The idea of banning gas stoves has gained national traction lately, mainly as a Republican talking point to generate outrage. But is there any merit to the idea that reducing natural gas use in buildings will have beneficial effects? Several jurisdictions in Oregon and elsewhere have concluded that the answer is yes.
Most recently, the City of Eugene enacted a ban on natural gas hookups in new low-rise residential construction. The Eugene ban follows a City of Milwaukie resolution that does not ban gas connections outright, but directs city staff to develop code changes to prohibit new gas connections in residential and city-owned buildings by 2024. These two Oregon cities join over 100 jurisdictions in 11 other states nationwide that have taken steps to curb natural gas use in buildings. In particular, modern electricity-powered heating and cooling devices like heat pumps in place of gas appliances can drastically cut both energy use and emissions to heat and cool indoor spaces.
Efforts to reduce natural gas use in buildings has numerous high-profile supporters, including the Sierra Club and the Oregon Citizens’ Utility Board. Fossil fuel use in buildings contributes about 30 percent of the nation’s greenhouse gas emissions. Also, burning fossil fuels in buildings releases methane, a greenhouse gas far more potent than carbon dioxide. Consequently, converting to more carbon-friendly electrification in buildings can have significant emission reduction effects.
Not surprisingly, the effort has opponents too. Eugene city councilors who voted against the measure unsuccessfully tried to submit the proposal to voters, expecting its defeat based on polls showing the proposal to be unpopular. An Ontario, Oregon assemblyman has introduced a bill to adopt a statewide prohibition on natural gas bans. The bill supports such a ban based on a claim that Oregon utilities are already unlikely to meet statewide greenhouse gas emissions targets, but does not explain how pumping the brakes on electrification would aid utilities in those efforts. Prominent Oregon gas utilities including NW Natural also are fighting the proposals on several fronts, including litigation.
It seems clear that reducing fossil fuel use indoors would have significant public health benefits by reducing human exposure to the byproducts of combustion. From an emissions reduction perspective, however, replacement of natural gas with electricity is only as climate-friendly as the source of energy used to generate the electricity. While as of 2019 Oregon produced almost two-thirds of its electricity from renewable sources (ranking it sixth-highest among U.S. states), the same is not true elsewhere in the nation where electricity is still generated overwhelmingly from fossil fuels. Thus, policy decisions that seek to reduce natural gas use must advance alongside continued efforts to green the nation’s electricity supply.