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The Bay Area is going electric for furnaces and water heaters

The Climate 202

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In today’s edition, we’ll cover a Texas community’s legal battle with ExxonMobil, the Environmental Protection Agency’s new “good neighbor” rule, and the National Audubon Society’s reckoning with its name. But first:

Bay Area officials voted to adopt landmark rules phasing out gas appliances

Yesterday, officials in the San Francisco Bay Area approved the nation’s first rules phasing out new natural-gas-powered water heaters and furnaces.

Advocates say the rules mark a major step in efforts to reduce health-harming and planet-warming pollution from buildings across the region, even as some industry groups raise concerns about the potential costs for homeowners.

The Bay Area Air Quality Management District, the regional air pollution regulator, voted 20-0 to adopt the rules during its monthly board meeting, with one abstention. Starting in 2027, the rules would phase in requirements that only zero-emission water heaters and furnaces be sold and installed in homes and buildings. 

  • Technically, the rules take a technology-neutral approach. But in practice, only electric heat pumps and electric water heaters will comply with the zero-emission requirement.
  • The standards will take effect for new water heaters in single-family homes in 2027, new furnaces in 2029 and new commercial water heaters in 2031.
  • The California Air Resources Board adopted plans last year to gradually ban the sales of gas water heaters and furnaces statewide by 2030, but it won’t start setting rules to do so until 2025. 

“This move will put the Bay Area in a leadership position compared to the rest of the nation,” Leah Louis-Prescott, a manager at the electrification group RMI, told The Climate 202. “And this policy can serve as a model for other states and regions to follow.”

Debate over costs

Pacific Gas & Electric, the main utility serving the Bay Area, has expressed support for the rules. But other industry interests have raised concerns about the costs.

The National Association of Home Builders, for instance, has argued that the rules will increase housing costs in the Bay Area, which already has the country’s highest housing prices and a homeless population of more than 35,000.

The rules are “only going to cause more people to be paying too much for their housing or, God forbid, more homelessness in an area that’s already ravaged by homelessness,” Jerry Howard, the association’s chief executive, told Fox News last month.

And Kyle Bergeron, a senior regulatory engineer at the Air-Conditioning, Heating and Refrigeration Institute, said at the meeting yesterday that he is “gravely concerned” about high installation costs for new appliances.

In general, gas heaters tend to be slightly more expensive than electric heaters. The district has estimated the costs to homeowners of making the required changes:

  • The district estimated that it would cost $8,030 for homeowners to install electric space heaters and $2,820 for electric water heaters. 
  • These installations might also require upgrades to electrical panels, potentially incurring additional costs of $2,630 for space heaters and $960 for water heaters, the district said.

But advocates stress that the district’s estimates didn’t account for federal, state and local incentives for electric appliances, including those in the Inflation Reduction Act. After applying for these incentives, homeowners in the Bay Area will ultimately find heat pumps more affordable than gas appliances, according to a recent analysis by SPUR, a public policy organization in the Bay Area.

“It will actually be cheaper for low-income households to upgrade to heat pumps than stick with their gas counterparts,” Melissa Yu, senior energy campaigns representative with the Sierra Club’s San Francisco Bay chapter, told The Climate 202.

Health and climate benefits

The rules are primarily aimed at curbing emissions of nitrogen oxides, or NOx — poisonous and reactive gases that can cause asthma attacks and contribute to smog. 

  • Gas appliances in homes and buildings are responsible for more NOx pollution than passenger cars in the Bay Area, and they contribute to the region’s failure to meet federal air quality standards.
  • The rules would prevent up to 85 premature deaths and up to 110 new asthma cases each year, according to the district’s analysis.
  • Asian and Hispanic residents, who are exposed to the highest concentrations of NOx pollution, could see the greatest health benefits from the rules, the analysis found.

By approving the rules, the district “can save more lives today than I could in countless medical careers,” Janice Kirsch, an oncologist and board member of Physicians for Social Responsibility’s San Francisco Bay chapter, said at the meeting Wednesday.

The standards would also lead to corresponding benefits — sometimes called “co-benefits” — for the climate.

  • The rules are projected to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 2046 by up to 54.5 million metric tons, according to the district’s analysis.
  • That’s equivalent to taking 11.7 million gas-powered cars off the road for a year, based on Environmental Protection Agency data.

“The climate co-benefits are enormous,” said Laura Feinstein, sustainability and resilience policy director at SPUR. “When you decrease NOx, you also end up reducing greenhouse gas emissions because you’re switching to cleaner electric appliances.”

Climate in the courts

Texans sued Exxon over pollution 13 years ago. A big decision looms.

Residents of Baytown, Tex., have been tangled in a lawsuit with ExxonMobil for 13 years, as they seek redress for chronic air pollution caused by the company’s oil refinery and petrochemical complex. Now, a big decision is on the horizon, The Washington Post’s Anna Phillips reports. 

Since 2010, the oil giant has fought residents’ efforts to force it to curb pollution and pay a fine for the thousands of days it reported violating its Clean Air Act permits. If the company prevails in court, environmental lawyers said it could weaken ordinary Americans’ ability to sue industrial polluters across the country.

In February, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit in New Orleans sided with Exxon and vacated an original panel’s 2-1 ruling upholding a $14 million penalty against the company for air pollution violations. It also granted Exxon a new hearing before one of the nation’s most conservative courts.

Exxon argues that the plaintiffs have not been able to explicitly prove that they were injured by the facility’s operations. Still, advocates say the 3,400-acre complex is one of the worst polluters in the region, releasing chemical compounds that pose long-term risks of cancer, asthma and other respiratory illnesses, even if immediate exposure levels are not toxic.

Agency alert

Power plants must cut pollution crossing state lines, under new EPA standards

The Environmental Protection Agency on Wednesday announced stricter limits on smog-forming pollutants from power plants in an attempt to reduce air pollution that drifts across state lines and harms the health of millions of people who can’t control it, our colleague Anna Phillips reports. 

The new limits, known as the “good neighbor” rule, will take effect this year, mostly affecting coal and natural gas plants in 23 states where energy production is a key part of the economy. Other industrial sources — including cement, iron and steel manufacturers — will have until 2026 to comply. 

Downwind smog has long pitted Rust Belt and Appalachian states against those on the East Coast, which typically have tougher air quality standards and are vulnerable to pollution carried on the nation’s west-to-east winds. 

EPA officials said the regulation would slash the ozone-forming pollutant nitrogen oxide by about 70,000 tons by the summer of 2026, preventing up to 1,300 premature deaths and reducing asthma cases. The new rules would also require owners of fossil-fuel-fired power plants to upgrade their pollution controls, indirectly tackling planet-warming carbon emissions.

Pressure points

National Audubon Society decides against changing it name

The National Audubon Society, a prominent bird conservation organization, decided in a closed vote this week to retain the name of John James Audubon, a famous 19th-century naturalist and wildlife illustrator who was also an unrepentant enslaver, The Post’s Dino Grandoni reports. 

In a sign of internal strife, three board members resigned after the group chose not to jettison its name, an Audubon spokesperson confirmed Wednesday, declining to identify the members by name. Meanwhile, about a half-dozen local branches, which act independently, have already pledged to change their names.

The decision comes after the group, an influential player in climate and environmental policy, spent more than a year deliberating and gathering feedback from its members and outsiders. Ultimately, Audubon’s board of directors concluded that the name is synonymous with a broader love of birds and conservation — and shouldn’t be abandoned.

In the atmosphere


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