Measure Would be First Step in Long-Term Transition Away from Gas as Utility Rakes in Record Profits, Pushes Record Rate Hike, and Evidence Grows of Health Dangers Connected to Gas
CHICAGO – With Peoples Gas enjoying record profits for the sixth consecutive year while trying to force Chicago families to pay a record rate hike as they deal with mounting evidence of elevated cancer risks connected to gas, advocates from the Illinois Clean Jobs Coalition on Friday announced they are working with Mayor Brandon Johnson and the City Council to pass a Clean, Affordable Buildings Ordinance (CABO).
New polling shows Chicagoans are deeply concerned that Peoples Gas is pushing for a record $402 million rate hike to pay for an over-budget, behind-schedule pipe-replacement program, giving momentum to City Hall efforts to begin the transition away from gas to reduce long-term costs and health risks. Chicagoans are against the Peoples Gas rate hike 61%-32%, with Black and Brown Chicagoans most vehemently opposed (71% of Black and 66% of Latino Chicagoans).
The ordinance would be the first step in a long-term, equitable plan to move to cheaper, healthier ways to heat and power homes. It would set emissions standards to ensure new buildings in Chicago are built all electric, and commit the City to developing a plan for existing large buildings to reduce their pollution.
Mayor Johnson’s transition report as well as a growing number of City Council members call for these policies, which would be similar to ordinances already passed in New York City and Los Angeles. And the polling results, released Friday, indicate Chicagoans are fed-up, and these efforts could gain steam.
The survey of 800 registered voters in Chicago from July 18-23 was commissioned by the Illinois Clean Jobs Coalition (ICJC), a diverse group of consumer, environmental and health advocates that have mounted a multi-pronged campaign for the ordinance.
After hearing a short description of Peoples’ $402 million rate-hike request, less than a third of Chicagoans (32%) supported it, with 61% opposing.
A majority were opposed, even after hearing arguments in favor of an increase, similar to those made by Peoples Gas. However, opposition to the rate hike jumped to 73% once respondents heard arguments against the increase. That included statements highlighting how Peoples has mismanaged the pipeline project; how the utility has recorded record profits while charging significant late fees in struggling communities on the South and West sides; and how gas carries severe environmental and health risks.
The poll results are similar to what the ICJC is hearing in Chicago neighborhoods, as the coalition holds community events across the city. The ICJC campaign has also included a 100-person rally against the rate hike at Peoples Gas headquarters in March, and it aims to target City Council members with thousands of phone calls and emails to support the ordinance, as well as launching mail, digital and TV ads educating Chicagoans about the measure.
In recent years—as buildings became a top source of carbon emissions and Chicago’s gas affordability crisis worsened—more people have supported building electrification: replacing gas equipment such as furnaces and stoves with cheaper, cleaner, more efficient electric counterparts, including heat pumps and induction stovetops.
The urgency for electrification has intensified with growing evidence of the health dangers associated with gas stoves—including a recent Stanford University study that indicated the gas stoves pollute homes with higher concentrations of cancer-causing benzene than secondhand smoke.
“The status quo is unsustainable and unjust,” said Cheryl Johnson, executive director of People for Community Recovery. “We face poor air quality outdoors and indoors. Families are struggling to make ends meet and Peoples Gas is boasting record profits while charging late fees to folks trying to decide whether to put food on the table or pay their utility bills. We need a plan now to make sure the transition off of natural gas doesn’t just help us reach climate goals, but also helps communities who are overburdened by Chicago’s history of environmental racism.”
“The gas system is driving a large number of Chicagoans to energy bankruptcy, so it’s urgent that we start planning this long transition now,” CUB Executive Director Sarah Moskowitz said. “We want to do this right, we want to protect all consumers, and the first step is a clean, affordable buildings ordinance.”
“As Chicago sees the impacts of climate change intensify year-over-year, it is imperative that we begin the transition away from fossil fuels,” said Ald. Maria Hadden, chair of the Committee on Environmental Protection and Energy. “The Clean, Affordable Buildings Ordinance will rein in carbon emissions by putting forward regulations for new construction, and create a roadmap and resources to reduce emissions from existing buildings.”
“Building decarbonization is an issue of economic, racial, and environmental justice and will be an important component of a just transition for all Chicagoans,” said Ald. Carlos Ramirez-Rosa. “As Chair of the City Council Committee on Zoning, Landmarks, and Building Standards and Mayor Johnson’s floor leader, I am committed to doing my part to advance the Clean, Affordable Buildings Ordinance and take steps toward a more affordable, equitable, and healthy future.”
In 2022, Chicago announced a three-year transition to 100% renewable energy for government buildings, and that same year the City’s Building Decarbonization Working Group (CBDWG) recommended cutting fossil fuel use in new construction projects. As of April, the Chicago Department of Housing is requiring all new affordable housing developed with city support to be all-electric.
And this summer, Mayor Johnson’s 223-page transition report recommended requiring, “all new buildings and major renovations to use efficient, all-electric equipment…and incentivize the adoption of heat pumps, all-electric equipment, and renewable energy technologies.” Most recently, Mayor Johnson announced a Request for Proposals (RFP) for a $15 million program to decarbonize between 200 and 350 homes by 2025 at no cost to income-qualified homeowners.
In addition to worsening climate change, advocates pointed to serious problems connected to gas.
- Affordability: According to June data, about one in five Peoples Gas customers is struggling to pay their bills on time, with a collective debt of $117 million (one of the highest in the state). This has been particularly burdensome to historically disadvantaged neighborhoods and People of Color. In Englewood, for example, nearly half of Peoples Gas customers have been in debt by an average of more than $1,000. Peoples Gas threatens to make a bad situation worse by pushing for a $402 million rate hike—the largest gas request in Illinois history that would increase bills by an average of nearly $12 a month, or about $140 a year.
- Mismanagement: The mismanaged pipeline-replacement program is a major driver of Peoples Gas’ rising bills and record profits. Launched in 2011, the project has been behind-schedule and over-budget almost from the beginning, with its projected costs rising from about $2 billion to as much as $11 billion. Currently, Peoples Gas customers pay about $50 a month in fixed charges–before they use any gas—and a big reason is the bloated pipeline program.
- Health concerns: There also is growing evidence of cancer and respiratory risks connected to gas use. The Stanford study indicated regular use of gas stoves is comparable to living with a smoker. Gas stoves create alarming concentrations of benzene in homes—a chemical that has been linked to blood cancers. Cooking with gas has been linked to other serious health problems, such as childhood asthma.
The ICJC urged Chicagoans to reach out to their City Council representatives immediately to urge them to support the “Clean, Affordable Buildings” ordinance this term.
The Illinois Clean Jobs Coalition (ICJC) is made up of hundreds of environmental advocacy organizations, businesses, community leaders, consumer advocates, environmental justice groups, and faith-based and student organizations working together to improve public health and the environment, protect consumers, and create equitable, clean jobs across the state. After more than three years of community organizing and policy leadership, in 2021, ICJC was instrumental in helping pass the nation-leading Climate and Equitable Jobs Act (CEJA).