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Councilmembers begin push for ban on gas hookups in new Boulder buildings

Jennifer Crowell | Published on 10/31/2023

Early this year, joining dozens of cities in California and the State of New York, the small mountain town of Crested Butte became the first municipality in Colorado to ban gas in new residential construction. Boulder’s neighbor, Lafayette, has a ban for new commercial buildings and homes coming into effect on Aug. 1. Denver’s ban on gas for commercial construction, meanwhile, begins next year, though only for space and water heating. Ithaca, New York, has gone further than all others with the goal of retrofitting all its buildings to get rid of fossil fuel use by 2030.

Last month, city staff presented the Boulder City Council with ideas for updating its energy code as they seek to decarbonize buildings — the city’s biggest source of climate-warming emissions. Possible mandates included providing onsite solar to offset some gas use and ensuring new builds are all-electric ready for whenever the owner decides to get off gas.

Yet staff didn’t present an option for overall electrification like in Lafayette. 

Because of this, Mayor Aaron Brockett called for a “straw poll” to request that staff bring council an option that would require all-electric construction in new buildings in the updated energy code. Eight of nine councilmembers voiced their support. Mark Wallach cast half a vote in favor.

“It was clear [city staff] were unclear whether to proceed in the electrification direction, which was why I wanted to give that direction from council,” Brockett told Boulder Reporting Lab. “If you have a straw poll, and a majority supports it, that gives a clear will of council.”

According to city staff, it didn’t push the all-electric option to the forefront out of concern for litigation. Berkeley, California, was the first city to adopt an ordinance, passed in 2019, to prevent gas hookups from being installed in new buildings. The California Restaurant Association challenged the ordinance in court, however, and won, after the court ruled that federal law dictates only the U.S. Department of Energy can set conservation standards for building appliances. 

The restaurant association cited the need for gas to foster “innovation” by those in the restaurant industry. Most gas bans, however, offer exceptions, with one of the most common being for commercial kitchens.

Carolyn Elam, Boulder’s energy systems senior manager, said the city is “aware that there is a strong lobby fighting any perceived restrictions on natural gas appliances.”

She added that despite this, the City of Boulder feels its “position is strong” and appreciated the clear direction indicated by council “that an all-electric code is the preferred path forward.”

As Boulder has a reputation of leading environmental pushes, its lag in the gas ban conversation might seem surprising. Brockett said it’s just a matter of scheduling.  

“We update our codes every three years, and each time we push the envelope,” he said. “I think once we make this update, we will be back in the lead in terms of the strength of our energy codes.”

Brockett said he believes, for the most part, the Boulder community wants council to push for electrification.

“People understand that the buildings we’re building now are going to be with us for decades,” he said. “And if we don’t get their energy efficiency and energy use right now, that’s a lost opportunity for the next generation.”

Boulder County Commissioner Ashley Stolzmann, who tried to get Louisville to adopt a gas ban while she was the city’s mayor, said when considering climate change, communities don’t have a choice. 

“We’ve got to stop using methane in buildings,” Stolzmann said. 

New scientific research adds to mounting evidence that gas is as bad as coal for the climate. Across the gas lifecycle — from drilling to pipeline distribution — methane, a super global-warming gas, is leaking from its conveyances into the atmosphere. 

The county has a goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 45% by 2030, from 2005 levels. The city’s goal is more aggressive. 

Referencing a memo the commission received from county climate staff, Stolzmann said “to reach the county’s 2030 goal, we can’t approve any more buildings that have methane. And we would need to do significant amounts of retrofitting by 2030. So this is going to take something different than business as usual.

“This is a time for innovation and action,” she said.
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