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Brookline, Massachusetts, is latest battleground

Vote on measure could be bellwether for support in East

Houston — Lawmakers in a Boston suburb are set to vote to ban natural gas in new buildings, marking the Bay State's first foray into a climate change policy that has unsettled the industry since it was pioneered in Berkeley, California, earlier this year.

The 240-seat Town Meeting in Brookline, Massachusetts, will consider the amendment to its bylaws during a Tuesday session. The proposed article would prohibit fossil fuel piping in new buildings or major renovations, effectively requiring electric appliances, heat and hot water systems in new construction.

The amendment's co-sponsors say the measure is necessary to achieve the town's goal of achieving net-zero emissions by 2050.

"Every new building constructed with fossil fuel infrastructure makes this goal harder to achieve, by lighting a new fire that will burn, on and off, for thirty years or more," they wrote in their proposal. "It is unfair to the next generation to continue to install infrastructure that we already know will need to be replaced in a very short time."

The vote could be a bellwether for support for gas bans on the East Coast as local officials in neighboring Cambridge and Newton, Massachusetts, advance similar measures. The momentum behind gas bans and building electrification ordinances to date has been centered on the West Coast, with several California cities following Berkeley's lead and Seattle taking up the issue.

The Brookline effort is also a test of whether Berkeley-style bans can pass statutory muster in Massachusetts. Local officials have modeled their proposals on Berkeley's ordinance, but they anticipate their legislation could clash with Massachusetts utility law and spark a legal challenge.

The first test will be a review by the Massachusetts attorney general's office, which scrutinizes all bylaw amendments. If the attorney general allows the measure to stand, Kresowik expects other cities beyond Brookline, Cambridge and Newton to follow their lead.

But the ban could also face a challenge from the industry on the grounds that the change undermines a key purpose of state utility law: ensuring that residents can access gas service.

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National Grid USA, which provides gas service in Brookline and Newton, opposes the proposed bylaw amendment.

"The urgency we all share to act now to mitigate climate change has polarized the policy conversation and obscured the fact that the gas network has a role to play in a clean energy future," Danielle Williamson, corporate affairs director for National Grid in Massachusetts, said in an email. "We disagree that the imperative to decarbonize the heating sector should be framed as an absolute prohibition on the continued use of natural gas in the short term."

Companies have typically prevailed in challenging local gas-related ordinances and fees in Massachusetts because courts have consistently ruled that state law preempts them, according to a study conducted by the city law department in Newton, Massachusetts.

However, the ban borrowed from Berkeley is a novel approach because it does not seek to regulate any part of utility distribution systems from the fuel's point of origin to the gas meter. Instead, it prohibits the city from issuing building permits to structures that would include fossil fuel piping inside the home, including gut renovations. As written, the amendment would take effect June 1, 2020.

-- Tom DiChristopher, S&P Global Market Intelligence, newsdesk@spglobal.com

-- Edited by Joe Fisher, newsdesk@spglobal.com