Story at a glance

  • A Massachusetts community is among the first on the East Coast to adopt a natural gas and heating oil ban in favor of using electricity to supply utilities.
  • The law aims to cut carbon emissions from commercial and residential buildings.
  • Multiple ordinances have been passed along the West Coast, but the East may have a tougher time adapting.

The town of Brookline, Mass., voted to ban gas and oil piping in future construction projects in hopes of reducing its carbon footprint, the Boston Globe reports. Brookline joins Berkeley, Calif., and a handful of other cities in California as the first places in the U.S. to ban the use of fossil fuels to supply utilities like heat and cooking gas in new construction. Berkeley’s ban only applies to new construction, while Brookline’s also applies to substantial renovations — closing a potential loophole.

Brookline and Berkeley’s ordinances could signal a new trend in local climate action. To date, cities have mostly focused on reducing greenhouse gas emissions from generating electricity, but the votes in Berkeley and Brookline show that the carbon footprints of heating and cooling buildings are receiving increased attention.

The numbers for the state of Massachusetts suggest this attention is warranted: commercial and residential buildings account for 24.5 percent of the state’s greenhouse gas emissions, while power plants are responsible for just 20 percent. 

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Tommy Vitolo, a Massachusetts state representative and Town Meeting member, told Boston.com that “the decision that Brookline made...not only signals to our community that clean heating and cooling are possible and practical, but also shows residents and policymakers throughout the state, the nation, and the world that they can do it, too.” 

Despite local support for the new bylaw, it may prove a tough sell for the Northeastern U.S. more broadly. The region’s cold winters and hot, humid summers, will make its transition away from natural gas and fuel oil more challenging than the comparatively temperate climes of California.   

The electric heating pumps that would replace existing utilities are also costly to install and operate, especially compared to natural gas which is cheap, plentiful and can be easily installed, even in old buildings. Natural gas industry groups offered up a federal estimate showing the cost of supplying the average Northeastern home with electric heating this winter would be $1,391 and just $712 for natural gas.

Steve Dodge, who leads the Massachusetts Petroleum Council, told E&E News, “I understand their passion and the concern, but this is not the way to address it. This does nothing except cost Brookline property owners money and stifle new development.” Dodge and others argue replacing dirty heating and fuel oils with biodiesels could offer another way of making the built environment less carbon intensive that doesn’t upend existing infrastructure.

But supporters of the ban argue that natural gas’s short-term savings belie its true cost. Expanding and maintaining the region’s gas distribution lines would cost billions, according to Greg Cunningham, who leads the energy and climate program at the Conservation Law Foundation. There are also safety considerations; a ruptured gas line exploded into flames in Massachusetts’s Merrimack Valley in 2018. 

But reinforcing this debate, as well as myriad others around the world, is the urgency of the climate crisis and the resistance to the systemic changes necessary to address it.

Published on Nov 27, 2019