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New Hampshire is the latest state to adopt a law that prohibits any type of restriction on new natural gas hookups, a fossil fuel industry-driven legislative effort that now extends across 20 states.
The law (SB 86) is unlikely to have any immediate impact in New Hampshire, as no towns were actually considering such restrictions. But environmental groups predict that, over time, these laws will make it harder and more expensive for states and cities across the country to meet their climate targets, while also helping to lock in new emissions for decades.
“These laws make it impossible for cities and towns to do one of the cheapest and easiest actions that they could do to fight climate change — cut carbon out of new buildings,” said Alejandra Mejia Cunningham, a building decarbonization advocate for the Natural Resources Defense Council. “They’re sending towns back to the drawing table and forcing them into other options that are more expensive and won’t really get them to their 2050 climate goals.”
Cities across the country are considering ordinances and incentives to ensure the electrification of new homes and buildings as a way of reducing building emissions. The trend is furthest along in California, where about 50 municipalities have adopted building codes to reduce their reliance on gas, according to the Sierra Club.
A dire alert from the United Nations last month warned that the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report shows the world needs to phase out fossil fuels immediately to avert catastrophic climate change. That includes natural gas, which emits fewer carbon emissions than coal when burned but enough to threaten Paris agreement targets with continued use.
But pro-gas groups are pushing back on electrification efforts, framing the issue as a matter of consumer choice. In New Hampshire, after Republican Gov. Chris Sununu signed the ban prohibition into law late last month, he immediately drew praise from the Consumer Energy Alliance, an advocacy group whose members include the American Gas Association and the American Public Gas Association.
“This bill protects our consumers, families, seniors and businesses from irresponsible prohibitions on the use of reliable, safe and clean fuels like natural gas in homes or communities,” the alliance said in a press release.
The law prohibits all counties, cities, towns, village districts and local land use boards from adopting any rule that prohibits or restricts anyone from “installing a safe and commercially available heating or other energy system of their choice.”
Robert Sculley, who testified in support of the legislation on behalf of the NH Motor Transport Association, the Energy Marketers Association and the Propane Gas Association of New England (known as PGANE), said in an interview that the bill was prompted by efforts to boost electrification of buildings in the bordering states of Vermont and Massachusetts.
“Our industry in this state decided that they were not going to wait until the progressives in our state might be in a position that would mandate transitioning out of current heating options or on new construction,” he said. “That was our big pitch — not to have us become like our border states.”
In his testimony before the Election Law and Municipal Affairs Committee, Sculley said the measure would protect the state’s heating oil and fuel companies and “thousands of jobs.”
The measure was introduced by Senate President Chuck Morse, a longtime Republican lawmaker from Salem. State campaign finance records show that Morse received $3,000 this year from the NH Motor Transport Association, and $2,500 from PGANE. He received $200 from Marc Brown, northeast director for the Consumer Energy Alliance.
Kat Bourque, director of government affairs for Unitil, which supplies natural gas to about 35,000 customers in New Hampshire, also testified in support of the bill, saying it preserves the right of customers to “use any available utility service or source of energy they choose.”
State Rep. Laurel Stavis, D-Lebanon, tried to get the bill’s language amended in the House to only apply to existing buildings, not new construction. The amendment failed along party lines.
“My thinking as a member of the Lebanon Planning Board and a state rep is that it’s always a bad idea to prohibit local governments from doing things they might feel is in their best interest,” Stavis said. “A mandate prohibiting mandates is a prime example of government overreach, which interferes with local control.”
New Hampshire, which has long lagged the rest of New England in clean energy policy, is the only Northeastern state to adopt such a law. Given that no cities or towns were contemplating restrictions on gas, “people sort of rolled their eyes at it,” said Sam Evans-Brown, executive director of Clean Energy NH, which provides guidance to local energy committees. “It was more of a Republican signaling device than substantive policy.”
Arizona was the first state to adopt one of these laws in 2020. Now, the prohibitions extend across most of the southern U.S.
“We’ve seen the gas industry put up front groups that purport to advocate for consumer choice and protection, but really what they are are protection for the gas industry on the backs of consumers,” said Cunningham, of the NRDC.
The Consumer Energy Alliance rejects such claims.
“An inclusive energy mix that maximizes the strongest attributes of all energy sources is the best way to protect our environment, while delivering the reliable, affordable energy American consumers, families, small businesses and farmers need,” said Bryson Hull, a spokesperson for the alliance and a vice president at HBW Resources, a lobbying firm based in Houston.
All of the staff members and many of the regional directors listed on the alliance’s website are employees of HBW. A registered nonprofit, the alliance reported $4.8 million in contributions and grants in 2019, more than half of which was paid out to HBW as an independent contractor, according to its most recent IRS 990.
The nonprofit Building Electrification Institute works with municipal sustainability offices in about a dozen cities to help them develop programs that support equitable electrification of buildings. So far, the pro-gas laws being passed in predominantly red states have not affected the work they are doing, said deputy director Tyler Poulson. But the organization is wary of where the effort is headed next.
“What happens in 2022 and beyond — do we see these laws continue to push into other states?” Poulson said. “New construction really is the low-hanging fruit when it comes to cutting carbon out of buildings. Those that get built with fossil fuel hookups are going to stay that way for decades.”
The institute works with Burlington, Vermont, where voters recently approved a proposal for a carbon fee on new construction. New buildings that connect to fossil fuel infrastructure would be assessed a fee equal to $100 per ton of anticipated carbon emissions over the first 10 years. All-electric buildings would not pay a fee. The measure awaits authorization from the state legislature.
Another approach is taking shape in Massachusetts, where regulators are developing a stretch energy code for buildings with net-zero emissions. Municipalities will have the option of adopting the stretch code, “that would in effect make it very difficult, if not impossible, to use fossil fuels and still meet the net-zero requirements,” said Oliver Tully, a policy strategist for the Acadia Center.