A new Mass policy that does what climate bills frequently fail to do: directly target fossil fuel emissions
In a broad climate bill passed earlier this summer, the state has authorized a pilot program that will allow 10 municipalities to ban fossil fuels in nearly all new buildings. This program is the result of grassroots efforts across the state that led 10 cities and towns to petition the state (in what’s referred to as a home rule petition) to allow them to implement such a ban.
Jesse Gray, a molecular biologist who lives in Brookline, wrote the first new-building gas ban in the state (and the first ban in the country outside of California) for the town in 2019. Since then, he has continued to push the state to allow municipalities to implement these bans and co-founded ZeroCarbonMA, a nonprofit focused on promoting decarbonization throughout Massachusetts.
I spoke with Jesse about his work fighting for gas bans and what comes next for the movement following the new pilot program. The following has been edited for brevity and clarity.
What was your inspiration for writing this initial ban in 2019, and what do you think makes these bans important as a policy?
I’m a scientist, but I’m a molecular biologist and a neurogeneticist, so I was really focused on my science for most of my life, until I turned 43 back in 2019. And then I had realized in the year or two before that there was actually that stuff you could do on climate.
With electric vehicles, there’s actually a consumer choice that I could make that could actually have a huge impact, where I’m no longer burning fossil fuels in my car. And then that led to the realization that I could do the same thing with my house.
I electrified my own life. And then, partway through that, I realized that I could also have an impact through collective action at the municipal level, where the will to act on climate is really the strongest. And that’s what led to me getting involved in Brookline politics. The reason I focused on a gas ban is because it’s at the intersection of three requirements for effective climate action, in my mind.
The climate action has to be impactful; it has to really have a significant effect on emissions and helping to get us to net-zero emissions, which is our goal in Brookline by 2040.
It has to be politically possible, which of course is a matter of opinion, and the gas ban in 2019 was barely on the edge of politically possible in Brookline. In fact, in the beginning, most people thought it would not pass.
And the third requirement is that it had to be pragmatic. Even if you have a policy that would be impactful, let’s say it’s a requirement that something be done or not be done, and it’s politically possible, if it turns out it actually is unworkable, then it’s also not going to be helpful.
So, I was searching for policies that could achieve that trifecta of politically possible, pragmatic, and impactful, and I settled on the gas ban, and copied it from Berkeley.
It’s important because we’ve got to stop burning fossil fuels, and when we make new buildings, it’s an instance where it’s actually often cheaper, or cost neutral, to just not install new fossil fuel infrastructure. And particularly if you consider that we really need to be taking fossil fuel infrastructure out of buildings that already exist, every time that we build a new building with fossil fuel infrastructure, we’re just making our job much harder and more expensive.
Where did you find the most significant political opposition to this proposal?
Early on in Brookline people just wanted to know if it was actually workable, just actually practical. So that part—a lot of people pay lip service to practicality, but I really believe in it, and we put hours and hours and hours of time into this, into listening to people, considering different people’s perspectives, experts, architects, contractors, and that led to some exemptions. One was for backup generation, and one was for hot water heating in large buildings.
Later, there was opposition from the real estate industry, specifically NAIOP, as well as the gas utility, specifically National Grid. And there’s also opposition from labor, pipefitters, plumbers … The gas bans I think generated more attention and more commentary than any other local legislation over a period of many years.
What do you think the significance is of this new pilot project?
We’re seeing an acceleration of climate change, and then what that is also leading to is an acceleration of climate action. And so, what is seemingly impossible at the beginning of a year-and-a-half legislative session is becoming possible at the end. Nobody really thought we had a chance to get these things through the legislature at the beginning, and then we did. Even up until a day before we found out, we didn’t think they would be passed.
What a lot of legislators are saying is that now they want to see how the pilot program goes before they expand it. But it’s kind of a conceit that they themselves created, I think partly so they wouldn’t have to do anything soon on it.
The policy is eminently practical, so there’s really nothing to be piloted here. What I expect is that, even though now legislators are saying ‘wait a couple years, let’s see how this turns out,’ realistically every week counts in terms of reducing emissions and saving people money avoiding expensive retrofits of buildings by building them correctly in the first place. And I think that we may possibly be able to get this expanded to the whole state in the next legislative session. But I may be the only person who thinks that.
What comes next?
We’re encouraging communities to pass these home-rule petitions, because I think one of the strongest arguments to make to legislators would be if another 20 or 30 communities passed home rule petitions asking for permission to do this. That could lead to an amendment being stuck in at the last minute expanding the pilot program, for example.
What we’re also doing is—we view ourselves as reconciling climate policy with climate reality. If you look at the end game, what we need to achieve based on the goals that Brookline has set for itself is net-zero emissions community-wide by 2040. And the fact of the matter is that we just don’t have policies that are even remotely going to get us there. And so that is what we’re focused on.
We supported the development of nine pieces of legislation, a slate of new legislation that I filed for this fall Brookline town meeting, which is on November 15 it starts, we filed that on the September 1 deadline for filing legislation. And those policies are aimed at getting permission for municipalities, starting with Brookline, getting permission to have the authority and the resources needed to retrofit existing buildings to all-electric.
We’ve also had multiple rounds, so actually the third round is relevant to one of your more recent questions. We first asserted our authority and were rejected. We then asked the state for permission, that was in 2020. And then, anticipating that that might take a while, we also asserted ourselves in a different way.
This time, by forming a nonprofit, we were able to raise money and then actually pay for professional legal services. We have our own council, and they now draft our legislation for us, which is incredibly empowering. They drafted legislation that was intended to be the strongest possible legal manner in which to try to do a gas ban that might be approved by the attorney general.
The attorney general – pretty surprisingly – rejected those attempts. They were technically incentives, and they were firmly within the tradition of the types of zoning incentives that are used all around the state. One of them was really vanilla, a really standard incentive that you could basically build a bigger building if it’s fossil-fuel-free. Another one was much more convoluted and complicated but a similar concept, a disincentive for including fossil fuel infrastructure. The Attorney General rejected both of them, and together with the town we are appealing that decision, and if we were to win that case, that would enable basically any municipality to basically ban gas, for the most part.
Do you have any idea if Andrea Campbell as AG would treat this any differently than Maura Healey?
I don’t, and I haven’t met Andrea Campbell. She just won the primary two days ago? So, it’s a great question, I’m really interested to know the answer myself.
Is there anything else on this topic you’d like to add?
I would just add that I hope that we can convert people who may be experiencing climate doom or climate anxiety into activists, because I think that it’s just a lot more fun to be an activist.
It used to be that some of the standard routes to activism just were not that impactful on climate. Now, if you can pass a gas ban in your local community, you can have measurable impact on emissions in your community, and you can have an even bigger impact on the political trajectory, politics being the rate-limiting step.
Technology is not rate-limiting. We’re solving this problem, what’s holding us back is politics. The good news is that the more people that get involved and articulate how important this is to them, the faster we’ll be able to move.
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Jon is a freelance journalist and a senior at Colorado College. He oversees the school's student publications and covers environmental issues for the Catalyst newspaper. Sign up for his newsletter at newenglandclimate.substack.com.