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US cities move to curb natural gas supply

New York City, Denver and Seattle have become the latest US cities to announce plans to limit or ban natural gas connections to buildings.

Although details vary from city to city, local governments in several US states have either banned or limited the use of non-renewable energy sources in the pursuit of net-zero targets.

In New York City, mayor Bill de Blasio recently said the city needs to ban fossil fuel connections by the end of the decade, while also prioritising electric vehicles, cycle lanes and investment into renewable sources.

Meanwhile, Seattle City Council last week approved a change to energy codes, which bans natural gas heating in the construction of both commercial and residential buildings of more than three storeys.

Gas cooking, however, would still be allowed under the rules, which were passed unanimously by the council.

In Denver, a city council report introduced energy targets last month, which would see new homes be all-electric by 2024 and all commercial buildings to hit that same target by 2027. The city’s goal, it said, was for all new buildings to achieve net zero energy by 2030.

Although the report did not float the idea of a blanket ban on natural gas in buildings, it suggested decarbonisation rules would force it to be severely limited. Requiring higher levels of efficiency, the report said, would “[create] an incentive to build all-electric buildings without prohibiting buildings from installing natural gas”.

Nationwide trend – with complications

US cities have been cracking down on natural gas since 2019 when Berkeley, California banned its use in new buildings. Several other cities in California soon followed, with outright bans, requirements for buildings to reach higher electric energy standards or a combination of the two.

For many local governments, climate change is prompting more urgent responses.

In New York City, mayor de Blasio, in his State of the City address in January, said: “Soon, the day will come when we aren’t talking about the coronavirus, but we will be talking about the climate crisis. It will be the clear and present danger confronting all of us, and the only way to overcome it is to fully acknowledge the danger, and use everything we have together to stop it.”

However, some states have countered natural gas bans by pre-emptively introducing legislation that would prohibit the bans themselves. Arizona, for example, passed a bill last February that said towns and cities could not impose a penalty that would restrict a utility’s ability to serve customers.

At the time, Reuters reported that Arizona Chamber of Commerce president Glenn Hamer called bans on natural gas “irresponsible local policies” that could undermine the state’s economic competitiveness.

Other states, including Minnesota, Louisiana, Georgia and Tennessee, have passed similar prohibitions to utility service bans.

Attempts for further city-wide bans have been met by legal constraints even in places where the state might support these policies. In Massachusetts, one such ban in the city of Brookline was blocked the state’s attorney general, Maura Healey, who ruled that it would be inconsistent with state utility laws – although she said she supported the policy.

Her decision said: “If we were permitted to base our determination on policy considerations, we would approve the by-law.”

Global response

Governments in other parts of the world are also targeting natural gas restrictions in an effort to cut emissions.

In the UK, the government will prohibit the installation of gas boilers – along with all other fossil fuel boilers – in new homes from 2025. Additionally, in its energy white paper in December, it said it expects all newly installed heating systems to be low-carbon or able to be converted to a clean fuel supply by the mid-2030s.

Currently, the UK installs about 1.7m gas boilers a year. However, heating up homes accounts for about 14% UK greenhouse gases, and gas boilers are among the most carbon-intensive options for heating.

As a result, local and national governments have realised that reaching their net-zero targets will require action on some of the most common bits of infrastructure in our buildings.

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