Santa Barbara City Council Bans Natural Gas in New Construction

Over 45 Cities Have Enacted Some form of Restrictions

Credit: Courtesy

Councilmember Kristen Sneddon described taking a road trip in Oregon earlier this summer, crossing into terrain where the temperature regularly exceeded 100 degrees, driving through country where the wildfires had exploded, and crossing over lakes that had been baked bone dry. Climate change is no longer some hypothetical reality, she said; it’s right now.

Even closer to home, speakers reminded the council of the Thomas Fire and the deadly debris flow it triggered.

The Santa Barbara City Council was about to vote on a proposed ban of natural gas hook-ups in any new construction, and there was no debate. The gas company didn’t even bother to show up and neither did Californians for Balanced Energy Solutions, a notorious front group created by SoCal Gas to lobby against such proposed bans.

It was just as well. It would only have prolonged their misery. The vote was unanimous.

Many speakers from Sierra Club and a host of organizations, however, testified in favor of the proposal. They schooled councilmembers on the perils of natural gas; it contains methane which is 80 times worse than carbon dioxide in terms of climate change; it increases the risk of asthma for young kids in homes heated with natural gas; it’s produced increasingly by fracking, a technology that poses contamination risks for the groundwater basins.

“I really believe the time has come for this ordinance,” declared Councilmember Sneddon, who made the motion for approval. Councilmember Michael Jordan seconded the motion.

Sustainability and Resilience planner Alelia Parenteau estimated that about 50 building permits are issued every year. “That’s not necessarily 50 units,” she cautioned. “Some projects are much bigger than that.”

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Santa Barbara now joins a handful of California cities to enact an actual ban — Ojai, Los Angeles, and San Francisco are among the others. About 45 in total have enacted some form of restriction on new natural gas connections.

Santa Barbara’s ordinance, however, contains a host of exemptions. Current restaurants can continue to use gas stoves. Additions and remodels of existing homes are exempt as well unless they qualify as a near tear down. That’s defined by any proposal that impacts two of three thresholds: 75 percent of roof area, 75 percent of wall area, and 75 percent of foundation area. Detached granny flats must comply; attached granny flats are exempt.

Not everyone was buying it. The Santa Barbara County Taxpayers Alliance opposed the ban, the only organization to do so. A representative from the pool and spa industry asked for an exemption for pools; he got nowhere. A former Westside resident, who said he recently moved to Phoenix because of Santa Barbara’s high housing prices, doubted that Santa Barbara’s fragile electrical grid was up to the challenge, especially with the Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant shutting down soon and hydroelectric plants hamstrung by the drought.

Anna Marie Gott, the council’s vociferous watchdog, supported the proposal but wondered why the council didn’t require solar installations on all new construction. No one answered.

Parenteau took exception with those who’ve dismissed the city’s effort as environmental tokenism. The most tangible and immediate impact of such ordinances, she said, is that they “send a clear market signal to invest in electrical technology.” As more cities take similar action, she said, the market forces realign.

For the past year, Parenteau has spent much of her waking hours extolling the virtues of new electric stoves. “They’re not your parents’ electric stove,” she has repeatedly said. Twenty years ago, she noted she says, the electric stove market was all but nonexistent. Today, every high-end manufacturer catering to the upscale foodie market makes an electric induction stove that can double as a pin-up in Architectural Digest. “The Big Boys started to invest in the technology,” she said. Change happens.

Parenteau expressed relief and surprise that the opposition didn’t make the council meeting as it has in the past. “Now the hard part begins,” she said. “Now we have to get the word out.” 

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