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Battle over effort to ban natural gas in new Chicago buildings continues in hearing

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As an ordinance to effectively ban gas power in new Chicago buildings faced questions at the City Council Wednesday, the battle lines over the climate change-focused legislation came into clearer focus.

The ordinance sponsored by Environment Committee chair Ald. Maria Hadden, 49th, sets emission standards strict enough to all but rule out natural gas use in most new buildings. The requirements from the push to replace planet-warming fossil fuels with clean energy would also affect large buildings making major additions.

The legislation backed by Mayor Brandon Johnson has gotten support from a wide range of groups, including climate change activists, consumer advocates and others affiliated with the Illinois Clean Jobs Coalition. Proponents argue the shift away from gas heating and appliances would improve health and allow for much-needed progress in the fight against climate change.

Chicago’s “built environment” accounts for 70% of the city’s greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to climate change, Department of Environment Commissioner Angela Tovar told aldermen.

“The damaging effects of climate change are happening now in our city,“ Tovar said, citing recent record heat, poor air quality and floods. “Climate change is real and we must take action.”

But the legislation has also drawn strong opposition, primarily from People’s Gas and labor unions involved in constructing and maintaining gas systems. Opponents claim the ordinance would lead to higher energy bills for all ratepayers while leaving the city’s electric grid overburdened and many laborers out of work.

Ald. Gilbert Villegas, 36th, had called for the subject matter hearing when the so-called “Clean And Affordable Buildings ordinance” was first proposed in January. At the time, he warned Environmental Committee chair Hadden to not “slam through” the proposal.

When the legislation was introduced that month, it was sent to the council’s Rules Committee, where it remains. In tandem with Wednesday’s subject matter hearing, the slow pace shows the proposal will face a deliberative, open process, Hadden said. She described the effort as the first part of a gradual decarbonization effort likely to last decades.

Still, the Wednesday hearing, which did not include a vote, drew pushback from several aldermen who complained the ordinance was being rushed through the City Council. To become law, the ordinance would need to be voted out of the Rules Committee, then get another committee’s approval before finally facing a full council vote.

The first sign of the heated fight appeared Wednesday morning in the gallery, where spectators representing both sides filled nearly every seat at the start of the meeting that stretched throughout the whole day. City officials, representatives of Commonwealth Edison and People’s Gas, and members of the Illinois Clean Jobs Coalition answered questions.

City officials described the ordinance as an “incremental, critical change.” It would impact less than half a percent of Chicago’s buildings, Tovar said. Another Johnson administration official estimated the ordinance would affect 600 to 900 buildings each year. The legislation includes exemptions, including for commercial restaurants.

It would also put Chicago’s policy in line with peer cities like Los Angeles and New York City, which have similar legislation, Tovar said. The new requirements would lead to more jobs and lower energy costs without straining Chicago’s electric grid, she said, firing back at arguments made previously and again Wednesday by opponent’s of the legislation.

As city leaders answered questions, Ald. Raymond Lopez, 15th, argued the gas workers’ union had been unfairly excluded from conversations planning the ordinance over the last two years, eliciting claps from two dozen men seated together in the public gallery.

Tovar pushed back, saying the ordinance is the product of years-long, inclusive decarbonization planning and that the gas unions could have reached out to her. She cited outreach to a number of nonprofits, while Lopez continued to criticize her for not more directly including the unions.

“We do have robust engagement on this issue,” she said.

“Except with the individuals most impacted,” Lopez fired back. “I think what we’ve seen time and time again is we’re trying to ‘stack the deck’ to move forward on things.”

But Ald. Bennett Lawson, 44th, praised the rollout of the legislation as “civil.” Many developers constructing multi-family housing are already ditching gas, opting instead for all-electric buildings, said Lawson, who works closely with developers as the Zoning Committee’s acting chair.

Later in the afternoon, a Commonwealth Edison representative argued the utility company’s electrical grid is prepared to handle the strain a pivot from gas to electric power would add.

But People’s Gas Vice President Salvador Arana refuted the claim.

He criticized the proposal, arguing it would leave Chicago unprepared to take advantage of future efficient energy sources that would rely on gas lines. The gas utility company previously asked to be a part of conversations leading up to the draft ordinance, but was excluded, he said.

As the full-day hearing ended, Illinois Clean Jobs Coalition leaders said the ordinance would save Chicagoans money, create good-paying jobs and make people healthier, flagging the dangers of carcinogenic gas burner emissions.

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