Editorial: Chicago should cool down on banning natural gas in new buildings and let this be debated statewide

Mayor Brandon Johnson and allies on the City Council last week introduced an ordinance that would effectively ban natural gas for heating and cooking in most newly constructed buildings. A push to enact it is coming soon.

Hold your horses, Mr. Mayor. This is a big issue, no doubt. And there’s a defensible rationale behind this initiative. But this is a debate that will be undertaken in Springfield, most likely within the next two years. Better to wait and see what the statewide policy is on the future of natural gas before rushing headlong into something that — like most major changes — will carry with it unintended consequences, perhaps even harming other goals near to the mayor’s heart.

First, here’s the reason the issue needs addressing eventually. Natural gas, used to heat Chicago buildings for decades, is a greenhouse gas. While burning gas emits less carbon than burning coal, phasing out its use would contribute meaningfully to lowering the carbon releases that are warming our planet to potentially catastrophic effects.

Chicago isn’t the only city or state moving in this direction. The proposed ordinance here is modeled on a law already on the books in New York state. Cities like Berkeley, California, have banned gas in new construction as well.

But both those examples are instructive. Berkeley, which took that step five years ago, still is unable to enforce the law after a federal appeals court agreed earlier this year that the city didn’t have authority. Similar laws in San Francisco, Oakland and other California municipalities now are effectively on hold as well. A Chicago ordinance surely would encounter a similar challenge, with all the expense and uncertainty that would create.

In New York, the rules around use of gas in new construction are statewide. That’s certainly preferable to municipality-by-municipality differences. It limits the unanticipated effects that occur in a region simply due to various municipal policies.

In this area, an effective gas ban applicable only within the city limits of Chicago could induce home and apartment builders to look outside the city’s borders for development opportunities when otherwise they wouldn’t. Chicago certainly needs more residential building, not less. The affordable housing and homelessness crisis that Johnson rightly wants to address, although this page strongly opposes his particular policies, won’t have a chance at improvement without more development.

Inside the home, there are strong feelings, too, around gas stoves. There’s a substantial segment of the population that likes to cook and strongly prefers chef-friendly gas to electric. At the higher end of the housing market, an inability to offer gas appliances potentially would hurt the competitiveness of new home and apartment builders in the regional marketplace.

Then there’s the issue of whether a gas ban in new buildings even would do much at this stage of the decarbonization campaign to cut carbon emissions. Currently, electricity, whether powering heat pumps and stoves or otherwise providing heat, is the only economic alternative to natural gas.

Our state is phasing out coal and gas for generating power, but that will take place over the next two-plus decades and there are plenty of questions around whether the intermediate phaseout schedule set forth in Illinois’ 2021 green-power law, the Climate & Equitable Jobs Act, is feasible. Add a lot more demand for power to that equation, and those concerns are exacerbated.

Much of the power keeping lights on in Chicagoland comes from nuclear energy (which doesn’t emit carbon) and, ironically enough, gas (which does).

It’s not economically feasible to build new nuclear plants at present, so any increased electricity demand will be met mostly by burning gas. Still.

All of these moving parts must be considered in any major initiative to phase out gas for heating and cooking. That’s best addressed at the state level.

The good news for Johnson and his City Council allies on this issue — and they should see it as good news given all the other controversial items on their plate — is that the state almost certainly will move on this in the relative short term. Why? A confluence of utility industry overreach, environmental politics and union anger have forced the issue in Springfield.

First: Utilities — most notably Peoples Gas, which serves the city of Chicago, but also Nicor Gas, which delivers the fuel in most of the suburbs — have for more than a decade spent outlandishly to upgrade their infrastructure, reaping outsize profits in return. The strategy pleased shareholders, but the result has been to hike heating bills far more than inflation and to compel policymakers to confront a quandary: Continuing on this path — updating underground pipe systems for another 50 years or more of use — means committing to gas for the foreseeable future.

Some Chicagoans reading this editorial might well be perplexed at the current truly head-spinning state of affairs — Peoples Gas continues to dig up Chicago front yards (with no input from residents) to rebuild its pipe system while the mayor says gas has got to go.

Second: With Democrats in firm control of the state, environmental groups enjoy more clout in Springfield than ever. Their influence, alongside broader public acceptance that climate change is a crisis in need of action, has put fossil fuel industries on the defensive.

Third: Unions, which enjoy even more clout with Springfield Democrats than the greens, are outraged because the Illinois Commerce Commission late last year rejected record rate-hike requests by virtually every utility in the state. (That action should provide some comfort to aldermen angry about Peoples Gas’ relentless rate hikes.) Unions are agitating in the capital to rebuff the utility regulators and restore the utility agenda, which currently is employing thousands of union contractors.

When the state gets down to business, we’re likely to see a reckoning with how to transition the state away from gas and over what time frame, similar to what we experienced in 2021 on the power generation side. That overarching debate will allow for a far better calibration of the trade-offs — the risks and true benefits of turning away from gas, the role of consumer choice, the possibility of powerful incentives replacing yet another divisive regulation from this administration — than what is likely to take place in the City Council.

Until then, Chicago should put the subject on ice.

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