Mothers Out Front, while opponents included Eversource Energy, which delivers gas in the area, as well as labor representatives and the local chamber of commerce.

Mass. Coalition for Sustainable Energy — an industry-funded coalition of business groups that advocates for greater access to natural gas in the Bay State — also signaled it would step up to oppose gas bans in Massachusetts.

"What we believe is that natural gas is a tool to over time continually reduce your emissions footprint as other renewables scale up viably, and that by arbitrarily and very ideologically restricting that capacity you're going to further compromise the emissions reductions progress we've made already," said Bill Ryan, chairman of strategic consulting firm Pilgrim Strategies, who represents the organization.