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San Jose and Oakland Ban Gas in New Buildings

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Pump jacks are seen at dawn in an oil field over the Monterey Shale formation where gas and oil is extracted using hydraulic fracturing, or fracking.  ( David McNew/Getty Images)

San Jose and Oakland are the latest California cities to ban natural gas in newly constructed homes and buildings.

In San Jose, after hours of public comment and debate on Tuesday, the City Council voted 8 to 3 in favor of the ban. Shortly after, the Oakland City Council unanimously passed a similar measure.

San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo said his city’s new ordinance is about the “city we want to build in the future.”

“San Jose has been leading on climate initiatives for many years, but this move is particularly important as we try to set an example for cities throughout the country about how we can really move to a carbon-free future,” Liccardo said before the vote.

San Jose is the third largest city in California and Oakland the eighth largest. They now join dozens of other communities where only electricity will be used to heat homes and cook food in new buildings.

It was only last July that Berkeley became the first city in the nation to prohibit gas in newly built structures. San Francisco followed suit in November.


Opposition to Exemption

Development groups have opposed the bans, arguing financial incentives are a better way to encourage electrification, while prohibitions on gas ovens and heaters put builders at a competitive disadvantage.

Morgan Morales, a spokesperson for the California Building Industry Association, wrote in an email that the group “believes that with housing costs soaring, and California suffering blackouts, a piecemeal approach to energy usage for homes hurts consumers and jeopardizes power supply.”

“A comprehensive and incentive based approach is needed to solve our climate problems not mandates and restrictions,” she wrote.

The California Restaurant Association pushed back on Berkeley’s ban last year but did not publicly criticized the San Jose or Oakland measures. The group did not respond to a request for comment.

Addressing concerns that requiring electrical hookups in new buildings could drive up the cost of housing, Liccardo said forgoing the extension of gas infrastructure can save builders a lot in upfront costs.

“There are a lot of reasons to believe that this will actually make construction cheaper,” he said.

The biggest controversy over the measure came from local environmentalists, who used the public comment session before the vote to criticize an exemption for hospitals, buildings that house computer servers and other critical infrastructure. The allowance of  natural-gas fuel cells as a source of backup electricity for these structures derailed the measure the first time it came up for a vote. But the council voted Tuesday  in favor of the exemption, which it will reconsider in 2023.

Linda Hutchins-Knowles, co-founder of the Silicon Valley chapter of Mothers Out Front, a climate change advocacy group, said the city is weakening the ban with harmful carveouts, calling them “unnecessary and very detrimental to our climate goals.”

“These fuel cells run 24/7, 365,” she said about the technology that is meant to be used as a backup. “It’s like killing a flea with a tank.”

Liccardo defended the exemptions. “(F)or those who critically need reliability, they’re just going out and buying dirty diesel backup generators,’” he said. “And it doesn’t benefit anyone if we’re just forcing folks to buy more and more diesel backups and run that dirty diesel every time.”

Oakland Joins ‘A Wave of Cities’

In Oakland, William Gilchrist, the city’s director of planning and building, last month recommended adoption of the gas ban. By requiring electrical hookups, Oakland “will send a strong market signal to retailers, construction workers, contractors, repair technicians, and more that they need to prepare for a rapid transition to all-electric appliances and infrastructure,” he wrote.

The Oakland Builders Alliance, a group that represents architects and construction firms, told CBS Bay Area that the ban will add uncertainty and will make the building process more difficult.

But Pierre Delforge, a senior scientist in building decarbonization with the Natural Resources Defense Council, said the moves by San Jose and Oakland along with those by other cities show a growing momentum around the use of all-electric building codes as a tool to fight climate change.

“It’s only been 16 months [since Berkeley passed the first gas ban] and we’ve seen this wave of cities all the way from Southern California  … up to the north coast,” he said.

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