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A year after Massachusetts’ attorney general struck down a suburban town’s attempt to ban new fossil fuel infrastructure, a growing number of municipalities are pursuing new strategies to restrict the use of oil and natural gas in buildings.
In the past eight months, the towns of Brookline, Arlington, Lexington, Concord, and Acton have all passed measures asking the state Legislature to allow them to prohibit the installation of fossil fuel infrastructure in new construction and, in some cases, buildings undergoing major renovations. Other municipalities are expected to follow in coming months, as part of a coordinated effort to galvanize statewide action.
“We need to rapidly decarbonize,” said Lisa Cunningham of Brookline, a town meeting member and clean energy activist. “And the first thing we need to do is stop making the problem worse.”
The movement began in 2019, when Brookline first approved, by an overwhelming majority, a bylaw prohibiting fossil fuel infrastructure in new construction or gut renovations. It was the first such municipal measure passed outside of California. Inspired by the idea, other towns began preparing similar measures.
Supporters of these bylaws argue that prohibiting fossil fuel infrastructure right now makes the most logistical and financial sense. Fossil fuel use in buildings will have to be eliminated over the coming decades in order to reach the state’s goal of going carbon-neutral by 2050, they say. Therefore, any natural gas or oil systems installed now would likely have to be replaced with electric alternatives within 10 or 20 years.
“Any fossil fuel infrastructure that goes in now is going to have to be torn up,” said Anne Wright, an activist in Arlington who helped push for that town’s bylaw. “So why not save money and put electric infrastructure in there now? That’s the long-term vision and economic argument.”
Early in 2020, clean energy nonprofit RMI (formerly the Rocky Mountain Institute) convened a group of 17 Massachusetts towns and cities in its Building Electrification Accelerator, a series of workshops focused on helping municipalities develop their own plans for restricting fossil fuel infrastructure.
Then, in July 2020, state Attorney General Maura Healey ruled that Brookline’s bylaw was unlawful because municipalities do not have the authority to supersede state building and gas codes. Healey did, however, note that she approved of the town’s intentions. Brookline and the towns attempting to follow in its footsteps had to regroup.
“We already had the commitment and desire from a bunch of towns and cities to do this,” said Stephen Mushegan, manager of the carbon-free buildings program at RMI. “What we did was pivot to immediately looking at alternative legal strategies.”
The group developed several new strategies to promote their goals. The most popular has been the use of the home rule petition, a special request that the state Legislature grant a municipality the authority to set its own rules in a matter that would otherwise fall under the state’s purview.
Brookline’s town meeting approved a home rule petition in December, and the other towns followed throughout the first half of 2021. At least three more towns have similar measures coming up for a vote soon, Cunningham said.
“Obviously, there’s power in numbers,” she said. “We want to see as many people pass home rule petitions as possible.”
Though the handful of towns that have passed these measures represents only a small portion of Massachusetts’ buildings, these individual efforts could combine to have a wider impact, supporters said. The process of campaigning in each town raises wider awareness of the issues at stake and creates more advocates eager to push for statewide action. And successful bylaws will demonstrate how the restrictions would operate, offering case studies to those who may be wary of the idea, supporters said.
“We’re part of a process of creating an environment that will encourage the state Legislature to provide a statewide solution,” said Jim Snyder-Grant, a member of the select board in Acton, the most recent town to pass a home rule bylaw.
Though the idea of banning fossil fuels, even in only a subset of buildings, may seem drastic, supporters are optimistic that legislators could consider it. Earlier this year, lawmakers passed a sweeping climate bill widely considered a landmark achievement in climate policy, following years of reluctance to take ambitious action, Wright said.
“If they changed their minds to pass those progressive things, they could seriously consider this,” she said.
Homebuilder Emerson Clauss, owner of Allegiance Construction and Development in the central Massachusetts town of Northbridge, is skeptical of municipal fossil fuel prohibitions. While supporters argue that electric systems can be installed at very little additional cost, Clauss disagrees with these cost estimates.
Building a house with electric heat and hot water could cost as much as $25,000 more than equipping the same home with high-efficiency natural gas systems, he said. The effect, Clauss said, could be to make it even harder for lower-income residents to live in these towns, all of which are among the state’s most affluent communities.
“I don’t know that we’re having an honest open discussion yet,” he said.
Eversource, one of the major gas utilities in the state, has also expressed reservations about the proposed prohibitions. High electricity prices in Massachusetts could mean electric systems are more expensive to operate, hurting low-income residents, said Eversource spokesperson William Hinkle. Furthermore, buildings with all-electric systems could drive up peak demand for power, causing more fossil fuel-burning power plants to come online, he noted.
“We are concerned with these local proposals because they would not help achieve permanent carbon reductions,” Hinkle said.
Supporters, 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’s essential to take action now.
“We know that we need to decarbonize immediately,” Cunningham said. “We know we cannot burn any more fossil fuels.”