Rushad Nanavatty is managing director for urban transformation at RMI. Daniel Tait is research and communication manager at the Energy and Policy Institute. This contributed content represents the views of the authors, not those of Canary Media. Canary Media is supported by RMI but is editorially independent.
Over the past few years, American cities have begun taking bold action to protect the health and well-being of their residents. One of the most powerful manifestations of this is the move by municipalities across the country to phase out gas in new construction. Communities from Berkeley, California to Brookline, Massachusetts have enacted or introduced policies to that effect.
Predictably, the fossil fuel industry is funding a significant counterattack. Twenty state legislatures have passed laws to “preempt” local authority over clean energy and building decarbonization efforts, a brazen move to use state law to invalidate local government ordinances. The reprisal is gaining steam: Four of the bills passed last year, and 16 have passed since the start of 2021.
The laws vary in scope and language. Most take aim at building-decarbonization efforts, but some are written more expansively, potentially limiting local influence over transportation electrification, solar deployment, oil and gas extraction, permitting for clean energy technologies and infrastructure siting decisions.
Ohio is the most recent state to pass such a preemption bill. Three more states are considering it: Michigan, North Carolina and Pennsylvania have preemption proposals at various stages in the legislative process. Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania all rank among the top 10 states in the number of premature deaths attributable to gas burned in buildings. Together, the three states use nearly a fifth of the country’s gas in buildings, represent more than 12% of new gas customers and account for 11% of all new buildings in 2020.
The size of these markets and the volume of new construction present a great opportunity to build cheaper all-electric homes and avoid locking in more air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions for decades. If we are to prevent the worst effects of climate change, we cannot allow the fossil fuel industry to override local progress.
“Consumer choice” — or corporate welfare?
Many of these bills have been introduced under the guise of “consumer choice.” At best, this language betrays ignorance of how the energy system works. Energy service is a collective choice, not an individual one. For example, bringing gas service to a community requires a collective commitment to gas — no company will build pipelines to serve an individual. Just as communities collectively determine what type of energy infrastructure they want, they should have a say in determining what type of energy infrastructure they do not want.
At their worst, the consumer-choice argument is a thin veil for corporate welfare. The natural gas industry has played a strong role in pushing the preemption movement. NPR has documented how groups such as the American Gas Association have promoted misinformation, supported preemption legislation and developed talking points to unify the message across affected states. The investigative journalism site Undark offered a detailed rundown of the issue’s history, and even Samantha Bee got into the act recently.
Fossil fuel and utility industry donations make up an average of 7% of the campaign contributions to legislative sponsors of the bills in question in Michigan, North Carolina, Ohio and Pennsylvania, and have made up as much as 17% of contributions to some of the bills’ sponsors. In some cases, the relationships run even deeper; one of the Michigan sponsors owned an oil and gas drilling consulting firm until February of this year, while the Pennsylvania sponsor brings in income from five different drilling companies by leasing land for fracking.
Campaign contributions and direct ties to industry are just the tip of the iceberg. Less obvious are the billions of dollars the oil and gas industry spends on lobbying and advertising, and the fossil fuel subsidies that help support all that spending. In the case of Florida’s SB 1128, which prohibits all bans on new natural-gas hookups, three of the eight people registered to lobby on the bill represent a single company: Teco Energy. That company serves 400,000 gas customers that it would prefer to keep captive and 11,000 miles of gas mains that Floridians are collectively paying for — whether they want to or not.
The evidence strongly suggests that the real interests these bills serve are those of corporations and their shareholders, not local residents and energy consumers.
Who gets hurt
Consumer choice, when appropriately applied, is an important principle, but so is consumer protection. This matters even more when the harms caused by a product or an industry are hidden or underappreciated. And the health issues associated with the direct combustion of fossil fuels in buildings have been largely hidden — just the way the gas industry would like to keep them.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has established that gas stoves are a primary source of nitrogen dioxide (NO2) indoors and that short-term exposure to NO2 can cause asthma attacks. Epidemiologists at Utrecht University found that children are at 42% higher risk of asthma attacks if they live in homes with gas stoves versus electric ones. And MIT researchers have learned that burning fuels in buildings is now one of the leading causes of air-pollution-related premature deaths in the country.
The risks to respiratory health from NO2 documented in the scientific literature are clearly associated with burning gas in buildings. Publicly, the gas industry continues to deny the role of its product in harming people’s health. Privately, at least one gas utility executive seemed to acknowledge how dangerous this information is to the industry’s business model: “If we wait to promote natural gas stoves until we have scientific data that they are not causing any air quality issues, we’ll be done,” she wrote in an email, as reported by Mother Jones.
Burning fuel in buildings also hurts consumers financially. In most cases, electric-only buildings and homes are cheaper to build than mixed-fuel gas-and-electric ones. Mixed-fuel homes need separate systems for heating and cooling, which makes them more expensive than all-electric ones that use a heat pump for both functions. All-electric homes can also offer lower overall energy bills over time. For example, an RMI analysis found that in Columbus, Ohio, a new all-electric home will save about 19% in upfront costs and 6% on annual energy costs.
Furthermore, RMI analysis of geospatial data in Charlotte, North Carolina confirmed the often-cited correlation between communities’ income levels and air quality. As expected, areas with low to moderate household income relative to the city’s median face higher levels of pollution, as indicated by levels of fine inhalable particles with diameters of 2.5 micrometers and smaller (PM2.5 particulate pollution). Their percentage of gross household income spent on energy costs (referred to as “energy burden”) was found to be higher as well.
Cities must be allowed to act
As the fossil fuel industry works to spread public misinformation, the regulation of indoor air quality and the products that impact our health indoors has fallen through the cracks between the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Consumer Product Safety Commission and the Environmental Protection Agency (which is primarily responsible for regulating outdoor air quality under the Clean Air Act).
Until the federal government takes action to address this pollution, the onus to protect consumers from these health hazards and misinformation falls on state and local governments. And if state governments do not act to protect their residents’ health or economic well-being, it follows that local governments should be allowed to step in and fill the breach.
While Berkeley’s 2019 ordinance marks the start of our current battles, we can also look further back in history — and to our industrial heartland — for inspiration. In the early 1940s, Pittsburgh’s City Council passed a “Smoke Control Ordinance” to prohibit the burning of coal in homes. Then as now, the industry losing market share fought the ordinance. But fortunately — and unlike today — the regional coal companies wielded limited power.
Pittsburgh’s fuel mix rapidly changed along with the rest of the United States. From 1940 through the mid-1950s, coal was the primary source of heating in homes. Forty years later, coal was nearly gone. For similar health and environmental reasons, and with a similarly superior “fuel” source available today, we need to do everything we can to facilitate an equally rapid transition to electricity. Cities must be allowed to act to protect their residents and our collective future.
(Lead image: Kwon Junho/Unsplash)