Berkeley’s first-in-the-nation natural gas ban is dead. But is the battle over? | Environment

Four years ago, Berkeley made history when it became the first city in the US to ban natural gas hookups in new buildings.

It was a natural step for the famously progressive California community, which was an early adopter of curbside recycling in the 1970s, banned styrofoam in 1988, and more recently led the charge to outlaw single-use packaging and plastics.

But today the ban is dead in the water, after a lawsuit brought by a restaurant trade group challenged its legality, tying the ban’s enforcement up in court for years. Last month, the city finally gave in and began the process of repealing it.

For a moment, the news appeared devastating for efforts to transition away from fossil fuels. But even without the historic ban, local climate advocates and restaurant owners are imagining ways Berkeley could still lead a national push to transition away from natural gas, amid growing public awareness of its harms to both the climate and human health.

Alastair Iles, a professor of sustainability transitions at the University of California, Berkeley, remembers how community groups rallied with local legislators to introduce and pass the ban. “Communities and activists around the city identified very closely with the ban’s successful passing, and saw it as a sign that the city is continuing to tackle the challenge of climate change.”

He said these groups aren’t giving up hope that Berkeley can still set an example. “From what I have heard, they are upset, sad, and disheartened that the ban has been overturned,” said Iles. “But they also know that there are alternative ways forward.”

‘Fossil fuel-free city’

Berkeley has long been a leader on progressive climate legislation, and in 2018 the city council resolved to become a “fossil fuel-free city”.

So it wasn’t a surprise in July 2019 when the Berkeley city council unanimously passed an ordinance preventing natural gas hookups in new residential and commercial construction. At the time, nearly a third of the city’s greenhouse gas emissions came from natural gas. The move was lauded by environmental organizers as a step towards California’s goal of achieving 100% zero-carbon energy by 2045.

Berkeley’s move sparked a wave of action, and an inevitable backlash. In the years since, 135 cities and counties have introduced some type of building decarbonization ordinance. At the same time, 24 mostly red states have done the opposite, passing laws that prohibit cities from banning natural gas.

A restaurant trade group in California successfully challenged the Berkeley ban, preventing it from taking effect. Photograph: Antonio Olmos/The Observer

Yet before Berkeley’s natural gas ban could even take effect in January 2020, the California Restaurant Association (CRA) filed a lawsuit arguing both that the ban harmed restaurant owners who rely on gas stoves and also that, under the 1975 Energy and Policy Conservation Act, only the federal government has the authority to regulate energy standards for appliances.

Thus ensued a lengthy back and forth between the city and the trade group. In 2021, a US district judge sided with Berkeley, ruling that the city wasn’t trying to regulate appliances, but instead the fuel they used. CRA then took their case to the ninth circuit court of appeals, which ruled against the ban. In January 2023, Berkeley lost its request to have the case reheard and could have appealed to the US supreme court, but instead chose to settle with the CRA. Some environmental advocates have pointed out that the natural gas utility SoCalGas provided financial support to the restaurant association.

“Very likely, Berkeley decided that it might be counterproductive to keep the case going, because a loss could hurt similar city and state laws in other parts of the country along with California,” given the supreme court’s current conservative majority, said Iles. “More importantly, the supreme court could easily have made a more expansive ruling than needed, as it often has in the past few years, meaning that a range of options to require gas-free buildings could be prohibited.”

‘Cooking with gas is really a mindset’

The debate over natural gas has heated up in the past year, following 2023 studies that found gas stoves could be linked to more than 12% of childhood asthma cases in the US, and emit indoor pollutants at levels worse than secondhand smoke.

Despite the Berkeley blow, environmental leaders and business owners – including some of the city’s leading restaurateurs – don’t see this as the end of the road. Although Iles suspects other California cities will stop pursuing natural gas bans, he says many are considering alternative policy pathways.

Chez Panisse in Berkeley has said it will switch over to electric stoves. Photograph: Gado Images/Alamy

“Learning from Berkeley’s ill-fated experience, cities across California and the US west have already introduced different rules focused on energy performance,” which require buildings to lower their energy usage but don’t set specific requirements as to how, he said, creating an incentive to use electric or solar rather than gas appliances without mandating it. “Cities can also set air pollution emission standards to favor electric appliances.”

Iles adds that last September, mayors from 25 California cities wrote to the state’s governor, Gavin Newsom, “urging him to set statewide building codes that would require new buildings to be fully electric”. Just last month, California released a draft update to its building code that will encourage the use of heat pumps, which are fossil fuel-free heaters that are more efficient than gas furnaces, in all new homes beginning in 2026.

Meanwhile, despite the CRA’s stance, many chefs in Berkeley and beyond are considering their role in leading the way toward electrification. Last year, chef Alice Waters of Berkeley’s Michelin star restaurant Chez Panisse told Yahoo News that she plans to transition the restaurant to electric stoves, and that a new bar opening up next door would also use electric cooking.

“It’s a matter of getting used to it,” she told the outlet. “You just have to know a little more about cooking with it. It’s not rocket science.” In response to a Guardian inquiry about the transition, a spokesperson for Chez Panisse said there were no updates to share yet and that the bar was still under construction.

“Cooking with gas is really a mindset,” agrees chef Grégoire Jacquet, owner and founder of Grégoire, a high-end take-out restaurant in Berkeley who is exploring bringing more electric equipment into his kitchen. “Nowadays there is some stuff that really is pretty awesome when it comes to electric.”

But he acknowledges that it’s scary for chefs who have trained on gas stoves to make the switch, especially given the cost of buying new equipment. “I think if we all want to switch to electric, it’s going to take a lot of education and a lot of training.”

He hopes culinary schools will begin training new chefs on electric stoves early in their education, and that local governments will consider giving restaurants grants to encourage transitioning to electric, and to help cover the costs.

As Jacquet expands his business with new franchise locations, he’s planning to source both gas and electric cookers. It’s a sign of where the city, and others across the country, could be headed. The transition to electric is happening, says Jacquet. “But not fast enough,” he adds. “Because the Earth is dying.”

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