A federal court ruling today allows Washington state to continue updating its statewide building codes to incentivize the use of electric appliances over those that use methane gas, thereby improving public health, saving energy and costs, reducing air pollution, and helping the state meet its statutory climate targets.
In denying a request from the gas industry and homebuilding representatives asking the court to block implementation of the new building codes, the court found that industry plaintiffs’ claimed harms were “purely speculative.”
“Washington is committed to addressing climate change and the court will stay out of its way,” Chief Judge Stanley Bastian, U.S. District Court in Eastern Washington, said in his ruling. Judge Bastian said he did not want the further delay of an update to Washington State’s statewide building codes to have a “chilling effect” on other states and local communities wrestling with the important issue of climate change.
The new codes promote electric heat pumps over polluting methane gas in nearly all new commercial and residential buildings and are currently set to take effect in late October.
The code update is a critical tool to combat climate change. Buildings are the second largest carbon-producing sector in Washington state next to transportation, with methane, a potent greenhouse gas, commonly used to heat and cool buildings, cook food, and heat water.
This litigation challenging the new codes is part of a broader fossil fuel industry strategy to delay urgently needed climate and public health action across the nation. Climate and health advocates, and other states and local governments hoping to enact similar building codes, say today’s court decision signals encouraging forward movement in support of building electrification.
Jan Hasselman, senior attorney with Earthjustice: “The movement to phase out fossil gas in homes and businesses is unstoppable. The gas industry cannot stop it with lawsuits, lobbying, or disinformation, and we’re glad the Court agreed to let progress on these important codes continue.”
Dylan Plummer, a senior campaign representative with the Sierra Club: “Today’s ruling upsets the playbook of Big Oil and Gas corporations who are desperate to fight climate action and keep Washington hooked on polluting fossil fuels. As communities demand clean renewable electricity, entities like the State Building Code Council are leading the way to a cleaner and healthier future by putting in place policies to transition buildings off of polluting fracked gas. Our future will be powered by clean, renewable electricity.”
According to state law, the Washington State Building Code Council (SBCC) is charged with reaching the goal of zero emissions from fossil fuels for buildings by 2031. Codes are updated every three years. The new codes, passed last year, are among the most progressive in the country.
Washington’s new building codes were initially set to take effect in July of this year. The SBCC sought amendments to the codes in May along with a delayed implementation date following the success of a legal challenge funded by the fossil fuel industry, when a federal appeals court in California overturned a City of Berkeley electrification ordinance. Even though that decision is being appealed and the Berkeley ordinance could be found lawful, the SBCC proactively decided to revise the new building codes to ensure they would comply with federal law including the Energy Policy and Conservation Act (EPCA).
EPCA sets national efficiency standards for many household and commercial appliances and prohibits states from setting their own efficiency standards for appliances where they have been set federally to avoid varied efficiency requirements across states. EPCA, however, explicitly allows cities to electrify buildings through local building codes by setting overall efficiency standards that favor electric appliances over burning fossil fuels. States can also establish indoor air quality standards that also favor electricity over polluting methane gas.
The amendments to the codes currently being considered by SBCC will effectively promote energy-efficient heat pumps for virtually all new construction without banning other forms of energy or technology. If the amendments are adopted, the new codes are set to take effect in October. If the SBCC determines it needs more time, the effective date could be later.
The litigation against these codes is part of a broader strategy by the gas industry to undermine and rollback electrification policy with litigation. Earlier this month, Avista, one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, was criticized for using ratepayer money to fund litigation in Oregon against the Climate Protection Program, one of the state’s landmark climate policies.
Plaintiffs in the case include the state’s three gas-only utilities (NW Natural, Cascade, and Avista) and construction companies. The defendant is the State Building Code Council. Earthjustice is representing climate and public health groups that have intervened on behalf of SBCC to defend the codes. Those groups include Climate Solutions, the Lands Council, NW Energy Coalition, Sierra Club and Washington Physicians for Social Responsibility.
The Earthjustice attorneys involved in defending Washington’s building codes are Jan Hasselman and Noelia Gravotta.