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Berkeley, Calif., repeals its first-in-the-nation ban on natural gas in new homes

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, HOST:

Berkeley, Calif., was the first city in the nation to ban natural gas hookups in new construction. The move in 2019 was an effort to switch buildings away from fossil fuels to combat climate change. Now the city is repealing that landmark natural gas ban after losing a legal challenge. But as KQED's Kevin Stark reports, this doesn't mean the broader push for electrification is dead.

KEVIN STARK, BYLINE: The progressive policy was meant to aid California in reaching its climate goal of carbon neutrality by 2045. Back when it was passed, then-Berkeley Councilmember Kate Harrison pushed for the regulation.

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KATE HARRISON: We need to tackle climate change every way that we can, and by doing this, we're not asking people to change that much.

STARK: More than 100 other cities, including San Francisco and Eugene, soon passed similar measures. They argued that new, efficient electric appliances have lower carbon footprints than things like gas-powered stoves. But then came the resistance from industry groups. That included chefs and restaurant owners who prefer cooking with gas. Here's Nick Kacha, whose family owns Rudford's Restaurant in San Diego, speaking to Fox News last year.

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NICK KACHA: It changes the whole dynamic of the restaurant, how we cook, how fast we're able to cook things.

STARK: The California Restaurant Association successfully sued Berkeley, arguing the city overstepped its authority and violated U.S. energy law. The policies were met with resistance by natural gas utilities, too. Charlie Spatz is a researcher at the Energy and Policy Institute.

CHARLIE SPATZ: They're extremely threatened by this, and they want to slow down the transition.

STARK: The industry has said that gas bans like Berkeley's will drive up the cost for consumers and that cities can use natural gas and still address climate change, despite scientific evidence to the contrary. But just because Berkeley abandoned its bellwether policy doesn't mean all other places will, too. San Francisco thinks its plan, which created a pathway for new restaurants to opt out, is still on solid legal ground. Supervisor Rafael Mandelman.

RAFAEL MANDELMAN: No one has come to us asking us to change or repeal our law. For now, we will, you know, continue to enforce it, continue to implement it consistent with, you know, the court decision.

STARK: Ethan Elkind directs the climate program at UC Berkeley's law school. He says that since Berkeley lost its case in court, local governments around the country have pivoted to policies that don't ban natural gas outright but get at the same outcome.

ETHAN ELKIND: They can put some stringent energy efficiency requirements in place that essentially mean that natural gas is not going to be applicable.

STARK: He points to places like Washington state, where officials went for high-efficiency performance standards. He says the court ruling against Berkeley's policy could slow but won't stop the growing electrification movement.

For NPR News, I'm Kevin Stark in San Francisco. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Kevin Stark