Climate activists, legislators, and municipal leaders in Massachusetts are pushing a bill that would give any town or city the option to ban new fossil fuel hookups. State law currently allows just 10 communities to enact these prohibitions, but advocates argue the climate crisis is too urgent for this piecemeal approach.
“I don’t believe that, when we have 435 communities in the state, that only 10 should be able to decide for themselves what they can do,” said Jeff Cohen, a city councilor in Salem, which has expressed a desire to join the pilot. “We can’t fix the climate crisis 10 communities at a time.”
Legislation passed last year created a pilot program authorizing up to 10 municipalities to ban fossil fuel use in new construction or major renovations, a response to a surge of cities and towns petitioning lawmakers for this right. Since the bill was signed, however, four more cities have passed measures formalizing their desire to pursue the same prohibitions.
A new bill, H.3227, under consideration this year would allow these four — plus any qualified communities that become interested in the future — to adopt these bans. Expanding the program, supporters argue, would help accelerate the transition from fossil fuels. Building emissions make up 35% of the greenhouse gasses released in Massachusetts, according to state numbers. Finding ways to make building operations less carbon-intensive is therefore essential to reaching the state’s goal of achieving net-zero emissions by 2050.
The path to the pilot
The path to the creation of the pilot program began in Brookline in 2019, when the town passed a bylaw prohibiting the use of fossil fuels in new construction or major renovations, the first such municipal ordinance passed outside of California. The bylaw, however, was struck down by the state attorney general’s office on the grounds that cities and towns do not have the legal authority to supersede state building energy codes.
Brookline, along with Arlington, Lexington, Concord, and Acton, then all filed home rule petitions, asking the state legislature for the authority to make their own decision on banning fossil fuel infrastructure. Other communities soon did the same.
Rather than rule on the individual petitions before them, the legislature decided to create a pilot program allowing 10 communities to implement these bans, as long as at least 10% of the housing units in the municipality qualify as affordable. In 2021, then-Gov. Charlie Baker signed a climate bill that included the pilot program, though he expressed concern that such prohibitions could make the development of affordable housing more difficult.
It was widely assumed the 10 communities would be those that had filed home rule petitions: Acton, Arlington, Aquinnah, Brookline, Cambridge, Concord, Lexington, Lincoln, Newton, and West Tisbury. Very quickly after the bill became law, however, four additional communities — Boston, Northampton, Salem, and Somerville — voted to join the pilot program if they were able.
“The bottom line is, there’s big appetite,” said Lisa Cunningham, co-founder of ZeroCarbonMA, a Brookline-based nonprofit that advocates for decarbonization.
In its final regulations for the pilot program, to be enacted on Aug. 4, the state Department of Energy Resources gives priority for participation to the 10 original communities, though it is expected that West Tisbury will be unable to meet the affordable housing requirement. The regulations also lay out an application process for other municipalities to follow should any of the original communities withdraw from the pilot.
For many advocates, however, a pilot with limited participation is inadequate.
The equity of building decarbonization is a major concern. The 10 cities and towns on the priority list are mostly smaller, more affluent communities with little racial or socioeconomic diversity. All are in eastern Massachusetts.
“The original communities are much wealthier, much whiter, much more privileged,” Cunningham said.
The four additional cities interested in the program include five times the people of color and have median incomes that are 65% of the initial 10 municipalities, bill supporters have calculated. Three of the four have large environmental justice populations — areas that have lower average incomes, high concentrations of people of color, or high rates of residents with low English proficiency. And Northampton is located in the more rural western part of the state.
Advocates say these differences matter. A pilot program, they argue, must be representative of all regions, races, and income levels if it is to help inform the path forward for the entire state.
“The current list does not scan as representative of the state,” said Somerville City Councilor Jake Wilson.
Bill supporters also argue that it makes no sense to construct new, fossil-fuel-powered buildings that will simply need to be electrified in the coming years if the state is to meet its emissions targets.
“It doesn’t make sense to do that and put ourselves deeper in debt in terms of carbon,” said Northampton City Councilor Alex Jarrett.
The argument against fossil fuel prohibitions has largely centered on the perception that building and operating electrified buildings will be more costly than the standard natural gas-centered approach. The numbers, however, suggest that this fear is unfounded.
An energy efficiency analysis released by the state in February 2022 found that building an energy-efficient, fully electric single-family home could cost $36,000 less than building that same home run on natural gas and cost the homeowner $1,500 less per year.
For supporters, these numbers indicate the state should move directly to allowing municipalities to choose their own rules regarding fossil fuels in new construction, without the intermediary measure of a pilot program.
“We don’t need a demonstration program,” Cunningham said. “And there’s no way we can meet our climate goals if we keep on building with more fossil fuels.”
The bill received a hearing in the telecommunications, utility, and energy committee in July, and now supporters must wait to see if it moves forward, gets wrapped into broader legislation, or falls by the wayside.
There is reason for hope, supporters said. Gov. Baker, who made his hesitation about the pilot very clear, is no longer in office. Current Gov. Maura Healey, however, has made climate action a priority of her administration.
“We probably would not feel so optimistic about this happening without the change in the corner office,” Wilson said.