Natural gas hookups are essential to tall buildings and a major part of the region’s economy: biotech. Yet proposals to ban them are afoot in Waltham, Cambridge and Lexington.

Proposals to ban new natural gas hookups in everything from new homes to new office buildings are spreading across Greater Boston faster than a California wildfire. 

So-called fossil fuel bans are just the latest way for upscale urban hipsters and suburbanites to show off their climate change bona fides and play at being heroic environmental activists. 

But banning natural gas  and putting more stress on an already overloaded electrical grid  is more than just a half-baked way of fighting climate change. 

It is also a quick way to kill the economic miracle that has transformed the Boston area over the past half century from a rusting backwater to one of the planet’s top metros. 

As a growing number of communities led by Cambridge and Brookline eye proposals to shut off the flow of natural gas, it threatens to drive a stake through any new large-scale lab and corporate developments, as well as desperately needed now housing at a time when prices and rents are out of site. 

“Cambridge is the lifeblood of our economy,” noted Tamara Small, CEO of NAIOP Massachusetts, the commercial development association which is pushing back hard against the gas hookup bans. “All the development that is proposed for new research facilities, other buildings, will stop.” 

Emotional Grandstanding  

In November, Brookline became the first community on the East Coast to ban new natural gas hookups, though the ordinance won’t go into effect until 2021 and excludes new lab construction. 

Cambridge is now considering an even more draconian ban, one that would have no exemptions – sorry, biotech boom – and would go into effect immediately. 

More than a dozen other suburbs and cities in the Boston are also weighing proposals to pull the plug on natural gas, including Watertown, Lexington, Arlington and Newton. 

One wonders whether these weekend climate change warriors have fully thought through what these bans would do the local economy and, by extension, their own jobs and livelihoods, not to mention everyone else’s. 

Outlawing all new natural gas connections in Cambridge would bring to a grinding halt the explosive growth of the city’s massive biotech and life sciences industry and throw a monkey wrench into one of the main engines driving the economic powerhouse that is Greater Boston. 

Climate change activists can yap all they want about how new buildings and labs can simply “electrify” and shift over entirely to electric power, but for many buildings over 5 stories and all over 10, this shift would be both far too costly and technologically unfeasible at this point in time, Small noted. 

Developers would be forced to pull the plug on major new lab and office projects, with even major renovations suddenly unable to move forward. 

Restaurants and small businesses would be left in the lurch as well. 

It’s relatively easy to electrify a single home’s heating and cooling needs. But converting any tall building from natural gas-powered systems is very expensive and technologically unfeasible, experts say.

Is There a NIMBY Component? 

In fact, we have already seen what can happen when new gas hookups are halted, and it’s not pretty. 

Construction ground to a halt last year in Cambridge and across much of the Boston area after the massive service and installation back log created across the Boston area after a series of devastating explosions gas line explosions in Lawrence and other Merrimack Valley communities. 

“I keep going back to a year ago,” NAIOP’s Small said. It is déjà vu, it is going to happen all over again.” 

But banning all new gas hookups also threatens put the kibosh on plans for new housing in many of the same communities in desperate need of more inventory of all types, with median home prices in Cambridge, Brookline and Newton all well over $1 million. 

The all-electric homes that do get built could wind up being more expensive to buy and to heat, and operate as well. I guess that won’t be a problem to the well-heeled buyers who can afford to fork over $1.5 million for a new home, but it’s no help to the rest of us. 

Not surprisingly, some NIMBY types appear to be jumping on the gas ban bandwagon as well, sensing an opportunity to kill major building projects they would rather not see in their neighborhoods. 

“While some of the proponents are very well intentioned and committed to climate resiliency, there is also a NIMBY component to this,” Small said. 

Whatever their motives, these suburban climate change warriors are too blinded by their bumper-sticker environmentalism to see the bigger picture. 

Not only would banning all gas hookups hurt the local economy and push housing prices higher, it could also backfire when it comes to fighting climate change as well. 

The current electrical grid simply doesn’t have the capacity to handle an overnight conversion of the commercial and residential market from gas. 

Moving too fast will simply overload the grid, increasing the likelihood that utilities will be forced to rely on dirtier forms of power in order to meet demand. 

A Better Idea 

So here’s a suggestion. If our heroic local climate warriors truly want to put a dent in global warming, they should be out there lobbying for something that is technologically feasible and could work right now: nuclear power. 

Nuclear power is a proven technology that can provide electricity without adding to the dangerous buildup of greenhouse gases, with reactors providing 75 percent of France’s power. 

The last time I checked, France is still a pretty nice place to visit and live, apparently having avoided becoming the radioactive wasteland anti-nuclear activists have been ranting irrationally about for decades. 

Of course, that won’t happen here. Environmentalists have spent decades demonizing nuclear power and scaring the public with fringe, nightmare scenarios with little of any chance of happening, even as our planet’s atmosphere has begun to rapidly overheat from the burning of fossil fuels for electric power. 

Scott Van Voorhis

And New England’s onceproud bevy of nuclear plants have almost all been shut down at this point. 

The only way to successfully head off a climate disaster is going to be through the application of reason and logic. 

Trying to ban all new gas hookups is not a reasoned approach. 

Rather, the so-called fossil fuel bans are just another example of the irrational, emotionally-driven grandstanding of the type that pollutes so much of our public discourse today. 

Scott Van Voorhis is Banker & Tradesman’s columnist; opinions expressed are his own. He may be reached at 

Natural Gas Bans Are Worse than Useless – They’ll Hurt a Lot

by Scott Van Voorhis time to read: 4 min