San Jose Bans Gas Pipelines for New Buildings by 2020

On September 18, San Jose, CA became the largest US city to ban construction of new gas pipelines. All new buildings will have to be electric starting January of 2020 (in less than 4 months!). With its aggressive move, the City of San Jose is displaying the sense of urgency experts and the public alike are calling for in fighting the climate crisis. The ban is remarkable not only because of the size of San Jose (it’s the 10th largest city in the US, with over 1 million inhabitants), but also because of the very short notice developers received. It is as if the city was telling the construction industry: “Get your act together. The technology is there and you can do this.” 

With its ban on new gas pipelines, San Jose cuts through two of the bigger obstacles to addressing the climate crisis adequately: (1) utilities that not only delay the transition to clean energy but plan to expand the use of fossil fuels and (2) parts of the construction industry that continue to do business as usual and fail to recognize their role and responsibility in fighting climate change. 

From the standpoint of developers, it may be a bit of a scramble to revise plans at such short notice, although alternative technologies such as electric heat pumps are available. However, from the standpoint of investors or building owners it should be a no-brainer, since US cities with climate goals are also beginning to mandate energy retrofits to existing buildings. Why pay for a gas heating system now if I will be required to replace it soon with electric heat? 

From the standpoint of a city, any new gas-heated building makes it harder to meet that city’s carbon reduction goals. But this is not the only problem to consider:  

  1. The generation of natural gas through fracking results in methane emissions which have been vastly underestimated in the past. While methane emissions at a production site are not counted towards a city’s carbon inventory, they nevertheless contribute to heating up the planet. 
  2. Fracking also generates considerable amounts of soil, water, and air pollution in addition to the methane release. 
  3. Gas leaks from aging pipeline infrastructures within cities result in additional methane emissions. A July 2019 study shows that for six big east coast cities, including Boston, methane emissions are twice as high as recent EPA estimates suggested. They contribute to global warming, create health problems, kill trees, and jeopardize safety.
  4. Some gas companies don’t cooperate when asked to fix their gas leaks (see National Grid vs. City of Boston
  5. An aging pipeline infrastructure can pose a massive, immediate safety risk, as seen from the recent incidents in the Merrimack Valley

Given the current building boom in Boston, the City needs to look into serious measures to stop the expansion of gas infrastructure, and do so quickly. San Jose has set an example of one way to accomplish this.  Locally BCAN is part of a group of organizations calling on the Boston Planning and Development Agency (BPDA) to revise Article 37, Boston’s Green Building Code, to enact a similar ban on gas hook-ups for new construction. The Boston node of 350-MA is among the leaders of that no-gas-in-new-construction campaign.