Don’t let that slippery word “natural” fool you.
Natural gas is very bad news. It’s lousy for human health, disastrous for the environment, and a massive money pit, sucking away billions we could be spending on trying to head off the worst impacts of climate change.
A study out of Stanford University last week found that gas cooking stoves leak methane not only when they’re in use, but even when they’re turned off: The projected emissions each year from the nation’s 40 million gas cooktops are as harmful to the environment as emissions from 500,000 gasoline-powered cars. Numerous studies have shown that kids living in homes with gas stoves — which emit dangerous gases, including nitrogen oxides — are much more likely to develop asthma.
Gas does damage not just in the homes where it’s used for cooking and heating, but all the way along the supply chain. It is polluting to harvest, associated with respiratory and cardiovascular diseases, diabetes, and poor birth outcomes. It is risky to store and transport, as we saw with the disastrous Merrimack Valley explosions of three years ago. Methane, of which it is largely comprised, is far more potent a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. After transportation emissions, gas is this state’s second-biggest polluter.
We have to kick our habit on this stuff if we’re ever going to attain the ambitious, and absolutely vital, climate goals we’ve set for ourselves in Massachusetts. But so far, despite plenty of good intentions, we’re doing an abysmal job of it.
Instead of transitioning away from gas, utilities are spending billions to rebuild leaking pipelines across the Commonwealth. Obviously, leaks that send tons of methane into the air are dangerous, and we need to plug them, but the state has made it more lucrative for gas companies to replace those lines, greatly extending their life and the life of this damaging energy option, rather than repair them. A report last fall by the advocacy group Gas Leaks Allies found that the cost of replacing those pipelines is headed into Big Dig territory, at $20 billion, and that ratepayers will be on the hook for it. Worse, the system is springing new leaks as quickly as gas companies are plugging the old ones, so they’re essentially treading water says Dorie Seavey, who authored the study.
Meanwhile, legislation mandates that the state be at net zero emissions — that we be essentially done with fossil fuels — by 2050. That means switching to heat pumps, geothermal systems, and electric heat that relies on renewable energy sources. We’ve gotten a slow start so far: An analysis by my colleague Sabrina Shankman found that, though the state has set a target of converting 100,000 households each year from fossil fuels to electricity for heating and cooling, a measly 461 homes converted to heat pumps in 2020. That’s partly because the gas companies, for whom this whole movement away from fossil fuels is a monumental threat, have been discouraging these changeovers.
The good news is, a large and excellent pile of legislation has been proposed to fix some of these problems, and to make our transition away from fossil-fueled heat, including gas, faster and more affordable. There are bills to change building codes so cities and towns could require new heating systems to be fossil fuel-free, or electric; to supercharge conversions to heat pumps and train gas workers to install them; to wrest control of the MassSave energy-efficiency program from the utility companies.
A bill, sponsored by Senator Cynthia Stone Creem, of Newton, discourages the gas companies from growing their infrastructure, and nudges them toward repairing pipelines rather than replacing them. It also offers help to retrain workers, and for low-income homeowners to transition to cleaner heating systems.
We’ll know this week whether that bill, and the others, will advance on Beacon Hill.
They must. Getting to zero emissions means making radical and difficult change and yes, some sacrifice. It’s no use pretending this won’t hurt some, and upend vested interests.
“There’s no precedent for this, in anybody’s lifetime,” Seavey says. “But we have to change how we make and consume things. We have to reground how we live.”
And we have to do it quickly. It’s already too late.