The headline: San Francisco votes to ban natural gas in newer buildings. That means heating and cooking with natural gas. That means apartments and homes, not just businesses.

Dozens of cities have enacted similar bans, many in California. The idea is that natural gas is a fossil fuel, so it creates emissions, so banning it is a response to climate change. The idea may also be that this is a start to a larger ban on natural gas.

ECC addresses this issue as a weekend edition because the natural gas issue touches consumers more than any other. There’s a more direct link to everyday life for consumers with natural gas. If your utility creates a new solar or wind farm, great, but you know that you will get power no matter. This issue is about whether you have a choice to use a certain energy source. The job here is to educate, not take sides. ECC believes that consumers have an obligation to hear about issues that affect them. This one does.

Banning natural gas is a response to climate change to some people. Noble intention, perhaps. Are there angles to the ban that are beyond climate change?

Let’s see. First, a little more about the ban itself in San Francisco. “The city’s Board of Supervisors passed legislation requiring new residential and commercial building construction to utilize all-electric power, starting with projects that file permits next year. This ordinance will cover about 60% of the city’s current development pipeline in an effort to reduce city carbon emissions and tackle climate change.” That reported in Utility Dive magazine.

Note that San Francisco bills the mandate as a building safety and health code, not an energy code. Judge that on your own, of course.

The rationale: “Residential and commercial buildings are responsible for about 25% of California’s greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, according to the California Air Resources Board. Senate Bill 32 requires California to reduce its statewide GHG emissions to 40% below 1990 levels in the next 10 years, and some argue the building sector should be the primary target of this effort.”

Various debates emerge from natural gas bans. An umbrella term might be – gaps. Bans could create gaps that would not be good for the nation says some people.

A gap: Business health. Restaurants aren’t big on the ban. Gas cooking is considered essential in some restaurants. Many need high heat, immediate heat. Is this ban taking away a key to success in the business? And, on top of COVID.

Builders aren’t big on the bans. More permits and rules. “The ordinance would allow a building official to issue a permit for a building with gas plumbing in cases where constructing an all-electric structure is ‘physically, technically, or structurally infeasible.’ The carve-out would be subject to review and limited to the part of the building where electric systems are infeasible. The builder would also have to include hookups for future conversion to electric power where possible.” (source)

A gap: Is the electric infrastructure ready for an all-electric nation?

“Dozens of cities in California and Massachusetts have sought to restrict the use of gas in new structures, provoking pushback by oil and gas associations, utilities, and other groups…efficiency researchers say activists’ favored alternative to natural gas — electric heat — is still a costlier option for consumers. Mass adoption of electric heating could overload the grid without significant infrastructure upgrades, other analysts warn.” (source)

Gas use increasing: The 2020–21 winter season – 5% more than last winter. (EIA)

A gap: The ban stirs concerns of equity and energy poverty. Gas may be one of the best and most available fuels for cooking and heating. New appliances may not be within the reach of some citizens. Said one letter to the editor: “That’s unconscionable in California, which has the highest poverty rate of any state in America. When accounting for the cost of living, 18.1% of the state’s residents are living in poverty.”

Here’s an interesting turnaround. “Even some of the most ardent environmental activists have come to recognize its [natural gas’] value. Rev. Jesse Jackson, who previously protested against pipelines, is now calling for a natural gas pipeline to be constructed to serve Pembroke, an impoverished community outside of Chicago.”

He says the largely black community is being unfairly cut off from affordable energy, with no access to gas and resorting to paying high prices to heat their homes with propane.

This is quite a change. Environmental justice issues have regularly centered on energy hardware being opposed near minority communities, not encouraging facilities. This belies the complexity of the intersections of modern energy policy, climate policy, environmental justice, energy poverty, and technology.

Vigorous governmental debate, if not more than a debate, between states and cities about natural gas bans is expected. Louisiana recently blocked municipal natural gas bans. So did Oklahoma, Tennessee, and Arizona earlier in 2020.

There will be more news stories about natural gas bans. Various stakeholders (not necessarily the average consumers) will ensure their perspectives are out there. Citizens need to understand the issue, make up their minds, and express themselves to their elected officials.

For ECC readers, on energy issues there are many sides to consider, and they may not be in the expected places.


Read our blog about energy poverty.