The city of Berkeley, Calif., has agreed to repeal a landmark climate rule that would have banned natural gas hookups in new homes, throwing into question the fate of dozens of similar restrictions on gas in cities across the country.

Berkeley’s gas ban, which was the first of its kind when it passed in 2019, had been challenged in court by the California Restaurant Association and was struck down last year by a three-judge panel on the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. The city settled the lawsuit last week by agreeing to immediately halt enforcement of the rule and eventually repeal it altogether.

“To comply with the Ninth Circuit’s ruling, we have ceased enforcement of the gas ban,” Farimah Brown, the city attorney for Berkeley, said in an email. However, she added, “Berkeley will continue to be a leader on climate action.”

The decision could have widespread ripple effects. Over the past few years, more than 140 cities and local governments have followed Berkeley’s lead in seeking to end the use of natural gas in new buildings in order to tackle climate change, including New York City, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Seattle. Many of those efforts are facing fierce resistance and legal challenges from the gas industry, restaurants and homebuilders.

It is unclear whether other gas bans could be overturned. Some city ordinances were structured differently than Berkeley’s and may survive legal scrutiny. Some California communities, including San Luis Obispo and Santa Cruz, had already dropped efforts to ban gas hookups outright and are instead pursuing measures to shift away from natural gas through building efficiency standards.

“We are encouraged that the City of Berkeley has agreed to take steps to repeal the ordinance,” said Jot Condie, president of the California Restaurant Association. “Every city and county in California that has passed a similar ordinance should follow their lead.”

Homes and buildings are responsible for about 13 percent of America’s planet-warming emissions, largely from natural gas burned in furnaces, hot water heaters, stoves, ovens and clothes dryers. To clean up that pollution, states like California and New York have tried to encourage homeowners and developers to swap out their gas furnaces and stoves in favor of electric heat pumps and kitchen ranges.

In 2019, Berkeley’s City Council thrust the issue into the national spotlight by unanimously approving a ban on extending natural gas infrastructure into most newly constructed buildings. The move was widely celebrated by environmentalists, and dozens of cities in California quickly adopted their own measures to restrict gas use in new buildings.

A backlash soon followed, led by the natural gas industry and local gas utilities worried about the threat to their profits. Some chefs and restaurant owners said that they wouldn’t be able to cook as well without gas.

The California Restaurant Association sued Berkeley and, last April, the Ninth Circuit ruled that the city’s ordinance violated a federal law that gives the Energy Department sole authority to set energy efficiency standards for appliances. In January, the court declined to rehear the case, essentially forcing Berkeley to abandon its rule.

Since the Ninth Circuit’s ruling last spring, no cities in California have tried to ban gas hookups and Sacramento stopped enforcing its gas ban.

The city of San Francisco, however, said it would continue enforcing a local ordinance that restricts new gas hookups, with officials telling KQED, a Bay Area public media news outlet, that they believed the rule was on solid legal ground because it was written differently than Berkeley’s and contained more exemptions.

More court decisions are likely to follow. New York City has approved its own ban on gas hookups for new buildings, but that law is currently being challenged in court by local construction groups.

The growing push to electrify homes has triggered sharp political opposition: Over the past few years, at least 24 mostly red states — including Arizona, Georgia, Florida, Ohio and Texas — have passed laws that forbid their cities from restricting gas use.

Last year, the Energy Department proposed new efficiency standards for stoves that would have potentially blocked many gas-burning models from being sold. But Republicans and some Democrats assailed the proposal and, this spring, the agency scaled back its rule so that most gas stoves could comply.

Even if cities are unable to ban gas infrastructure, experts said there may be other ways for local governments to encourage developers to shift away from fossil fuels.

For instance, states and cities often have much wider latitude in setting building codes. Seattle and San Jose have adopted “fuel neutral” standards that require new buildings to meet increasingly strict energy performance requirements. Those standards don’t technically ban gas stoves or furnaces, but they can be so stringent that they are difficult to meet without installing electric appliances.

In September, mayors from 25 California cities wrote to Gov. Gavin Newsom urging him to set statewide building codes that would require new buildings to be fully electric.


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Credit: NYTimes.com

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