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AG rejects Brookline’s ban on oil, gas pipes in new buildings

Brookline voted to ban oil and gas pipes in new buildings as part of a new, controversial bylaw in November.
Brookline voted to ban oil and gas pipes in new buildings as part of a new, controversial bylaw in November.DAVID ABEL/GLOBE STAFF

In a move that irked her staunchly liberal supporters, Attorney General Maura Healey on Tuesday rejected a controversial bylaw passed last year by Brookline residents that banned the installation of oil and gas pipes in new and substantially renovated buildings, the first such prohibition in Massachusetts.

The near-unanimous vote of more than 200 Town Meeting members in Brookline, heralded as the first of a number of similar local efforts to reduce carbon emissions, would have required homeowners and developers to install electric heat, hot water, and appliances.

In a statement, Healey said she had long supported efforts to reduce greenhouse gases that cause climate change but had no choice but to reject the bylaw.

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“While we are legally obligated to disapprove bylaws that are inconsistent with state law, we will continue to lead efforts in Massachusetts and nationally to protect ratepayers and the environment, make our buildings more efficient, and work alongside our communities to reduce the threat of climate change,” she said.

Proponents of the bylaw were disappointed by Healey’s decision.

“In spite of today’s ruling, Brookline has proven that building electrification is practical and affordable,” said Lisa Cunningham, a sponsor of the bylaw. “If we are serious about our climate goals, continuing to install obsolete infrastructure is counterproductive and puts us further away from any hope of reaching those goals.”

Supporters of the bylaw, which sought to eliminate emissions responsible for an estimated two-thirds of the town’s greenhouse gases, noted that Healey didn’t find that it violated the state constitution.

As a result, they planned to urge the Legislature to change state law to allow such local bylaws.

“I want to have that conversation with others in the Legislature,” said state Representative Tommy Vitolo, who represents Brookline and also serves as a Town Meeting member. “I’m hopeful that we’ll change the law, but how that plays out, it’s still early. Cities and towns must push forward on this.”

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In a call with several of Healey’s staff members, they said the bylaw conflicted with statutes that preempt local regulations, such as state building and gas codes. It also violated a section of law that requires uniform utility services to the public, they said.

By creating an extra layer of regulation, the bylaw would “undermine” the purpose of the statewide building and gas codes, as well as the authority of the Board of Building Regulations and Standards and Plumbing Board, they said.

The bylaw also risked creating other problems, such as forcing less wealthy communities to pay higher rates for gas and oil. If more towns adopted such regulations, it would leave fewer customers to cover the significant costs that utilities pass on to ratepayers.

The bylaw was part of a growing movement around the country to curb the use of fossil fuels in buildings. It was modeled after similar local measures adopted in California.

While the measure received overwhelming support at Town Meeting, it was opposed by the fossil fuel industry, real estate developers, and others. Many of them praised Healey’s decision.

“The attorney general’s measured decision is positive news for customer choice and energy affordability in Brookline,” said Tom Kiley, president of the Northeast Gas Association, which represents natural gas companies in the region. “The natural gas industry in the Commonwealth is working to help support community efforts to more greatly decarbonize the state’s economy, while at the same time working to provide reliable, affordable, and lower-carbon energy to meet the energy needs of residents and businesses.”

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In an e-mail, NAIOP Massachusetts, a trade group for the commercial real estate industry, called the attorney general’s decision “a huge win for development statewide.”

“At this stage of technology, natural gas bans would block important housing and economic development projects from advancing and would be extremely detrimental to the commonwealth’s economy,” the group wrote.

Brookline’s town attorneys said they would review the decision “for purposes of determining next steps when the opportunity arises.”

Supporters of the bylaw said they hoped to find other ways to achieve their goals.

“The Commonwealth of Massachusetts is infantilizing Brookline and standing in the way of progress on climate,” said Jesse Gray, a Brookline Town Meeting member and co-sponsor of the bylaw. “We call upon the attorney general and upon the state Legislature … to give us the keys to the car that the Commonwealth shows little interest in driving itself.”


David Abel can be reached at david.abel@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @davabel.