When Brookline banned new natural gas hookups last month, many in the business community worried it would be the first of many dominoes to fall.
Well, here they go.
Next in line: Cambridge, and then Newton.
On Wednesday, a Cambridge City Council committee held a hearing on a proposed ordinance that would block natural gas connections in new buildings or major reconstruction projects; a Newton City Council committee discussed advancing a similar measure last week.
And officials in more than a dozen other municipalities, such as Lexington and Arlington, have started to consider bans. All this activity reflects the growing concern that not enough is being done to rein in carbon emissions and address the climate crisis.
As if building housing around Greater Boston wasn’t tough already. Opponents representing various business and development constituencies argue that this piecemeal approach to energy regulation will simply drive up construction costs and hinder economic development, while achieving minimal environmental benefits. They say the electricity-powered alternatives to natural gas, such as heat pumps, are more expensive and less effective.
These fears were raised this fall in the Brookline debate. But they weren’t enough to deter Town Meeting members from overwhelmingly approving the ban on Nov. 20, although some exemptions were added.
Brookline still needs to send the measure to Attorney General Maura Healey’s municipal law unit, which reviews town bylaws to determine their legality. Many gas-ban advocates want to wait for the results of that 90-day review before stirring things up in other towns.
City ordinances, however, don’t need the AG’s approval. In Cambridge and Newton, officials are using the language of a gas ban in Berkeley, Calif., as a starting point. Quinton Zondervan, the councilor behind the Cambridge proposal, said his measure is more stringent than Brookline’s, allowing waivers only on a case-by-case basis, when developers can demonstrate their buildings simply can’t function without gas. He hopes the council approves it within the next few months.
In Newton, City Councilor Emily Norton is also pressing ahead. The next step will be a closed-door executive session, potentially next month, in which councilors discuss the best way to craft the ordinance with the city’s legal counsel.
Norton, a former Sierra Club leader who oversees the Charles River Watershed Association, said she’s not really concerned about the impact on economic development. Instead, she’s more concerned about the role natural gas plays in global warming.
A list compiled by the Sierra Club shows at least 20 other bans in California, following the Berkeley vote in July. (Local critics, meanwhile, note the climate in much of the state is far more temperate than New England’s.)
Mark Kresowik, a deputy director with the Sierra Club, said Massachusetts is at the forefront of this debate on the East Coast. Two factors he cites: Boston has the second-oldest natural gas pipeline system in the country, after Baltimore’s, and the Merrimack Valley explosions of September 2018 underscored the risks of using this fuel.
Carol Oldham, executive director of the Massachusetts Climate Action Network, said she has heard interest in banning gas hookups from at least 15 municipalities in the state.
The business backlash has begun. The Massachusetts Restaurant Association’s chief executive, Bob Luz, said the organization advised its Cambridge members of the proposed ban to rally the troops; he hopes that gas hookups for eateries, at least, can win some sort of exemption, as they did in Brookline.
The Cambridge City Council received letters of opposition from the Cambridge Chamber of Commerce and the Mass Coalition for Sustainable Energy, a pro-gas group that is partially funded by the utilities Eversource and National Grid.
Also opposed: the local arm of the American Petroleum Institute and the commercial real estate group NAIOP Massachusetts. NAIOP’s chief executive, Tamara Small, said she plans to emphasize that bans could exacerbate the region’s already significant housing shortage as she campaigns against the restrictions.
Eversource, which supplies electricity and natural gas to Cambridge, sent an executive to testify in opposition at the hearing on Wednesday. Spokeswoman Caroline Pretyman said the measure could have the opposite effect of what’s intended, by increasing demand for electricity at peak times, thus requiring natural gas-fired power plants to run more frequently and possibly more substations to be built. A ban, she adds, would drive up customers’ already high electric bills, not to mention the prices of new homes and commercial buildings in a high-cost market. (Massachusetts has among the highest retail electricity costs of any state.)
For many big energy projects, local authorities find themselves superseded by state and federal agencies; witness the heated showdown over Enbridge’s controversial compressor station project in Weymouth.
Here’s one way that municipal leaders in Massachusetts can take matters into their own hands. How many will do so remains an open question. If California is any indication, they’re just getting started here.