Climate Spotlight: The ‘natural’ gas emergency

The SOCAN Ashland Climate Action Project will host a Zoom webinar on how to “Electrify Your Home” from 7 to 8:30 p.m. Thursday, March 24.
March 23, 2022

Methane-rich gas is poor alternative to renewable electricity

By Lorrie Kaplan

In recent decades, a wide range of high-quality studies show unequivocally that the use of “natural” gas is a significant factor in global warming — and really bad for our health.

Here are the facts: “Natural” gas is about 90% methane — a highly potent greenhouse gas. Methane leaks into the atmosphere when “natural” gas is extracted, processed and transported (see for yourself on YouTube).

As pipelines age, leaking will likely increase. The global warming impact of methane is 86 times greater than carbon dioxide over its first 20 years in the atmosphere, and at least 25 times greater after 100 years. That’s right: worse than carbon dioxide. 

While we still need to reduce our carbon footprint, methane reduction may be even more urgent. “Cutting methane is the strongest lever we have to slow climate change over the next 25 years,” says Inger Andersen, the executive director of the United Nations Environment Programme

Drilling down on ‘natural’ gas problems and solutions

In February, the Southern Oregon Climate Action Now (SOCAN) Ashland Climate Action Project hosted a free webinar, “Health Impacts of Gas Appliances” — now available on YouTube. Speakers included Melanie Plaut, M.D., and Theodora Tsongas, Ph.D, M.S., an environmental health scientist and public health epidemiologist. Plaut and Tsongas are members of the Oregon Physicians for Social Responsibility’s Healthy Climate Action Team and co-authors of the August 2021 report, “Methane Gas: Health, Safety, and Decarbonization: Setting the record straight.” The report is endorsed by some 60 environmental, scientific and religious organizations of the Pacific Northwest.

The webinar is part of a three-part webinar series. Part two, ”Electrify Your Home,” will be held from 7 to 8:30 p.m. Thursday March 24. Click here for more information or to register. Part three, “The Future of Natural Gas,” is scheduled for April 28.

Health impacts

A recent Stanford University Study found that gas stoves leak methane and that more than three-quarters of the leakage occurs when our stoves are turned off. Methane gas impacts our health by creating indoor pollution, outdoor pollution, explosion risks, pollution at the site of extraction and climate change, Plaut explained.

“You may still have ‘natural’ gas for heating and for cooking, and until recently you’ve never given it much thought,” said Plaut. “Just like lead paint, there are things we once thought were safe — and maybe even virtuous. But now we know that they damage both the climate and our health.”

“Cutting methane is the strongest lever we have to slow climate change over the next 25 years.”

—    U.N. Environment Programme Executive Director Inger Andersen

“Indoor pollution from gas stoves can reach levels that would be illegal outdoors,” Tsongas explained. “Gas stoves have been associated with a number of health issues in multiple studies, particularly for children. Urgent action is needed to reduce exposure to the products of combustion of methane gas,” she asserted. Low-income communities and those with underlying medical conditions are particularly affected. 

Harmful pollutants emitted by gas appliances — especially stoves — include nitrogen oxide, fine particulate matter (PM 2.5), carbon monoxide, formaldehyde, sulfur dioxide and methane.

Nitrogen oxides are highly toxic gasses that increase the risk and severity of respiratory infections and asthma. Exposure to PM 2.5 increases the risk of high blood pressure, stroke, premature bronchitis, asthma onset and exacerbation, low birth weight and preterm birth.  

There’s no safe level of exposure to carbon monoxide and at high levels it causes death by asphyxiation, said Tsongas. Similarly, there’s no safe level of exposure to formaldehyde.

Gas furnaces and water heaters are less likely to cause indoor pollution, because they are vented to the outdoors and generally located further away from the living space. But they do cause significant outdoor pollution. “A recent California study showed that the nitrogen oxide pollution created by home and commercial buildings burning gas far exceeded the amount from gas power plants,” Plaut reported.

What to do? 

With the evidence mounting, and the climate clock ticking, an urgent scramble for solutions is underway. More than 50 U.S. cities and counties have enacted prohibitions on new natural gas infrastructure.

Many municipalities and states — including Ashland and Oregon — are rolling out incentives and subsidies for landlords and low-income homeowners to switch from gas to electric appliances in existing homes. 

Programs are also springing up to help homeowners voluntarily make the switch. “Electrify Ashland Now” recently launched to provide local resources, cost analysis, planning guides and a homeowner support group. Electrify Ashland Now is a program of the newly formed nonprofit, the Ashland Climate Collaborative.

Ashland is an ideal community for electrification because the city’s electricity comes mostly from hydropower, which is relatively clean compared to gas and coal. Switching from gas to electric is the best way to slash our household footprint. 

Gas companies fight back

Not surprisingly, “gas companies are in the fight of their lives,” said Plaut. 

The industry is orchestrating a strategy to push state “energy choice” legislation to preempt municipalities from taking action to reduce gas emissions. They are also spending big ad money to tout their “aspirational goal” of using more renewable natural gas (RNG) — falsely describing it as cleaner than fossil methane. RNG is produced using the everyday waste of people and animals rather than fracking, but it still isn’t a viable energy solution for a number of reasons. It’s still methane, with all the same climate impacts.

In upcoming articles, we’ll talk about protecting yourself while living with gas appliances and how to move toward a 100%-electric home. It’s no small task, and it’ll take time, but it’s critically important. Start learning more and get involved at Electrify Ashland Now

Lorrie Kaplan is chair of the Ashland Climate Action Project of Southern Oregon Climate Action Now and president of the Ashland Climate Collaborative, and a board member of Ashland.news. All of these roles are unpaid. Contact her at lorrie@socan.eco.

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Bert Etling

Bert Etling

Bert Etling is the executive editor of Ashland.news. Email him at betling@ashland.news.
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