In a first for Massachusetts, Brookline votes to ban oil and gas pipes in new buildings
BROOKLINE — Seeking to reduce a major source of carbon emissions, Brookline residents have voted to ban the installation of oil and gas pipes in new buildings as well as in extensive renovations of existing buildings — the first such prohibition in Massachusetts.
The controversial bylaw would require homeowners and developers to install heat, hot water, and appliances that use electricity. Only three of more than 200 Town Meeting members voted against the measure Wednesday.
“We need to do something about climate change,” said Werner Lohe, one of the measure’s sponsors and cochair of the town’s climate action committee. “We need to stop burning fossil fuels inside our buildings. . . . This is the first step in Brookline toward an all-electric, all-renewable-energy world.”
He and other proponents said the measure is necessary here and elsewhere, as buildings are responsible for a significant portion of the nation’s greenhouse gas emissions. In Brookline, buildings are responsible for about two-thirds of all emissions.
The new bylaw, which must still be approved by the state attorney general’s office, is part of a growing movement around the country to curb the use of fossil fuels in buildings. It was modeled after similar measures adopted in communities throughout California.
While the measure received overwhelming support at Town Meeting, where supporters in this bastion of liberalism made signs and passed around anti-gas stickers, it was opposed by the fossil fuel industry, real estate developers, and others.
“Prohibiting Brookline residents from choosing an affordable, reliable, and entirely legal heating fuel like natural gas or bioheat is outrageously unfair,” said Stephen Dodge, executive director of the Massachusetts Petroleum Council, a trade association for the gas and oil industry. “If cities and towns can start trying to outlaw utilities licensed by the state Department of Public Utilities from serving willing customers who want to buy energy from them, we’re heading toward regulatory and legal chaos.”
Thomas M. Kiley, president of the Northeast Gas Association, which represents natural gas companies throughout the region, said he expected the new bylaw would be challenged in court.
“How would you like to be opening a new restaurant in Brookline and not be able to have a gas stove?” he said. “How would you like to be a homeowner and not be allowed to put in gas appliances?”
His group supports renewable energy, but he noted that it will take years before solar and wind power can fully replace fossil fuels.
“We still have some of the nation’s highest energy costs,” he said. “Natural gas needs to be a part of the equation as we move forward.”
Representatives of the real estate industry said the bylaw would hike the construction costs of new buildings and increase utility costs for individual homeowners.
“In today’s statewide housing crisis, it is of utmost importance that we do not further hinder the production of housing or increase the cost of living for Brookline residents,” wrote Tamara C. Small, CEO of NAIOP Massachusetts, a trade group for the commercial real estate industry, in a letter to the Brookline Planning Board.
She also noted that it would likely be a while before there are any tangible environmental benefits from the new bylaw, as the region’s electrical grid still relies mainly on natural gas.
“To be clear, this increased use of electricity will not be powered by renewable energy, but rather by a grid that relies on fossil fuel,” she said.
In California, where there was similar criticism of measures passed in 19 communities from Santa Monica to Marin County, officials said that even if it takes time, the ultimate benefits of the new requirements will pay dividends over the coming decades.
Sam Liccardo, mayor of San Jose, said their newly passed bylaw has exceptions for larger buildings.
But he said he was skeptical of some of the opposition, contending that construction costs should actually be lower for buildings that don’t have to undergo the permitting process for installing pipes for gas and oil.
“The bottom line is that the news about climate change never gets less dire — only more so,” he said. “Whatever cost is imposed, or inconvenience we must endure, will come at a bargain compared to the impacts of climate change on our communities.”
Before the vote in Brookline, supporters of the measure urged fellow residents to consider the environmental concerns.
State Representative Tommy Vitolo, also a Town Meeting member, noted that reducing fossil fuels is vital to the state reducing emissions by 80 percent below 1990 levels by 2050, as required by law.
“We’ve got to cut emissions dramatically, which means we have to cut emissions from our buildings,” he said. “When you’re in a hole, the first thing is to stop digging. . . . This bill simply takes away the shovel.”
No one at the meeting spoke out against the measure.
Other supporters noted that the bylaw allows for exemptions for the owners of restaurants, medical labs, and others who could prove that they have no viable alternatives to using fossil fuels. It also allows for a new town board to consider waivers.
“Our goal was to make this as practical as possible, and to make this bylaw work for everyone,” said Kathleen Scanlon, an architect and Town Meeting member who serves as coordinator for Brookline Mothers Out Front. “Many communities are watching Brookline’s . . . vote on this issue. We want our efforts to spread regionally and beyond.”
David Abel can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @davabel.