On January 9, in an interview with Bloomberg, an agency commissioner at the US Consumer Product Safety Commission floated the idea of regulations, or a potential ban, on new gas stoves—citing the “hidden hazard” of natural gas pollutants. As Mother Jones reported in 2021, this is not a new finding. Gas stoves, and the pollutants they emit (formaldehyde, carbon monoxide, and nitrogen oxides for example), have been linked to increased risk of heart attack, asthma, and other respiratory issues for years—findings that gas companies have challenged with heavily-funded lobbying efforts and influencer campaigns. Recently, Republicans have also come to the industry’s defense and, in doing so, fueled yet another culture war.
But as the gas stove battle focuses on the twists and turns of influencers, lobbyists, and public health advocates, it is missing something fundamental: how complicated the transition from gas to electric stoves and heating turns out to be—even in the view of those who understand the environmental urgency of this move. Over the last few years, and especially recently, New York State has offered a preview of this struggle.
While officials in New York have dealt with some disagreement over gas stoves—mostly led by Speaker of the Assembly Carl Heastie—the state generally has moved forward with plans to phase them out. A proposed law, the “All-Electric Buildings Act,” would mandate electric energy in all new construction by the end of the decade. The legislation specifically requires new infrastructure to prohibit gas hookups in smaller buildings by 2024 and larger buildings by 2027. (Governor Hochul supported the initiative in her 2023 State of the State and executive budget, but pushed both deadlines back.)
Now that the governor and the State Senate have shown interest in the proposal, officials look to the Assembly—which previously blocked the bill—to include the All-Electric Buildings Act in its “one-house” budget due next month. If the act is not included in the April 1 final budget–negotiated on by the legislature and the governor—it has one last chance in the legislative session that wraps June 1.
Buildings are the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in both New York City and New York State, where they are responsible for one-third of emissions collectively. So, in December 2021, New York City—which accounts for the vast majority of the state’s fossil fuel emissions from gas stoves to boilers—passed a bill to phase out fossil fuels in new construction citywide starting in 2024. The measure excluded certain buildings from the mandate, notably laboratories, laundromats, hospitals, crematoriums, and commercial kitchens.
One staunch supporter of the electrification initiative is Brooklyn Assemblymember Emily Gallagher, who first got involved in environmental organizing in her neighborhood in Greenpoint in 2010, which was when Newtown Creek, which snakes along the neighborhood’s border, was declared a Superfund site by the federal government. In 2017, while on the community board, she learned that National Grid was getting permits to dig underneath East Williamsburg and Greenpoint to put in new gas infrastructure. She heard from residents who got up for work in the morning and saw that streets in front of their small businesses had been torn up.She recalls, “It was like they were putting something in so that they could then use it as an excuse to continue the bad behavior,” referring to new fossil fuel hookups.
In January 2021, Gallagher was elected to the New York state assembly to represent the 50th district, which includes Greenpoint. Ten months later, Gallagher proposed a version of the “All Electric Buildings Act” which was co-sponsored by Senator Brian Kavanagh. It failed.
One reason for its failure was the astroturf group New Yorkers For Affordable Energy—supported by building trade unions, utility company National Grid, pipeline company Enbridge, and oil and natural gas trade group the American Petroleum Institute, among other fossil fuel companies and gas lobbying groups. The group launched an extensive public relations campaign in print and on TV that helped kill the bill in 2022, according to Rich Schrader, New York State Legislative Director of the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC).
The campaign warned consumers that everything was going to change all at once. Stoves would be ripped from kitchens and boilers from basements. But that’s not remotely accurate—because the legislation is just about new construction, not retrofitting. “I just wanna make it really, really clear,” Ithaca Assemblymember Anna Kelles told me. “This is not about transitioning existing buildings. This is about new buildings.” It’s true that in the coming decades New York might begin to consider retrofitting, but that’s still a long way off, says Schrader. “Hochul has suggested switching to electric heat when gas heating appliances start breaking down, but that’s in 2035—that’s 12 years from now.”
While state budget negotiations unfold, Michael Hernandez, the New York policy director of electrification nonprofit Rewiring America, is watching the regulatory front where, he says, New York’s Building Code Council is already mandated to incorporate recommendations of the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act (CLCPA)—New York State’s master plan to reach zero emissions—into revised building codes. The CLCPA’s latest report included electrification for new construction.
But Hernandez says that in a December meeting, the chair of the Council announced that they were not likely to update the code to require electrification in new buildings unless there was some additional legislative action or requirements. That decision, Hernandez told me, “is not in compliance with the law.”
While lawmakers and regulators deliberate, some New York communities are hoping to “leapfrog federal and state efforts” to electrify both new and existing buildings more quickly. A few of those places have turned to private equity investment to kickstart their building overhaul. In 2021, the city of Ithaca partnered with a Brooklyn-based tech startup, BlocPower, backed by Goldman Sachs and venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz, in order to fund their goal of carbon-neutrality by 2030. BlocPower offers a revolving loan fund, leasing clean-energy equipment, such as heat pumps, to homeowners and allowing them to sidestep an upfront cost. But, as The American Prospect’s Lee Harris reports, given the financial complexities of these deals,”cities may be at a disadvantage when signing up with [these] clean-energy investors.”
Doling out climate infrastructure projects to the private sector has also worried labor advocates about a just transition for workers currently employed in the fossil-fuels industry. Lara Skinner, director of the Climate Jobs Institute at Cornell School of International Labor Relations, notes that privately funded projects tend to rely on a more transient workforce, including the use of temp agencies to gather workers.
“We’re going to erode public support for this climate work if we’re not creating high-quality jobs and careers that are actually family and community sustaining,” Skinner says. Constance Bradley, President of Transport Workers Union Local 101, which represents National Grid workers, is on board with phasing out fossil fuels, but not at workers’ expense. “Just Transition is a nice sounding phrase that could be used to sugarcoat the displacement of blue-collar workers,” Bradley told me.
It doesn’t end with creating jobs: “There’s also the enforcement piece—you can’t just have the labor standards,” Skinner said. “You have to actually check up and make sure they’re actually enforcing job quality, training, and wage standards.”
Gallagher says she understands the complexities of accomplishing electrification—but at the same time, she believes time is of the essence. She’s been working with a team from across the state to push for all upcoming development projects in their respective regions to be electric. One area they’re focused on is Syracuse, where there will be a housing boom over the next few years to meet the demand created by the $100 billion dollar Micron computer chip factory. “Right now, my goal is to get new construction to be all electric. That’s gonna stop the bleeding,” she tells me. “The All Electric Buildings Act is the tourniquet. Then we go in and do more detailed surgery.”