A new mass policy that does what climate bills often fail to do: directly target fossil fuel emissions
In a sweeping climate bill passed earlier this summer, the state authorized a pilot program that will allow 10 municipalities to ban fossil fuels in nearly all new buildings. This program is the result of grassroots efforts across the state that resulted in 10 cities and towns petitioning the state (in what’s called a Bylaws Petition) to allow them to implement such a prohibition.
Jesse Gray, a molecular biologist who lives in Brookline, wrote the state’s first new building gas ban (and the first ban in the country outside of California) for the city in 2019. Since then, he continued to push the state to allow municipalities to implement these bans and co-founded ZeroCarbonMA, a nonprofit focused on promoting decarbonization throughout Massachusetts.
I spoke with Jesse about his work fighting for gasoline bans and what comes next for the movement after the new pilot program. The following has been edited for brevity and clarity.
What was your inspiration for writing this initial ban in 2019, and what do you think makes these bans important as a policy?
I’m a scientist, but I’m a molecular biologist and neurogeneticist, so I was really focused on my science for most of my life, until I turned 43 in 2019. And then I had realized the year or two before that there was actually this kind of thing you could do about the climate.
With electric vehicles, there’s actually a consumption choice that I could make that could actually have a huge impact, where I no longer burn fossil fuels in my car. And then it made me realize that I could do the same with my house.
I electrified my own life. And then, halfway through, I realized that I could also have an impact through collective action at the municipal level, where the will to act on climate is really the strongest. And that’s what got me involved in Brookline politics. The reason I focused on a gasoline ban is because it’s at the intersection of three requirements for effective climate action, in my mind.
Climate action must have an impact; it really needs to have a meaningful effect on emissions and help us achieve net zero emissions, which is our goal at Brookline by 2040.
It has to be politically possible, which is of course a matter of opinion, and the 2019 gasoline ban was barely on the verge of being politically possible at Brookline. In fact, at first most people thought it wouldn’t pass.
And the third requirement is that he had to be pragmatic. Even if you have a policy that would have an impact, let’s say it’s a requirement that something be done or not be done, and it’s politically possible, if it turns out to be in fact unachievable, then it won’t be useful either.
So, I was looking for policies that could achieve this politically possible, pragmatic and impactful trifecta, and I went with the gasoline ban and copied it from Berkeley.
It’s important because we need to stop burning fossil fuels, and when we build new buildings, it’s often cheaper, or neutral, not to install new fossil fuel infrastructure. And especially if you consider that we really need to remove fossil fuel infrastructure from buildings that already exist, every time we build a new building with fossil fuel infrastructure, we just make our job much harder and more expensive.
Where did you find the most significant political opposition to this proposal?
In the early days of Brookline, people just wanted to know if it was actually doable, really practical. So that part—a lot of people pretend to be practical, but I really believe in it, and we put hours and hours and hours into it, listening to people, taking into account the points of view of different people, experts, architects, contractors, and that led to some exemptions. One was for emergency generation and the other for hot water heating in large buildings.
Later, there was opposition from the property industry, particularly the NAIOP, as well as the gas utility, particularly the National Grid. And there is also opposition from workers, pipe fitters, plumbers… I think the gasoline bans have gotten more attention and more commentary than any other local legislation over a period of years.
How important do you think this new pilot project is?
We are seeing an acceleration of climate change, and this is also leading to an acceleration of climate action. Thus, what seemed impossible at the start of a one-and-a-half-year legislature becomes possible at the end. Nobody really thought we had a chance of getting these things through the Legislative Assembly at first, and we did. Even until a day before we knew it, we didn’t think they would be adopted.
What a lot of lawmakers are saying is that they now want to see how the pilot program is going before expanding it. But it’s kind of a conceit that they created themselves, I think partly so they don’t have to do anything about it soon.
Politics is eminently practical, so there’s really nothing to pilot here. What I expect is that even though now lawmakers are saying “wait a few years, let’s see how it goes”, realistically every week counts in terms of emissions reductions and fuel savings. money for people by avoiding costly building renovations by building them correctly in the first place. And I think we may be able to expand that statewide in the next legislative session. But maybe I’m the only person who thinks that.
What happens afterwards?
We encourage communities to pass these self-governance petitions, because I think one of the strongest arguments to make to legislators would be for 20 or 30 other communities to pass self-governance petitions asking permission to do so. This could lead to a last-minute blocked amendment to extend the pilot program, for example.
What we also do is see ourselves as reconciling climate politics with climate reality. If you look at the end game, what we need to achieve based on the goals Brookline has set for itself is net zero community-wide emissions by 2040. And the fact is, we don’t we just don’t have policies that will even remotely get us there. And so that’s what we’re focusing on.
We supported the development of nine pieces of legislation, a list of new laws that I tabled for this fall Brookline town meeting, which begins November 15, we tabled it by the September 1 deadline for tabling of legislation. And those policies are about getting permission for municipalities, starting with Brookline, to get permission to have the authority and the resources to retrofit existing buildings to all-electric.
We also had several rounds, so actually the third round is relevant to one of your more recent questions. We first asserted our authority and were rejected. We then asked for permission from the state, it was in 2020. And then, anticipating that it might take time, we also asserted ourselves in another way.
This time, by forming a non-profit organization, we were able to raise funds and then pay for professional legal services. We have our own council, and they are now drafting our legislation for us, which is incredibly empowering. They drafted a bill that was intended to be the strongest possible legal way to try to ban gasoline that could be approved by the Attorney General.
The Attorney General – surprisingly enough – rejected these attempts. These were technically incentives, and they were firmly in the tradition of the types of zoning incentives that are used across the state. One of them was really vanilla, a really standard incentive that you could build a bigger building if there’s no fossil fuel. Another was much more convoluted and complicated but a similar concept, a deterrent to including fossil fuel infrastructure. The Attorney General dismissed them both, and together with the city, we are appealing that decision, and if we were to win this case, it would allow virtually any municipality to ban gasoline, for the most part.
Do you have any idea if Andrea Campbell as AG would treat this differently than Maura Healey?
No, and I haven’t met Andrea Campbell. She just won the primary two days ago? So that’s a great question, I’m really interested to know the answer myself.
Is there anything else on this subject that you would like to add?
I would just add that I hope we can convert people who may be dealing with climate catastrophe or climate anxiety into activists, because I think it’s just a lot more fun to be an activist.
Previously, some of the standard pathways to activism simply didn’t have such an impact on the climate. Now, if you can enact a gas ban in your local community, you can have a measurable impact on emissions in your community, and you can have an even bigger impact on the political trajectory, with politics being the step limiting the rate.
The technology does not limit throughput. We solve this problem, what holds us back is politics. The good news is that the more people who get involved and talk about how important this is to them, the sooner we can act.