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In liberal Takoma Park, a bold new climate proposal: Banning fossil fuels

The Takoma Park Silver Spring Co-op, which has established a goal of net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2035. (Bonnie Jo Mount/The Washington Post)

Takoma Park, the liberal enclave just outside Washington known as the “Berkeley of the East,” is debating whether to outlaw gas stoves, leaf blowers and water heaters.

The Maryland city of 17,000 that voted nearly four decades ago to become a “nuclear-free zone” is considering a total ban on fossil fuels, part of a nationwide effort by local governments to address what they see as a lack of federal action on climate change.

The proposal, which was first raised in a new climate resolution, would ban all gas appliances, close fossil fuel pipelines, and move gas stations outside city limits by 2045. The cost to the average homeowner could reach $25,000, officials wrote.

While not binding, the 2020 Climate Emergency Response Act will set the agenda for Takoma Park’s policymaking in coming years. It has sparked robust discussion, drawing lines of residents to council meetings and prompting long back-and-forths on neighborhood listservs.

Cities elsewhere are also paying close attention, said Bruce Nilles, managing director of the Rocky Mountain Institute, a national group headquartered in Colorado.

Like Berkeley, Calif., or Portland, Ore., Takoma Park is seen as a testing ground for the next wave of climate policies — last year, a gas station in the city became the first in the country to completely convert to electric charging.

Some residents think an outright ban on all fossil fuels, which has never been done in the United States, could be too difficult to implement — or too costly. But others say bold measures are needed to reach the city’s goal of net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2035.

Given advancements in technology, environmental advocates say, the change could also bring cost savings and might not be as dramatic as some anticipate.

The city’s sustainability office recently revised the resolution to soften language on the proposed ban, disappointing some activists. But Takoma Park Mayor Kate Stewart said the goal of “moving off of fossil fuels” remains. The possibility of a ban, she added, will be discussed in coming months.

Natural gas has been heralded for years as a cost-effective, cleaner alternative to coal. But as the coal industry declines, policymakers are turning their attention to underground gas lines that, according to experts, contribute a sizable percentage of carbon emissions.

In 2019, Berkeley became the first city in the United States to ban the installation of natural gas lines for new buildings. More than two dozen cities and counties have followed suit. In Takoma Park, some officials want to take this ban further, in part because there is relatively little new construction in the city.

The idea, as laid out in the first draft of the city’s climate resolution, is to take advantage of the natural life cycle of gas appliances. Starting from 2030, all water heaters, space heaters and stoves that rely on gas would have to be replaced with alternatives.

Fossil-fuel-based leaf blowers would be phased out with incentive programs and eventually outlawed, while gas stations would be asked to convert to electric charging or relocate. The proposal promotes electric vehicle use but does not include a ban on vehicles that run on fossil fuels.

In the shorter term, the city would mandate that all buildings, including single-family homes, meet specific energy requirements by 2029 and upgrade all lighting to LED by 2022.

These ideas have received strong support from Takoma Park’s resident-led Committee on the Environment and other advocacy groups, including the youth-led Sunrise Movement. But even in left-leaning Takoma Park, the resolution has detractors.

“The number of times the word ‘require’ is used in this is stunning,” said resident Maxine Hillary at a public hearing. She criticized the fossil fuel ban as “insensitive and draconian” and denounced the proposal for mandatory composting, stating: “Don’t tell me what to do with my table scraps.”

John Ackerly, who co-chairs the environmental committee, said he has been “shocked” by friends and neighbors in the city skeptical of the resolution, with some sharing fears of an impending “LED police.” Most opponents, he said, seem to take issue with the proposals for new mandates, which has also emerged as the flash point elsewhere.

In Bellingham, Wash., where officials are debating a ban on all fossil-fuel-based residential heating, natural gas companies have launched a $1 million campaign to promote their product. In Berkeley, a restaurant trade group is suing the city over its ban on new gas pipelines, which went into effect Jan. 1.

“Yes, there are ways that we could soften [these policies] and make them more palatable. . . . But we know that voluntary programs are not going to get us to net zero,” said Takoma Park sustainability manager Gina Mathias.

Officials are looking carefully at the impact of climate requirements on low-income households, Stewart said, and the city is creating a “sustainability assistance fund” to help residents and businesses transition from fossil fuels.

A revised copy of the resolution, released earlier this week, took out the 2045 deadline for elimination of fossil fuels. But it still commits the city to establishing energy-efficiency requirements for every building, banning natural gas in new construction, and “dramatically” reducing the use of fossil-fuel-powered appliances.

Discussions are ongoing. At a city council meeting Wednesday night, slightly more than a dozen residents came to show support for the resolution, urging officials not to make further compromises.

Mike Tidwell, a Takoma Park resident who is founder of the Chesapeake Climate Action Network, said he wants to see the 2045 deadline put back into the resolution. Drew Kodjak, an environmental attorney who also lives in the city, said he thinks 2045 is too long to wait.

“If you believe the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, fossil-fuel free has to become a reality in the next one or two decades — and not just in Takoma,” said Nilles of the Rocky Mountain Institute. “We don’t really have a choice.”

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