NYC Could Ban Gas in New Buildings This Year

The fight heated up at a hearing Wednesday, with debate centered on when, not if, a gas ban should go into effect.

Colin Kinniburgh   ·   November 18, 2021
Rendering of a 44-story tower and other buildings under construction in downtown Brooklyn by Alloy Development, which will be fossil-free. | Courtesy of Alloy

It wouldn’t be the first, but it would be by far the biggest.

Yesterday afternoon, the New York City Council’s Committee on Environmental Protection held a marathon hearing on a bill to ban fossil fuels, including natural gas, in new buildings—which could amount to the city’s most significant climate legislation since its 2019 buildings emissions law.

If the bill passes, New York would join more than 50 other cities nationally that have banned gas in new construction, the largest of which is San Jose, California (population 1 million). But as the largest city in the country and an international real-estate hub, New York’s move could spur a wider shift, proponents say, starting with a proposed statewide ban the state legislature will consider next year—making the potential gas ban one of the highest-stakes local climate fights of the year.

Beyond climate, supporters say banning fossil fuels from buildings is also critical for public health and environmental justice. “My bill is about life and death,” Councilmember Alicka Ampry-Samuel, the bill’s sponsor, said Wednesday, citing high rates of pollution-driven respiratory diseases in her eastern Brooklyn district. A recent study from the Rocky Mountain Institute, a clean-energy group, found that fossil fuel consumption in buildings contributed to nearly 2,000 premature deaths in New York in 2017 — more than in any other state, with the greatest toll in communities of color.

Wednesday’s hearing marked a major step toward a vote for the bill, which as of now has 24 council sponsors, just shy of a majority. That number has barely budged in months, but supporters hope the hearing will move the needle.

Early in the hearing, Ben Furnas, director of the Mayor’s Office of Climate and Sustainability, voiced the de Blasio administration’s support for passing the bill this year, although he stopped short of saying when a gas ban should take effect.

“We support the notion of creating a date certain after which all buildings be electric buildings,” Furnas said, adding that the administration hoped to set a timeline that would be “as ambitious as possible while still being achievable for builders and developers.”

Timeline emerges as sticking point

That timeline has emerged as a key sticking point for the legislation. In many California cities — including virtually the entire Bay Area — gas bans have already taken effect for new construction. The NYC bill as currently written would not take effect until two years after signing, meaning nearly 2024 if the bill passes this term. Environmental justice groups are seeking to cut that timeline in half, while real-estate and even some big green groups are looking to stretch it.

Chief among them is the Real Estate Board of New York (REBNY), which is pushing for a phased-in implementation of the bill starting in 2025 and stretching until 2030 for buildings over 10 stories. Zach Steinberg, REBNY’s senior vice-president of policy, told Wednesday’s hearing that going all-electric sooner could threaten the reliability of heating systems and increase costs for both developers and residents.

Four of the biggest green and urban planning groups represented at the hearing — the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC), New York League of Conservation Voters (NYLCV), Regional Plan Association, and Urban Green Council — also supported a phased-in timeline. Their proposal would preserve the current two-year deadline for buildings up to seven stories but give larger buildings a full five years after the bill’s signing to comply.

Christopher Halfnight, director of policy at the Urban Green Council, said the more gradual approach was necessary for big buildings because complex systems like hot-water heaters are still being fine-tuned. It would also ensure that new all-electric buildings meet the highest energy efficiency standards, Halfnight said, ultimately saving residents money.

Those arguments exposed rifts in the environmental advocacy world between larger organizations and the scrappier grassroots groups spearheading the gas ban push, including New York Communities for Change (NYCC), WE ACT for Environmental Justice, the New York Public Interest Research Group and Food & Water Watch.

Pete Sikora, climate and inequality campaigns director at NYCC, said giving developers and utilities years to lock in new fossil-fuel infrastructure “makes no sense in a climate crisis… There’s an inertia factor to this that is devastating.”

Sikora said he was disappointed to see the proposals of some of the biggest green groups aligning with those of industries that have been lobbying hardest against the gas ban.

NYLCV is funded by the fossil fuel and real estate industry. They’re a corporate front group so it’s entirely unsurprising that they are undermining this bill politically,” Sikora told New York Focus. (According to NYLCV’s annual report, REBNY, National Grid, Con Edison, and several of New York’s largest real-estate companies each donated $10,000 or more to the group in 2020.)

“I wish that blue chip, massively funded big green groups like NRDC wouldn’t undermine grassroots multiracial activists,” Sikora continued. “They did that on Local Law 97 and now here they are again on a gas ban. When institutions like Columbia University, the Architects Association, and a large developer are arguing for stronger environmental action than you are, maybe it’s time to re-think things if you’re an environmental group.”

Asked about critiques of its position from climate activists, the NRDC was not immediately able to comment.

Julie Tighe, president of NYLCV, said in a statement: “Clean energy has long been a top priority for the League, and we’re committed to making real progress on reducing building emissions in New York City. We support the need to transition our building infrastructure off fossil fuels to ensure we meet the goals of OneNYC and move us closer to reaching net zero emissions by 2050 in a way that’s achievable.”

There are already several big buildings in progress that are fossil-free. The largest, a 44-story tower by Alloy Development, is under construction in downtown Brooklyn, as is a 16-story commercial building on Manhattan’s West Side. Columbia University, one of the city’s largest landowners, announced in September that all of its future construction and renovations would be fossil-free.

“​​We’re already in the process of evaluating how to fully electrify our campus by replacing the onsite combustion of fossil fuels with clean, renewable energy sources,” Daniel Zarrilli, special advisor for climate and sustainability at Columbia University and de Blasio’s former chief climate policy advisor, told legislators at the hearing.

“It’s feasible, it’s necessary, and this is how the city is going to achieve its goals and avoid the worst consequences of our climate crisis.”

Lobbying from top real-estate, fossil-fuel groups

Sikora, of NYCC, also expressed some frustration that it took nearly six months for environmental committee chair James Gennaro to hold a council hearing on the bill.

“He could have had this hearing months ago, but chose not to,” Sikora said.

Gennaro, who returned to office in February in a special election in which real-estate and business groups spent more than $200,000 to help him defeat progressive challenger Moumita Ahmed, has been the top target of industry lobbying on the bill, according to filings with the state’s Joint Commission on Public Ethics.

A protest at City Hall calling for a gas ban | Courtesy of NYCC

Groups including REBNY and the American Petroleum Institute have regularly lobbied Gennaro’s office since May, when the proposed gas ban was introduced, the filings show. The bill is the first New York City legislation that the American Petroleum Institute, the largest national oil and gas trade group, has lobbied on since at least 2019.

Gennaro did not respond to requests for comment, but stressed Wednesday that he aimed to give all parties a fair hearing and was eager for specific suggestions on how to improve the bill. In one of the liveliest moments of the hearing, he jovially defended his commitment to balance after Ampry-Samuel accused him of stacking an early panel with opponents of the gas ban.

Gennaro also showed interest in proposals that would allow for continued burning of lower-emission fuels, such as natural gas blended with hydrogen or biofuels.

As currently written, the legislation does not actually ban gas or other specific fuels, but rather any fuel that emits more than 50 kg of CO2 per million British thermal units of energy. Natural gas emits 53, but blending it with non-fossil gas could bring the number below the threshold, leading a broad swath of environmental groups to argue that the limit should be lowered in the final bill.

“So-called renewable natural gas or biomethane… is a dead-end solution for buildings,” said Donna de Costanzo, Eastern Regional Director for the climate and clean energy program at NRDC. “There isn’t enough of it… and we need to use what little there is sparingly and strategically for hard-to-electrify sectors, not buildings.”

Both advocates and skeptics of the gas ban are also seeking clarity on whether, and to what extent, the bill would apply to renovations. Its leading proponents are pushing for the all-electric requirement to include major, “gut” renovations — a proposal that REBNY, at least, seems open to, if it is clearly defined.

Political countdown

The competing proposals leave much to be resolved in the six weeks before Mayor Bill de Blasio leaves office and the current council term ends. (Ampry-Samuel is also leaving office at the end of the year, likely for a federal appointment, after losing her reelection bid in June.) Advocates remain optimistic that the legislation will pass this year, and that it could even be strengthened from its current form.

Ultimately, the bill’s fate may lie in the hands of council Speaker Corey Johnson, who has previously expressed support for the bill and told NY Focus in a statement: “Speaker Johnson has an interest in any proposal that cuts carbon emissions, and will review the testimony from [Wednesday’s] hearing.”

One additional factor adding to advocates’ sense of urgency is the state legislative session which begins in January and will see a push to take the gas ban statewide,recently launched by State Senator Brian Kavanagh and Assemblymember Emily Gallagher.

New York City’s example “really sets the tone for the rest of the state,” Gallagher said Wednesday, and passing the bill at the city level would allow her to “pack the punch” in the new legislative session. If Kavanagh and Gallagher’s bill passes, New York could be the first state in the country to outright ban gas in new construction — a marked contrast from the half-dozen states that have preempted local gas bans. (At least fourteen more states are considering similar preemption laws, according to a recent tally by the Climate Equity Policy Center.)

Proponents of the legislation caution that a ban on gas in new construction will not in itself dramatically reduce New York’s overall demand for gas, and frame it as part of a wider campaign.

Zarrilli, of Columbia, told New York Focus that “90 percent of the buildings that exist today are still going to be here in 2050, which is why something like Local Law 97 and mandatory building retrofits is such a huge, important piece of the puzzle.”

“Three things have to happen at the same time,” Sonal Jessel, director of policy at WE ACT for Environmental Justice, told New York Focus. “We have to move towards electrifying buildings, we have to clean our grid… and we need to make sure that the costs are affordable for people,” she continued, noting that her group is planning to be involved in next year’s negotiations over future Con Edison rate hikes.

Many at Wednesday’s hearing raised concerns about costs, especially industry groups, with REBNY arguing that banning gas would “substantially increase utility bills for New Yorkers.”

Green groups argued that expanding fossil-fuel infrastructure imposes far greater costs.

“Downstate ratepayers are currently subsidizing the addition of new buildings to the gas system by an estimated $120 million per year,” said the Rocky Mountain Institute’s Amar Shah, citing research by the New York Geothermal Energy Organization. “One more year, $120 million more of ratepayers spending on gas build out that may not even be used for its full useful life.”

Even if banning gas in new construction is only one step in weaning New York off fossil fuels, climate experts say it’s an essential one.

“Any of the other building decarbonization strategies, [including] energy efficiency, are still extremely important in the electrification context,” Amy Turner, Senior Fellow for the Cities Climate Law Initiative at Columbia’s Sabin Center for Climate Change Law, told New York Focus.

“But any strategy that still maintains fossil fuels for a building’s everyday operation simply cannot get us to a place where we reach our greenhouse gas emissions reduction goals.”

Colin Kinniburgh is a reporter at New York Focus, covering the state’s climate and environmental politics. Over a decade in media, he has worked in print, television, audio, and online news, and participated in fellowship programs at CUNY’s Graduate School of Journalism and… more
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