As the United States has begun transitioning away from the use of coal and petroleum as a source of electricity and fuel, natural gas has been viewed as a relatively benign fossil fuel. After all, natural gas produces less carbon dioxide when burned than those other fossil fuels. It remains the energy source in about half of California’s buildings.
But scientists have increasingly warned that methane, the main component of natural gas, is itself a key heat-trapping gas — 84 times more potent than carbon dioxide in the first twenty years after release, according to the Environmental Defense Fund. In addition to the carbon dioxide created by its burning, the inevitable leaks as natural gas is extracted and shipped, make gas a serious climate threat in its own right.
State policy calls for the electrification of buildings — the source of about 10 percent of California’s greenhouse gas emissions, mostly from natural gas. Several state agencies and many cities and counties are working on a variety of programs to promote electrification. But none have gone as far as the ordinance scheduled to come before the Berkeley City Council on July 9.
Once again, the City of Berkeley is considering a groundbreaking environmental policy: This time it’s a ban on natural gas hookups in all new buildings, starting January 1, 2020.
Berkeley is about to see a “wave of new multistory construction,” with at least 3,100 residential units currently planned, said Councilmember Kate Harrison, who introduced the measure. “These buildings will be in place for 100 years,” she said. “Emergency action is needed to prevent locking in the greenhouse gas and safety impacts” of natural gas.
In addition to the fuel’s impact on climate change, Harrison also noted that using natural gas means “pumping a toxic, flammable liquid over fault lines into our homes.” Cooking with gas is linked to asthma attacks and hospitalizations, hitting hardest in children and communities of color. A 2013 Lawrence Berkeley Lab study found that in 60 percent of the homes with gas stoves, the air pollution level violates federal standards for outdoor air. “Your Gas Stove is Bad for You and the Planet,” a recent guest editorial in The New York Times, reported that “a growing body of scientific evidence has shown that gas stoves throw off pollutants like nitrogen dioxide and carbon monoxide.” Natural gas also is a fire hazard. A 2017 study by the US Geological Services identified broken gas lines as a key risk factor during an earthquake. Much of the damage and loss of life after an earthquake is caused by fires from broken gas lines.
So far, no opposition to the proposed gas ban has emerged. But pushback is expected, since many builders and residents are unfamiliar with the relatively new technologies for electric heating, cooling, and cooking. The city council committee working on the bill held two hearings for developers, but none showed up. “The next step is outreach to builders and the business community,” Harrison said.