In New York, buildings are a bigger climate problem than airplanes. They’re heating the planet faster than cars. They put out more than six times as much greenhouse gas as all the methane-burping cows in the state.
That was supposed to change with this year’s state budget. Not so much.
“The gas ban is officially dead in the budget, but the fight is only just getting started,” a staffer close to negotiations told The River.
A week ago, it looked like the New York State Legislature might emerge from budget negotiations with a law that would ban fossil fuels from newly constructed buildings in the near future. The push to electrify new buildings has support from leadership in the state Senate and from Governor Kathy Hochul, and is critical to the state’s draft plan to decarbonize the statewide economy by 2050.
But a campaign backed by utilities and fossil fuel interests is putting intense pressure on lawmakers to kill the bill, and insiders say that misinformation by opponents and Assembly inaction on the so-called “gas ban” has doomed it in the budget process.
If the gas ban doesn’t make it into the state budget—which is already a week late, and mired in controversy on other fronts—the Legislature will be poised for a ferocious fight over it in the rest of the legislative session. Several other proposed bills that are critical to state climate action are also off the table in budget talks, and will be headed for a more drawn-out battle.
Buildings Drive the Climate Crisis
On Monday, the United Nations’ latest summary of the state of climate science dropped: the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s report on strategies for avoiding the worst of climate change, and how governments are putting them into policy.
On a global scale, buildings are responsible for about 21 percent of greenhouse emissions, the IPCC report states. In New York, a third of the state’s emissions come from heating and cooling buildings. On the issue of how to get rid of those emissions, the IPCC report is pretty clear: Buildings need to be electrified.
“Low ambitious policies increase the risk of lock-in buildings in carbon for decades,” the report states. Every home built today with a gas boiler or fuel-oil furnace will be producing tons of greenhouse gas every year, long into the future. Heat pumps, the current forerunner in clean-heat technology, are far more efficient than either fossil-fuel heating systems or traditional electric resistance heat, and in the last decade, advances in technology have made them a solid choice for cold-weather climates like New York’s.
No state has a better shot at real climate ambition on buildings than New York. The state’s 2019 climate law, the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act, set ambitious targets for emissions reduction that will be impossible to meet without swift action on electrifying buildings. New York City has already enacted a local law that will require new smaller buildings to be electric by 2024. A statewide ban on gas in new construction has vocal support from the governor, who put a bill requiring new buildings to be electric by 2027 in her executive budget proposal. A more ambitious bill—the All-Electric Building Act, sponsored by Assemblymember Emily Gallagher and Senator Brian Kavanagh—would start that clock ticking sooner, in 2024.
In a press conference Tuesday about the effort to electrify buildings, Gallagher said that the state is technologically ready to start making the shift away from fuel heat. “New York already has the infrastructure and the ideas to make this work here. We have this bill in New York City; we have already worked out the details.”
Kevin Moravec, owner of a Penn Yan business that installs air source and geothermal heat pumps in a large region around Rochester, Syracuse, and Buffalo, agreed.
“New construction is the ideal spot to start leaning away from the fossil fuel industry,” he said. “There is not a building—especially in new construction, where we can control the building envelope, the layout—where this technology does not apply.”
A Fierce Battle, With Utilities on Both Sides
A utility-backed campaign dubbed “New Yorkers for Affordable Energy” has been lobbying hard to kill the gas ban, both in the halls of the state Capitol and in the court of public opinion. Last week, the group launched a statewide ad campaign aimed at scaring New Yorkers into believing that the gas ban would force them to pour thousands of dollars into retrofitting their homes.
The campaign to shut down the gas ban has support from most of New York’s utility companies: Central Hudson, National Grid, and Avangrid, the company that owns NYSEG and Rochester Gas and Electric. Asked about their support for the campaign, Central Hudson issued a statement that implied that a gas ban in new construction would be a threat to the reliability of the grid.
“We need to ensure the energy system we transition to is able to consistently provide power around the clock, as needed. We also feel that customers should be provided with choices rather than mandates,” a company spokesperson wrote.
The statement also described natural gas as a “low emissions fuel”—a description at odds with current science on greenhouse gas accounting, which has increasingly recognized the large climate impact of methane leaks from pipelines—and as “affordable,” despite large recent global price spikes that have also driven up the cost of New York’s electrical power to consumers.
On the other side of the debate is Con Edison, a downstate utility that has been supportive of New York City’s local electric buildings law. On Tuesday, Con Edison issued a statement in support of the statewide gas ban.
“Con Edison supports New York’s climate goals and we are committed to a clean energy transition,” spokesperson Karl-Erik Stromsta wrote. “The establishment of a clear-cut path toward electrification of heating for new buildings statewide is a sensible and necessary step on the path to carbon neutrality by 2050, and one we’ve already supported at the city level.”
The push to kill the gas ban also has support from trade unions affiliated with the utilities. While climate action in New York has some union support, unions have mostly either stood on the sidelines in fights over energy policy or sided with fossil fuel interests.
Lisa Marshall, director of the nonprofit organization HeatSmart Tompkins, says that dynamic is slow to shift. “A real concern for organized labor, especially if you’re thinking about the gas workers, is that they would lose their jobs to air source heat pump installers that are generally in non-union HVAC companies.”
But behind the scenes, unions are beginning to “get excited” about the prospect of geothermal district heating, a larger-scale solution for transitioning homes off fuel heat in more dense urban areas that utilities could potentially help build. “They haven’t seen the proof of concept yet,” Marshall says. “The date that took them to the prom was the gas industry. Now we have to lure them away with a better prospect.”
Other Bills Headed for a Battle
Besides the All-Electric Building Act, there are several other bills that will need to be passed in order to align state law with the goal of requiring new buildings to be electric.
One is the Advanced Building, Appliance, and Electric Standards Act, cosponsored by Senator Kevin Parker and Assemblymember Patricia Fahy, which would update the state’s building codes and raise the standards for energy efficiency in both construction and appliances. “Not a sexy issue, but hugely important. You can’t have an all-electric code without getting this passed,” former state Senator Jen Metzger told The River in January.
Another important bill is the Gas Transition and Affordable Energy Act, sponsored by Senators Liz Krueger and Rachel May, and Fahy in the Assembly. The bill aims to bring public service law in line with the clean energy transition. Currently, New York’s public service law requires utilities to provide gas hookups to new customers if they are within 100 feet of service—effectively a subsidy for fossil fuels whose cost is spread out among all ratepayers, and a piece of law in direct conflict with a ban on fossil fuels in new construction. The proposed bill would end that subsidy in new construction, and also direct the Public Service Commission to plan for the retirement of fossil fuel infrastructure like gas-fueled power plants.
Neither bill is going to make it through the budget process, legislative insiders say. But a larger fight is looming—and so far, utilities and fossil fuel interests are fighting dirty.
“They’re telling lies about the bill, they’re employing lobbyists to prowl the halls of Albany,” says Alex Beauchamp, Northeast region director for Food and Water Watch.
“It’s not hard to see that the giant amount of money being spent is having an effect,” says Pete Sikora, a climate advocate with New York Communities for Change.
Activists are fighting, too. Both organizations are planning to picket Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie’s office in the Bronx in support of the All-Electric Building Act on Thursday.
“The clear holdup right now is the Assembly’s unwillingness to engage on this issue at this moment,” Sikora says.