Dozens of municipalities in California have considered or passed ordinates that essentially ban the use of natural gas in homes and businesses. But a recent Catalyst Environmental Solutions report finds one of the main studies used to justify these policies “mischaracterizes emissions from gas stoves while advocating for an expensive and burdensome transition to all-electric,” according to chief author Dan Tormey.
The report, which was sponsored by the California Restaurant Association, provides a breakdown of the flaws in a UCLA Fielding School of Public Health and Sierra Club-funded study on natural gas cooking effects on indoor air quality.
At the heart of the issue are inaccurate comparisons of air modeling results, cherry-picked data and unrealistic assumptions that compromise the study’s findings. Importantly, reliance on the UCLA study could have real impacts – and already has – on some of California’s key industries, as municipalities consider sometimes drastic and unnecessary measures to improve indoor air quality.
As CRA’s President Jot Condie explained:
“California chefs rely on gas stoves to grill vegetables, sear meats and create meals of all kinds inspired by cuisines from all over the world. We are concerned that misleading health claims could lead to the loss of flame cooking, which would dramatically impact restaurants and the work of chefs and cooks, all of whom have endured enough during COVID-19. The CRA believes policy and regulatory decisions should be based on accurate and sound science.”
The CES report adds to the wealth of information supporting continued natural gas consumption, tipping the scales further against natural gas bans in the state. Here are a few key takeaways:
Shortcuts and Biases
The wave of natural gas bans was sparked in Berkeley, California and spread by environmental organizations who used unsound research to promise municipal leaders emissions reductions and improvements to indoor air quality. The report found that the 2020 UCLA study pushed by Sierra Club, “inflated the risk of using gas stoves and other appliances through incorrect and misleading comparisons of emissions to established air quality standards.”
UCLA’s shortcuts included:
- Using a 24-hour time-weighted average concentration that cannot properly be compared to 1-year annual standards.
- Ignoring their own findings that indoor air quality is more a function of what is being cooked, than the cooking fuel.
- Not considering unanticipated consequences of replacing natural gas with electric stoves and ovens.
The harms cited in the UCLA report are exaggerated, but the impacts of a natural gas ban are real. CRA is taking the city of Berkley to court to repeal the ban because of the impacts on restaurateurs caused by these assumptions:
“Many restaurants will be faced with the inability to make many of their products which require the use of specialized gas appliances to prepare, including for example flame-seared meats, charred vegetables, or the use of intense heat from a flame under a wok. Indeed, restaurants specializing in ethnic foods so prized in the Bay Area will be unable to prepare many of their specialties without natural gas.”
The UCLA study even notes repeatedly that:
“There are indoor air quality issues associated with the use of gas cooking appliances that will remain despite the implementation of electrification, and we do not account for this. Some PM emissions are associated with cooking oils and foods, and there are no mitigation methods for this, other than the use of ventilation devices such as range hoods. We do not claim that the transition to electric appliances would make a substantial difference in terms of emissions from cooking oils and food.” (emphasis added)
And according to the report’s findings, residents would be forced to give up their access to affordable cooking fuel, because of a scientific shortcut that assumes residential cooking “using both stove and oven, without venting, would take place in a residence for 2-hours every single day for 365 days per year,” despite available data on residential occupancy and appliance use proving otherwise.
The unintended consequences that the UCLA study fails to report is covered in depth by California’s Gridworks report, which warned in 2019 that any rapid shift away from the natural gas grid would threaten the 33 percent of California’s households classified as low income with mass shut-offs and economic dislocation:
“One-third of California households do not have sufficient income to meet their basic costs of living and energy insecurity affects approximately 25 percent of Californians today.”
California has the highest electricity prices in the contiguous United States and the average resident pays 80 percent more than the national average. In 2020 alone, California electricity prices rose seven percent, continuing the year after year price increases.
Not recognizing this cost concern is more detrimental to residents than any supposed natural gas ban that is grounded in skewed research about indoor air quality. The issue of energy affordability is so acute that, according to the Energy Information Administration, one in five households in 2015 had to reduce or forgo food, medicine and other necessities to pay an energy bill. And to minimize energy costs, more than 10 percent of households keep their homes at unhealthy or unsafe temperatures. The EIA report states:
“Of the 25 million households that reported forgoing food and medicine to pay energy bills, 7 million faced that decision nearly every month.”
U.S. energy expenditures in 2015 were the lowest in more than a decade, and still California ranked as having the highest total energy expenditures of any state.
A pandemic has come and lingered since EIA’s data was published and a 2020 report from American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy (ACEEE) found that increased energy consumption, costs and strained budgets was putting an increased proportion of Black, Hispanic, Native American households at risk of utility shutoffs. The ACEEE report also found that Pacific states (Alaska, California, Hawaii, Oregon, Washington) have one of the larger gaps between low-income and median energy burdens.
The idea that indoor air quality would improve through a natural gas ban is an unfounded assumption that would force residents and businesses to give up their natural gas appliances for higher cost electricity when the issue of air quality can be resolved through proper ventilation of cooking spaces. And burdening individuals with higher cost electricity would result in cascading health impacts as they look to cut costs elsewhere in life to afford the increased utility bills.
Most individuals can’t afford the impacts of a natural gas ban – and bad science and biased conclusions shouldn’t force them to.
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