Activists and municipal leaders say a bill allowing Massachusetts cities and towns to ban natural gas in new construction and renovations is needed more than ever in light of a new building code proposal.
“The proposal was just disappointing on every level,” said Lisa Cunningham, a climate activist and member of the town of Brookline’s representative town meeting. “They’re allowing the installation of fossil fuels at every single level — they’re driving us in the wrong direction.”
Decarbonizing building operations, which account for 27% of the state’s carbon emissions, is a major component of Massachusetts’ plan for going carbon-neutral by 2050, but there is not yet any unified strategy for achieving this goal.
Some towns have attempted to take direct action by trying to prohibit new fossil fuel infrastructure within their own borders. In 2019, Brookline, an affluent town adjacent to Boston, passed by an overwhelming margin a bylaw banning fossil fuel hookups in new construction and major renovations, the first such measure passed outside California. Inspired by the move, other towns began preparing their own proposals.
In July 2020, however, state Attorney General Maura Healey struck down the measure, saying cities and towns do not have the legal authority to supersede state building energy codes. Brookline, along with the towns of Acton, Arlington, Concord and Lexington, responded by passing home rule petitions — requests that the state legislature grant them a specific power usually reserved by the state, in this case, the authority to enact prohibitions on new fossil fuel infrastructure.
As the movement grew, state Rep. Tami Gouveia and state Sen. Janie Eldridge, who both represent Acton, filed their own legislation that would grant every city and town in Massachusetts the right to adopt a requirement for all-electric construction without petitioning the state legislature.
“It would allow any community to prohibit new fossil fuel infrastructure,” Eldridge said. “It’s an important tool in the toolbox at a time when you’re seeing a lot of new development in Massachusetts.”
At the same time, the state has been preparing new building energy codes to address the problem. The state currently has a baseline code and a so-called “stretch code,” an optional, more energy-efficient set of standards that communities can opt in to. The stretch code has been adopted by 299 of the state’s 351 cities and towns.
The landmark climate bill passed last year included a requirement for the state to create a third option: a specialized opt-in building code that would allow municipalities to require net-zero energy use in new construction. Though the draft code was expected in the fall, it wasn’t released until earlier this month.
The proposal would make the stretch code more energy efficient by requiring homes to meet rigorous performance standards within the Home Energy Rating System.
The draft also includes the mandated specialized code, which provides three options for compliance: New homes can be all-electric, built to Passive House performance standards, or use fossil fuels but also include solar panels where feasible and wiring for future electric appliances and heating systems. All three options also require a home to hit specific Home Energy Rating System standards.
The options to continue using fossil fuels have climate activists concerned and pushing for alternatives.
“This proposal would probably change the slope of the line, but it would still be moving in the wrong direction,” said Jesse Gray, chair of Brookline’s zero-emissions advisory board.
Eldridge and Gouveia’s local option bill, or the passage of the individual home rule petitions, would allow cities and towns to make more impact, more quickly, activists argue. If the building code is adopted according to the state’s expected timeline, the stretch code will go into effect in 2023, but not be fully phased in until 2024. The specialized code would be finalized by the end of 2022, with the first municipalities expected to adopt it around July 2023.
That’s just not soon enough when there are towns that are already eager to go further, faster, advocates said. If passed, Eldridge and Gouveia’s bill would take effect as soon as 30 days after being signed into law. Brookline’s home rule petition, if approved, would take effect immediately.
“Municipalities that are ready to go are blocked by current state law,” Gouveia said. “We’re just having the state get out of the way.”
At a legislative hearing following the release of the draft building codes, Kathleen Theoharides, state secretary of energy and environmental affairs, defended the inclusion of fossil fuels. The proposal, she said, is designed to balance energy efficiency and cost. An outright fossil fuel ban could hinder the development of much-needed new housing in the state, she said.
Stakeholders and the general public will now have a chance to comment on the proposed codes. A series of public hearings is expected over the summer, with the final draft to be released in the fall. The state aims to have the code finalized by the end of the year. Some electrification advocates are holding out hope that the process could yield changes, perhaps even the removal of the fossil fuel option.
“Anything that gets us over the finish line is good,” said Jim Snyder-Grant, an Action selectman and climate activist. “We just want to stop making things worse.”