Federal judge dismisses challenge to Berkeley’s natural gas ban

Photo of cooking on electric stove
David McAllister/Staff
A year after the California Restaurant Association filed a lawsuit against Berkeley’s natural gas ban, federal judge Yvonne Gonzalez Rogers ruled that Berkeley’s ordinance does not violate any federal statute in a dismissal that some speculate will set a significant precedent for energy policy from local governments across the state.

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In a court ruling Tuesday, a federal judge for the Northern District of California dismissed the California Restaurant Association’s, or CRA, challenge to the city of Berkeley’s natural gas ban.

The court’s decision comes more than a year after the CRA filed a lawsuit against Berkeley in response to a citywide ordinance prohibiting natural gas infrastructure in new buildings effective Jan. 1, 2020. Berkeley City Council passed the ordinance July 23, 2019, making Berkeley the first city in the United States to pass such a law.

“When we look at our greenhouse gas emissions, we know 27% of the emissions come from natural gas in our buildings,” said Councilmember Kate Harrison, the ordinance’s primary author. “That is an enormously important part of our emission and it’s also something we can do something about as a city.”

In response to the law’s passage, the CRA challenged that law in the interest of restaurant owners and chefs who utilize natural gas to cook and operate, according to a statement from the CRA.

In its statement, the CRA alleged that the ban violated the federal Energy Policy and Conservation Act, or EPCA, by requiring new buildings to only use electric power as opposed to natural gas.

“The court’s decision would be a dramatic shift in how energy policy is set in this country,” said Courtland Reichman, managing partner at Reichman Jorgensen, in the CRA statement. “Regardless of which administration is in the White House, its energy policy would be undermined if each of the thousands of cities and counties across the country can simply veto it. EPCA preemption was intended to avoid such a patchwork system.”

Nonetheless, federal judge Yvonne Gonzalez Rogers dismissed the CRA’s complaint, finding that Berkeley’s ordinance fails to violate any federal statute and demonstrates an appropriate exercise of local power, according to the court’s order of dismissal.

The dismissal sets an important legal precedent for other local governments, according to Ted Lamm, senior research fellow at UC Berkeley School of Law’s Center for Law, Energy & the Environment.

“We need to transition our buildings toward electrification and this affirms the authority of local governments and state governments to take this type of action,” Lamm said.

According to the Sierra Club, an organization focusing on environmental and social justice, an additional 45 cities in California have followed in Berkeley’s footsteps, passing its own variations of the city’s ban on natural gas infrastructure.

The court’s decision does not prevent further legal action from the CRA, however. According to their statement, the CRA intends to appeal its case to a higher court.

“Our fight to make sure restaurants have continued access to natural gas cooking will continue,” said Jot Condie, CRA president and CEO, in the statement. “The judge’s decision confirms what we knew: we have standing in this case because of the obvious negative impact to restaurants that will result from the loss of cooking with natural gas stoves.”

Contact Rachel Raps at [email protected], and follow her on Twitter at @rachelraps_dc.