Last month the city of Berkeley, California, banned natural gas infrastructure from new buildings. The most obvious reason for the ordinance is enough to justify it on its own: Natural gas is a fossil fuel, and burning it contributes to global warming. But by getting off gas, Berkeley is doing a whole lot more for public health and the environment.
Here are six reasons why moving away from natural gas is a great idea:
- Burning gas contributes to global warming. According to the city of Berkeley, burning natural gas in homes and businesses is responsible for more than a quarter of the city’s greenhouse gas emissions, second only to transportation.[pdf] Across the U.S., the average home emits more carbon dioxide from natural gas use per year than is produced by driving a car from Berkeley to Boston and back.
- The natural gas supply chain releases global warming pollution even before any gas is burned. The global warming impact of natural gas goes far beyond the CO2 released when it is burned. Gas is primarily composed of methane, a global warming pollutant with up to 84 times the heat-trapping ability of CO2. Around 13 million tons of methane leak each year during gas extraction, processing and transportation – and these leaks mean that gas’ global warming impact may be as bad as coal.
- Fracking harms public health and the environment. Fracking, the drilling technique used for most U.S. natural gas extraction, is a dangerous and destructive process that exposes communities to toxic chemicals, uses up scarce water resources, and requires clearcutting forests and harming natural landscapes. Fracking waste can contaminate drinking water long after extraction is complete, and certain fracking waste disposal methods even cause manmade earthquakes.
- Gas infrastructure is dangerous. Natural gas is highly flammable and transported at high pressure through gas lines, and disasters are frequent. In September 2018, a series of more than 80 natural gas explosions in the communities of Andover, North Andover and Lawrence, Massachusetts, resulted in one death, 25 injuries and the destruction of as many as 80 homes. As we reported earlier this year, in 2017 alone “there were 118 incidents related to either gas distribution or onshore transmission that resulted in a fatality, serious injury, or loss of at least $50,000.”
- New gas infrastructure makes it harder to get off fossil fuels. Gas infrastructure can last for decades – and spending money to build more of it today locks us into future fossil fuel dependence. As Oil Change International has put it, “Once capital has been sunk, operators can keep running a plant as long as it can sell power for more than the marginal cost of producing it – even if it incurs a loss on the invested capital.” [pdf] And once we do move off fossil fuels, any money we spend on gas infrastructure now will have been wasted.
- Banning gas gets us ready for an all-renewable future. As long as homes and businesses burn natural gas, our communities will remain dependent on fossil fuels. But a different future is possible, one in which buildings run on electricity and are powered by renewable sources of energy like wind turbines and solar panels. Banning gas sets the stage for such a future. With modern technology like air source heat pumps and induction stoves, such change is not just possible, but economical and desirable, too. The Rocky Mountain Institute found that in “many scenarios, notably for most new home construction, we find electrification of space and water heating and air conditioning reduces the homeowner’s costs over the lifetime of the appliances when compared with performing the same functions with fossil fuels.” The city of Berkeley determined that moving from gas stoves to induction stoves won’t pose a risk to the city’s “rich culinary culture” – rather, “[f]amous chefs across the country are turning to induction cooking” because “modern induction range technology provides faster heat response, easier clean up and more temperature precision” than gas stoves.[pdf]
Berkeley’s new ordinance puts the city in position to create an energy system that eliminates dependence on natural gas. The move is important because of the immediate reduction in emissions that can result. But it also demonstrates the many benefits of a clean energy future – one that leaves behind fossil fuels and embraces clean, renewable energy in every facet of our lives.
Image: Downtown Berkeley, Wikimedia Commons user Introvert
 For now, the ordinance only applies to low-rise residential buildings, but its reach will expand as new building types are approved by the California Energy Commission. Buildings exempted from the current law must be built with the capability to go all-electric in the future, with “sufficient electric capacity and conduit to facilitate full building electrification.”[pdf]
 The average home (among those that use natural gas) uses 57.8 million Btu of natural gas per year: See table CE2.1 of the U.S. Energy Information Administration’s Residential Energy Consumption Survey. Every million Btu of energy from natural gas means 117 pounds of carbon dioxide emitted. The typical passenger vehicle emits 404 grams of carbon dioxide per mile driven.