Local communities want to electrify, but gas interests have other ideas.

by Nick Bowlin, High Country News

Gunnison, Colorado, at 7,700 feet above sea level, sees some of the coldest temperatures in the Lower 48. Its 6,000 or so inhabitants, especially low-income residents in older, poorly insulated housing, use more energy — often from natural gas — than their lowland counterparts. 

An oil refinery in operation near Mt. Baker in Washington State. This refinery is emitting quantities of steam or other pollutants. Taken near sunset, the refinery is relatively dark and ominous.

Last year, Gunnison’s city government proposed cutting both greenhouse gas emissions and utility bills by making new homes more efficient and less reliant on fossil fuels.

But Gunnison soon encountered the same obstacle that other communities do when they try to move toward electric heat pumps, stoves and water heaters: natural gas providers.

By vigorously campaigning against electrification policies in what are normally local battles, national natural gas utilities have opened a new front in the decarbonization struggle: building codes.

Building codes can either accelerate local carbon emission reductions or lock in fossil fuel infrastructure, according to David Konisky, a professor at Indiana University who studies environmental and energy politics and policy. When code changes nibble at utilities’ market share, however, the corporations bite back.

“It’s not surprising that they will fight against these reforms,” Konisky said. “It’s cutting into their standard business model of people using natural gas for cooking or heating in their homes.”

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