Los Angeles aims to block gas in new buildings

The second largest city in the U.S. will ban gas in new homes and businesses, part of a growing movement to halt the growth of gas.

In May, Los Angeles moved to ban natural gas connections in new buildings, adding further momentum to a growing trend around the U.S. aimed at restricting the growth of the gas system as a way of addressing the climate crisis.

The U.S. electricity grid continues its shift towards renewable energy, but electrifying heating and cooking appliances in buildings that currently depend on gas is a tougher nut to crack. It will involve swapping out millions of gas furnaces and gas stoves, replacing them with electric alternatives.

But it’s a problem that cannot go unaddressed. Burning fossil fuels in buildings, most of which comes from natural gas, accounts for 13 percent of U.S. carbon dioxide gas emissions.

“It’s critical for the climate, our pocket books, and for the health of our communities that we stop expanding the gas system. We will not be able to stave off the worst impacts of the climate crisis if we continue to burn gas in our homes,” Rachel Golden, a co-leader of the Building Electrification Initiative at RMI, a Colorado-based think tank, told Gas Outlook.

In just the last few years, a rapidly expanding list of cities and states are putting in place bans or stiff restrictions on connecting newly-constructed homes and businesses to gas infrastructure. Electrification will take a long time, but at a minimum, governments need to halt the expansion of gas connections, advocates say.

Nearly 80 governments around the U.S. have banned new gas connections, most of them at the municipal and county level. A large portion of them is concentrated in California, where this policy trend originated. It was only three years ago that Berkeley, California became the first city to ban gas in new buildings.

Since then, many of the cities and counties following in their footsteps were relatively small, but taken together, the movement is spreading quickly, and restrictions targeting gas connections are starting to reach much higher levels of government. Late last year, New York City signed a ban into law.

In late May, Los Angeles became the nation’s second largest city to take such a move, ordering city agencies to draw up regulation, with a precise date yet to be determined.

The next step could be at the state level. In April, Washington State became the first to enact a ban on gas connections in new commercial and large-scale buildings, and later this year could shore that up by applying the ban to the residential sector. Unlike many other gas restrictions, which go through municipal or county legislatures, Washington is going the regulatory route, with the State Building Code Council rewriting building codes to force gas out of the mix.

Last year, California stopped short of a ban, but revised building codes that change the cost calculus to incentivize electrification. Activists also pressured the New York state legislature to pass a ban, but that effort died during this year’s legislative session, although the issue will likely come up again next year.

Gas stoves a huge climate problem

For years, gas used in buildings avoided scrutiny and was overlooked while attention from activists focused on big sources of pollution such as fracking, power plants, and tailpipes from cars and trucks. But piping methane into millions of homes and businesses so that it can be burned in a furnace or a stove is an enormous climate problem, one that seems to grow worse the more researchers look into it.

Fossil fuels burned in buildings account for 13 percent of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. But a paper published in January 2022 found that gas stoves leak methane even when they are turned off.

“Most of the warming arising from stove use comes when burning natural gas to carbon dioxide,” Rob Jackson, a coauthor of that study, and a professor of earth system science at Stanford University, told Gas Outlook. “However, we estimated that methane leaking from stoves (while on and off) contributes an extra 40% of warming on top of this carbon dioxide pollution.”

He warned that the real number is higher because the paper did not include methane leaks elsewhere in the system, including from distribution lines, storage tanks and at drilling sites – another massive source of climate pollution. A June 2022 report from a U.S. House of Representatives committee finds that oil and gas companies are underreporting their methane leaks in the Permian basin in West Texas and New Mexico.

Gas used in buildings is not just a climate problem, but also a hazard to human health. Gas stoves emit harmful air pollutants that come from gas appliances, including carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide (NO2), particulate matter, and formaldehyde. Cooking with a gas stove can even result in indoor air pollution that exceeds legal outdoor air pollution levels, even as indoor pollutants are largely unregulated.

A 2013 meta-analysis of 41 studies found that burning gas at home for cooking increases the risk of asthma for children by 42 percent.

“Burning gas in our homes, including cooking with a gas stove, emits unsafe levels of pollution into both our homes and the environment,” Jenn Engstrom, state director for California Public Interest Research Group told Gas Outlook. “That’s why it’s important that communities like Los Angeles lead the way in the transition to clean, electric homes.”

The good news is that electric alternatives are readily available, and in many cases, offer superior performance compared to gas appliances.

“Fortunately, there are clean, modern, climate-friendly alternatives to gas appliances like heat pumps and induction stoves that actually make our homes more comfortable to live in and our buildings more comfortable to work in,” Golden said. “These appliances can also lower monthly energy bills, especially when paired with efficiency and/or rooftop solar.”

On June 6, President Biden invoked the Defense Production Act to accelerate the production of a variety of clean energy technologies, including solar panels, electric grid components, and fuel cells. That order also included heat pumps, a move aimed at electrifying buildings and slashing the use of gas. The Defense Production Act is a decades-old war-time law that allows the president to direct manufacturers to build certain goods, but it’s not yet clear how impactful Biden’s order will be on speeding up the installation of heat pumps around the country.

But time is of the essence. “At current emission levels, we’re only a decade or so away from surpassing the 1.5C warming threshold,” Jackson said. “Electrifying new construction makes sense to me so that we don’t lock in greenhouse gas pollution decades into the future.”

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