By Brianna Levy with additional reporting from Radwa Gomaa
Over 160 people cheered when asked if they were ready to defeat natural gas in New York City. The screens of smiling faces were at the GasFreeNYC Rally organized by WE ACT for Environmental Justice, an event held to boost the morale of activists in anticipation of a City Council hearing on the issue last November.
With handmade, printed and digital signs, attendees posed for a virtual group photo and congratulated themselves for making it this far. They are supporters of #GasFreeNYC, a movement that gained traction over the past few months, culminating with the passage of a bill banning gas heat and stoves in new buildings on December 15, 2021. The new law, which will take effect in December 2023 for buildings under seven stories and in 2027 for taller buildings, makes New York the largest city to enact such a ban in the country.
The bill would probably have died if it weren’t for the efforts of advocates, according to Eric Weltman, a senior organizer at the Brooklyn-based environmental advocacy organization Food and Water Watch. “The vast majority [of bills] don’t even get hearings, so the fact that this bill got the level of attention and effort and energy involved? It’s a very positive sign.”
Bill 2317, proposed in late May, is part of Green New Deal for NYC Pledge and was drafted after the Mayor’s Office of Sustainability reported that “over 70 percent of New York’s greenhouse gas emissions come from buildings.”
That striking fact has some advocates wondering why action hasn’t been taken sooner. Gina Kruzic, an intern at Food and Water Watch, said that she felt confused upon learning about the city’s 2050 carbon neutrality goal and witnessing some of the industry pushback firsthand. “If this is a goal, why do we need to argue to actually get the steps needed to get [it] in progress?”
Pete Sikora, the Climate and Inequality Campaigns Director at New York Communities for Change, had similar feelings. “This bill should’ve passed yesterday,” he said. “We’re about to blow through levels of climate pollution that will doom the planet to worldwide catastrophe.”
City advocates weren’t the only ones rallying for the cause. The push to ban gas is happening statewide, with groups like Mothers out Front, AGREE New York and the Sierra Club hoping to pass legislation as well. The “All-Electric Building Act” (Senate Bill S6843A) is currently being reviewed by the Housing, Construction and Community Development Committee.
Some of these organizations are interested in replacing gas with geothermal technology. At the Unfrack NYS Homes and Buildings 2022 Legislations Town Hall hosted by Renewable Heat Now on November 18, Lisa Marshall of Mothers Out Front spoke about the heat pump and its benefits over natural gas.
Geothermal heat pumps (GHPs) and dual-source heat pumps (DSHPs) use energy from the surrounding ground and air. While they initially cost more to install than a gas-based heating system, they return these costs and save homeowners money after 5 to 10 years. Marshall, who works to provide low-income families with heat pumps, believes this option is better. “Not only are heat pumps a great solution for the climate, but they also really improve people’s living conditions right away, so this is really where climate justice, housing justice and climate movement intersect.”
At the town hall, leaders also divulged in the four-component legal plan developed to support the main Senate Bill. This includes the “Fossil Free Utilities,” “Advanced Building Codes, Appliance and Equipment Efficiency Standards,” “Fossil-Free Heating Tax Credit” and “Sales Tax Exemption” acts. Attendees were urged to contact Gov. Kathy Hochul and their local assembly members in support of the bills.
The fight against gas is also a nationwide affair. Several municipalities across the states have taken it upon themselves to ban or limit the use of natural gas, including those in California, Massachusetts, Oregon and Washington state. In opposition, some states have placed bans on enacting all-electric building codes to prevent the trend from spreading, like Texas, Arizona, Louisiana and Tennessee.
Back in New York City, Intro 2317 also faced opposition. The City Council hearing on November 17, which lasted over five hours, featured supporting testimonies from architects, professors and activists and dissenting testimonies from union workers, building owners and real estate professionals.
James Whelan, president of the Real Estate Board of New York (RENBY), released a statement on the same day of Intro 2317’s proposal, calling the effort “laudable” but hasty and “fundamentally flawed.” Weltman said that he has seen rhetoric like this before. “That is absolute nonsense, they’re throwing up a smokescreen of pretending to be cautious or data driven.”
The board testified at the hearing but declined to be interviewed. Sam Spokony, chief communications officer at RENBY, wrote in an email: “We support efforts to shift to electric systems in new construction, which I don’t think is really “dissenting” from that effort, but our issues are with the timetable for implementing the legislation.”
Dumitru Zahraria, the superintendent of a building in Astoria, Queens, expressed similar sentiments to that of RENBY. “It’s possible, but it’s a lot of money,” he said.
Despite resistance, advocates didn’t give up. “I’m sure a lot of horse and buggy drivers were really upset when the car first got invented,” said Kruzic.
Weltman, who attended the GasFreeNYC Rally and City Council hearing, said he was always optimistic that the bill would pass. “We are on the cusp of a victory,” he said, a few days before the council approved the law.