For years, natural gas has been positioned as a cleaner alternative to coal.
It might be true, but government stats show a third of carbon emissions in the U.S. come from natural gas used to produce electricity in turbines or to heat homes. Half of all homes in this country use natural gas for heating and cooking, with 180 million people and 6 million businesses relying on this type of fossil fuel.
But in the last two years, about 40 California towns and cities have banned gas hookups in new construction, starting with Berkeley in 2019. Meanwhile, Arizona, Louisiana, Oklahoma and Tennessee have passed laws making it illegal to ban natural gas.
Emissions from natural gas add about 600 million tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere per year, says Mike Henchen, who specializes in decarbonization at the nonprofit Rocky Mountain Institute. Natural gas is a slightly better alternative compared to gas or oil, he says, but pivoting to electricity could drop emissions to zero.
“There [are] some advantages compared to diesel fuel in a truck or compared to coal at a power plant,” he says. “But at the end of the day, natural gas is contributing significant carbon pollution that's driving climate change.”
In 2019, gas utilities spent over $20 billion on infrastructure, Henchen says — compared to $5 billion a decade prior. He argues this money would be better spent investing in clean energy alternatives such as solar and wind.
“But even in cities like Chicago, where the utility is 10 years into a 30-year program to replace every gas line in the city, we're seeing gas rates go up,” he says. “And people are starting to ask this question, are we sinking another 20 or more years of investment and billions of dollars into a system that's just not compatible with the idea of a carbon-neutral economy?”
While the industries that produce and sell gas oppose the efforts to move away from it, more elected leaders are running on climate, he says. President Biden’s infrastructure plan includes an investment in upgrading existing affordable housing buildings to reach zero emissions.
Climate scientists say humans need to limit temperature rise to 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit to maintain a livable climate — and Henchen says that budget is close to bursting. The benchmark to focus on now is cutting emissions in half by 2030, he says.
Getting the U.S. on track to meet these goals will require commitments from the Biden administration that “rely on burning a whole lot less fossil fuels all across our economy, including in the furnaces in our basements,” he says.
That goes for our kitchens, too. For at-home chefs, only one in three households in the U.S. cooks with gas, Henchen says.
Alternatives such as electric induction cooktops can give cooks the same control over the heat and boil water more quickly than gas, he says, though shifting people’s preferences will take time.
“There's research out there that kids who live in a home with a gas stove are more likely to experience asthma,” he says. “And I think people are becoming more aware that burning a fuel in the middle of your kitchen is harmful and produces pollution inside your house.”
Nick Cobarruvias, co-owner of Son's Addition restaurant in San Francisco, says gas has been the preferred method of cooking among chefs for years. Chefs get a more “finesse” and a swifter reaction from a gas stove compared to induction burners, he says.
“I understand when some chefs are pushing back really hard. For certain techniques and certain types of cuisine, gas is part of the food itself,” he says.
Electric cooking methods spark concerns around the possibility of blackouts, he says, especially with the intensity of California’s recent wildfire seasons. And some cooking techniques like using a wok require high heat, he says.
“Margins in restaurants are really small, you know, nationwide. And especially in a place like San Francisco, it's just magnified,” he says. “So the cost of electricity is concerning for me. I know gas is a much cheaper option.”
But Cobarruvias wants to be a part of the shift to reduce emissions. Figuring out the logistics of the transition will require some planning such as adjusting the menu and the number of employees, he says.
And if the pandemic taught him anything, it’s that restaurants need to be flexible to survive and the industry is full of versatile, adaptable people.
“It's similar to why you use good meat instead of bad meat,” he says. “We always try to make the right decision, not necessarily even for profitability or anything, just to try and not screw up the world too much.”
This story is part of Covering Climate Now, a global journalism collaboration of more than 400 news outlets committed to better coverage of the climate crisis. This year's theme is "living through the climate crisis."
This segment aired on April 19, 2021.