Tue, Apr 23 2024 23 April, 2024

New York gas ban in new buildings a milestone

New York gas ban: it became the first U.S. state to ban gas in new building construction, beginning in 2026. It is the latest and most substantial victory for a nationwide effort to decarbonise buildings.

Aerial view of New York downtown building roofs (Photo credit: Adobe Stock/BullRun)

New York has become the first state to mandate all-electric buildings for new construction beginning in 2026, a milestone in the effort to slash greenhouse gas emissions from the buildings sector.

Tucked into the state’s $229 billion budget signed into law on May 3, the move would essentially ban gas connections in any building shorter than seven stories that begins construction in 2026, and for taller buildings, the ban on gas takes effect in 2029. There are exemptions for manufacturing facilities, restaurants, and hospitals, and the new law does not impact existing buildings.

“This is a game changer. We beat the fossil fuel lobby to protect the health and future of New Yorkers. And we’re forging ahead with putting our nation-leading climate law into practice,” State Assembly member Emily Gallagher, who represents part of New York City and who was heavily involved in supporting the measure, said on May 1.

The law also included other notable climate initiatives, including authorizing the New York Power Authority, a state-owned entity, to build renewable energy with an eye on the state’s climate and renewable energy targets. In essence, the entity will build publicly-owned renewable energy in the public interest, rather than leaving it up to the market to meet climate goals, as is the predominant strategy nearly everywhere else in the country.

New York will also establish a “cap-and-invest” programme that charges polluters a fee, with the revenues distributed to consumers and also reinvested in yet-to-be-determined climate programmes.

The state’s landmark 2019 climate law requires a 40 percent reduction in emissions by 2030, from 1990 levels, and the slew of programmes passed as part of this latest budget law fleshes out specific programmes to help the state meet that target.

The phaseout of gas in new building construction, in particular, was an enormous step forward for the state’s climate efforts. New York is not only the first state to ban gas, but it is also an enormous gas consumer. Buildings are the largest source of carbon emissions in the state, surpassing emissions from transportation. And New York consumes more gas in buildings than any other state in the country, accounting for 9 percent of the national total, according to Vox.

“Building electrification is a necessary component of decarbonizing the building sector and reducing greenhouse gas emissions economy-wide. Getting natural gas out of homes and other buildings is also important for public health and safety,” Amy Turner, a senior fellow and associate research scholar at the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law at the Columbia Law School in New York, told Gas Outlook. “The new New York state requirement only applies to newly constructed buildings, but it will help reduce climate-warming pollution and protect New Yorkers living or spending time in those buildings.”

All-electric buildings gain momentum

The New York gas ban builds on similar efforts at the municipal level, which have been proliferating for the last four years. More than 100 cities have passed some version of an all-electric building ordinance or ban on gas connections.

However, many of them are located on the West Coast, where a federal court recently struck a blow against the all-electric building movement. In April, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, which hears appeals from nine western states, shot down the gas ban passed in the city of Berkeley, California.

The judges ruled that Berkeley, by banning gas pipes that would be connected to buildings, had effectively banned gas appliances. And because appliances are regulated under federal law, municipalities cannot ban them, the court said.

Berkeley was one of the first cities to ban gas in buildings, a move that is widely seen as the inspiration for many other similar bans. The latest court decision may put other municipal gas bans in jeopardy, and there’s speculation that it could slow the nationwide all-electric buildings movement.

The American Gas Association, the main national lobbying organization for the gas industry, hailed the decision. “The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit took a huge step today that will both safeguard energy choice for California consumers and help our nation continue on a path to achieving our energy and environmental goals,” said Karen Harbert, AGA president and CEO.

But New York’s new law suggests that the shift to all-electric buildings is not going anywhere.

“The NY ban came after the [9th Circuit] decision so it shows the momentum toward ending gas in homes continues,” Matt Vespa, a senior attorney at Earthjustice, an environmental legal NGO, told Gas Outlook in an email. He added that the decision from the 9th Circuit is not yet final, and Berkeley has suggested it will challenge it. But assuming that it stands, other cities “will want to look at ways to limit gas that do not follow Berkeley,” Vespa said.

While Berkeley relied on its municipal code, which gives cities the authority to regulate matters of public health and safety, many other cities used different legal avenues, such as “reach codes,” which allow cities to enact standards for building construction. In other words, there are other legal tools for cities and states to continue to incentivize all-electric construction even after taking the 9th Circuit decision into account.

For now, there aren’t other states considering a statewide ban on gas in buildings, but given the size and influence of New York, the move is sure to push the issue forward. The Los Angeles Times editorial board wrote that it was “feeling a tinge of jealousy that California wasn’t the first.”

It’s conceivable that California picks up the issue in its next legislative session, Vespa said.

Moreover, there are other governmental bodies, such as regional or state-level air regulators, that are cracking down on gas. As Gas Outlook previously reported, the Bay Area Air Quality Management District, encompassing San Francisco and surrounding areas, voted to phase out gas appliances in March. A similar body in southern California could do the same, and state-level air regulators are also tightening the screws on the use of gas in buildings.

New York also offers some political lessons. While New York is considered a “blue state” and votes for the Democratic Party statewide, many parts of the state are rural and conservative. Against that backdrop, it is “both a legislative accomplishment and a potential model for other state legislatures balancing competing political concerns,” Turner said.

“I expect that other states are paying close attention,” she added.

In addition, one of the prevailing anxieties about steering buildings towards using the electric heat pump instead of gas furnaces is fear about whether or not heat pumps can work effectively in the cold. While those concerns are legitimate to some extent, heat pump technology has improved dramatically in recent years and evidence suggests that they work well in cold temperatures and are even more efficient than gas furnaces, saving money for consumers.

Turner said that on this front, as well, New York can be an example to other states.

“Parts of New York state are also very cold, and New York’s requirement will show reluctant policymakers in other cold states that electric heat pump technology can handle their climates,” she said.

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