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Politics

The Year States Passed on Gas

A firestorm over stoves couldn't stop these states from reining in gas.

A gas stove.
Heatmap Illustration/Getty Images

One of the biggest climate stories of the year — the first, and perhaps only, to go viral — didn’t so much draw attention to the warming planet as it did to the dangers of using fossil fuels.

During the second week of January, Bloomberg reported that a federal safety agency would “consider a ban on gas stoves amid health fears.” Though the headline was somewhat misleading — the commission was investigating the risks of cooking with gas, but a ban was not immediately forthcoming — the article invited swift backlash.

The next day, the Wall Street Journal editorial board published an op-ed warning readers that “Biden is coming for your gas stove.” Conservative politicians expressed their undying loyalty to the appliance. “If the maniacs in the White House come for my stove, they can pry it from my cold dead hands. COME AND TAKE IT!!,” Ronny Jackson, a Republican congressman from Texas, posted on Twitter. Governor Ron DeSantis of Florida designed aprons bearing an illustration of a gas stove that said “Don’t Tread on Florida.” Democratic Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia also piled on, tweeting, “I can tell you the last thing that would ever leave my house is the gas stove that we cook on.” House Republicans eventually passed a bill called the Gas Stove Protection and Freedom Act.

Meanwhile, everyday Americans were trying to make sense of the news that their gas stoves could be harming them. Every major media outlet ran stories on the risks of cooking with gas and how to minimize them. “How bad is it actually?,” friends started asking me over drinks.

It’s not good. Burning natural gas releases nitrogen dioxide, a pollutant that contributes to respiratory illnesses like asthma. Concentrations from cooking can often exceed government standards for outdoor air quality. Proper ventilation with a range hood can reduce your exposure. But it won’t do anything about the effects gas has on the climate.

About 13% of U.S. emissions come from the fuels burned in buildings. Stoves may be a small part of that, but officials in some of the most climate-forward cities and states have been grappling with reducing the use of all fossil fuel-burning appliances in buildings for a number of years now. In February, the Building Decarbonization Coalition reported that 98 municipalities and four states — California, Washington, Maryland, and Colorado — had adopted policies promoting a switch to electric appliances. When the gas stove hysteria erupted, one in five Americans was already living under laws that encouraged or required landlords and developers to eschew gas.

A lot has happened in the months since, and not every state is swimming in the same direction on the issue. But in 2023, policymakers took big leaps toward a future without gas in buildings in three key ways:

1. The first statewide ban on gas in new buildings

There’s no blueprint for how to decommission thousands of miles of gas pipelines and retrofit millions of homes with electric appliances in a systematic, let alone equitable way. As a start, policymakers have generally followed the Law of Holes, as in, the first step is to stop digging — or in this case, stop growing demand for gas.

In 2019, the city of Berkeley, California, led the way, passing the first ordinance in the country to prohibit gas hookups in new buildings, and dozens of other cities followed. This year, New York became the first state to enact such a policy. The law requires all new buildings that are smaller than seven stories to be fully electric beginning in 2026, and applies to taller buildings in 2029.

“I think it’s huge that a state is doing it, not only because New York is a big-impact state,” Sarah Fox, an associate law professor at Northern Illinois University School of Law, told CNN at the time. It’s no longer “fringe cities passing these policies,” she said. “This is becoming a mainstream policy that a state like New York is taking on.”

However, this year also saw a continuation of Republican-led states taking the opposite tack. Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Idaho joined a list of 24 states that have passed laws prohibiting municipalities from setting these kinds of restrictions on gas in buildings. By my estimation, using 2022 population data from the U.S. Census Bureau, that means two in five Americans live in states with such preemption laws.

Berkeley’s gas ban was also struck down by a federal appeals court, and the city is now fighting for a rehearing. That decision led to some uncertainty, but no loss of momentum. In Washington, where regulators created a de facto ban on gas in new construction through the building code last year, officials recently amended the code to safeguard it against legal challenges.

2. Limits on investment in the gas system

Utilities typically spend hundreds of millions of dollars each year maintaining, replacing, and building new pipes — funds they expect to recover from ratepayers over the course of decades.

This year, in a few states with strong emission reduction laws that imply heating will have to be electrified in the next few decades, regulators started to scrutinize these investments more. In Illinois, for example, the Commerce Commission ordered People’s Gas, which serves the Chicago area, to pause its pipe replacement program, rejecting the company’s request to hike rates to fund it.

“This program was deeply flawed,” Abe Scarr, state director of the Public Interest Research Group in Illinois, told me. It was supposed to address the real problem of risky iron pipes, but it had been mismanaged and over-budget for years, he said. At the current rate, the company won’t be done until 2049, “right around the time that a lot of us think we should be stopping to use the gas system.”

The commission ordered an investigation into the program. It also initiated a new “Future of Gas” proceeding for all utilities in the state to determine how to align the sector with Illinois’ clean energy goals. “As the State embarks on a journey toward a 100 percent clean energy economy, the gas system’s operations will not continue to exist in its current form,” said Illinois Commerce Commission Chairman Doug Scott in a press release.

Meanwhile, regulators in Massachusetts were wrapping up their own “Future of Gas” proceeding that had kicked off in 2020. In early December, the state’s Department of Public Utilities issued a final order declaring, among many other things, that it will no longer allow companies to recover costs for gas infrastructure without showing that alternatives, like helping customers electrify, were considered. Regulators also rejected the utilities’ preferred path to reducing emissions — switching to lower-carbon fuels like renewable natural gas and hydrogen — as not yet proven. Unless and until the evidence changes, any money the companies spend investigating these solutions will have to be covered by shareholders, not ratepayers.

Also this year, Massachusetts began testing one potentially more systematic pathway to transition off gas. Eversource, a utility there, broke ground on a first-of-its-kind project to switch an entire neighborhood to “networked geothermal,” a form of electric heating that draws on the steady temperature of the ground beneath the earth’s surface to heat and cool buildings.

3. Prohibitions on charging customers for marketing and lobbying

In many states, it’s standard practice for utilities to bake the cost of political activities like lobbying, advertising, and trade association memberships into customers’ gas and electric rates. These activities often amount to efforts to slow down the clean energy transition — for example, an investigation published this year found that the American Gas Association has fought to stifle warnings about the risks of gas stoves for decades.

“[Utilities] are conscripting their customers into an unknowing army of millions of small-dollar donors to prolong the era of dirty energy,” David Pomerantz, executive director of the nonprofit Energy and Policy Institute, wrote in TheNew York Times earlier this year.

But now Maine, Colorado, and Connecticut, have all outlawed the practice; if utilities in those states want to spend money on lobbying or trade groups, they’ll have to pay for it out of their own profits. Massachusetts regulators took a similar step, banning gas companies from charging customers for any marketing related to the promotion of natural gas.

I asked Mike Henchen, a principal at the clean energy think tank RMI who follows gas utility regulation around the country, what the next wave of action on the issue might look like.

He said he expects progress to continue next year, with states rolling out rebates for heat pumps with money from the Inflation Reduction Act. Some, like New Jersey and Maryland may follow the playbooks written by first movers like New York and Massachusetts, and those leading states could continue to break new ground. One of the next fronts, he said, is removing the gas industry’s “obligation to serve,” a rule written into most state laws that gives customers the right to demand gas service. That means that even if there’s a strong economic argument to electrify a city block rather than replace a risky pipeline, one resident’s refusal could sink the whole project.

On the bright side, some utilities are starting to talk more openly about needing to reduce the amount of natural gas they sell to customers, Henchen told me. But midway through sharing this thought, he stopped to laugh. “I laugh, because it seems like it should be more obvious that that is the case.”

Red

Emily Pontecorvo

Emily is a founding staff writer at Heatmap. Previously she was a staff writer at the nonprofit climate journalism outlet Grist, where she covered all aspects of decarbonization, from clean energy to electrified buildings to carbon dioxide removal. Read More

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