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NYC bans natural gas in new buildings in an effort to combat climate change

EYDER PERALTA, HOST:

New York City recently became the largest city in the U.S. to ban natural gas in newly constructed buildings. It joins dozens of others that have pushed to limit gas use in an effort to fight climate change. But the growing trend has proved politically divisive. In numerous, mostly red states, preemptive laws have been passed against such restrictions. Joining us now to talk about New York City's move and its national implications is David Iaconangelo, reporter for E&E News. Thanks for being with us.

DAVID IACONANGELO: Thanks for having me.

PERALTA: So, I mean, cities could be doing a lot of things to curb carbon emissions, but restrictions on natural gas have been growing since 2019. I mean, how widespread is it, and why is it gaining traction now?

IACONANGELO: Yeah, you're right. I mean, cities can and are doing a lot of different things to address climate change. But the building sector is especially important because in a lot of cities, that's where most of the emissions come from. So New York City is a great example. I think somewhere in the ballpark of 70% of its greenhouse gas emissions come from buildings. So if you're a city policymaker of some kind and you want to address climate change in some way, it's a pretty good place to start. This movement, as you noted, started really in 2019 in California in - the city of Berkeley passed a law that's pretty similar to what New York City did. And since then, it's spread to dozens of jurisdictions throughout California. Almost immediately, what we saw is a pushback from gas industry and allies. And around 20 states have passed these preemption laws that you referred to, which basically restrict cities from enacting any kind of prohibition or ban on the use of fossil fuels in buildings.

PERALTA: So these measures got pushback from the fossil fuel trade groups and real estate developers. What was their critique?

IACONANGELO: The chief one and the one that's I think most important is this would raise people's energy bills to a level that's unsustainable for a lot of people, especially for lower-income people. And to me, it seems like this is not a shut-and-dry question. It's interesting that New York is actually going to look into this as a result of the bill. So the bill calls for a study into the feasibility and cost of using electricity as a replacement for fossil-fuel heat in buildings.

PERALTA: I mean, is there a chance that the cost of this will put it on the back burner in New York City?

IACONANGELO: Yeah, I'm not sure that it will be put on the back burner. You know, in general, natural gas is cheaper on a per-unit basis than electricity, so it does have that cost advantage. Now, the city says that if you were to move from an existing building powered by gas to a new electric-powered building, the cost of - your energy bills would be roughly the same. Some of that is around the level of energy efficiency that new buildings will have. But the general idea here is that, over time, the more people who buy electric technologies to use in buildings, the cheaper they become. And the bigger picture here is climate change, right?

PERALTA: Yeah.

IACONANGELO: If you want to decarbonize a building in 2021 or in 2022, the cheapest way to do that is probably electricity in just about any part of the country. New York City is trying to be a first-mover and prove to other parts of the country that this is feasible, that it's possible. There are still going to be questions around what else the city needs to do to implement this and to make it fair for people who live here.

PERALTA: And, of course, I mean, like so much in this country - right? - this has also become politicized. Can you tell us, I mean, what that's looked like, especially between, you know, local and state governments who are arguing over these bans?

IACONANGELO: Yeah. Yeah. You know, I think the chief way in which it's become politicized is really the state level. It's, you know, through these preemption laws. There have been a number of cities - New York City is not the first outside of California to pass a gas ban, but it is by far the biggest. And I think 20 states now, which are generally conservative-led, Republican-led - those are the ones which are keeping cities from enacting these kinds of policies.

PERALTA: But look. New York City, obviously, is huge. Do you think there will be ripple effects to their ban?

IACONANGELO: Yeah. Yeah. I think it will in one respect, which is changes on the market for electric technologies that are used to decarbonize buildings. The idea here is that if you decarbonize in a big swath of New York City's buildings, those buildings have to buy those electric technologies and so the cost, over time, comes down. Those technologies become more efficient. That could encourage other cities or states or jurisdictions to adopt rules like this because, you know, it'll be easier for them to do it, less costly.

PERALTA: That's David Iaconangelo with E&E News. Thanks for joining us.

IACONANGELO: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Eyder Peralta is NPR's East Africa correspondent based in Nairobi, Kenya.