Environmentalists to California Restaurants: Drop Lawsuit Over Berkeley Gas Ban

Environmental organizations are urging the board members of a major lobbying group for California restaurants to reconsider their support for a lawsuit against Berkeley over the city's ban on natural gas in new buildings.

Organizations including the Sierra Club and the Natural Resources Defense Council released a letter they sent Tuesday to the restaurants of the California Restaurant Association's board members.

"By carrying out this lawsuit, CRA is positioning themselves in alliance with oil and gas industry executives, and not on the side of the majority of Californians who support solutions to the climate crisis," the letter said.

The restaurant association filed the lawsuit in November. It claims that a city ordinance allowing only electric appliances and temperature controls in new buildings is unlawful and will have a negative effect on restaurants. The suit argues that restaurants would not be able to properly prepare food or heat their buildings without access to natural gas. The association also questioned Berkeley’s rush toward a fully electric future amid increasing and irregular power outages across the state. 

The Berkeley City Council unanimously passed the ordinance in July 2019 as part of an effort to curb the city’s greenhouse gas emissions. Proponents say the city adopted the measure after extensive research and public review. The law went into effect this month. Because the law applies only to new construction, Berkeley restaurants in existing buildings may continue using gas appliances, even if those restaurants require renovation.

frying pan over gas burner
The California Restaurant Association in November 2019 sued Berkeley over its natural gas ban, arguing the measure violates state law and will hurt the city's restaurants. (Matthew Green/KQED) (Matthew Green/KQED)

 

The Sierra Club has tracked more than 20 cities across the state that have adopted legislation similar to Berkeley’s banning natural gas or promoting electricity in new construction.

“California is in the middle of a climate crisis,” said Sierra Club representative Matthew Gough. “We know that without aggressive policy to move off of dirty and dangerous fossil fuels, natural disasters and strains on our resources are going to get worse.”

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He added that Berkeley’s ordinance both supports California’s statewide framework to move to 100% carbon-free energy by 2045 and aligns with the city’s public health goals. The environmentalists' letter refers to a study that showed children who grow up in homes with gas stoves are 42% more likely to develop asthma than children who don’t.

While environmental organizations claim that all-electric construction will make homes and businesses more affordable, the California Restaurant Association contends that the gas ban will raise the cost of building and operating restaurants at the same time it limits consumers’ appliance choices.

In an emailed statement, Jot Condie, president and CEO of the California Restaurant Association, said that while his organization supports California’s climate goals, declining to sue over the Berkeley ordinance would amount to “malpractice.” He added that the ordinance harms restaurants because chefs rely on open flames to heat woks, sear meat and char vegetables. The association says they can’t achieve the same effects with electric stoves.

“It’s like taking paint away from a painter and asking them to create a masterpiece,” said Robert W. Phillips, a professional chef and chairman of the Chef De Cuisine Association of California in the press release that announced the lawsuit.

"I understand that that's a concern," said the Sierra Club's Gough, but he questioned why the issue wasn't raised during the public comment period before Berkeley’s City Council voted on the ban.

Condie responded that neither the Sierra Club nor its allies in support of the Berkeley ordinance reached out to the California Restaurant Association.

This is not the first time environmental groups have put pressure on  the California Restaurant Association over the lawsuit. In December 2019, the Natural Resources Defense Council, Earthjustice and other groups alleged that the gas industry was behind the lawsuit. The association denies that claim.