Gas Industry Loses Bid To Block Green Building Codes

Gas companies and furnace manufacturers have one more chance to make their case, but it's an uphill battle.

The natural gas industry lost its initial bid to strip key climate-friendly measures out of national homebuilding guidelines, HuffPost has learned.

The rules in the model building code will require new homes to come equipped with the circuitry to hook up induction stoves and electric car chargers, and will be used as a benchmark in almost every state.

In November, trade associations representing gas utilities and furnace manufacturers launched a last-ditch effort to gut the provisions, which will be released this year.

The International Code Council, the nonprofit organization that works with industry groups and local governments to write the generic codes enshrined into law across most of the country, even bent its own rules to grant players like the American Gas Association and the American Public Gas Association extra time to file appeals, HuffPost reported last month. The fossil fuel groups challenged codes that would make it cheaper for homeowners to opt out of gas, arguing that the proposals either fell outside the bounds of what the energy code was meant to do or were forged through improper procedures.

A man carries a ladder through new home construction in Trappe, Maryland, on Oct. 28, 2022.
A man carries a ladder through new home construction in Trappe, Maryland, on Oct. 28, 2022.
JIM WATSON via Getty Images

But the ICC’s appeals board this week rejected all nine challenges to the latest energy codes, ruling that the “appellants have not demonstrated a material and significant irregularity of process or procedure.”

The gas companies will have one more chance to make their case in a two-hour hearing later this month before the ICC’s board of directors, which will make a final decision at its March 18 meeting. The trade groups that filed the appeals say they plan to push the top executives to overturn the decisions.

This issue is, in fact, not concluded,” said Francis Dietz, a spokesperson for the Air-Conditioning, Heating, and Refrigeration Institute, a trade group for gas furnace manufacturers that filed an appeal.

The American Public Gas Association said it was “disappointed” by the appeals board’s ruling, which the trade group representing municipal gas utilities framed as a threat to Americans’ access to “energy sources that they prefer.”

“Fortunately, the appeals process is not over,” the trade group said in a statement to HuffPost. “In the end, the ICC’s Board of Directors will ultimately decide whether to support or reject the appeals. We are closely monitoring to see what they decide.”

While the outcome isn’t guaranteed, two sources with knowledge of the process said it would be unusual for the executive panel to buck the appeals board’s recommendations. The ICC directed HuffPost to its public webpage about the current appeals process but did not respond to an emailed question about when the board of directors last overturned a decision by the appeals board.

Rejecting the industry appeals may restore some credibility to the beleaguered ICC, whose once-sleepy tradition of updating the nation’s model building codes came under scrutiny in recent years following what advocates saw as an industry coup.

If the ICC's ruling holds, national homebuilding guidelines will require new homes to come with the circuitry needed to hook up induction stoves and electric car chargers.
If the ICC's ruling holds, national homebuilding guidelines will require new homes to come with the circuitry needed to hook up induction stoves and electric car chargers.
JOHN THYS via Getty Images

“This is definitely a positive development, and we’ll see how the final step goes,” said Mike Waite, the director of codes at watchdog American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy and a volunteer who helped author this year’s commercial building codes for the ICC. “The ICC needs to follow their written policies and we still need this code to go much further to hit our energy efficiency and greenhouse gas emission reduction goals.”

Since the ICC became the national standard for model building codes in the 1990s, the organization had convened local governments and industry associations every three years to update its codebook. At the end of the process, elected officials alone voted on the final version of the codes, giving the ICC enough democratic legitimacy that virtually every state set its codes as the benchmark in local laws.

In 2019, however, local governments under pressure to cut planet-heating emissions rallied to vote for the greenest energy codes enacted in a generation. Industry groups balked, first challenging local officials’ eligibility to vote, then filing appeals to strip key climate-friendly provisions out of the codebook.

The ICC’s appeals board removed some provisions related to wiring needed for electric cars and appliances, handing a victory to the gas associations that challenged the codes. Then the ICC went a step further, and proposed eliminating governments’ right to vote on the final version of energy codes altogether.

While elected officials would still get the last say on codes related to plumbing and swimming pools, energy codes would instead be written by “consensus”-minded committees where industry associations would enjoy equal representation with governments.

Governments, including the newly-inaugurated Biden administration, urged the ICC against making the change. The ICC went ahead with the new system, which gas utilities hailed as a win for the industry.

“Those appeals should not have been placed in front of it in the first place, so they made the correct judgment here.”

- Mike Waite, advocate with ACEEE

Early on, gas companies sought broader influence over a system critics now saw as rigged — at least slightly — in the industry’s favor. Finding two-thirds supermajorities to enact proposals on each of the committees writing energy codes proved challenging.

But the process ultimately yielded a proposed codebook for 2024 that the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory found improved efficiency by up to 10% and pushed decarbonization forward in particular with new electrification measures.

While those efficiency gains fell short of the leaps the 2021 code made over its predecessor, the 2024 code’s circuitry for electric vehicles and appliances made significant progress on cutting emissions, according to the national lab’s preliminary analysis.

Advocates who worked on the committees that wrote the latest code said the proposed 2024 codebook did not go as far as groups like ACEEE wanted, but the nonprofit said the compromise improvements made the package worth supporting.

On its own, the fact that ICC broke its own rules to give the industry groups more time to file appeals amounted to a “scandal,” ACEEE said. But if the ICC granted the appeals and overturned the key electrification codes, ACEEE said advocates would look to abandon the ICC process altogether in favor of a new benchmark for model codes.

“The appeals board itself dealt with what it had placed in front of it,” Waite said. “But those appeals should not have been placed in front of it in the first place, so they made the correct judgment here.”

It’s still unclear how the next round of code-writing will play out, he said, and warned that advocates still doubt “that the ICC is a fair administrator of its own process.”

Still, Waite said the appeals board’s ruling confirms that slashing planet-heating emissions is “within the scope” of the energy code-writing process.

“It makes clear that pushes for decarbonization are well within the purview,” he said. “We need to take this opportunity to really push forward and get to where we need our buildings to be.”

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