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Mayor Brandon Johnson backs ordinance to effectively ban natural gas in new buildings

An ordinance that would all but ban natural gas in new Chicago buildings has gained the key support of Mayor Brandon Johnson, who is hoping the proposed overhaul on emissions standards will deliver his next progressive victory.

Aldermen who support the legislation touted it at a Tuesday City Hall news conference as an essential way to fight climate change. At a dueling appearance this week, opponents delivered their own arguments against the measure, saying it will make power less reliable and more costly. The mayor will introduce the plan to the City Council Wednesday,

Angela Tovar, Johnson’s commissioner of the newly reopened Department of Environment, joined those backing the plan and praised it as a “reasonable first step” to bring down energy costs, reduce toxic emissions and fight climate change.

“It is our responsibility to implement policy initiatives that enable a just transition to a clean energy future,” Tovar said.

“Too many Chicagoans are having trouble paying their gas bills, and too many families are exposed to chemicals that cause cancer and asthma when burning gas in their kitchens,” the mayor added in a statement earlier Tuesday morning. “That is why we are taking the first step toward making how we heat our homes more affordable, and making indoor air safer for every Chicagoan.”

Johnson endorsing the legislation was not a surprise given his previous supportive statements about environmental justice and green energy. But it does set him up for a bigger showdown with the gas lobby and construction industry, which are already campaigning hard against his “Bring Chicago Home” referendum drive to raise taxes on high-end real estate sales. That referendum is set for the March primary ballot and would create a fund for homelessness services if approved by voters.

If passed, the gas stove ban could be one of Johnson’s first progressive legislative victories in the new year after he passed a bundle of labor-backed initiatives last fall: placing Bring Chicago Home before voters, eliminating the tipped subminimum wage and requiring more paid time off.

His predecessor, Lori Lightfoot, also publicly backed transitioning to electric stoves and heating for new buildings as recently as last year, though her legislation never materialized amid a tough reelection fight.

Johnson’s ordinance prohibits the combustion of any substance that emits 25 kilograms or more of carbon dioxide per million British thermal units of energy, the same standard New York City set in a law enacted in 2021.

Some buildings and equipment would not have to meet the new emissions standard, including hospitals, research laboratories, emergency backup power generators and commercial cooking equipment.

Tovar joined several aldermen, dozens of environmental advocacy groups and several business leaders in supporting the legislation. But as the proposal moves through the City Council, it will face resistance from an opposed coalition led by Ald. Gilbert Villegas, 36th.

Powerhouse unions involved in gas and construction work, including the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 150, Gas Workers Union 18007 and Laborers’ International Union of North America, are fighting the ordinance alongside groups like the Building Industry Association of Greater Chicago and the Southland Black Chamber of Commerce & Industry.

At the dueling news conference Monday, Villegas called for a resolution to further examine the proposed ordinance as he and other critics alleged it would raise energy prices and harm reliability. He cited power outages during an early January winter storm, when over 150,000 ComEd customers lost electricity across northern Illinois.

“Now is the worst possible time to hastily slam through an ordinance without examining its true cost, infrastructure requirements and, most importantly, hearing from residents,” he said.

The ordinance would push Chicagoans to be more reliant on an electric grid that relies on natural gas and coal to produce much of its power, said Paul Colgan, a political strategist for the coalition opposing the measure. It might also leave buildings without the infrastructure to handle promising energy alternatives in development, like hydrogen power, he added.

Tovar argued the proposed ordinance doesn’t block future, more sustainable power technology, but instead only sets emissions requirements.

“We want to leave the door open and we want to continue to pilot new technologies,” she said.

While the ordinance’s supporters argued it will cut costs and lower emissions, they also said they believe those benefits will only grow over time as more clean energy technology and infrastructure is developed.

The proposal so far has 15 co-sponsors, said Ald. Maria Hadden, 49th, Johnson’s handpicked chair of the Committee on Environmental Protection and Energy.

Provided the legislation’s introduction goes well, hearings and briefings will be scheduled. The ordinance will be voted on by the zoning and environment committees before eventually facing a full City Council vote, Hadden said.

Hadden described the ordinance as another step in the city’s gradual, but much needed response to climate change.

“We’re doing just the first baby steps, making sure that we can have a cleaner, more affordable and healthier future,” she said.

But as Hadden called the effective ban incremental, other advocates suggested it is unpreventable. As the window to reach climate goals closes, it’s only a question of when the change will occur, said Cheryl Johnson, executive director of People for Community Recovery, an environmental justice advocacy group.

“It’s inevitable. It’s going to happen, y’all,” she said. “We’re going to have to change.”

jsheridan@chicagotribune.com