BOSTON — More than a dozen cities and towns are writing plans to ban new natural gas hookups for homes and businesses, according to one environmental group, despite complaints that the efforts are illegal.

In November, Brookline became the first community in the state to ban new gas hookups. Its bylaw, approved at Town Meeting, prohibits the installation of oil and gas heating systems in new construction beginning in 2021.

Other communities — including Cambridge, Newton, Arlington and Lexington — are weighing similar bans.

The efforts are winning praise from environmental groups hoping to speed up a shift away from the use of gas and other fossil fuels to wind, solar and other renewables.

"Communities are frustrated that we aren't moving quickly enough," said Carol Oldham, executive director of the Massachusetts Climate Action Network, an environmental nonprofit that is working with cities and towns to help them ban gas hookups. "They're saying, 'If the state isn't going to take aggressive actions, then we're going to do it.'"

Oldham said at least 15 communities are in various stages of drafting similar restrictions.

Most are awaiting the outcome of a legal review of Brookline's ban by Attorney General Maura Healey's office, which is required to approve town bylaws before they take effect. A Healey spokeswoman said Wednesday said the office has not yet received the Brookline bylaw.

The push to ban gas hookups is a new strategy for opponents of fossil fuels, who have until recently focused their efforts on blocking regional pipeline projects.

Many of the proposals are based on a Berkeley, California ordinance, which last summer approved the first such ban in the country.

Consumer choice

To be sure, the bans face resistance, not to mention the possibility of legal challenges, from the fossil fuel industry, restauranteurs, real estate developers and business interests. They argue that banning gas hookups will drive up construction costs and hamper economic development, while doing little for the environment.

Tom Kiley, president of the Northeast Gas Association, calls the effort "shortsighted" and said it will limit consumers' options.

"Consumers like choice, and they like natural gas," he said. "We're not opposed to renewables, but these bans could hurt these communities and especially hurt low-income people."

Stephen Dodge, executive director of the New England Petroleum Council, said the efforts ignore the advantages of natural gas.

"Natural gas and bio-heat remain essential to a transitioning and evolving energy marketplace, supporting additional renewables development while remaining a cheap and environmentally friendly option," Dodge said in a statement. "New England families deserve better than misguided ordinances that could increase household energy costs and limit the very fuel that is driving U.S. emissions down to their lowest levels in a generation."

Effect on housing

Meanwhile, real estate developers say gas bans could exacerbate an already significant housing shortage.

"We're in the midst of housing crisis," said Tamara Small, CEO of NAIOP Massachusetts, a commercial real estate development association. "Construction and land costs are already high, and if you tag on additional costs, that could be the straw the breaks the camel's back."

Banning new gas hookups in cities such as Cambridge — a hub for the state's thriving biotech sector — could severely impact investment and growth. That happened last year when a prolonged dispute between National Grid and gas workers put new hookups on hold. Construction ground to a halt.

"People couldn't move into new office space or homes," Small said. "The ripple effect was extraordinary and instant."

Small said her association's review of the Brookline and Cambridge bans show they violate the state's uniform building and energy codes, and won't stand up to a legal challenge. "Municipalities cannot adopt their own building or energy codes unless there are special conditions," she said.

NAIOP Massachusetts is committed to addressing climate change but believes the focus should be on energy-efficient designs and materials, she said.

Energy demands

In 2018 about two-thirds of the state's energy came from natural gas, with the remainder from nuclear and renewables, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

Besides meeting energy demand, the state is required to reduce its carbon footprint by 25 percent of 1990s levels by this year, and 80 percent by 2050, to comply with the Global Warming Solutions Act, a federal law the state adopted years ago. Gov. Charlie Baker, a Republican, is pursuing contracts for hydropower, solar, wind and other renewable sources to reduce greenhouse gases and meet those benchmarks.

Besides environmental impacts, supporters of local gas bans point to concerns over the state's aging gas infrastructure as reason for the bans. Public concerns about the safety and reliability of the system were exacerbated by the September 2018 gas explosions and fires in the Merrimack Valley.

Lawmakers are also pushing for more aggressive steps to phase out gas in favor of other sources of energy.

"This is where we need to be headed," said Rep. Lori Ehrlich, D-Marblehead, who is sponsoring legislation intended to move the state toward thermal energy and other sources of renewable power. "We are in a climate crisis so there's an urgent need to begin transitioning our homes and offices off of fossil fuels."

Christian M. Wade covers the Massachusetts Statehouse for North of Boston Media Group’s newspapers and websites. Email him at cwade@cnhi.com.

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