HVAC industry representatives are pushing back on a bid by more than two dozen public interest groups for an eventual ban on new fossil-fuel-burning heating appliances, including furnaces and water heaters, in the U.S.

Led by the Sierra Club, 26 health, environmental, and consumer protection organizations have asked the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to list heating appliances in commercial and residential buildings as sources of pollution that are subject to regulation under the Clean Air Act (CAA).

Their 36-page petition seeks an emissions standard that would allow for zero emissions of nitrogen oxides from newly manufactured water heaters and furnaces by 2030, plus an eventual phasing-out of such appliances. The petition also asks that the EPA declare electric heat pumps the “best system of emissions reduction,” or BSER, for the replacement of furnaces and water heaters.

The American Gas Association (AGA) responded quickly, answering the groups’ petition in a letter to the EPA, and declaring that the use of natural gas has helped lower the release of harmful pollutants by 69% since 1990.

“Conversely, this proposal would impose undue burdens on consumers at every step of the process, including our most vulnerable communities, all without the environmental benefit that is claimed,” the AGA said in a prepared statement. “This proposal is simply bad policy.”

“ACCA members are extremely concerned with the efforts to eliminate consumer choice and the ability of the technical expert to have a full suite of options to recommend for their customers comfort and financial needs,” said Barton James, the president and CEO of ACCA, the HVACR contractors group. “Proposals like this, if adopted, would negatively impact individual homeowners, including low-income households, small businesses, and seniors.”

The EPA responded to an inquiry about the interest groups’ petition with a one-sentence statement saying that the agency will review it and respond accordingly.

Amneh Minkara, deputy director of the Sierra Club’s building electrification campaign, put that response in the category of no news is good news.

“We really want them to take their time” and understand the issues, Minkara said. “It’s reassuring we didn’t hear back a quick and resounding ‘no’ from them.”

The petition, signed onto by groups that include Physicians for Social Responsibility, the National Center for Healthy Housing, and the U.S. Public Interest Research Group as well as the Sierra Club, states that commercial and residential buildings account for 40% of U.S. energy consumption and 14% of greenhouse gas emissions.

“Unlike emissions from the energy and transportation sectors, however, emissions from buildings have been largely ignored by federal regulators, a reality that must change if we are to meet our international climate commitments and EPA is to fulfill its statutory obligation to protect public health and welfare,” the petition says.

While the petition lists a number of pollutants emitted by gas-, propane-, and oil-burning appliances, it zeros in on nitrogen oxides, a group of gases sometimes abbreviated as NOx, as particularly harmful to human health and the environment, calling for a zero NOx emissions standard by 2030 and an interim standard by 2025.

“It is well established that NOx emissions endanger public health and welfare, both in and of themselves and as a chemical precursor to other ambient air pollutants — namely, ozone and fine particulate matter,” the petition says. NOx mixes with compounds found in sunlight to create ground-level ozone, which is the primary ingredient in smog, the petition says.

Minkara said NOx is regulated at the local level in many places. “It makes sense to have one national standard instead of a patchwork of state limits,” she said.

In its response, AGA said that creating a “heating appliances” category of pollution sources would be inconsistent with the CAA and past practice, and that the data cited in the petition does not support an “endangerment finding,” pertaining to heating appliances, by the EPA.

The AGA also said labeling that heat pumps as the BSER is prohibited by the June 2022 Supreme Court ruling in West Virginia v. EPA, in which the majority said that the agency exceeded its authority in requiring states to submit plans to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from plants that generate electricity.

The petition explicitly argues that West Virginia v. EPA does not prohibit its BSER request.

AGA’s response also challenges the contention that electric heat-pump technology for space- and water-heating would do much do reduce carbon emissions, pointing out that electricity is to a great extent generated by burning fossil fuels and saying that a move to heat pumps would result “in upstream emissions from a grid that is transitioning but will continue to rely on fossil fuels for the foreseeable future.” (According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, about 61% of the electricity generated in the U.S. in 2021 came from burning fossil fuels.)

Heat pumps, the response says, would cost consumers more, both in equipment purchases and energy expenses, and the electrical grid would need significant upgrades before they could come into widespread use.

Minkara responded that, given the lifespan of equipment such as furnaces and water heaters, a gradual phase-out would allow time for grid upgrades and the replacement of fossil fuel-generated electricity with renewable sources, resulting in a system that could accommodate the greater use of heat pumps.

“The grid’s not ready today. The grid is phasing in clean energy, just as we’re hoping to phase out fossil-fuel-burning appliances,” she said. “There’s no limit on our ability to innovate and make technology more efficient.”

She also pointed out that the petition comes at a time when there are a host of incentives that will help make heat pumps more affordable.