Postcard from California: How a local natural gas ban sparked a national culture war
Like some other once-fringe environmental ideas, this one began in Berkeley: In 2019, the staunchly progressive university town across the bay from San Francisco became the first US city to ban natural gas hookups in most new buildings, citing the fossil fuel’s contribution to the climate crisis.
From Berkeley, the no-new-gas movement spread steadily, one local jurisdiction at a time. As of last month, more than 70 California cities and counties had adopted ordinances mandating all-electric utilities and appliances in new construction. Nationwide, nearly 100 cities and counties, including New York City, Seattle and Montgomery County, Md., have moved to ban gas in new buildings.
But in January, the issue ignited a national political firestorm.
An official of the federal Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) said a ban on gas stoves and ovens was “on the table” because emissions of hazardous air pollutants from gas stoves are strongly linked to childhood asthma. Said CPSC Commissioner Richard Trumka, Jr.: “Products that can’t be made safe can be banned.”
A fierce and hysterical backlash erupted, opening overnight a fresh front in the nation’s culture wars, as many on the right framed the idea as one more liberal assault on American freedom.
- “I’ll NEVER give up my gas stove,” tweeted US Rep. Ronny Jackson of Texas. “If the maniacs in the White House come for my stove, they can pry it from my cold dead hands. COME AND TAKE IT!!”
- Fox News’ Tucker Carlson railed against gas stove bans as nanny-state meddling that would destroy the restaurant industry – failing to note that most of the local ordinances make exceptions for commercial kitchens. “I would counsel mass disobedience in the face of tyranny in this case,” Carlson said.
- Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis pandered to the faux outrage by proposing to permanently exempt gas stoves from sales tax. He admitted only 8 percent of Floridians cook with gas – tied for the lowest use in the nation – but said it was a matter of principle to resist big-government control.
Within a day, the chair of the CPSC was forced to walk back Trumka’s remarks, stating that while the commission will study the health risks of gas stoves it has no authority for such a ban, and no plans to push for one. The White House affirmed that President Biden doesn’t support a ban.
Away from Washington, however, the movement to quit gas is accelerating – and gaining urgency.
In mid-March, the regional air pollution agency for the San Francisco Bay Area voted unanimously to ban the sale of gas water heaters after 2027 and gas furnaces after 2029. Those are the first rules in the nation that apply to replacing old gas units as well as to new construction. In 2025, the California Air Resources Board will decide whether to adopt similar statewide rules.
The same week as the vote in San Francisco, New York state lawmakers advanced a bill to enact the nation’s first statewide ban on gas hookups in new buildings, which Gov. Kathy Hochul says she will sign. Amy Turner of Columbia University’s Sabin Center for Climate Change Law told POLITICO: “If New York state is able to pass a building electrification requirement at this scale, it will show other states around the country that this is not so scary, it’s politically possible, it’s technically possible.”
The science is clear on the hazards gas stoves and other gas appliances pose to health and to the climate.
More than a third of US households cook with gas stoves. Their burners emit nitric oxides, carbon monoxide and formaldehyde – airborne pollutants that can trigger asthma, wheezing and other respiratory problems, which can be severe enough to send people to the hospital.
A recent study linked gas stove use to 1 in 8 cases of childhood asthma in the US – and one-fifth of such cases in California, where gas is used more widely than in most states. State health officials say nearly 1.5 million California children suffer from asthma, with the condition more than three times as prevalent among Blacks as in all children.
Burning gas also emits carbon dioxide (CO2), the primary driver of the atmospheric heating causing climate change. And natural gas is 90% methane, which in the short term is a much more powerful greenhouse gas than CO2. Most methane entering the atmosphere comes from gas pipeline leaks, but gas appliances – not only stoves, but furnaces, water heaters, clothes dryers, grills and more – are also a significant source.
A 2022 Stanford University study calculated that annual methane leakage from all gas stoves in US homes is comparable to the CO2 emissions from 500,000 cars. Researchers said three-fourths of the methane leaking from stoves came when burners were off, from gas pipe connections and stove fittings.
Because methane dissipates from the atmosphere much faster than CO2, the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) says avoiding the worst impacts of global warming could hinge on how much we curb the use of natural gas in the next few years. This week, the IPCC issued a “final warning” to act now before it’s too late.
In the face of that alarm, it’s irresponsible hogwash to caricature the laws that have spread from Berkeley and other liberal bastions as “woke” attacks on the proud American tradition of “cookin’ with gas.”
That catchphrase was invented by the natural gas industry decades ago to discourage the use of electric stoves. More recently, as concerns about air pollution increased, the industry’s line was that gas was cleaner than oil. Today, the industry works to position gas as a “bridge fuel” during the transition to fossil-free renewable energy.
It’s the spin of a dying industry. The sooner we stop burning natural gas, the better for our children, our communities, and the planet. Ditching our gas stoves is not the end of a way of life, but a step toward a healthier and sustainable future.
Bill Walker has more than 40 years of experience as a journalist and environmental advocate. He lives in California’s San Joaquin Valley.
(Opinion columns published in The New Lede represent the views of the individual(s) authoring the columns and not necessarily the perspectives of TNL editors.)
(Featured photo by KWON JUNHO on Unsplash.)