Dec 17, 2020 - Energy & Environment

Cities battle the natural gas industry

Illustration of a gas stove burner from above, with a red strike-through.

Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

A growing number of climate-conscious cities — from San Francisco to Brookline, Massachusetts — have voted to ban natural gas hookups in newly-built apartment and commercial buildings, putting an end to gas-powered stoves, water heaters and clothes dryers.

Why it matters: As more liberal-tilting cities like Seattle follow suit, the push toward "electrification" is likely to play out on the national stage, sparking debate over the merits of electricity vs. gas.

  • Already, the bans have drawn lawsuits from restaurateurs and building developers.

Where it stands: About 40 municipalities in California have banned the use of gas in new construction, with Berkeley being the first (in 2019) and San Jose the latest. The argument is that electricity causes fewer health and environmental problems than natural gas.

  • But some copycat efforts have been blocked: Brookline's measure was overruled by the Massachusetts attorney general, who said that state law superseded the local initiative.
  • Several states — like Oklahoma, Arizona, Louisiana and Tennessee — have taken preemptive moves, passing laws that say local governments can't do this, per Inside Climate News.

There are also cries of elitism, given that the cities involved are mainly wealthy and that gas-powered heat tends to be easier on the pocketbook.

  • "The bans have ignited a backlash from some of California’s most prominent Black and Latino leaders, who are saying that the prohibitions on the use of the fuel are a form of regressive tax on low- and middle-income residents," per Forbes.

The big picture: While the battles play out locally, major environmental groups are leading the campaign to get municipalities to ban natural gas, and big utilities and gas companies have organized in opposition.

  • "Two years ago, we realized that buildings were kind of blind spots in our climate policies," says Pierre Delforge, senior scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council, tells Axios. "The movement in cities passing these codes is really a stepping stone for the states to follow suit."
  • He anticipates that California will move in 2021 to encourage (but not require) electric power in new buildings, and that other states — like New York, Illinois, Massachusetts and Washington — could follow suit.

Meanwhile, the American Gas Association has been gearing up in opposition. "This is not just about shutting down the natural gas industry — this is about damaging large swaths of the economy," Karen Harbert, the group's president and CEO, tells Axios.

  • "I think when the facts come out about how little this would accomplish — and at what huge costs — that we will see some more practical thinking emerge."
  • The average home that uses natural gas for cooking and clothes-drying saves about $879 a year vs. a home that is all-electric, Harbert said.

Between the lines: Natural gas is America's biggest single source of electricity, at nearly 40%. So even if cities are swapping out gas directly from buildings, it's often still powering them, depending on any given region's electricity mix.

The intrigue: The California Restaurant Association filed a federal lawsuit against Berkeley to block its ordinance.

  • "The suit argues restaurants rely on natural gas and chefs are trained in using it to prepare particular types of food like flame-seared meats, charred vegetables, or using intense heat from a flame under a wok," per the San Francisco Chronicle.
  • "Losing it will slow down service, reduce chefs’ control, and affect the food — plus cost businesses more."

Kate Harrison, the Berkeley City Council member behind the city's new law, tells Axios that builders and contractors are adjusting to the law — in effect for nearly a year now — and that people won't ultimately miss gas appliances.

  • "It’s a big cultural shift to say to people, 'cook a different way,'" she said. "I got an induction stove, and it took me a couple of days get used to it."
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