Natural Gas Is Destroying the Climate and Our Lungs

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Nicolas de Camaret / Flickr

The debate over stoves is heating up. American foodies insist that food tastes better when cooked on a gas stove than on an electric, while others point out that stove preference is cultural, and electric stoves are the chef’s preference in Asian countries. Often missing from this debate is the environmental and health perspective, which makes clear that natural gas has run its course.

For decades, gas (methane) has been promoted as a “bridge fuel” to transition industrial societies off of coal. That goal has largely been achieved: coal is no longer prevalent in most areas. But the human and environmental costs to gas can no longer be ignored. Pound for pound, the comparative greenhouse gas effect of natural gas is 25 times stronger than carbon dioxide, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. From a purely environmental standpoint, we may have been better off with coal.

Unfortunately, despite all we know about the hazards methane presents to the health of human bodies and to the planet, natural gas remains embedded in our infrastructure. Natural gas is currently piped into many of our buildings and moving off of it to an all-electric infrastructure will be highly resource intensive. But it is also necessary to combat the climate crisis. As part of a Green New Deal, the federal government should be responsible for moving the nation’s building stock off of natural gas entirely — and yes, this includes stoves.

Methane accounts only for 10 percent of greenhouse gas emissions in the United States, but even that relatively small amount is devastating. Natural gas must be transported from fracking sites to our homes and buildings, and an estimated 3.8 percent of all domestically produced gas gets leaked into the atmosphere before it even reaches our meters (a 2016 study showed that due to the global warming potential of leaked methane, leakage rates over 4 percent may be worse for the environment than coal production). The leakage from the homes and businesses of just five major metropolitan centers is more than triple the methane leakage from the Bakken shale formation. Gas pipelines that travel over seismic faults are at risk of bursting during earthquakes and causing fires, as during the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake.

Beyond the environmental effects, natural gas produces such serious health problems that it is astounding that it is allowed into our homes. Until recently the Environmental Protection Agency did not test indoor air quality, and thus it has only been in the last decade that we have begun to understand the full effects of burning methane in your kitchen. In homes where a meal is cooked on a gas stove once a week, 60 percent have pollutant levels so toxic that they would be illegal if measured outdoors.

Burning and leaking methane through air or water heating has been strongly correlated to asthma and other respiratory diseases by the National Institute of Health since at least 2008. But most people do not spend hours at a time hovering over their water heater, breathing in the fumes. Unfortunately, people do exactly this when cooking over a gas stove. All natural gas is a hazard to public health, but cooking over gas stoves is poisonous.

So what can be done about this? Last summer, the city of Berkeley, California passed an ordinance phasing out natural gas in new construction, the first of its kind, and similar measures have been proposed in cities and counties across California and the country. Phasing out natural gas from new construction makes sense — the best way to prevent having gas in your house is to never build the gas pipe to begin with. When a building goes all-electric from its initial construction, the building’s electrical load can be configured to handle heating, cooling, and cooking equipment. Plus, it is cheaper: avoiding the additional trenching and plumbing costs of two energy systems (rather than the single electric system) can save an estimated $3,000 per unit in multifamily buildings.

So moving away from natural gas in new construction is easy, cheap, and generally a great idea. Municipalities should continue to pass similar ordinances as quickly as possible. But natural gas represents 24 percent of the energy usage from America’s existing housing stock. Fifty-six million homes are fueled by natural gas and those buildings will last for decades to come. If we changed the standards only for new construction, it would take centuries for the entire building stock to phase out natural gas and we do not have the luxury to wait that long. Such delay would also be inequitable: poorer communities and communities of color, already disproportionately affected by asthma and other respiratory illnesses, tend to live in older housing stock as well. Clean indoor air must be a universal right, not a privilege awarded to those who can afford to live in newer buildings. To reverse climate change and improve indoor air pollution for everyone, we need to electrify existing buildings too.

This task will be far more expensive and far more labor intensive than simply adopting the Berkeley model of changing standards for new construction. While building without gas from the beginning can save $3,000 per unit, retrofitting a multifamily building to become all-electric can cost between $9,000 and $23,000 per unit. Because electric air and water heating is cheaper than gas, an electric retrofit can save the resident significant money over time, but the construction and wiring costs to change appliances and increase the electrical load are significant. Up until now only gregarious and wealthy homeowners have turned their gas-powered homes all-electric. To make this happen quickly, we need the federal government to pay for it.

Retrofitting millions of homes and commercial buildings will require an army of construction workers and electrical engineers, not to mention the cost of the new appliances. These will be costly. But the federal government pays an estimated $20 billion per year in fossil fuel subsidies that could be redirected towards this purpose. Electrifying our building stock — new and existing — is crucial to reducing the greenhouse gases in our atmosphere, and the human benefits to doing so are incalculable. Indoor air will be less toxic, we will train thousands of new union electricians, and people will finally learn to cook on induction stoves. Natural gas is destroying our planet and our health, but it doesn’t have to be this way. We need to leave it in the ground.