The North Carolina State Legislative Building.
The North Carolina State Legislative Building. Credit: Jayron32 / Creative Commons

North Carolina lawmakers on Tuesday advanced a bill to prevent local governments from banning natural gas connections in new buildings — a preemptive strike against what many view as a critical tool in the fight against climate change.

The measure is part of a nationwide counteroffensive by the gas industry, provoked by a small but growing number of communities moving to require new buildings to run only on electricity.

In theory, the American Gas Association and its allies have some cause to be worried: Nearly two-dozen local governments around the state have pledged to dramatically reduce their carbon footprints, and phasing out gas-fueled stoves, heaters and water heaters would help achieve their goals.

Yet none of these communities have proposed to follow in the footsteps of the mostly West Coast and Northeast cities that have banned new gas hookups, and they may not have the power to — a fact acknowledged by bill sponsor Rep. Dean Arp of Union County, a Republican, during a committee meeting earlier this month.

“It’s a solution for a problem,” Rep. Kelly Alexander, a Democrat from Charlotte, said to Arp during that debate, “that —  you yourself said in your presentation — North Carolina doesn’t have.”

Still, opponents of House Bill 220 object to what they see as a growing trend of preempting local authority, and say cities and counties should have the power to help stem the climate crisis and protect public health.

“We don’t need state government tying the hands of local government in any kind of way,” said Rep. Gale Adcock, a Wake County Democrat and former Cary city councilor, in an interview. “We need to leave our options open to respond to what our citizens’ needs are — what our environmental needs are.”

But that argument barely surfaced in the commerce committee in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives, which passed the measure on a voice vote after little discussion. It must now clear one more committee before going to the full House.

The ‘electrify everything’ strategy

To stave off the worst impacts of climate change, scientists believe we must phase out our reliance on fossil fuels. Analysts say that means converting the electric power grid to run entirely on zero-carbon sources, then switching our cars, appliances, jet planes, etc., to run on electricity instead of gas. 

On the margins, there’s some debate over this “electrify everything” strategy. Technology doesn’t exist yet to power jets and long-haul trucks with electricity, and certain industrial processes, like producing plastic medical devices, depend on the intense levels of heat that come from combustion. Some experts believe we may need a small amount of carbon capture or non-fossil gas, such as renewable natural gas — the methane captured from landfills and animal waste that has become a flashpoint in North Carolina.

But there’s little doubt that buildings — which are now overwhelmingly supplied by burning coal, oil, and fossil natural gas — can just as easily run on an electric grid supplied by wind, solar, and other carbon-free fuels. Though the gas industry has touted the superiority of gas cooking and the efficiency of gas furnaces, electric heat pumps are increasingly cost-effective and electric induction cooktops just as precise.

Especially in cooler climates with high demand for heat, onsite fossil fuel combustion in buildings is a significant source of climate-warming pollution. In New York City, it’s the single largest source of greenhouse gas emissions. In Massachusetts, building appliances burn more fossil natural gas than power plants, according to Energy Information Administration data compiled by the Rocky Mountain Institute.

Overall, burning fossil fuels in homes and businesses creates one-tenth of all U.S. global warming emissions. And while only a few communities have enacted incentives for existing natural gas customers to go all-electric, many more have opted for a more straightforward policy: banning fossil natural gas service in new buildings.

Framing the ‘buildings of tomorrow’

North Carolina is a growing state, with upward of 50,000 new homes built each year. While gas stoves, furnaces, and water heaters in buildings only account for 8% of the state’s greenhouse emissions, residential demand for fossil natural gas is growing — leaping 15% in 2018 compared to a decade earlier, according to data from the Energy Information Administration. 

Just like fossil fuel-burning power plants and cars, gas stoves and furnaces also emit high levels of soot and smog-forming particles. A growing body of evidence shows that those health-threatening pollutants — trapped indoors — can far exceed levels deemed safe for outdoor air. One analysis found that children living in homes with gas stoves are significantly more likely to be diagnosed with asthma and experience it into adulthood. The threat is particularly acute for low-income families, who tend to have more people living in smaller spaces.

As heat pumps and electric induction technology improve, research also shows that consumers can save money with all-electric technology in new buildings. With gas prices predicted to rise, those economics will only get better.

In a memo to lawmakers opposing House Bill 220, Drew Ball, state director for advocacy group Environment North Carolina, said localities deserved the right to explore “the tools at their disposal — including ordinances and building codes — to make sure that the homes and office buildings of tomorrow don’t set us up with the same problems that plague yesterday’s buildings: the environmental, health and consumer hazards of directly burning fossil fuels in our homes and businesses for heating, cooling and cooking.”

A question of local authority

That no local government in North Carolina has tried to employ such tools may not reflect the merits of building electrification, but doubt that such ordinances and codes would be legal. Citing the state constitution, some believe municipalities only have the power expressly granted to them by the legislature.

“We don’t know of anybody that’s even proposing this out there,” said Scott Mooneyham, a spokesperson for the North Carolina League of Municipalities. “We’re not even clear that cities would have this authority under existing law.”

What’s more, the law explicitly prohibits localities from adopting their own building codes — a restraint that’s prevented them from considering other climate-friendly measures such as requiring all new homes to be solar-ready.

Nevertheless, sponsor Arp says the bill is necessary. “It’s not something that is constraining of a power that they already have,” he said in committee earlier this month. “I don’t see the harm in making that clarification.”

The county lobbying association, along with clean energy advocates and many Democratic lawmakers, still object to House Bill 220 on principle. 

The North Carolina Association of County Commissioners “promotes strengthening of local decision-making to respond to local needs,” spokesperson Lacy Pate wrote in an email, quoting the organization’s core values. She continued, “NCACC would have concerns about this or any legislation that limits local control or otherwise undermines our core values.”

Critics also note the bill does nothing to prevent local bans on large-scale solar or wind farms — of which there have been several in the past.

“If we could power our vehicles off of hypocrisy on Jones Street,” quipped Democratic Rep. John Autry, a former Charlotte city councilor, in an interview, “we could really have a clean environment and reduce that carbon footprint.”

But in a Republican-controlled legislature that in a decade has rarely shied from preempting local governments, opponents acknowledge their chances are slim. 

One upside, conceded Cassie Gavin, the chief lobbyist for the North Carolina Sierra Club, is a debate about natural gas appliances that almost certainly wouldn’t have occurred without the industry-promoted bill. 

“Some legislators are being educated about building electrification when they never would have been otherwise,” she said.

Based in Raleigh, North Carolina, Elizabeth has covered the state’s clean energy transition for the Energy News Network since 2016. She has also produced features for Environmental Health News and SEJournal, the news magazine of the Society of Environmental Journalists. A former communications director for the nonprofit Environment America, Elizabeth brings over two decades of environmental and energy policy experience to her reporting.