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Cities are banning natural gas in new homes, citing climate change

Cities say no to natural gas
Cities say no to natural gas 01:19

A growing number of U.S. cities are taking a stand against gas stoves, long billed as a more convenient way to cook, because of their contribution to climate change.

Since June, a dozen cities have banned natural gas equipment in new buildings. Berkeley, California, was the first, followed in the state by San Jose, Mountain View, Santa Rosa and Brisbane. A half-dozen other cities have passed laws to strongly encourage all-electric construction without banning fossil fuels outright. 

On the East Coast, Brookline, Massachusetts, in November became the first city in the state to ban new gas hookups. Dozens of other cities, from Cambridge and Newton in Massachusetts to Seattle, are considering similar bans.

While the restrictions enjoy strong public support, they're causing panic among some homeowners and gas-dependent industries. The California Restaurant Association last week sued Berkeley, calling its gas-ban law "irresponsible" and claiming that "restaurants specializing in international foods so prized in the Bay Area will be unable to prepare many of their specialties without natural gas." The gas industry has also funded extensive opposition to cities' climate goals, the Los Angeles Times reports.

While the stoves themselves aren't the biggest problem from a climate change perspective, they're the aspect that most people are attached to, said Bruce Nilles, managing director of building electrification at the Rocky Mountain Institute, a clean-energy think tank.

"Most people have no idea how they heat their water, how they dry their clothes, how they heat their homes — but most people are well aware that they have a gas or electric stove," he said. 

A home with a gas stove likely uses gas for other purposes, and it's those other appliances — the furnace and the washer and dryer — that are most responsible for climate-warming pollution, data show. But in recent years, Americans have used gas more than any other fuel except oil, a major reason carbon emissions have kept rising.

Powerless: The high cost of cheap gas 23:05

Recent research has also cast doubt on the clean-energy credentials of natural gas. Extracting and transporting it demands thousands of wells and miles of pipelines, and that infrastructure tends to leak. The gas released, mostly methane, has between 20 and 80 times the climate-warming potential of carbon dioxide.

On the other hand, the U.S. electric grid is much cleaner than it was two decade ago, and modern electric appliances need far less energy to run than older equipment. 

"Ten years ago, it was the prevailing wisdom that because the electricity was so dirty and electric appliances were so inefficient ... you would get three tons of carbon saving per household for every home we got off electric to gas," said Nilles, who helped the state of Wisconsin design a plan to replace electric heaters with gas-fueled ones. 

But now the logic has shifted. "We pushed people to go off electric to go to gas for 30 years, and we're now pushing them in the other direction," he said.

In the U.S., natural gas is responsible for more climate-heating emissions than coal is. Globally, gas is the fastest-growing source of emissions, according to a study published in Environmental Research Letters this week.

With these numbers in mind, it's logical that cities — many of which have set renewable-energy goals — are the first to leave natural gas behind. In the absence of federal policy, dozens of cities across America have set goals to cut their greenhouse gas emissions by the middle of the century. (Many states, including California and New York, have similar goals.) 

In cities, more than in rural or suburban places, buildings make up a huge portion of climate-warming pollutants — anywhere from 40 to 80% of emissions. Cutting that number means not just stopping the expansion of natural-gas infrastructure, but retrofitting most existing buildings to use electric heat, environmentalists say.

"Gas has been advertised as this kind of bridge fuel, but we're at a point where we don't need a bridge [to renewable energy] — we need to adopt some of these renewable resources," said Emma Searson, Go Solar campaign manager with Environment America. "We're at the point where we can actually imagine not using fossil fuels in the home."

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