Bay Area cities have banned gas to fight climate change. But not Los Angeles

Source: By Sammy Roth, Los Angeles Times • Posted: Sunday, February 7, 2021

Over the last two years, 42 California cities and counties have banned or discouraged gas hookups in new buildings. The policies vary from place to place, but the goal is to shift homes and businesses from gas furnaces and stoves — which generate planet-warming emissions — to electric alternatives such as heat pumps and induction cooktops.

Los Angeles had hoped to be a leader in this area. The sustainability plan released by Mayor Eric Garcetti in April 2019 said all new buildings should be “net-zero carbon” by 2030, with existing buildings converted to zero-emission technologies by 2050.

Since then, Oakland, San Francisco and San Jose have banned natural gas in all or most new buildings. L.A. has not. What gives?

To answer that question, I asked all 15 members of Los Angeles City Council what they think about the idea of banning or discouraging gas hookups in new construction, or requiring new buildings to be all-electric. I got responses from 10 of them.

But before we get to that, some quick context.

First, gas burned in homes and businesses accounts for about 10% of California’s climate pollution. That’s not nearly as big a slice of the pie as transportation, the state’s biggest emitter. But as the climate crisis wreaks ever-greater calamity — through record heat, more destructive fires and fast-rising seas — action is needed to slash emissions across every part of the economy.

It’s also important to recognize that a ban on gas hookups wouldn’t reduce emissions from existing buildings, and that climate isn’t the only consideration. Officials in Garcetti’s office say they’re working to craft policies that will not only slash carbon emissions from new and existing buildings, but also do so in a way that sustains job opportunities for gas utility workers, and benefits low-income families and communities of color by reducing indoor air pollution from gas stoves without raising energy bills.

“We really want to prioritize the multifamily affordable housing sector,” Lauren Faber O’Connor, the city’s chief sustainability officer, told me. “Our policies and our incentives and our financing programs, as we design them, will be very keenly aware of the need to design toward equity and engage those front-line communities directly.”

L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti addresses a news conference at the launch of COVID-19 vaccination site at Dodger Stadium.

L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti addresses a news conference at the launch of COVID-19 vaccination site at Dodger Stadium on Jan. 15, 2021.(Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)

Last week, Garcetti hired Marta Segura to be the first director of the city’s newly formed Climate Emergency Mobilization Office. Environmental justice activists see the equity-focused office as an opportunity for them to help shape policy.

“If we electrify everything, how are we going to ensure for low-income communities that they aren’t paying more in energy costs?” asked Martha Dina Argüello, executive director of Physicians for Social Responsibility-Los Angeles.

If city officials hope to phase out natural gas, they will also need to deal with pushback from Southern California Gas Co., which has fought all-electric building codes in San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara and in the summer sued state officials over climate policy.

Company spokesman Chris Gilbride told me via email that achieving California’s climate goals “depends in large measure on SoCalGas’ success in its mission to build the cleanest, safest and most innovative energy company in America,” a reference to the utility’s plans — disputed by environmental activists — to replace some of the fossil fuel in its pipelines with renewable gases.

Eric Hofmann — president of Utility Workers Union of America Local 132, which represents SoCalGas employees — said gas workers support reducing emissions from buildings through efficiency and cleaner fuels, but not electrification. All-electric building codes, he said in an email, are a more costly solution that pose “significant barriers to addressing the housing crisis.”

This battle is playing out nationally too. Just last week, New York Mayor Bill de Blasio set a goal of banning gas in new construction by 2030, and Seattle banned gas heating in new commercial and some apartment buildings. Gas companies are fighting back; four state legislatures have passed laws prohibiting cities from banning gas, and similar bills have been proposed in 10 other states.