A year after the Massachusetts attorney general quashed a suburban town’s attempt to ban new fossil-fueled infrastructure, a growing number of municipalities are pursuing new strategies to restrict the use of oil and natural gas in the buildings.
In the past eight months, the cities of Brookline, Arlington, Lexington, Concord and Acton have all passed measures calling on the state legislature to allow them to ban the installation of fossil fuel infrastructure in news constructions and, in some cases, buildings undergoing major renovations. More municipalities are expected to follow in the coming months, as part of a coordinated effort to galvanize statewide action.
“We need to decarbonize quickly,” said Lisa Cunningham of Brookline, town hall member and clean energy activist. “And the first thing we have to do is stop making the problem worse.”
The movement began in 2019, when Brookline first approved, overwhelmingly, a bylaw banning fossil fuel infrastructure in new construction or gut renovations. It was the first such municipal measure adopted outside of California. Inspired by the idea, other cities began to prepare similar measures.
Supporters of these regulations argue that banning fossil fuel infrastructure today makes the most logistical and financial sense. The use of fossil fuels in buildings will need to be phased out over the next few decades in order to meet the state’s goal of becoming carbon neutral by 2050, they say. Therefore, any natural gas or oil-fired systems installed now should likely be replaced with electric alternatives within 10 or 20 years.
“Any fossil fuel infrastructure that is installed now will have to be demolished,” said Anne Wright, an Arlington activist who helped push through that city’s bylaw. “So why not save some money and install electrical infrastructure there now?” It’s the long-term view and the economic argument.
In early 2020, RMI (formerly the Rocky Mountain Institute) clean energy nonprofit brought together a group of 17 Massachusetts cities for its Building Electrification Accelerator, a series of workshops aimed at helping municipalities develop their own plans to restrict fossil fuel infrastructure.
Then, in July 2020, state attorney general Maura Healey ruled that Brookline’s bylaw was illegal because municipalities do not have the power to override state building and gas codes. . Healey noted, however, that she approved of the city’s intentions. Brookline and the towns that tried to follow in his footsteps had to regroup.
“We already had the commitment and desire from a lot of cities and towns to do this,” said Stephen Mushegan, carbon-free buildings program manager at RMI. “What we have done is immediately look into alternative legal strategies.”
The group has developed several new strategies to promote its goals. Most popular has been the use of the Autonomy Petition, a special request that the state legislature grant a municipality the power to make its own rules in a matter that would otherwise fall within the jurisdiction of the State.
Brookline’s town hall approved a self-reliance petition in December, and the other cities followed throughout the first half of 2021. At least three more cities have similar measures coming soon for a vote, Cunningham said. .
“Obviously the number is powerful,” she said. “We want to see as many people as possible pass house rules petitions. “
While the handful of cities that have adopted these measures represent only a small portion of Massachusetts buildings, these individual efforts could combine to have a larger impact, supporters said. The campaigning process in each city raises awareness of the issues at stake and creates more advocates eager to lobby for statewide action. And a successful statute will demonstrate how the restrictions would work, offering case studies for those who might be suspicious of the idea, supporters said.
“We are part of a process of creating an environment that will encourage the state legislature to provide a statewide solution,” said Jim Snyder-Grant, member of the board of directors of ‘Acton, the most recent town to have adopted a bylaw. .
While the idea of banning fossil fuels, even in just a subset of buildings, might sound drastic, supporters are optimistic that lawmakers might consider it. Earlier this year, lawmakers passed a sweeping climate bill widely regarded as a landmark climate policy achievement, after years of reluctance to take ambitious action, Wright said.
“If they changed their mind to embrace these progressive things, they could seriously consider this,” she said.
Homebuilder Emerson Clauss, owner of Allegiance Construction and Development in the town of Northbridge, central Massachusetts, is skeptical of municipal bans on fossil fuels. While proponents argue that electrical systems can be installed at very little additional cost, Clauss disagrees with these cost estimates.
Building a house with electric heating and hot water could cost up to $ 25,000 more than equipping the same house with high-efficiency natural gas systems, he said. The effect, Clauss said, could be to make it even harder for low-income residents to live in these cities, which are all among the state’s wealthiest communities.
“I don’t know if we are having a frank and open discussion at the moment,” he said.
Eversource, one of the state’s main gas utilities, has also expressed reservations about the proposed bans. High electricity prices in Massachusetts could mean electrical systems are more expensive to operate, hurting low-income residents, Eversource spokesperson William Hinkle said. In addition, buildings with fully electric systems could increase peak demand for electricity, leading to the commissioning of more fossil-fueled power plants, he noted.
“We are concerned about these local proposals because they would not help achieve permanent carbon reductions,” Hinkle said.
Proponents, however, argue that an influx of renewable energy into the grid will lower electricity prices and make the grid cleaner, even at peak times. And with the urgency of the climate crisis, they said, it is essential to act now.
“We know we need to decarbonize immediately,” Cunningham said. “We know we can no longer burn fossil fuels. “