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How Brookline's Ban On Gas Heating Could Seed Regional Change

Joe Cabral, a sub-contractor for National Grid, uses a wrench to turn off the main natural gas line to a home, Tuesday, Jan. 22, 2019, in Newport, R.I. (Steven Senne/AP)
Joe Cabral, a sub-contractor for National Grid, uses a wrench to turn off the main natural gas line to a home, Tuesday, Jan. 22, 2019, in Newport, R.I. (Steven Senne/AP)

These are things millennials will tell their grandchildren: we drank coffee from foam cups, cars ran on gasoline, and there were pipes under the streets that brought a flammable gas into our homes for heating and cooking.

In November, Brookline Town Meeting took an initial step toward making natural gas in buildings go the way of the rotary phone. By an overwhelming vote of 207 to 3, members approved a bylaw that prohibits the installation of oil and gas heating systems in new construction beginning in 2021.

The new rule, which does allow for some exceptions (such as gas stoves), signals that the people of Brookline recognize the urgency and inevitability of a transition to clean energy.

Brookline is following the lead of Berkeley, California, which last July passed a similar measure that will take effect this January. Other municipalities in California copied Berkeley’s bylaw, but Brookline is the first community on the East Coast to close the valve on gas connections.

What makes bylaws like Brookline’s viable is modern building technology. Because these ordinances pertain to new construction only, developers will be able to take full advantage of energy-efficient designs and materials that make heating with electricity no more expensive than heating with gas. State-of-the-art techniques that minimize heat loss, in combination with advances in air-source heat pumps, have made electrification cost-competitive even in cold climates like New England.

But as with all perturbations of the status quo, there are skeptics. Critics argue that since about half of New England’s electricity currently derives from fossil fuels, a switch to heat pumps, which require electricity from the grid, doesn’t avoid generating greenhouse gas emissions.

Proponents of the gas ban respond that the grid is turning greener, and rapidly so. Both solar and wind power will claim a growing share of the energy mix in the coming decades, as mandated by state law. A building that relies on heat pumps will produce decreasing amounts of greenhouse gas as more renewable energy comes online.

Then there are the political and legal challenges. In September, the City Council in Seattle backed off a proposed gas ban, at least temporarily, to better understand forceful objections from both business and labor. In Berkeley, a restaurant industry group filed a suit against the city, claiming the gas ban would cause undue harm to their sector. And a report in the Boston Globe said that the Northeast Gas Association would challenge the Brookline bylaw in court.

Despite the pushback, gas bans are gaining momentum in Massachusetts. Newton is in the early phases of crafting a regulation similar to Brookline’s, and Cambridge will hold a second hearing on its Berkeley-inspired draft ordinance in early December.

The [movement] to contain and curtail the effects of climate change must ... repudiate the dogma that insists on fossil fuels being both essential and unrivaled.

Those who dismiss the gas bans as frivolous indulgences of wealthy, ultra-blue enclaves like Brookline, Cambridge and Newton should recall the history of plastic bag bans in Massachusetts. These same communities were among the first in the state to restrict or prohibit single-use plastic shopping bags. Since the outset of that initiative, 129 cities and towns — comprising more than half the state’s population — have adopted some form of plastic bag regulation. And just last week, the Senate passed a statewide plastic bag ban bill which will now move on to the House.

Brookline’s no-gas bylaw is significant for its potential to seed similar bans throughout the region. Equally important, is that it is a frontal assault on the dominant position that oil and gas have long held in our energy infrastructure. In a bracing burst of democracy, members of Brookline Town Meeting let it be known that decarbonization is not just some abstract notion to be debated on the op-ed pages.

They rejected the protests of the natural gas industry because they saw the opportunity to reify the principles that undergird an ethical response to the climate crisis. The worldwide movement to contain and curtail the effects of climate change must necessarily repudiate the dogma that insists on fossil fuels being both essential and unrivaled.

The Brookline gas ban reveals a crack in the edifice of disinformation erected over many years by the keepers of the fossil-fuel canon, a crack that will grow as other cities see the light. The process by which the nation moves toward carbon-free energy, while slow to start, will gather strength.

What was once unquestioned will become questionable; what was implausible will become altogether reasonable; what was only the aspiration of a fervent few will become the people’s law.

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Frederick Hewett Twitter Cognoscenti contributor
Frederick Hewett is a freelance writer living in Cambridge. He writes about energy, climate, politics and Boston.

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