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Economy

What Berkeley’s Overturned Gas Ban Means for Electrifying Everything

The city’s gas ban started an electric revolution. What happens now that a court struck it down?

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A federal court decision on Monday throws into question one of the most consequential events in the recent history of climate action.

In 2019, the city council of Berkeley, California, voted to ban the extension of natural gas lines to new buildings, becoming the first city in the nation to force developers to forego gas appliances like furnaces and stoves. Other than a few earlier fracking bans in states like New York and Vermont that attacked the supply side of the equation, it was also one of the first attempts to bridle the U.S.’s growing dependence on natural gas in the name of climate change.

That bold step reverberated across the country, waking many up to the fact that furnaces, water heaters, stoves, and clothes dryers are significant drivers of global warming. Gas bans became a popular way for local governments to begin to tackle their emissions in the absence of federal regulations. In the less than four years since Berkeley’s law passed, nearly 100 municipalities — including Los Angeles, New York City, Seattle, and Washington, D.C. — have adopted similar policies that either require developers to build all-electric, or strongly encourage it.

But meanwhile, Berkeley’s original ban was under threat. A trade group called the California Restaurant Association sued the city just months after the law passed. While a district court sided with Berkeley in 2021, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit has now overturned that ruling.

So is it all over for gas bans?

The Ninth Circuit’s decision certainly mucks up the options that cities and states have to steer the transition to clean energy. But the phrase “gas ban” is really a shorthand for a wide range of policies that cities and states have tested, many of which are unlikely to be affected by Monday’s ruling.

“While the Ninth Circuit decision does impact some aspects of local authority to electrify buildings, it is far from a knockout blow,” wrote Amy Turner, a senior fellow at Columbia Law School who leads the Cities Climate Law Initiative, in a blog post on the ruling.

The Ninth Circuit found that Berkeley’s ban was preempted by a federal law called the Energy Policy and Conservation Act, which says that cities cannot regulate the energy use of products that are regulated by the Department of Energy. Berkeley didn't attempt to set energy standards for furnaces or stoves, but the Ninth Circuit argued that by prohibiting gas line extensions, the city limited “the end-user’s ability to use installed covered products.”

Turner noted that Berkeley’s approach relies “on its police powers, or its authority to govern with respect to health and safety.” But other jurisdictions have tried different approaches, banning gas through the alteration of building energy codes and air emissions standards.

For example, the Boston suburb of Brookline, Massachusetts, adopted a building code with tough energy efficiency standards that all but force the use of electric appliances in new construction. In this case, the city put restrictions on the total energy a building can consume — not individual products — and gave builders options to comply. Technically a developer there can still install gas lines if they take other measures to conserve energy. Some states preempt local governments from setting their own building codes, however, so that strategy won’t work everywhere.

New York City also went in a different direction, subjecting new buildings to carbon dioxide emissions limits starting in 2024. “No person shall permit the combustion of any substance that emits 25 kilograms or more of carbon dioxide per million British thermal units of energy,” the law reads, essentially precluding the use of any gas-burning appliances. Since the law pertains to air emissions, rather than energy use, the Energy Policy and Conservation Act would not apply. But Turner wrote that other “legal questions remain” about this approach.

The Ninth Circuit decision only applies in states under the jurisdiction of that court, so Berkeley’s law can still be used as a playbook in other parts of the country — though communities may be hesitant to borrow it, at least for now. Berkeley has not yet confirmed whether it would appeal the decision, but E&E News reported that the city’s lawyers said they were not ruling it out and were assessing next steps.

The California Restaurant Association isn’t the only group fighting electrification policies. The natural gas industry has orchestrated a nation-wide campaign to block local governments from following Berkeley’s lead. Twenty Republican-led states, including Arizona, Texas, and Florida, have passed laws prohibiting municipalities from limiting the fuels that can be used in buildings. Those states account for 30% of residential gas consumption and 33% of commercial consumption, according to S&P Global. While the Inflation Reduction Act offers residents and businesses funding to voluntarily adopt electric heat pumps and induction stoves, there’s little, if anything, communities in those states can do to prevent developers from choosing gas instead.

Still, with many of the country’s largest cities having already followed Berkeley’s lead, and some states, like New York, considering state-wide policies to stanch gas use, the era of the gas ban is far from over.

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Emily Pontecorvo

Emily is a founding staff writer at Heatmap. Previously she was a staff writer at the nonprofit climate journalism outlet Grist, where she covered all aspects of decarbonization, from clean energy to electrified buildings to carbon dioxide removal. Read More

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