This article is published in our Perspectives section. Pete Sikora is the Climate & Inequality Campaigns Director at New York Communities for Change.
Ending gas in new construction is the lowest-hanging big policy fruit left to tackle the climate crisis. It’s extremely easy and affordable to build new buildings with heat pumps, rather than gas boilers. Kids would avoid asthma, people would get jobs in clean construction, and a potent source of future climate-heating pollution would be prevented. No one would face higher costs or lose a job. The public overwhelmingly supports it. New York City has already enacted it, as has Los Angeles and the state of Washington. There’s zero downside.
But tell that to the Democrats running this deep blue state.
Back in December, I’d gotten a bill-signing pen and a man hug from the extremely tall Bill de Blasio at the signing ceremony for the city’s ban on gas in new construction. It wasn’t an easy battle: we had to overcome opposition from the powerful real estate and oil and gas lobbies, as I wrote about here. Nonetheless, we won. About 2,000 new buildings are constructed each year in New York City. In a few years, they’ll be fossil-free.
We decided to take the momentum from the city to Albany to pass a statewide end to gas in new construction. The Governor supported ending gas in new construction. The State Senate’s Democrats were with us.
But by April, when I cheerily intercepted the State Assembly’s Speaker, Carl Heastie, to ask for his support for the bill, he growled: “Don’t talk to me. I have nothing to say to you.”
The bill died.
Speaker Heastie blocked it from getting a vote, despite the majority of his Democratic members signing on as co-sponsors. The bill was killed by an industry-financed lobbying campaign complete with TV ads, social media disinformation, campaign contributions, and big-time lobbyists. Heastie decided to stand with the oil and gas lobby.
We’ll be back next session to pass the policy. But its failure this year sounds a loud, clanging alarm for the viability of New York state’s much-hyped climate law, the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act (CLCPA).
Enacted in 2019, the CLCPA sets targets for the state to reduce its climate pollution at the pace of the Paris climate agreement. It created a Climate Action Council, which is charged with creating a plan to achieve the law’s targets by next year. That plan is then to be implemented by the governor, state agencies and the legislature, starting in 2024.
At first blush, it sounds pretty good.
Yet New York state has a long history of failing to meet its own commitments on climate action. Since the CLCPA passed in 2019, the state hasn’t enacted any major climate legislation or meaningfully increased funding for climate action. It’ll take specific, enforceable requirements and properly funded programs to achieve the law’s pollution-reduction requirements; otherwise, the law will remain just words on paper.
The Council released a draft plan last December. It was too weak and didn’t recommend ways to fund the multi-billion dollar programs that will be needed, but it did include some important and absolutely necessary proposals. One of those was, you guessed it, ending gas in new construction. Moreover, the Council made a very pointed recommendation to the Legislature: they urged lawmakers to enact a ban on gas in new construction this year, in the now-ended legislative session.
The State Legislature rejected the Climate Action Council it had created for just this purpose.
That was an early test for the CLCPA. The state flunked, ignoring the Council’s recommendation. The government, in effect, ignored its own proposal stemming from its own law.
That bodes poorly for the many proposals the Council will propose for enactment.
Fossil-free new construction is just the first and easiest part of a central climate challenge: Tackling energy use in buildings. Buildings are the top source of the state’s climate-heating pollution. Millions of boilers and furnaces powered on gas (and oil) add up to about a third of the state’s emissions, just topping emissions from cars and trucks. The state has to slash this pollution.
Of course, the gas industry has billions of reasons in its profit statements to keep hooking us on their product. Burning gas in residential buildings is reportedly the most lucrative segment of the market. New York, which has a cold climate, burns a lot of gas—about 10% of gas burned in the country’s buildings is burned in our state. Where we see decades of new pollution locked in with each new building built with gas infrastructure, the industry sees a customer with no option but to burn its lucrative product to keep their kids warm.
Going back and upgrading existing buildings to get off fossil fuels, especially large buildings, is complex. It costs about $20,000 to take a home off fossil fuels and onto heat pumps while raising energy efficiency. A large building costs millions. Those upgrades save money over time, but the upfront costs are substantial.
The state will need to mandate buildings go off fossil fuels and subsidize those costs for non-affluent owners and affordable and public housing. That’ll cost billions per year. In contrast, gas-free new construction is effectively free of additional cost. Indeed, in many new buildings, fossil-free is already cheaper than gas.
That’s why energy experts view ending gas in new construction as a basic, “do-now” policy. Every year of delay locks in many thousands of new sources of pollution as new gas-dependent buildings get built.
As a result, the Climate Action Council made its plea to the legislature to enact a gas ban this year. They were ignored. Indeed, their recommendation barely registered with lawmakers—in the discussion I had with several dozen legislators, none mentioned the Council or seemed to take it seriously.
If the Council’s recommendations on relatively “easy” action like ending gas in new construction are ignored, what will come of much harder actions?
I’m very skeptical of the CLCPA. Seen through a cynical lens, the law allows delay on hard decisions by creating a lengthy, multi-year process just to form a plan. It also gives New York politicians bragging rights that they passed “the most progressive climate law in the nation,” without setting into place policies or programs to cut pollution. And it threatens to make climate action seem like an apolitical, technocratic process that the experts are already taking care of—rather than the fierce political battle it really is. The law could easily become the latest in a multi-decade tradition of New York governors lapping up praise for making big announcements of future climate goals—and then failing to follow through.
New York needs Governor Hochul to step up. The majority of the Council are her and her predecessor’s appointees. It will be her plan. To her credit, the governor proposed an end to gas in January. But her proposal was too weak. Her staff worked to get a deal during the session, but she didn’t bring real heat and allowed Heastie to spike the bill.
In the future, Governor Hochul will need to bring the energy for climate action that she brought to, say, securing public subsidies for a new NFL stadium. Real political pressure on the legislature. Real prioritization. We need climate action and the good jobs and pollution reductions it brings a whole lot more than a new NFL stadium. She needs to reorder her priorities.
Climate action is politically popular. Hochul should barnstorm the state and press legislators to build support for items like ending gas in new construction. She should adopt Assemblyperson Gallagher and Senator Kavanagh’s proposed gas ban, which would take hold at the end of 2023. Hochul should copy/paste the bill into her proposed 2023 state budget, and drive it over the finish line.
Still, for the state to hit its nominal goals, we’ll need something like five to ten policy items on the scale of the ban on gas in new construction each year. Things like ending gas in new construction have to pass immediately, not take years of effort. It’s all got to move… fast.
And for that to happen, the rest of us need to step up. It won’t be enough to wave multi-hundred page plans by an obscure regulatory body with no enforcement power in front of the legislature and governor’s mansion. It will take much more pressure from ordinary people organized into a multi-racial movement all across the state to overcome the resistance of the various corporate lobbies. No one should pretend the CLCPA will save us.