Los Angeles joins movement to ban new natural gas hookups to fight climate change

As the nation looks for ways to cut fossil fuel emissions to meet ambitious carbon reduction goals, natural gas, that common household fuel staple loved by cooks, is feeling the heat.

So far, 77 cities and towns and Washington state have banned or discouraged new natural gas hookups. Los Angeles became the latest to join the list when its City Council voted last week to rewrite building codes requiring new homes and buildings achieve zero-carbon emissions – effectively eliminating future natural gas lines.

Climate change experts say the shift is a necessary part of the nation's energy transformation. About half of American homes use natural gas, and appliances burning natural gas make up 13% of U.S. greenhouse emissions, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. At least 95% of those emissions come from water heaters, stoves, furnaces and clothes dryers powered by natural gas.

"One of the things we need to stop doing is burning fossil fuels. One of the places we can do that is in our homes," said Michael Wara, director of the climate and energy policy program at the Woods Institute for the Environment at Stanford University.

But the transition is not without controversy. Just as fast as some communities are rejecting natural gas, others are clinging to it. With utilities leading the charge, 21 states have passed laws stripping local governments of the authority to adopt zero-emission building codes.

“Without natural gas, and in the absence of sufficient renewable energy to meet the needs of consumers, people will have to rely on less efficient and dirtier options in homes for cooking, heating and providing hot water," said Karen Harbert, president and CEO of the American Gas Association.

The elimination of natural gas in homes and businesses will be disruptive to customers and "will not enable us to reach our shared environmental goals," she said.

New homes, however, must be built with the infrastructure of the future in mind, Wara said.

"This is a change in the physical infrastructure of our lives that is necessary to keep our international promises but moreover to create a model for how to live in an affluent energy-abundant country without causing grievous harm to the planet," she said.

The building codes variously encourage, incentivize or require that new construction not be piped for natural gas, meaning the furnaces, stoves, water heaters and dryers in the buildings will be run on increasingly clean electricity.

Already, 40% of U.S. electricity is generated from carbon-neutral sources, including nuclear, wind, solar and hydroelectric power. The amount has been rising steadily. Last year, wind and solar alone accounted for 13% of U.S. energy production, growing at the fastest rate ever.

What's built today will affect efforts to decarbonize the United States for decades, said Monica Embrey, energy team leader in California with the Sierra Club, which worked to enact Los Angeles' ban.

Building a house with a gas hookup "bakes in" the source of energy. "Once installed, these appliances can contribute to 50 years of fossil fuel burning," she said.

The movement to keep natural gas hookups out of new construction, preparing for what the U.S. government has pledged will be an all-electric, carbon-free future, began in 2019 and has gained momentum in more liberal states.

The first such ban was enacted in Berkeley, California, in July 2019. The ordinance required all new, single-family homes and small apartment buildings to have electric infrastructure. A federal judge rejected a California Restaurant Association challenge to the ordinance in July 2021.

Today, all-electric building codes are in effect in cities and counties in California, Colorado, Washington, D.C., Massachusetts, Maryland, Missouri, New York, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Utah, Virginia, Vermont and Washington.

The natural gas industry and utilities have pushed back against the restrictions, saying natural gas has a place in the nation's transition to carbon-neutral energy.

“There is no question natural gas will continue to be part of achieving our nation’s energy and environmental goals," Harbert said. "To see a city eliminate not only the customer choice but the broader economic benefits and undeniable environmental benefits is shortsighted to say the least."

States that preemptively ban such building codes are Alabama, Arkansas, Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, New Hampshire, Ohio, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Virginia, West Virginia and Wyoming.

No more fire in the kitchen: Cities are banning natural gas in homes to save the planet

While people seldom make personal decisions about what fuel to use based on climate concerns, cost may entice them to replace natural gas furnaces, stoves, dryers and water heaters with electric, Wara said.

"When this whole movement to ban gas in homes started, natural gas cost $2.50 per metric million British thermal units," the standard unit of measure of natural gas.

"Today, gas costs about $9 per MMBtu," he said. "I think more than anything else, that is going to change how people look at this issue."

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Los Angeles to ban new natural gas hookups, part of a growing movement

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