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Campaign Blog

The Year in Review 2019: San Francisco’s Grassroots Campaign for Rapid and Equitable Building Decarbonization

Ban Natural Gas San Francisco

This website was launched as part of a grassroots movement to push San Francisco’s elected officials to ban natural gas in all new San Francisco buildings and to enact legislation to see that all existing buildings are equitably and justly retrofitted to run on low-carbon electricity. These demands are born out of the necessity of confronting gross inaction in the face of a spiraling human-caused climate crisis. Buildings represent a significant share of local, state and national greenhouse emissions gases. 

2019 was a landmark year for the building decarbonization movement in California and beyond. For example:

  1. The City of Berkeley led the nation in enacting the first ban on natural gas piping in new buildings. The law went into effect on January 1, 2020. Other cities such as Morgan Hill have enacted their own bans, while San Jose enacted a more limited ban in low-rise residential buildings with discussions about expanding the ban to high-rise buildings at a later date. Seattle, WA is currently considering its own ban, while Brookline, MA passed legislation banning gas subject to the approval of the Massachusetts Attorney General.

  2. The California Public Utilities Commission opened up nearly $1 billion in ratepayer funds that utilities and other agencies can leverage to subsidize the substitution costs associated with replacing existing natural gas appliances with all-electric appliances.

  3. The California Energy Commission removed significant regulatory barriers stymieing all-electric designs and opened hearings on the California Assembly Bill 3232, a law that asks the Commission to come up with a roadmap to reduce greenhouse emissions by 40% in all California buildings by 2030.

  4. Northern California’s gas utility, Pacific Gas & Electric, mired in the consequences of extraordinary criminality, unexpectedly made a shrewd business decision to publicly support local and statewide efforts to ban natural gas in new buildings

As encouraging as these developments were, the sobering reality of climate science commands much more aggressive action on buildings and other sectors at the local, state, national and international levels. Nevertheless, in 2019, the City of San Francisco could not even manage to make the most painfully incremental and inadequate progress on new buildings:

April 2019

  • After a prolonged effort by a broad coalition of environmental advocates, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors and Mayor joined a multitude of neighboring Bay Area cities in unanimously declaring a climate emergency, but not before proceeding to water down the resolution. Perhaps naively, spirits were high that San Francisco’s government might yet take meaningful action to curtail its jurisdiction’s outsized contribution to a boiling climate and inequality.

  • Mayor London Breed announced her intention to launch a “public-private ” task force to consider strategies to phase out natural gas from the City’s public and private building stock.

June 2019

  • To no avail, a month before Berkeley’s historic vote, San Francisco climate advocates approached Supervisor Aaron Peskin’s office to introduce a ban on natural gas.

July 2019

  • After Berkeley banned gas in all buildings and only moments before the August recess, to much media fanfare, Supervisors Vallie Brown and Rafael Mandelman floated a trial balloon: their intention to introduce an absurdly unsatisfactory ban in new municipal buildings. The City of San Francisco is not known as a leading developer of new buildings—that title belongs to the private sector for which no ban has yet been introduced.

  • For all intents and purposes, Supervisor Brown and Mandelman’s municipal ban proposal removed much wind in the sails of San Francisco’s chances of achieving a rapid decarbonization of new buildings and addressing manifest environmental injustices in the southeastern corridor. Recall that in contrast Berkeley and others banned municipal and private gas piping in new buildings in a single piece of legislation effective on the first of the year. In this light, San Francisco’s municipal ban was not a real climate policy per se: it was in effect an effort to undercut clamoring for a citywide ban, which would have had a meaningful and immediate impact on halting the inevitable ballooning of new net greenhouse emissions.

August 2019

  • The San Francisco Board of Supervisors were out on recess. Supervisor Brown’s epic reelection battle was in full swing. That battle was in part a referendum on the merits of incremental climate tinkering versus transformative action.

  • Deeply disappointed with inaction, members of the coalition that passed the climate emergency declaration and others rallied to draft and gather signatures from more than twenty San Francisco and Bay Area-based environmental, public health, architectural and engineering organizations supporting a city-wide ordinance, along the lines of Berkeley, requiring all new San Francisco buildings to be powered entirely by electricity or be electric-ready by January 1, 2020.

September 2019

  • The coalition submitted its letter to Mayor London Breed and the Board of Supervisors, who had recently returned from recess.

  • Instead of prioritizing a gas ban, the Mayor and Supervisors unveiled a market and incentive-based energy ‘reach’ code ordinance aimed at persuading builders to go all-electric, in lieu of compelling them as necessitated by the climate emergency. Advocates cautioned City officials of the significant climate, equity and stranded asset costs of their proposed incremental action. Specifically, and in reference to the demands in their letter, they suggested that if the City was intent on pursuing such a weak policy, at minimum new construction should be required to be electric-ready.

  • In late September Supervisor Brown officially introduced her municipal gas ban legislation.

October 2019

  • Supervisor Mandelman introduced his market-based reach code and announced his intention to introduce legislation banning gas at an unspecified date in late Spring 2020.

  • In no small part in response to sustained Supervisorial inaction, this Ban Natural Gas San Francisco campaign website and petition were born. The campaign has collected more than 150 signatures to date.

November 2019

December 2019 & Beyond

  • The coalition mustered a second letter to the Mayor and Supervisors reiterating the necessity of amending Supervisor Mandelman’s weak market-based reach code to include an electric-ready provision to mitigate the climate, equity and financial impacts of unbridled gas infrastructure development in new construction.

  • Although the weak reach code proceeded to become law in January 2020, the coalition won a hard-fought concession from Supervisors Mandelman and Peskin in December to “duplicate” the reach code so that electric-ready amendments could be considered. The duplicate file has languished in committee since December.

  • After Supervisor Brown lost her seat, Supervisor Catherine Stefani took ownership over the municipal ban. The public learned of a critical procedural oversight regarding a failure to secure a budgetary review of the legislation from City officials. A vote on the legislation was delayed until January 2020.

  • Supervisor Mar announced that he had commissioned a Legislative Budget Analyst report on strategies for decarbonizing the building stock. He expects the report will be available in early 2020.

  • Upon reviewing the municipal ban legislation, City budget officials confirmed what the coalition had already known: all-electric design is often, if not always, more cost effective than gas design.

  • Supervisor Stefani’s municipal ban was passed into law in January.

  • Following passage of the municipal ban, Supervisor Stefani announced that she intended to further heighten the contradictions posed by delaying a citywide natural gas ban: she announced her intention to introduce legislation providing subsidies for developers to build all-electric in new construction despite the finding that such construction is already cost effective without subsidies.

Despite the false starts and disappointments, without the campaign waged by San Francisco building decarbonization advocates for nearly a year, the vaguest promises of a natural gas ban or an electric-ready amendment to the reach code would likely not be on the table. Incremental as they are, these are important victories in light of the surprisingly difficult political landscape in “progressive” San Francisco, and if nothing else are evidence of this movement’s growing strength. While it was always clear that the array of powerful forces aligned against the building decarbonization imperative would be fiercer in the gilded city of San Francisco, it was and continues to be a fight worth having, precisely because if we can win here, we can win anywhere. Our very existence depends on winning. 

Please join us by signing the petition, volunteering, and donating to support the campaign as we begin a New Year with renewed focus on winning a gas ban in new buildings and a program of equitable retrofits for existing buildings.

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