Community workshops highlight climate change and indoor air quality impacts from natural gas appliances
By Craig Breon for Ashland.news
Nearly 50 people filled the Ashland City Council chamber Wednesday, Oct. 18, for the first of two community meetings to discuss a possible city ordinance to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from new residential development. Focused largely on promoting electrification of new homes to reduce the use of natural gas, this effort emerged from Ashland’s youth, and young speakers featured prominently in both the evening’s presentations and public comment.
In March, the student group Rogue Climate Action Team (RCAT) launched its Ashland Youth for Electrification campaign, sponsoring a walk-out at Ashland High School followed by a march in downtown Ashland, calling for community leaders to take further action to address the climate crisis.
RCAT’s initial proposal — asking the City Council to ban natural gas hookups in new homes, businesses, and industries — met substantial resistance on legal, financial, and practical grounds. A similar ban in Berkeley, California, was overturned by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals earlier this year after a lawsuit from a restaurant association.
The Ashland City Council decided to slow down the process to refine what might be possible, allow for a balanced discussion, and build community support for what may eventually be enacted. Nonetheless, students again showed up at a council meeting in September to urge action.
Last Wednesday’s meeting was hosted by Ashland’s Climate and Environment Policy Advisory Committee (CEPAC). CEPAC is charged with implementing and updating Ashland’s Climate and Energy Action Plan (CEAP), a set of policies adopted by the Ashland City Council in 2017 with a long-term goal of zero net greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and an aggressive target of an annual 8% reduction in GHGs.
Two Ashland High School juniors, Piper Banks and Kiera Retiz, both CEPAC members, led the presentations, along with Bryan Sohl, CEPAC chair, and Chad Woodward, Climate and Energy analyst for Ashland. The presentations focused both on the climate change impacts of natural gas appliances and indoor air quality impacts from gas burning stoves.
Natural gas is primarily methane, the second most potent greenhouse gas pollutant after carbon dioxide (CO2). Methane is more potent than CO2 in warming the planet, but is also relatively short-lived and exists in far smaller amounts in the atmosphere.
The most recent available data shows Ashland’s natural gas usage up by 10% from 2015 to 2020. The picture of overall emissions is mixed, with city staff noting that Ashland’s emissions from the transportation sector are likely decreasing due to widespread adoption of electric vehicles, which have risen 800% since 2017, and increasing residential solar generation, which is up about 350% over the same time period.
Methane also produces indoor air pollutants when burned. Using a gas stove produces nitrous oxides, benzine, and other pollutants as well as unburnt methane. These can significantly increase the risk of asthma in children and contribute to cancer and heart and lung diseases in adults.
The risks of gas stoves and furnaces to indoor air quality have received increasing attention from health organizations and scientists. Research also shows that appliance industries may have withheld health impact studies from the public since the 1970’s, drawing comparisons to the tobacco and fossil fuel industries.
Those gathered Wednesday night showed overwhelming support for an ordinance to transition new homes off fossil fuels, though a number of approaches were discussed. Kiera Retiz summed up the optimism of the effort, saying Ashland is, “So close to passing this ordinance that is desperately needed.”
Critics of the ordinance raised a number of concerns. Allan Sandler, a 42-year resident of Ashland, local developer and former film producer, repeated some of these concerns in a subsequent interview.
“I don’t like seeing these cut off completely without a transition,” Sandler said. “If we go all electricity and go off gas completely, what happens if we get a blackout or a cyber-attack? Whatever we choose, we have to be very careful about what happens without properly thinking it out.”
Sandler added, “I was very proud of the kids bringing this forward.”
The next CEPAC community meeting on the electrification ordinance will be from noon to 1:30 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 26, in the Ashland City Council chamber at 1175 E. Main St., Ashland.
Email Ashland resident, lawyer and former environmental law instructor Craig Breon at email@example.com.