Climate policy legislation would have unintended consequences

In theory, a “net-zero” building code–that is, a code designed to develop new buildings that would generate no carbon emissions–sounds like a no-brainer. 

Energy efficiency, after all, is something we need to achieve. But whenever theory meets reality, the devil is in the details. And the details of the state’s proposed net-zero building code raise some troubling concerns.

That’s why this past January, Governor Charlie Baker vetoed the part of a sweeping climate policy bill that targets building codes. He instead sent it back with recommendations that a coalition of industry stakeholders as well as the general public be given the opportunity to weigh in on the provision.

Zero-energy buildings either produce no emissions or generate sufficient renewable energy to offset their carbon footprints. The original bill included a net-zero “stretch” or “flex” code that would allow communities in the Commonwealth to opt into higher energy efficiency requirements for new buildings.

If enacted, the provision would have created a patchwork of building codes across the state. That would have caused uncertainty and a lack of continuity in the construction industry. The provision would also open the door to communities such as Brookline, which attempted to ban the installation of gas and oil pipes in new and renovated buildings. Stating that it would undermine the state’s building and gas codes along with the authority of the Board of State Examiners of Plumbers and Gasfitters, Attorney General Maura Healey disapproved the town’s bylaw.

The Brookline example highlights other potential problems with the proposed net-zero flex code. By uniformly banning gas, the town’s restrictions would have imposed a financial burden on homeowners, businesses, and organizations. They would have had to rely on electricity, which costs considerably more than gas, to heat their homes and buildings. It would have also increased the construction costs of new buildings in Brookline.

Higher construction costs are one of the primary objections to the net-zero code. For example, it is estimated that a typical two-story home would cost as much as $83,500 more to build. That would have a chilling effect on the development of affordable housing and other types of construction. It’s challenging enough for working families seeking housing in the Boston area; adoption of the code would make it that much more difficult. Also, it would discourage development of new projects, thereby taking jobs away from working men and women in the construction industry.

“This is a well-intended law,” says Andrew DeAngelo, director of public affairs for the GBPCA. “But it has unintended negative consequences.”

Despite its informal characterization as a “flex” code, another problem with the legislation is its inflexibility. Should a community choose to outright ban all gas piping in new buildings for example, it would mandate a hatchet, rather than a scalpel, be used to help control carbon emissions. Rigid regulations may impose unnecessarily expensive technology that would make it prohibitive for developers and owners to proceed with projects. Some may not have the ability to scale up. Given some latitude, developers may be able to find ways to decarbonize faster and less expensively.

“I understand the desire to move away from gas,” says Tim Fandel, Local 12’s business manager. “We share the goal of addressing climate change and reducing carbon. But we differ on the pathway to getting there.”

Massachusetts, which is already recognized as a leader in climate issues, may need to move away from gas and other fossil fuels as energy sources. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that its cities and towns should ban all piping. DeAngelo points out that much progress is being made on zero-carbon-emission fuel resources such as renewable natural gas, methane, and hydrogen.

“We wouldn’t want to eliminate the pipe infrastructure,” he says, noting that Denmark and Australia have major projects that are powered by hydrogen. “We need a diverse energy portfolio, especially here in New England,” DeAngelo adds. “We need to take a broad view.”

By first vetoing and eventually reaching a compromise with the Legislature to allow for an industry stakeholder input process, a window has been provided for organizations such as the GBPCA and Local 12 to share their views about the law’s impact and to discuss issues such as the adoption of hydrogen as a fuel alternative.

“We are happy for the opportunity to have our voices heard as legislation and regulations are crafted,” says Local 12’s Fandel.