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Natural Gas Becomes Important Battleground In Transition From Fossil Fuels 

2021 was a big year for natural gas bans as cities continue to lead the way in phasing out gas from homes and buildings. From New York City’s recent ban on gas in new construction, to Californian cities’ steady march to “cut the pipe,” to the backlash and ban on gas bans in 20 states, methane has become an important battleground where the American transition from fossil fuels is taking place.

Most of the gas bans to date have been regulations prohibiting gas pipelines in new buildings. But last November, Ithaca, NY became the first city to go further and lay out an ambitious policy to transition all buildings to electric by 2030. Let’s reflect on what happened in 2021 and look ahead to a continued methane phase out likely coming in 2022.

Early Adopter Natural Gas Bans

The first gas ban was adopted a mere 2.5 years ago, in 2019, in Berkeley, California. Since then, over 54 California cities (and counting) have followed Berkeley’s lead in some shape or form, with 13 cities added to the list in 2021. The Sierra Club has the best running tracker of this California momentum. Refresh the page and the number seems to constantly grow higher. Notable amongst the more recent CA cities banning gas last year was Petaluma, California, which banned new gasoline stations along with natural gas.

And gas bans have spread beyond California’s borders. The biggest bombshell of 2021 came just a couple weeks ago when America’s largest city, New York, banned gas in new construction. The city’s size, its cold climate, and distance from the ban-gas-bandwagon of California make this policy a game-changer in the transition from natural gas. 

New York to phase out fossil fuels in buildings. Photo by Triston Dunn on Unsplash

Seattle also banned gas in new construction in 2021, and the Washington towns of Longview, Bellingham, and Olympia followed suit. The other state on the radar is Massachusetts, where towns are petitioning the state legislature for an exemption to allow them to supersede state law and prohibit natural gas in new construction. 

Up to last year, the movement to ban gas has been primarily driven by cities, but counties and states started getting in on the action as well. Multnomah County in Oregon, where I reside, passed a bill to ban gas in new county buildings, and Whatcom County, Washington, banned all new fossil fuel infrastructure. At the state level, California, Washington, Minnesota, Colorado, Illinois, and Massachusetts passed laws encouraging efficiency and electrification. (For a more complete look at what’s happening at the state level, check out this great article by RMI). New York Governor Kathy Hochul just proposed a ban on gas in new construction in New York, so keep your eyes on New York as the first likely state to begin to phase out natural gas at the state level. 

States That Prohibited Natural Gas Bans in 2021 & the Liberal/Conservative Divide

Map courtesy of SP Global

In contrast, many states in the South and Midwest went the opposite direction in 2021 and prohibited local jurisdictions from banning natural gas in their communities. Let’s call this a “ban on gas bans.” Last year, this included 16 states  (20 states total in recent years) all controlled by Republicans. This is, I suppose, democracy at work, although the American Gas Lobby seems heavily advantaged in resources compared to on-the-ground activists on the other side. 

This ban on gas bans shouldn’t be too worrisome or surprising for advocates trying to transition off fossils (full disclosure, I’m one of them). Backlashes to any new idea are inevitable. This particular backlash might be compared to that over same-sex marriage, which was a defining cultural issue of the early 2000s. Over a period of 13 years, from 1995 to 2008, nearly every state in the union banned same sex marriage, most even writing it into their state constitutions. But shortly after, the cultural tide turned, and the supreme court ruled that same-sex marriage was legal in 2015. The question has been settled ever since, making the backlash look like a silly blip on the road to progress. 

Ithaca Becomes First City To Try To Phase Out Fossil Gas From All Buildings

Ithaca, a small college town in upstate New York, passed two ambitious laws last year. The first bans gas in all new construction, similar to other leading cities, while the second, passed in November 2021, goes even further and seeks to phase out all natural gas in buildings in 8 short years. 

Beautiful Ithaca to fully transition off gas by 2030. Photo by Will Barkoff on Unsplash

To support the transition, Ithaca also identified $100 million in private funding to help make this happen. This private funding will pay for the up-front costs of converting to all-electric technologies (heat pumps and induction stoves) and the money will be paid back through operational savings. “We got someone to upfront the money, they put in $100 million and we have 20 years to pay it back, and only if it works,” says Luis Aguirre-Torres on Ithaca’s website. “If it doesn’t work, we don’t pay it back. For it to work, we need people to pay less for electricity. It’s an awesome deal.” The city is starting to retrofit low income residences first to ensure electrification benefits those who need it most

If Ithaca is successful in its ambitious, city-wide, natural gas phase-out, it could provide an important model for the rest of the country and world. 

2022 & Beyond

2022 will most likely continue and expand the trend towards phasing out natural gas. As mentioned above, New York could become the first state to ban future use of this fossil fuel in new buildings, which would be historic. California is close behind and many other states are promoting electrification, even if not taking the gas industry head on. 

In my state of Oregon, Eugene looks poised to become the first city to ban gas in new construction, with the city council voting late last year to study the possibility of a ban.  And many cities that have banned gas in new construction are likely to follow Ithaca’s example of beginning to phase it out in existing buildings. 

Gas faces significant challenges in remaining a long term part of our fuel mix. It’s virtually impossible to make significant quantities of it renewably, while clean electricity along with the efficient machines to use it get less expensive and more widespread by the year. 

Even with the backlash of bans on gas bans, 2021 was a major year in our transition from fossil fuels as we continue to imagine, create and move toward a world without the combustion and pollution of fossil fuels. 

 

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Written By

Joe lives in Portland, Oregon, and works for the nonprofit New Buildings Institute, which promotes electric and decarbonized buildings. He also volunteers with Electrify Now because he believes that electrifying everything, from transportation to homes, is the quickest path to an equitable, clean energy future. And of course, Joe and his family live in an all-electric home and drive an EV.

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