POLITICS

The Gas Industry’s Bid To Kill A Town’s Fossil Fuel Ban

Brookline, Massachusetts, passed a measure prohibiting new oil and gas pipes, the first on the East Coast.

Late last month, the Boston suburb of Brookline became the first East Coast city to ban oil and natural gas infrastructure in new construction projects.

The bylaw, which the town’s legislative body passed Nov. 20 by an overwhelming 207-3 vote, prohibits gas hookups in new buildings and large renovations beginning in 2021 ― a move proponents say will help the suburb of 58,000 people achieve its ambitious goal of zeroing out greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. 

There was little organized opposition to the measure following its introduction in August, local elected officials said. But in the days before the vote, the fossil fuel industry and local electric utilities mounted an eleventh-hour bid to try to defeat it. 

“It was too little, too late,” Neil Wishinsky, a member of the Brookline Town Meeting, the town’s legislative arm of government, told HuffPost. 

The behind-the-scenes effort in Bookline is part of a growing industry push to thwart municipal gas regulations, which are becoming increasingly common as local governments look to do their part to combat global climate change. More than 50 municipalities are now considering such policies, according to the Sierra Club. In California, more than a dozen cities, including Berkeley and San Jose, and Marin County have adopted rules for all-electric construction, and gas bans are now being eyed in major cities like San Francisco. 

In October, Los Angeles Times reporter Sammy Roth reported on the efforts of Southern California Gas Co. and a grassroots advocacy group that it funds to stop such efforts in southern California and preserve natural gas as a future fuel source. 

A similar battle is now unfolding on the East Coast. While Brookline is the first East Coast community to take the leap, it almost certainly won’t be the last. The nearby cities of Cambridge and Newton, as well as the town of Lexington, are all moving forward with similar proposals. Whereas towns in Massachusetts are governed by town meetings, cities have councils or boards of aldermen. 

Emily Norton, a Newton city councilor and former director of the Massachusetts chapter of the Sierra Club, cointroduced the measure in the west Boston suburb. She doesn’t remember another time in her years working on environmental issues in the state when fossil fuel interests were fighting at the local level. When Newton voted earlier this year to divest city investments from fossil fuels, industry didn’t say a word, she said.

“It must be that they are realizing, ‘Wow, this could be really bad for us,’” said Norton, adding that she expects natural gas interests have recognized other smaller communities in the state are likely to follow Brookline’s lead.

“I’m sure that’s why they want to nip it in the bud,” she said. 

The new bylaw in Bookline, Massachusetts, prohibits gas hookups in new buildings and large renovations beginning in 2021.
The new bylaw in Bookline, Massachusetts, prohibits gas hookups in new buildings and large renovations beginning in 2021.

On Nov. 15, a representative of Adfero, a Washington, D.C.-based public relations giant with a history of running fake grassroots campaigns on behalf of fossil fuel interests, contacted Wishinsky to see if he was interested in teaming up with the American Gas Association, an industry trade group, to fight the proposal. The inquiry did not go well.

“I came across this article that you were featured in that discusses the Brookline community’s frustration with the proposed gas infrastructure ban,” Amber Hord, an account executive at Adfero, wrote in an email to Wishinsky. “We’re very interested in helping tell that story more broadly.”

Hord hadn’t done her homework. The WBUR article she referenced includes nothing about “frustration” in Brookline, much less from Wishinsky. In fact, he’s quoted in the piece saying he’s “fully on board” with the ban but wanted to “make sure we don’t have any unintended consequences.”

In a response the following morning, Washinsky thanked Hord for her email but challenged her interpretation of the piece. He told her the legislation is “a sensible and practical approach to addressing the need to reduce greenhouse emissions” and pointed out that it leaves open the possibility of waivers on a project-by-project basis and makes exemptions for cooking, laboratories, medical offices and more.

“I think you will have to look elsewhere for a partner,” he wrote. He never got a response.

Lauren Tyler, the vice president of Adfero, did not respond to HuffPost’s specific questions about the agency’s effort in Brookline but said the outreach “was not done at the direction of the American Gas Association.” Rather, it was “part of our efforts to convene a conversation around the future of energy,” she said. Jennifer O’Shea, vice president of communications at the American Gas Association, also said Adfero was not acting on AGA’s direction. 

AGA “has a well-established position on the importance of natural gas,” Tyler and O’Shea both wrote in separate emails that contained links to recent statements by the trade group. 

It is clear AGA and the industry as a whole are alarmed by the new trend. “To see a city eliminate not only the customer choice, but the broader economic benefits and undeniable environmental benefits, is short sighted to say the least,” AGA CEO Karen Harbert told the San Francisco Chronicle this month. 

“We think there is a chance this can domino,” Stuart Saulters of the American Public Gas Association, another industry trade organization, recently told Reuters.

 In the two days before the vote, members of the Brookline Town Meeting received at least three letters of opposition. The Massachusetts and Northern New England Laborers’ District Council, a local labor union, called on members to delay the vote and warned that a ban would lead to “job loss, higher energy costs and other unintended consequences.” NAIOP Massachusetts, a trade group for the commercial real estate industry, said the ban would “further exacerbate the existing housing crisis and pass along high costs to residents who call Brookline home.”

Local officials also heard from the Mass Coalition for Sustainable Energy, an organization that paints itself as a green advocacy group but that HuffPost revealed to be a front for natural gas interests, including Canadian pipeline giant Enbridge and energy providers Eversource and National Grid. In his letter, coalition spokesman William Ryan urged town meeting members to reconsider passing the moratorium, saying that it would “have a negative impact on safety, our environment and economic development alike.” 

Banning new natural gas infrastructure, Ryan argued, would lead to a “proliferation” of propane tanks next to homes, which he called “a far less safe means of delivering necessary energy than a properly regulated underground pipeline network.” 

Last year, dozens of homes in the nearby towns of Lawrence, Andover and North Andover were damaged when overpressurized natural gas lines caused a series of explosions and fires. One person was killed and more than 20 were injured.

The Massachusetts attorney general’s office, which must approve all new town bylaws before they take effect, is currently reviewing the measure. The president of the Northeast Gas Association, a trade association that represents natural gas companies throughout the northeast, told The Boston Globe last month he expects it will face legal challenges.

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