Unions push back on Mayor Brandon Johnson’s plan to end natural gas connections

City officials pressed their case Wednesday for ending natural gas hookups in new Chicago homes and buildings to fight global warming, while labor representatives warned that such an ordinance would put people out of work.

Leaders from four unions connected to utility Peoples Gas also questioned the move to all-electric homes and other new construction, saying that gas is a reliable source of heat for the time being, even as concerns mount over the continued use of fossil fuels.

An almost nine-hour hearing held by the City Council’s Committee on Environmental Protection and Energy served as a preview of a fight to come over Mayor Brandon Johnson’s proposed ordinance to end connections of carbon-dioxide producing natural gas.

The city has a goal of reducing carbon emissions, the largest so-called greenhouse gas that contributes to global warming, by more than 60% by 2040. Buildings are a major contributor to these emissions.

“Climate change is real, and we must take action,” Johnson’s top environmental official, Angela Tovar, said at the beginning of the public meeting.

Tovar and others also noted that natural gas has been linked in studies to asthma and other respiratory conditions.

Some balked at the health claim, but neither the union representatives nor the alderpersons sympathetic to labor’s concerns argued that the climate crisis wasn’t a problem that needs addressing.

In addition to the city’s goals to phase out fossil fuels, the state has a target of relying on 100% clean energy by 2050, led by renewable sources such as wind and solar power.

“It’s imperative to approach this transition thoughtfully,” said Marc Poulos, executive director of the labor management group for Local 150 International Union of Operating Engineers.

Noting the health concerns, Poulos said the ordinance wasn’t necessary and was being pushed by “zealous” advocates.

“Anyone in favor of an all-electric household does not need an ordinance to achieve that goal. They can do that today,” Poulos said. “There is no ordinance needed.”

Other unions testifying at the hearing included Plumbers Local 130, Pipefitters Local 597 and Gas Workers Local 18007. Collectively, they represent tens of thousands of workers.

“It puts my members’ livelihoods at risk,” said James Majerowicz, president of Local 130.

Several alderpersons echoed the union’s concerns.

“I’m not opposed to decarbonization. I just think we have to be responsible about it,” Ald. Gilbert Villegas (36th) said.

Ald. Maria Hadden (49th), the committee chair, said the hearing was intended to hear from the unions, various advocacy organizations as well as the city and to help set the record straight on the facts of the ordinance.

“There has been an abundance of disinformation,” Hadden said, noting that no one was being asked to give up their gas ovens.

At various points, opponents claimed the electric grid was not capable of keeping residential heat working during winter storms, a claim that officials with utility ComEd rejected.

For its part, Peoples Gas testified that the ordinance was not beneficial and should be defeated.

“We do not believe that mandating by regulation an all-electric future for Chicago is safe, cost effective or environmentally sustainable,” Sal Arana, vice president of operations for Peoples Gas, testified.

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