Twelve percent of US greenhouse gas emissions come from oil and gas use in buildings. The climate movement is rallying around reducing that number through electrification. A growing number of cities are banning natural gas equipment into new homes and buildings in favor of electric, relying more on the grid, where the share of renewable power is growing.
But the gas industry is fighting this electrification, and one way is through a common appliance in American kitchens — the gas stove. Rebecca Leber is a reporter with Mother Jones, and recently published a piece called: “How the Fossil Fuel Industry Convinced Americans to Love Gas Stoves; And why they’re scared we might break up with their favorite appliance.” The Allegheny Front’s Kara Holsopple talked to her recently about it.
LISTEN to their conversation
Kara Holsopple: According to your piece, 35 percent of Americans use a gas stove. That’s a higher percentage in some parts of the country like New York and California. So residential use is a big business for the gas industry, right?
Rebecca Leber: Residential gas is a huge market for the industry. I think one thing I try to make clear in the piece is how gas stoves are a really small fraction of the industry’s future. This fight is not really about the gas stove in particular. The appliances for heating and water are where most of the gas usage is going to for our residential buildings.
But the gas stove is really important more as a marketing tool, because consumers care about their gas stoves. It’s the thing that they see in their kitchen that they use daily, and that is where they have more of an emotional connection than, say, to their water heater.
Holsopple: You report that the gas industry has been marketing gas stoves to Americans for decades. What are some of the strategies it’s used with consumers over the years?
Leber: The most wild part of reporting the story was going back through the decades of marketing. I wasn’t aware until I started reporting on this issue that the phrase “cooking with gas” was invented by the industry in the 1930s. In the ’50s, they were marketing to housewives, using ads with celebrities. Then in the ’80s, I guess, trying to remain culturally relevant, the industry produced a really cringeworthy ad that was a rap video. The lyrics are hilarious.
But we see how the core of this campaign has stayed the same. The messaging that gas stoves are superior has stayed throughout the years. We’ve even seen this updated for our current landscape with social media influencers.
Holsopple: Now, many states and municipalities are moving toward electrification in building codes, phasing out gas lines in new residential construction to cut down on methane emissions which contribute to climate change. How is the gas industry responding to this trend?
Leber: There’s been increasing use of a tactic called preemption, where the industry tries to pass laws at the state level that prevents local municipalities and cities from restricting gas in new buildings. That’s been one huge tactic we’re going to see a lot more of in 2021.
“If states start passing laws saying we need to phase out gas in new construction, this could be the beginning of the end for gas.”
Already, a dozen states have passed preemption bills. Another tactic which we’ve already touched on is the marketing. The gas industry is trying to use the gas stove as its wedge issue to fight electrification in buildings. They’d rather not have this fight on science terms or talking about climate change, because those are areas where the science is clear — gas stoves can impact public health and that gas appliances contribute to climate change.
So rather than have that fight, the gas industry is trying to make it about protecting the gas stove. We’re seeing a multi-pronged, huge fight because this is in essence about the future of the industry. If states start passing laws saying we need to phase out gas in new construction, this could be the beginning of the end for gas. Rather than have the same fate as coal, the gas industry is fighting really aggressively to prevent that.
Holsopple: As you mentioned, climate change isn’t the only concern when it comes to cooking with gas. What are the issues around indoor air pollution and health impacts with gas stoves?
Leber: This is an area of public health science that I was shocked to realize has been out there for decades, and it’s just an issue where there’s a public disconnect. I think only recently have the public started to realize that combusting a gas in front of you can lead to detrimental effects.
There are two emissions in particular that are of huge concern, I think most people are aware of carbon monoxide, but we still don’t have standard regulation of detecting carbon monoxide in homes. Stoves can be emitting levels that are either below what the standard detector is detecting, or some homes don’t even have a carbon monoxide detector.
I talked to one scientist who studied indoor air quality for decades and she said, without ventilating your home, you’re basically living in a toxic soup.
The second source of pollution that is really overlooked, and there are really no standard detectors around this or regulation, is nitrogen dioxide. This is a pollutant that is linked to all sorts of health problems, especially in children and more vulnerable populations that might have asthma. It can contribute to cardiovascular problems. It can contribute to respiratory health issues.
Using a stove and oven, especially if you have those on at full blast, cooking a storm, you can exceed pollution levels that would be illegal outdoors. These are not small sources of indoor air pollution. That’s what some of the more recent evidence has shown us.
I talked to one scientist who studied indoor air quality for decades and she said, without ventilating your home, you’re basically living in a toxic soup. This is where the equity problem really comes through, in a large home, you might have the proper range hood that takes the emissions and vents it outside. Most people don’t have this. They have a fan that just recirculates that air inside your place. This is a real social justice problem, too.
Holsopple: What about the industry’s points that gas is cheap and it’s more reliable? I’m thinking about the recent cold weather power outages in Texas. People who had a gas connection were able to cook and heat water.
Leber: This is a common argument. We’ve seen it before. I think the industry has leveraged this more since the Texas outages. When it comes to cost, I think considering the full range of costs is important here. Once you have a gas line to your building, that building will be relying on gas for decades to come. The building sector is slow moving when it comes to climate action, which is why it’s important to phase out these connections in new construction now rather than wait 15 years.
Once you have a gas line to your building, that building will be relying on gas for decades to come.
As far as reliability, one thing to remember is that gas leaks. It can explode. We take, as a matter of fact that a gas pipeline in a neighborhood can explode, and that this is a thing we have to accept.
One thing we saw in the Texas disaster, and I think that there’s just now slow news coming out on this, is there were gas leaks and oil leaks from pipes freezing and from pent up production leaking across the supply chain.
Gas has its drawbacks. I think having this debate and framing it as, what is cheaper renewables or gas, or what is more reliable in a power outage, is a narrow scope of the true cost of having a supply chain that is dependent on gas.
Holsopple: How is this tug of war between the industry and this move towards electrification likely to play out? Who’s winning?
Leber: I think we’re seeing this play out in real time. In the same way, a decade ago, coal started to see its decline across the country. At least 42 cities have moved to fully electrify new construction in buildings, and we’re going to see more cities introduce this this coming year. But at the same time, the industry is fighting back.
I think where to watch is also at the federal level. The federal government has done very little to improve efficiency of our appliances and to look at the building sector’s emissions. This has been largely left up to local ordinances.
Where the Biden administration could come in is issuing more aggressive efficiency standards for things like stoves, which are generally not regulated. That could also push more cities, push more states into the direction of relying on more renewables and electrifying their building sector.
Rebecca Leber is a reporter in Mother Jones’ DC bureau, where she covers environmental politics and policy.