Business groups are pushing back against a provision in a climate bill up for debate in the state Senate on Thursday that would allow cities and towns to restrict fossil fuel hookups for new buildings and major renovations.
The Senate leadership last week reignited the perennial debate about how easily Massachusetts communities can wean themselves off fossil fuels, by including language in a new climate bill that would allow up to 10 cities and towns to limit such hookups or to ban them entirely for new construction.
While Senate Minority Leader Bruce Tarr has proposed an amendment that would strike the language from the bill, the full Senate’s approval is already widely considered a fait accompli because the measure has the blessing of Democratic leadership. The business groups have started their lobbying push anyway, hoping they can gain enough traction that the language gets dropped in House-Senate negotiations over the bill by the time the Legislature wraps up formal sessions for the year on July 31.
Critics say halting natural gas hookups will drive up housing costs, hurt affordability, and deter development by requiring projects to go all-electric. Meanwhile, supporters argue that restrictions are necessary to significantly reduce emissions from building heat systems, as part of reaching a goal of making Massachusetts net-zero for carbon emissions by 2050.
A half-dozen towns have already voted to impose these fossil-fuel limits, including proposed bylaws in Brookline that were rejected at two different times by Attorney General Maura Healey because existing state law didn’t give towns adequate authority to override state building codes. Supporters hope the legislation would alleviate Healey’s concerns.
But business groups point to a previous climate bill signed into law last year by Governor Charlie Baker that included a measure that allows communities to voluntarily adopt new, net-zero building codes. Those rules, which are still being written by the Baker administration, give leeway for builders to use gas hookups if they have adequate emission offsets such as rooftop solar panels.
“Our view is, let that process play out,” said Carolyn Ryan, a senior vice president at the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce, which sent a letter about the issue to state lawmakers on Wednesday. “They’re revising laws that were passed 12 months ago. These things take time.”
Tamara Small, chief executive of real estate trade group NAIOP Massachusetts, added: “We understand climate change is an urgent matter [but] flipping the switch will just stop development.”
To environmental advocates like Caitlin Peale Sloan, the state simply isn’t moving fast enough to reach its decarbonization goals. Converting significant numbers of existing homes and businesses to electric heat will take considerable time, she said, so policy makers should try hard to limit gas hookups in new construction. She accused commercial real estate interests of “crying wolf until the planet is uninhabitable” rather than embracing legislation that’s a solid compromise.
“It certainly threads the needle between the communities that really want to take this step and people who have fears or concerns about this approach to cutting emissions,” said Peale Sloan, a vice president at the Conservation Law Foundation. “These communities are begging to do this.”
Senator Mike Barrett, a Democrat who co-chairs the Legislature’s energy committee, said the Senate adopted this language because the Baker administration’s interpretation of the net-zero legislation from last year didn’t match the Legislature’s intent. The reason he cited: These rules, as drafted by the administration, would bar communities from going all electric for new construction. Barrett’s hometown of Lexington is among the communities that have sought legislative approval to limit gas hookups. So are Concord and Lincoln — also in his district.
“We’re going to what the original legislative intent was, which was to permit communities to go all-electric,” Barrett said.
Barrett pointed to an analysis done by Baker’s Department of Energy Resources, showing it can be cheaper for developers to build single-family homes and some multifamily buildings that rely solely on electric heat, instead of gas, once energy-efficiency subsidies from the state’s Mass Save program are included.
He also noted that the language in the climate bill would give participating communities the flexibility to restrict fossil fuel hookups, without banning them outright. For example, a town could allow natural gas or a propane backup system at a hospital or a school.
“We want the municipality to call the shots, not the individual builder,” Barrett said. “The research shows that an all-electric house can be built less expensively than a house with natural gas.”
However, developers say the additional costs to housing and other construction projects are quite real.
Ted Tye, managing partner at National Development in Newton, said he doubts the region’s electric grid, which is still highly dependent on natural gas, has the capacity to handle a significant rise in demand, and that “building technology has not yet caught up with our desire to fully escape fossil fuels.” And Emerson Clauss, president of Allegiance Construction & Development in Whitinsville, said the studies he has seen show all-electric heating adding tens of thousands of dollars to the cost of building a home. Clauss, the president of the Home Builders & Remodelers Association of Massachusetts, also expects this measure is simply a step toward a statewide effort to restrict gas hookups.
Small-business advocates, such as the Retailers Association of Massachusetts and the National Federation of Independent Business, are also raising alarms about the potential costs, particularly for businesses that traditionally rely on natural gas such as restaurants.
“It does really limit your ability to open a specific type of business in those communities,” said Chris Carlozzi, NFIB’s state director in Massachusetts.
But there is one fossil-fuel trade group that is surprisingly supportive: the Massachusetts Energy Marketers Association, which primarily represents heating oil dealers.
Because it’s unusual for new buildings to rely on oil, the measure wouldn’t directly affect many of the group’s members. And president Michael Ferrante said a test run might even prove a point he’s been making for years: using heat pumps and other electric sources is simply more pricey than fossil fuels, at least for now.
“No one we speak to about the cost of electric heat pumps seems to be listening,” Ferrante said.