Washington’s heat pump push hits a snag

The state Building Code Council delayed a requirement after a federal appeals court threw out a similar restriction in California. The council will try to rewrite rules.

By: - May 24, 2023 5:14 pm

A gas ring on a domestic stove powered by natural gas. (Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)

A controversial requirement that new homes and apartments built in Washington be warmed using electric heat pump systems rather than natural gas won’t take effect July 1 as planned.

In an emergency meeting Wednesday, the Washington State Building Code Council delayed implementation of code changes until late October.

The move came after a federal appeals court last month scrapped similar rules in California, and as opponents to Washington’s policy filed their own legal challenge here.

Shifting away from natural gas heating is part of a broad effort to reduce carbon emissions and increase energy efficiency in residential buildings. Similar changes are required in new commercial building construction as well.

In the California case – California Restaurant Association v. City of Berkeley – the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals concluded the federal Energy Policy and Conservation Act “expressly preempts State and local regulations concerning the energy use of many natural gas appliances, including those used in household and restaurant kitchens.”

Here, the state building code council also agreed in its meeting to begin rewriting its rules to reduce the risk of federal preemption. 

A spokesman for Gov. Jay Inslee said the four-month time-out will allow retooling of the rule to mesh with the California ruling.

“While we do not agree with the court’s opinion, and this decision may not be final, we further understand that the Council intends to take swift action to ensure that these codes comply with the Court’s decision and simultaneously achieve the policy goals of reducing carbon emissions to meet the State’s targets,” Deputy Communications Director Mike Faulk wrote in an email.

“While any delay in these goals is unfortunate, we support the Council’s in its ongoing efforts to achieve these goals,” he added.

Meanwhile, on Monday,  a coalition of builders, labor unions and natural gas providers filed suit in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Washington to block or delay Washington’s codes. They contend the federal preemption cited in the California case applies in Washington as well.

“Washington is out of step with the rest of the nation when it comes to these far-reaching codes,” said Greg Lane, executive vice president of the Building Industry Association of Washington which has opposed the requirements. “The decision to delay these costly and confusing new codes and return to rulemaking is welcome, but the battle for energy choice and common-sense codes is far from over.”

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Jerry Cornfield
Jerry Cornfield

Jerry Cornfield joined the Standard after 20 years covering Olympia statehouse news for The Everett Herald. Earlier in his career, he worked for daily and weekly papers in Santa Barbara, California.