Boston is pulling out of the race to be one of the 10 Massachusetts cities and towns allowed to ban fossil fuels in new construction through a state pilot program, Mayor Michelle Wu told The Boston Globe last week.
Wu said she’d gotten “clear indications” that Boston would not be selected for the one remaining spot left in the pilot. In an emailed statement to Smart Cities Dive, she added that the city will instead focus on clearer pathways to get fossil fuels out of buildings, such as zoning changes and a “home-rule petition” to the state asking for permission to develop new building electrification rules.
The city will also continue to advocate for Massachusetts to allow all cities to “have the legal authority to take urgently needed action,” Wu said in the statement. Currently, Massachusetts does not allow municipalities to regulate or restrict the use of fossil fuels in construction, which has drawn the ire of climate advocates and local officials.
City ordinances banning fossil fuels in new construction have gone somewhat mainstream since Berkeley, California, passed its trailblazing rule in 2019. These “gas bans” in new buildings are lower-hanging fruit for building decarbonization compared with the thornier challenge of getting fossil fuels out of existing buildings, some experts say.
Massachusetts municipalities have thus far been unable to take part in the movement, however, with the state’s attorney general striking down attempts to date for conflicting with state law. Many cities and towns are eager to pass such rules, though; when the state in 2022 created the pilot program, the 10 slots were almost immediately filled. When one city withdrew from the program, saying it could not meet affordable housing requirements, its coveted spot opened up.
Boston, the state’s largest city, has a building sector that accounts for over 70% of total greenhouse gas emissions. It faced an uphill battle as a potential applicant, however. Part of that is because the program aims to collect data from a diverse set of communities, and Boston is “electrically similar” to others already partaking in the program, a state Department of Energy Resources spokesperson told The Boston Globe.
Some local officials and building electrification advocates in Massachusetts have decried the confines of the state pilot program and are pushing a state bill that would allow any qualified community to adopt such bans. “I don’t believe that, when we have 435 communities in the state, that only 10 should be able to decide for themselves what they can do,” Jeff Cohen, a city councilor in Salem, told the Energy News Network.
Boston seems to agree. The city’s chief of environment, energy and open space, Mariama White-Hammond, said in a Nov. 3 letter to Massachusetts Energy and Environmental Affairs Secretary Rebecca Tepper that the current pilot program setup heavily favors the original communities selected to participate “and pits other communities against each other for the right to advance the public good.”
Although Boston’s potential path to new building electrification is now less clear, the city is still making some progress on building decarbonization efforts. In 2021, the city amended an ordinance to require existing large buildings to reduce greenhouse gas emissions over time with a goal of net zero emissions by 2050. An executive order by Wu in August banned fossil fuel use in new and significantly renovated municipal buildings. The city has also launched several pilot projects to help owners of two- to four-unit housing and affordable housing go electric and become more energy efficient.
“But we need to do more,” White-Hammond said in her letter. “As we have communicated since the passage of state legislation creating the Municipal Fossil Fuel Free Building Demonstration Program, any statewide climate pilot program should include Boston to have the fullest possible impact and representation.”
White-Hammond added in the letter that it seems the state pilot program is designed for smaller communities, and input from Boston about the program design was not implemented in the final regulations.
She said that rather than asking the many stakeholders in Boston “to spend significant time developing an application for a program that has not been shaped for our participation, we will focus on engaging the community around other local and state mechanisms to deliver equitable and urgent fossil fuel-free standards in Boston.”
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