Latshaw: My fiery encounter with natural gas
Bay Area governments have started phasing out natural gas in new construction. Photo courtesy of Pixabay.

    I was a freshman at UCLA in 1962. I was removing my hopefully warmed meal from an old oven and suddenly flames erupted, causing me to jump away. The ancient, gas-filled oven had a non-working pilot light and combusted in my face when I opened the door. My eyebrows and arm hair would grow back, and my red skin was akin to a bad sunburn.

    There are more important reasons to remove natural gas from widespread use than protecting foolish college freshmen. Natural gas, which I will refer to as only “gas,” is implicated in house fires, poor respiratory health, premature deaths and global warming.

    Regulatory efforts to replace gas with electricity are long overdue.

    After the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, I noticed several homes had suffered major fire damage. Gas was considered the culprit. My wife immediately called for protection, and while we weren’t able to afford the high cost of earthquake insurance, I installed an earthquake-sensitive shut off valve to the inlet to my home.

    Thankfully, it has not been tested in another earthquake.

    More gas fire disasters followed with the San Bruno explosion in 2010, which killed eight, injured 58, destroyed 38 homes and left a 72-foot-long crater. In 2015, the Aliso Canyon gas storage facility near Porter Ranch in southern California released 109,000 metric tons over 110 days.

    Recently UCLA’s Fielding School of Public Health conducted an analysis of 319 previous studies on indoor air pollution from gas use. The UCLA study identified that the most quantifiable and certain harmful effects from gas combustion are from nitrogen oxides and carbon monoxide. Although gas combustion introduces other harmful chemicals such as formaldehyde, acetaldehyde, small particles and other volatile organics, they were only qualitatively identified.

    “While several studies investigating gas appliances and asthma exacerbation produced mixed results, evidence supports a clearer association between gas appliances and asthma and respiratory symptoms in children, with one meta-analysis reporting that children living in homes using gas for cooking have a 42% higher risk of having asthma,” the study said, noting recent appliances appear to emit less pollutants.

    Last month, National Geographic published an article coming to the same conclusion as the UCLA report. “Untethering from fossil fuels and electrifying homes and buildings many analyses have shown, is a critical step toward decarbonizing the U.S. and beyond,” the article reads. The magazine quotes several chefs who favor cooking with electric induction stovetops as they offer quicker heating and more control than gas cooking.

    I will always wonder if my ignorance on the effects of gas in the kitchen has contributed to both my children, now adults, having asthma.

    The California Restaurant Association contracted with Catalyst Environmental Solutions to critique the UCLA study. I have examined the Catalyst report, which correctly points out some of the harmful effects of gas use could be reduced with more ventilation. Also, some of the exactness in the numbers in the UCLA report may be overstated. However, the Catalyst report did not refute that the primary pollutant studied, nitrogen oxides, could only be generated by the intense heat of the gas flame. Catalyst’s claim that some of the pollutants may have come from the food cooking is contrary to the extensive testing reviewed by UCLA, in which there were controlled situations where the gas burner only boiled water.

    Of the major gas appliances—water heater, space heater, ovens and stovetops—stovetops consume only a few percent of the total gas consumption, but lead to most of the indoor health effects. However, the combustion of gas in other appliances results in major contributions to outdoor air quality degradation from the combustion products—the same products found in vehicle exhaust.

    The combustion of natural gas produces carbon dioxide, the most recognized greenhouse gas. But its role in atmospheric heating is much more threatening than just the carbon dioxide. Gas infrastructure leaks contribute to atmospheric heating more than the carbon dioxide. Leaks cause a 100% to 300% increase in heating over that from the carbon dioxide produced during combustion. The uncertainty in heating from leaks is because they are so prevalent in the system and various studies result in wide differences in measured values.

    So, you might say, why not repair the leaks? The leaks come from over 3 million miles of pipelines, oil and gas fields, thousands of fittings, storage tanks, abandoned mine shafts and other components, making the system impractical to seal.

    The industry is notoriously sloppy for leaving valves open and poor repair of equipment. The International Energy Agency (IEA) has assessed that the energy sector is responsible for 40% of methane emissions from human activity. Moreover, the IEA has concluded that an estimated 40% of methane emissions from oil and gas operations could be avoided “at no net cost because the outlays for the abatement measures are less than the market value of the additional gas that is captured.”

    Use of natural gas belongs to the long list of preceding practices once thought to be beneficial—tobacco smoking, DDT spraying for insects, cocaine for pain and sleep, and others – but scientific studies proved harmful. Those habits have largely been discontinued. The good news is there are electric alternatives to home gas use.

    Electric appliances usually cost less to operate. However, they often require substantial upfront costs. As citizens we must encourage our government to provide the proper incentives to overcome the initial investment to go electric.

    Recently, many Bay Area cities put serious limits on natural gas in new construction. Surprisingly, PG&E supported these efforts as the company does not want to be burdened with maintaining the gas infrastructure. We need to think carefully about our own personal decisions on future purchases.

    Gary Latshaw is the founder of and a volunteer with the Climate Realty Project, Sierra Club and other climate action groups.

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