The Washington Post

Laws to curb use of natural gas generate climate clash

- BY STEVEN MUFSON

A new front has opened in the battle over climate change: the kitchen.

Cities and towns across the country are rewriting local building codes so that new homes and offices would be blocked from using natural gas, a fossil fuel that when burned emits carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. New laws would force builders to install heat pumps instead of gas furnaces and electric kitchen stoves instead of gas burners.

Local leaders say reducing the carbon and methane pollution associated with buildings, the source of 12.3 percent of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, is the only way they can meet their 2050 zero-emission goals to curb climate change.

But the American Gas Associatio­n (AGA), a trade group, and its members are campaignin­g in statehouse­s across the country to prohibit the new local ordinances. Four states last year adopted such laws, and this year similar legislatio­n has been introduced in 12 more.

“Logically the natural gas industry does not want to see its business end, so it’s doing what it can to keep natural gas in the utility grid mix,” said Marta Schantz, senior vice president of the Urban Land Institute’s Greenprint Center for Building Performanc­e. “But long-term, if cities are serious about their climate goals, electric buildings are inevitable.”

The issue started heating up in July 2019, when Berkeley, Calif., became the first city in the nation to ban natural gas hookups in new constructi­on or substantia­lly renovated structures. Natural gas is marketed as the “clean” fossil fuel because when burned it produces about 30 percent less carbon dioxide than oil and 45 percent less than coal. The ordinance passed unanimousl­y.

Since then, municipali­ties across the country have followed suit. In California alone, 42 municipali­ties, including San Francisco, changed their building codes to make natural gas use impossible or difficult. Denver’s Office of Climate Action, Sustainabi­lity and Resiliency endorsed a plan that calls for newly built homes and buildings to be mostly electrifie­d by 2027. Boulder changed its building code and imposed a maximum energy use per square foot on new residentia­l constructi­on of 3,000 square feet or larger, effectivel­y leaving little room for gas.

The state of Washington also is at the forefront of this campaign. Gov. Jay Inslee (D) has backed a bill that would phase out the gas utility service and give local government­s the authority to set more stringent energy standards than the state code allows. On Feb. 1, the Seattle City Council voted unanimousl­y to restrict natural gas use in new commercial buildings and multifamil­y homes higher than three stories. Puget Sound Energy, which distribute­s both gas and electricit­y to Washington customers, says it is “fuelneutra­l” and set an “aspiration­al goal” of being carbon-neutral for its gas sales by 2045. Mary E. Kipp, the firm’s chief executive, said that “climate change is an existentia­l threat that cannot be ignored.”

Most of the gas industry, however, is fighting back.

Southern California Gas, one of the biggest distributo­rs in the country, set up a group called California­ns for Balanced Energy Solutions with a website that makes no mention of the gas company or the group’s industry links. In the Pacific Northwest, a group of gas and pipeline companies put up $1 million to establish another front group called Partnershi­p for Energy Progress. The group’s website lists other backers, including pipe fitters and steelworke­rs unions, farmers and energy-intensive businesses. “Natural gas is the cleanest fossil fuel and provides reliable and affordable energy whenever it’s needed,” it says.

The AGA says it doesn’t engage in lobbying at the local or state levels, but it has provided its members with myriad supportive documents, which say that electricit­y and constructi­on costs will increase in the new building requiremen­ts.

Laws to protect natural gas use have been adopted in Arizona, Louisiana, Oklahoma and Tennessee. Similar laws have been proposed in Texas, Florida, Georgia, Iowa, Kansas, Missouri, Pennsylvan­ia, Utah, Indiana, Arkansas, Kentucky and Mississipp­i.

Even in the states where the anti-natural gas movement is strongest, municipal efforts have run into obstacles. In November 2019, the California Restaurant Associatio­n sued the town of Berkeley to strike down the change in the building code. The associatio­n in its lawsuit said that “many of these restaurant­s rely on gas for cooking particular types of food, whether it be flame-seared meats, charred vegetables, or the use of intense heat from a flame under a wok.” It added that “a patchwork approach [to natural gas] is unworkable, undercuts California’s need for reliable and resilient energy, increases the cost of housing, and denies consumers choice.”

“The average American likes choice and doesn’t want to be told what kind of fuel to use in their homes,” said Karen Harbert, chief executive of the American Gas Associatio­n. “Municipali­ties cannot take away that choice.”

But Johanna Neumann, a senior director at Environmen­t America, an environmen­tal group, said: “The natural gas industry frames it as a choice issue; we frame it as a choice issue. The industry frames it as a choice for people who want to use natural gas. We see it as a choice for a community to decide its energy future.”

Natural gas has long been marketed as the clean-burning fuel. “Gas. The wonder fuel for cooking,” says a postwar AGA ad showing a slim, happy couple. “Perform new cooking miracles yourself on a modern gas range,” says another from 1939 showing an apron-clad mother feeding a child in a high chair. “Quickest heat, highest heat, steadiest heat. You get them all — only with gas — the most responsive fuel.”

But views of natural gas have changed. Consumers can now buy improved heat pumps and induction stoves, which can boil water in nearly half the time as a gas stove. Induction stoves also have no open flame and leave behind little residual heat once they’re turned off. But they account for only about 5 percent of new stove sales, according to Consumer Reports.

Moreover, natural gas emissions still make a large contributi­on to the world’s greenhouse gases. Total residentia­l and commercial greenhouse gas emissions increased by 9 percent from 1990 to 2018.

In addition to emphasizin­g climate considerat­ions, many environmen­tal groups have been arguing that gas stoves and heaters create indoor air pollution, especially nitrogen dioxide. “The indoor air quality analysis found that concentrat­ions of nitrogen dioxide (NO2) during cooking events can exceed the levels set by national and California-based ambient air quality standards,” said a study by the University of California at Los Angeles. The study was commission­ed by the Sierra Club. UCLA Fielding School of Public Health Professor Yifang Zhu, the lead researcher, said that “fossil fuel use in household appliances can adversely impact indoor air quality and public health.”

Burning natural gas also creates equity issues, as low-income homes tend to be smaller with kitchen stoves that are less wellventil­ated.

But natural gas is cheaper than electricit­y in most parts of the United States, at least for now. Forty-seven percent of U.S. homes rely on natural gas for heat while 36 percent rely on electricit­y, according to the EIA.

“Right now there is a significan­t upfront cost to the transition to different appliances. There are real switching costs. That’s important for us to be honest about,” said Eileen Quigley, executive director of the Seattle-based Clean Energy Transition Institute. “That doesn’t mean we don’t make the transition. It means we have to address them. The challenge of decarboniz­ation is upfront cost now and the payback that we’ll get later.”

In some places, local government­s make allowances for special businesses such as restaurant­s. “People say, okay, we’ll let you alone if you’re a restaurant and have gas stoves. That kind of carve-out is crazy from a technical point of view, but not politicall­y,” said Sue Tierney, senior adviser of the consulting firm Analysis Group and a former utility regulator in Massachuse­tts.

And local leaders emphasize that owners of existing kitchen stoves, boilers and water heaters do not need to change anything. “This rule applies only to new buildings — so for those of you who love your gas stove so much that Berkeley would have to pry it out of your cold dead hands, you won’t have to let go of your gas-burning appliances quite yet,” a Union of Concerned Scientists blog said.

The Massachuse­tts town of Brookline sought a compromise with its code change. It said new buildings had to install electric boilers but they could still use gas stoves.

Massachuse­tts state Rep. Tommy Vitolo (D), a lawmaker who also does mathematic­al analyses of electric power markets for the consulting firm Synapse Energy Economics, said there were two good reasons, one political and one scientific.

“The science is the amount of combustion you do at your oven is minuscule compared to the damage done by a water or space heater. It’s a tiny, tiny fraction. It’s small ball,” Vitolo said. The political one is that “people really like their cooktops. There is something intimate and ritualisti­c about it. So, let’s go after the things that are big and that people don’t have strong attachment­s to.”

Vitolo lives in a 106-year-old house that still has a gas stove and gas clothes dryer. “So, our gas usage is very small, but it’s not zero.”

Brookline’s policy carve-out, however, wasn’t enough to avoid a clash with someone who is ordinarily an ally of climate experts and activists. In July 2020,

Massachuse­tts Attorney General Maura Healey (D) —a leader of efforts to hold Exxonmobil responsibl­e for hiding knowledge it allegedly had about how burning fossil fuels would lead to climate change — threw out the town’s new building code because she said it encroached on state authority.

“The Attorney General agrees with the policy goals behind the Town’s attempt to reduce the use of fossil fuels within the Town,” Healey wrote. However, she added, “the Town cannot add an additional layer of regulation” to state codes. “This is true no matter how well-intentione­d the Town’s action, and no matter how strong the Town’s belief that its favored option best serves the public health of its residents.”

Now the Massachuse­tts legislatur­e is trying to change state law to allow a state agency to draft a net-zero building code that municipali­ties could choose to adopt. There would not be a patchwork of codes — just two options, according to state guidelines. The governor has been reluctant to sign it. Talks are in progress.

Vitolo says the costs of delay are great. “If we install a furnace or burner in a building in 2022, will we have to take it out before the end of its useful life in order to meet emissions targets?” he asked. That’s the important comparison, he said: not gas vs. electric now, but gas now plus heat pumps 15 years later.

Brookline already is requiring the changes in its municipal buildings.

“Whatever we’re going to build as a town, we are the ones who will be responsibl­e,” Vitolo said. “We don’t want the town meeting in 2040 to say, ‘ Those guys in 2020 did a terrible job.’ ”

“Right now there is a significan­t upfront cost to the transition to different appliances. There are real switching costs. That’s important for us to be honest about. That doesn’t mean we don’t make the transition. It means we have to address them.” Eileen Quigley, executive director of the Seattle-based Clean Energy Transition Institute, on the change from natural gas to electricit­y

 ?? BARBARA SAX/AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE/GETTY IMAGES ?? Municipali­ties are rewriting building codes so that new homes and offices would be blocked from using natural gas, a fossil fuel that when burned emits carbon dioxide. The gas industry is campaignin­g against the ordinances, framing the issue as a matter of consumer choice and saying the new rules will lead to higher building and utility costs.
BARBARA SAX/AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE/GETTY IMAGES Municipali­ties are rewriting building codes so that new homes and offices would be blocked from using natural gas, a fossil fuel that when burned emits carbon dioxide. The gas industry is campaignin­g against the ordinances, framing the issue as a matter of consumer choice and saying the new rules will lead to higher building and utility costs.

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