Electrify this: Climate advocates target gas stoves

Fossil fuel firms fret that environmentalists present a major threat to their emissions-heavy business model.

    Local officials in many progressive parts of the United States are moving ahead with regulations that restrict the use of natural gas in residential and commercial buildings [Thomas Peter/Reuters]
    Local officials in many progressive parts of the United States are moving ahead with regulations that restrict the use of natural gas in residential and commercial buildings [Thomas Peter/Reuters]

    Dozens of cities in liberal-leaning states such as California, Washington, and Massachusetts are studying proposals to ban or limit the use of natural gas in commercial and residential buildings in the United States.

    The movement has opened a new front in the fight against climate change that could affect everything from heating systems in skyscrapers to stoves in suburban homes.

    Berkeley, California in July became the first US city to pass an ordinance banning gas systems in new buildings. And it may soon be followed by many others, according to interviews with local officials, activists and industry groups.

    Los Angeles and Seattle are among those considering laws that could drastically reduce natural gas consumption.

    "Berkeley is the opening salvo," said Bruce Nilles, managing director of the electrification programme at the think-tank Rocky Mountain Institute, which studies how to make buildings run more completely on electricity.

    Local officials and environmentalists cite mounting evidence that unburned gas leaking from pipes and compressor stations harms the climate more than carbon dioxide, the byproduct of burned fossil fuels.

    Many advocates for the environment until recently considered natural gas a "bridge fuel" to a future of renewable energy, because gas burns cleaner than oil or coal.

    But now, local officials are stepping into what they call a federal regulatory void under the administration of US President Donald Trump, who argues that fossil-fuel restrictions needlessly damage the economy.

    'This can domino'

    More and more, these officials want buildings switched to electric power from a grid that is increasingly powered by renewable energy - and moving towards greater sustainability.

    US utilities currently derive about 35 percent of their electricity from gas, but have also nearly doubled their use of renewable fuels in the past decade, increasing that use from nine percent to 17 percent of all power, according to the US Energy Information Administration (EIA).

    Residential and commercial buildings account for about 12 percent of US greenhouse gas emissions, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). They are also crucial to natural gas sales: Direct gas consumption amounted to about 239 billion cubic metres in 2018, rivaling the 301 billion cubic metres used by utilities to power the grid, according to the EIA.

    If gas bans in buildings become widespread, they could upend the business models of some of the world's biggest energy companies, which are investing billions of dollars to produce more natural gas on the belief that the fuel will play a key role in the transition to a cleaner energy economy. Big gas producers including ExxonMobil, Shell and BP argue that gas improves the environment by replacing dirtier fuels such as coal.

    A pump jack operates at sunset in Midland
    Oil and gas companies fear that the sunset for fossil fuels could come sooner than expected, as climate woes increase [Nick Oxford/Reuters]

    Natural gas companies alarmed by the trend are pushing back with ad campaigns promoting gas as a superior cooking fuel and an affordable option in a country that has become the world's top gas producer.

    "We are trying to get ahead of it," said Stuart Saulters, the director of government affairs at the American Public Gas Association. "We think there is a chance this can domino."

    The American Petroleum Institute (API), which represents the US oil-and-gas industry, rejects claims that natural gas is bad for the environment, arguing its increased use has helped cut carbon emissions in the US.

    API spokesman Reid Porter said that the industry is also limiting methane emissions with improved leak-prevention technology, citing data from the EPA that shows a decline in recent years.

    'Will kill the business'

    Nilles, of the Rocky Mountain Institute, said some 50 California municipalities are studying new limits on natural gas in buildings, including Silicon Valley-area cities such as Palo Alto, Sunnyvale and San Jose, the nation's 10th most populous city. Los Angeles set a goal in April of powering all its buildings with renewable energy by 2050, starting with new buildings by 2030.

    San Luis Obispo last week became the second city, after Berkeley, to pass a law limiting gas installations in new buildings. Kate Harrison, the Berkeley council member who spearheaded the city's gas ban, said she has been contacted by dozens of cities studying similar measures in states from Massachusetts to Minnesota.

    Officials in the Boston suburb of Brookline, for instance, will vote in November on a measure to ban gas hook-ups in new buildings. In Minnesota, three-quarters of the state's residential heating - largely fueled by gas - would have to convert to electricity to meet the state's goal of an 80 percent carbon emissions reduction by 2050, according to a report by the McKnight Foundation, a philanthropic organisation.

    New York City in April also passed a bill requiring buildings of more than 2,322sq metres to cut greenhouse emissions 40 percent by 2030 - a standard expected to reduce natural gas use.

    Seattle City Council Member Mike O'Brien is working on legislation to ban gas hook-ups in new buildings. The fuel, he said, "is odorless and invisible but has a huge impact on the climate".

    The American Public Gas Association's ad campaign features Facebook and Instagram ads showing people enjoying hot showers, cooking on gas stoves and relaxing by firepits. Campaign director Saulters said it was one of the group's most expensive promotional efforts to date.

    In July, a group called Californians for Balanced Energy Solutions - formed by Sempra Energy unit SoCal Gas - held a press conference with Southern California restaurant owners who favour gas stoves.

    "We need instant, really strong fire," said Charles Lu, a Chinese restaurant chain owner who participated in the event. "Otherwise, I think it will kill the business."

    Wealthier homeowners may also resist electrification of kitchens and fireplaces, according to Nic Dunfee of environmental consulting firm TRC Companies Inc, who oversees an incentive programme to rebuild homes in wildfire-stricken Sonoma County.

    Builders are pushing back on proposed mandates for electric stoves, he said at a recent meeting of California energy regulators. "They don’t feel that they are able to sell a home that doesn't have natural-gas cooking," he explained.

    SOURCE: Reuters news agency