The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness
The Climate 202

America's biggest city is ditching fossil fuels in new buildings

The Climate 202

Good morning and welcome to the last edition of The Climate 202 in 2021! 🎉We're taking a two-week break over the holidays, and we'll be back in your inboxes on Jan. 3.

🚨 A Washington Post investigation found that the Democratic Republic of Congo could set off a “carbon bomb.” More on that below. But first:

New York City lawmakers voted to ban gas appliances in new buildings

New York City yesterday became the largest municipality in the country to ban natural gas appliances in new buildings, overcoming opposition from fossil fuel industry interests.

The New York City Council voted 40 to 7, with one abstention, to pass landmark climate change legislation that requires new buildings under seven stories to use electric appliances such as heat pumps and induction cooktops by December 2023. Taller new buildings will have until 2027 to ditch gas appliances such as furnaces and stoves.

The Big Apple joins 56 cities and towns across the United States that have stopped new homes and offices from using natural gas, a fossil fuel that releases heat-trapping greenhouse gases as well as air pollutants that can trigger asthma and other health conditions, disproportionately affecting communities of color.

Council member Alicka Ampry-Samuel (D), the primary sponsor of the bill, said the measure would prevent scores of premature deaths from air pollution in the portions of Brooklyn that she represents. 

“When I got elected to office, my community was dying," Ampry-Samuel said at a rally before the council meeting. 

Fossil fuels burned for space and water heating account for about 40 percent of greenhouse gas emissions in New York, according to RMI, a think tank focused on renewable energy. The bill will save the same amount of climate pollution by 2040 as taking 450,000 cars off the roads each year, the think tank found.

The measure now heads to the desk of Mayor Bill de Blasio, a Democrat who plans to “enthusiastically” sign it into law.

Industry opposition

The oil supermajor ExxonMobil emerged as a leading foe of the legislation. In September, the company paid for Facebook ads that urged New Yorkers to sign a petition opposing the bill, as Time first reported.

The ads, which The Climate 202 accessed via Facebook's Ad Library, warned that the bill could force New Yorkers to give up their gas stoves and spend an additional $25,600 on new electric appliances.

Alex Beauchamp, Northeast region director at Food & Water Watch, told The Climate 202 that the ads were “beyond misleading.” He noted that the bill only applies to new buildings, not existing buildings, "so it's not taking anyone's gas stoves away." 

Asked to respond to this assertion, Exxon spokesman Casey Norton said in an email to The Climate 202: "Like many public policy debates, it should not be surprising that there are competing views about how best to address the risks of climate change. But it would be a mistake to equate policy disagreements as misleading."

Norton added that Exxon believes "limits to consumer choice potentially increase energy costs." He also cited data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration showing that natural gas fueled about 40 percent of New York's electricity generation in 2019.

The American Gas Association, a trade group, has also campaigned against gas bans in statehouses across the country, with 20 Republican-controlled state legislatures passing measures to prohibit such ordinances.

Karen Harbert, president and CEO of the gas group, said in a statement to The Climate 202 that while the organization shares New York lawmakers' commitment to reducing emissions, "the pipelines that deliver natural gas today and zero-carbon fuels like hydrogen and renewable natural gas in the future will be essential to meet any environmental goal.”

The future of natural gas

2021 was a banner year for local efforts to limit fossil fuels in new construction, with efforts including:

  • The Boston City Council voted to eliminate greenhouse gas emissions in the city's large buildings by 2050.
  • Local leaders in Ithaca, N.Y., entered into an agreement with BlocPower, a Brooklyn-based start-up, to electrify all of the city's buildings, with a focus on low-income households.
  • The Denver City Council approved an ordinance that will require large office and apartment buildings to switch to electric and water heating systems by 2030.

In New York City, the momentum for building decarbonization had been growing since 2019, when the city enacted Local Law 97, which required buildings greater than 25,000 square feet to meet stringent new energy efficiency and emissions limits.

Looking ahead to 2022, New York City-based climate activists are setting their sights on a bigger target: the state. They're pushing the state Assembly to pass legislation next year that would prohibit municipalities from issuing construction permits for any building that is not "all-electric."

Pressure points

Washington Post investigation shows Congo is home to a carbon bomb

Scientists have discovered the largest swath of tropical peatland on the planet in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The peatland, which stretches into neighboring Republic of Congo, covers an area about the size of Iowa and holds at least as much carbon as the entire world emits in three years of burning fossil fuels, The Washington Post's Max Bearak, Chris Mooney and John Muyskens report.

It takes thousands of years for peatlands to form but only a few days to drain them of moisture and set off a chemical process that releases their captured carbon over the following decades. And that process has already happened many times over, as industrializing countries around the world, including the United States and European countries in past centuries, drained peatlands to create farms, releasing as much as 250 billion tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

The question now is how to make sure Congo benefits from its peatlands without setting off a carbon bomb. Our colleagues’ reporting takes us to Ikenge, a secluded village in the middle of Congo’s peatlands, where residents want to ensure that this new and valuable resource can bring benefits to their community. Already there are many pressures to develop peatlands for profit, but scientists are hoping that communities can prosper by keeping the swamps intact.

The story of Congo’s peatlands is the third in The Post’s Invisible series. You can read the first installment here and the second here.

On the Hill

Democrats might not pass their major climate bill this year

The window for Senate Democrats to pass a roughly $1.7 trillion climate and social spending bill before Christmas is quickly closing, as they continue to negotiate with Senate Energy and Natural Resources Chairman Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) over a methane fee and other contested provisions.

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) told reporters yesterday amid reports that a vote on the Build Back Better Act could be delayed until March: "We’ve got to deal with climate change. We’ve got to pass this as soon as we possibly can.”

The Sunrise Movement, a youth-led climate group, slammed the reported delay. “After a year of climate disasters killing hundreds of people through brutal storms, tornadoes and fatal heat waves, indefinitely postponing a vote on Build Back Better could mean a death sentence for millions,” Sunrise Executive Director Varshini Prakash said in a statement.

Methane fee

Senate Environment and Public Works Chairman Thomas R. Carper (D-Del.) told reporters yesterday that he had reached a compromise on the methane fee with Manchin, although he declined to provide further details, and the committee has yet to release draft text for its portion of the bill.

“We've worked very hard to find a principal compromise on methane,” Carper said. "I think we've done that with the methane emissions reduction program."

ENR text

Politico Pro's Joshua Siegel obtained draft text of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee's portion of Build Back Better. The text omits a provision in the House-passed version of the bill that would ban oil and gas drilling along the Pacific and Atlantic coasts and the eastern Gulf of Mexico.

The text does, however, include a House measure that would bar drilling in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. It also recommends raising the minimum royalty rate that oil companies pay to drill on public lands from 12.5 percent to 16.75 percent, according to Politico.

Sam Runyon, a spokeswoman for Manchin, said in an email to The Climate 202: "I can't confirm the authenticity of this text as we didn't release it."

Agency alert

EPA calls for millions of lead pipes to be dug up

The Environmental Protection Agency announced today that it will propose a regulation requiring the removal of every underground lead water service line in the country, The Post’s Dino Grandoni reports. The effort comes half a dozen years after the water crisis in Flint, Mich.

The Energy Department has reversed a Trump-era rule on shower heads

A year after President Donald Trump tinkered with shower-head requirements in pursuit of “perfect” hair, the Biden administration has restored limits on the flow rate of shower water, The Post's Anna Phillips reports.

Most shower heads on the market were already meeting the prior, more stringent standard. In fact, the demand for the looser restrictions came not from manufacturers but from Trump himself.

Extreme events

The past year was marked by extreme weather

2021 saw extreme cold in Texas, deadly heat in Seattle, a spate of December tornadoes and a blizzard in Hawaii. The Post’s Zach Levitt and Bonnie Berkowitz take a look back at a year of bizarre weather disasters, which could become the new normal in a warming world.


Thanks for reading!