Allies of the oil and gas industry filed a lawsuit today, seeking to reverse and block progress made by Washington’s new statewide building energy codes that would protect the health and safety of building occupants, save energy and costs, reduce air pollution that causes asthma and other health problems, and cut more than 8 million tons of climate-polluting carbon dioxide by 2050.
The revised commercial code was adopted by the Washington State Building Code Council in April 2022, and a revised residential code was adopted in November 2022. Together, these building codes will require high-efficiency heat pumps in almost all new construction. They are the most climate-friendly building codes in the country and are set to take effect in July 2023.
Climate advocates and health experts represented by attorneys at Earthjustice plan to intervene in the lawsuit to uphold these critical building codes that will reduce emissions and dependence on fossil fuels fueling the climate crisis, make buildings and indoor air quality healthier for people, and increase climate resiliency for Washingtonians with the added benefit of air conditioning. Increasing heat waves and heat-related health impacts are on the rise in Washington, with clear inequities in access to cooling.
The lawsuit — similar to others around the country — from the Building Industry Association of Washington and other industry challengers was filed against the Washington State Building Code Council (SBCC), the state government entity that sets building codes, in Superior Court of Washington for Thurston County on Tuesday, Feb. 28. Efforts to act on clean buildings has consistently been met with organized resistance and misinformation from the gas industry and allies across the country and includes a familiar playbook of messaging that includes raising the specter of cost, claiming a lack of available electric building technology, and arguing that gas has an essential role in powering the future. Despite evidence that methane emissions are an increasing risk for public health, opponents to clean buildings policies seek to delay and block all buildings policies and have been working to associate any action on buildings as “anti-gas.”
Under Washington’s updated energy code, all new commercial and residential buildings must be built with heat pumps for water and space heating, a high-efficiency technology that significantly reduces greenhouse gas emissions. Beyond reducing climate pollution, these new building codes will also reduce emissions of nitrogen oxides (NOx) in homes and buildings. Pollution from buildings in Washington contributes to more premature deaths than road, industry, electricity generation, marine, rail, or aviation. In Washington, premature deaths from burning fossil fuels in buildings in 2017 led to an estimated $577 million in health care costs.
Washington’s electricity mix is among the cleanest and most affordable in the country (with a legislative mandate to provide 100% fossil free electricity by 2045), and the new building code is projected to cut more than 8 million tons of carbon dioxide by 2050, equivalent to the annual emissions of 1.8 million cars. The SBCC is required by Washington law to design the state energy code to comply with mandated reductions in emissions and energy consumption. The updated energy codes also include improvements to building efficiency that will further save energy for building users.
State officials see adoption of the updated energy and building codes as essential if Washington is to meet its greenhouse gas (GHG) emission reduction targets. In public testimony during the 2022 SBCC hearings on the commercial code updates, Luke Howard with the Department of Commerce commented, “The code puts the state on the path to meeting our GHG emission limits. These proposals align with the State Energy Strategy, align our codes with the Clean Energy Transformation Act, and simply align carbon emission factors in the code with state law.” Washington’s 2021 State Energy Strategy found that electrifying buildings will be the lowest-cost pathway to meeting the state’s climate goals.
The petition alleges that the updated energy code exceeds SBCC’s statutory authority. The industry challengers have not yet filed a brief explaining their legal arguments.
Public interest advocates across Washington expressed concern about the attack on the State’s efforts to protect public health and reduce pollution, and vowed to protect the progress toward climate solutions gained by the clean energy codes so Washington residents could still benefit from cleaner, healthier buildings. More than 6,000 supportive public comments were submitted to the SBCC in support of the new building codes during public comment periods throughout 2022.
Jan Hasselman, senior attorney with Earthjustice: “Washington state is leading the way to protect public health and address the climate crisis as required by state law. Our collective well-being rests on phasing out fossil fuels as fast as possible, and we intend to defend these rules in court.”
Dylan Plummer, a senior campaign representative with the Sierra Club: “In the face of our growing movement for climate justice, Big Oil and Gas corporations are working overtime to keep Washington hooked on polluting fossil fuels. But as the benefits of running buildings on clean renewable electricity become impossible to deny, decision makers, like the members of the State Building Code Council, are seeing through their lies and leading the way to a clean energy economy.
Kelly Hall, WA Director with Climate Solutions: “Clean and safe homes and buildings are absolutely needed across Washington — from low-rise middle housing to high-rise multi-family buildings — we need to bring down long-term operating costs so more people can live in healthy homes. Building with electric heat pumps is good news in the new energy code. It’s part of the answer for bringing utility costs down long-term. The State Building Code Council got this right — our homes and buildings should run on Washington’s clean electricity, not dangerous gas infrastructure. All-electric buildings, combined with efficiency measures, are safer, cleaner, and more resilient in the face of a changing climate prioritizing comfort and affordability, as well as our health.”
Rachel Koller, managing director of Shift Zero, an alliance of leading green building, energy efficiency, and climate action organizations and businesses: “Polluting methane gas no longer belongs in our homes and buildings, and we remain resolute in our support of the Washington State Building Code Council’s decision to adopt the clean energy codes. A strong energy code is a critical tool to ensure our homes and buildings are part of the climate solution.”