Eugene is the first city in Oregon to pass a ban on gas appliance hookups for new residential construction. This comes amid a growing body of research into the health effects of the methane-based fossil fuel known as natural gas, and the ongoing effort to reduce emissions to combat climate change. Dozens of cities in other parts of the country have passed similar bans, and last fall the Multnomah County Health Department recommended moving away from all gas appliances after publishing a review of the evidence on public health and gas stoves.
Dylan Plummer is an organizer with the community action group Fossil Free Eugene, which brought the idea to ban gas hookups to the Eugene City Council two years ago and has been pushing for its adoption ever since. He joins us, along with NPR reporter Jeff Brady, who covers the natural gas industry as part of his beat on the climate desk.
Note: The following transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer.
Dave Miller: This is Think Out Loud on OPB. I’m Dave Miller. Last night, Eugene City Council passed a ban on gas hookups for new residential construction. The vote was 5 to 3. Almost 100 cities around the country have passed similar bans, but Eugene is the first Oregon city to do so. The move comes amid a growing body of research into the negative health effects of the methane-based fossil fuel known as natural gas. It also ties into the global effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to combat climate change. Dylan Plummer is an organizer with the community action group Fossil Free Eugene, which brought the idea to ban gas hookup to the Eugene City Council two years ago and has been pushing for its adoption ever since. He joins us now, along with NPR Reporter, Jeff Brady who covers the natural gas industry as part of his beat on the climate desk. Welcome to you both.
Jeff Brady: Thanks for having us.
Dylan Plummer: Hi, Dave. Thanks so much for having me.
Miller: Thanks for joining us. Jeff Brady, I want to start with the basics. How does burning methane, which is the main component of natural gas, compare with other fossil fuels in terms of heat trapping in the atmosphere?
Brady: Well, burning it isn’t as much of a problem as when it escapes into the atmosphere unburned. While carbon dioxide is the one we all hear about - that’s much more prevalent in the atmosphere and of course the main focus - but methane, when it escapes, is an even more potent greenhouse gas. Over the first 100 years it’s up in the atmosphere, it has 25 times more climate warming power than CO2. So that’s something that’s been a focus for people concerned about climate change. It’s sort of like when you have a credit card debt and you always want to pay off the debt with the higher interest rate first, they want to focus on methane because that has such a climate warming effect.
Miller: And how common is leakage?
Brady: It’s pretty common. There is a natural gas system in this country and you can think of it starting with that gas stove in your home. And then there’s pipes connecting it all the way back to the well where it was originally drilled. And all along that process there are pipes and connectors and compressors and drilling rigs and everywhere it leaks because methane is a gas. And because it’s a gas it just wants to leak, it’s looking for places to escape. And so if you’ve got connections that aren’t quite tight or you’ve got valves, some of them that are even designed to leak to work, there’s going to be methane escaping all along that process.
Miller: That is the climate change piece of this. But there’s also, in a kind of crescendo, a focus on the human health effects of using this methane-based gas in homes, often in homes that don’t have great ventilation. This past fall as part of your reporting on this, you rented an air monitor and visited an environmental epidemiologist at his home in Philadelphia where he made muffins and turned on the range. Can you describe what he showed you?
Brady: Yes. And we were measuring nitrogen dioxide specifically. That’s the big concern for health experts these days because it’s tied to breathing problems. There are studies that show that it can actually contribute to children developing asthma. And so what we did was fire up this monitor to measure nitrogen dioxide, fire up his oven, and then turn the stovetop burner on, to kind of mimic making a meal. And it was really interesting because in just a few minutes the level went beyond what are the guidelines set by the World Health Association for what’s considered safe for essentially peak exposure periods, which of course is what’s happening when you’re cooking.
I mean, that’s when the highest levels of nitrogen dioxide are going to exist in the house. And we saw that. It just showed up right there on the monitor and we kept trying to find ways to get it to dissipate. There was an old fan up on the wall about six feet away and we turned that on. It just kind of brought the level down a little bit and eventually what you have to do if you don’t have one of these powerful vent hoods over a gas range, you need to open up doors and windows and let more fresh air in to dilute that nitrogen dioxide.
Miller: Studies going back decades now, perhaps even earlier than the early 90′s have linked burning methane in homes to adverse health effects like asthma, as you noted. A recent one found that gas stoves are responsible for about 12% of childhood asthma cases. How has the industry responded to these concerns and these studies?
Brady: Yeah. And I think it’s important to maybe cushion that a little bit because it’s more than cooking with gas in a home, you can attribute about 12% of current childhood asthma cases to cooking with gas in your home. That’s what the study said. And why I think that’s important is because no one’s actually gone out there and run a study that says, ‘absolutely, if you cook with gas in your home for X number of years, then Y thing is going to happen.’
What we have gotten though is this accumulating body of science that shows us that there are problems and there are health experts who are convinced of this. You’ve got the American Public Health Association labeling gas cooking stoves as a public health concern and the American Medical Association warning that cooking with gas increases the risk of childhood asthma. Now, how the industry has responded to that, because when you consider the climate effects, you consider these health effects, gas utilities around the country really face an existential crisis right now. Because if the country is going to effectively address climate change, there may not be a place for their business as it exists now. And so they’ve been doing a couple of things. They’ve been trying to find ways to decarbonize their systems or reduce the greenhouse gasses that come off of their business by introducing so-called renewable natural gas with gas captured from landfills and agriculture. Some utilities are experimenting with introducing hydrogen that’s produced more cleanly than the fracking and drilling that exists for natural gas.
And then on the darker side of things, what we’re also seeing is something that we’ve seen in a lot of industries that face pressure, like the tobacco industry in the past. They’re hiring scientists to come out and really focus on those unknowns in the science right now, and highlight those so that they can cast doubt over the whole enterprise - if not to completely diminish the science that’s accumulating, at least [they] cast doubt so that they can continue selling their products for another decade or two.
Miller: Jeff, I want to hear more, but as I noted, Dylan Plummer is with us as well. A senior campaigner with the Sierra Club and a member of Fossil Free Eugene, one of the chief advocates for the ban on new residential gas hookups that the city council Eugene just passed last night. Dylan Plummer, how did Fossil Free Eugene come together?
Plummer: It’s kind of a long story. And I think it really starts with the climate movement coming into its own and us, in Eugene, drawing inspiration from the leadership of communities down in southern Oregon in their fight against the Jordan Cove Liquefied Natural Gas pipeline that was defeated for its third time in 2020. So that 15-year fight really provided us with so much information about the impacts of fracking and of methane or fracked gas on our climate and our health, already, that when that pipeline was defeated, our community in Eugene was really, really excited to find what’s the next fight. How are we going to continue to advocate for this clean energy transition and take on the gas industry?
And right around that same time, it came to our attention that there was a lot of exciting new affordable housing development in our city, but that it was being built with new gas pipelines. So our community went from having worked in coordination with the leaders down in Southern Oregon, fighting a giant gas pipeline, to then saying maybe we should turn our attention to all of the thousands of pipelines running beneath our homes and our communities. Because [it was] the same issues we had with Jordan Cove, it was a health risk because of explosions, it was a huge climate liability because, like Jeff mentioned, the impacts of leaking methane and then, in turn, the carbon dioxide when it’s burned.
So we started having conversations with city councilors and wrote a public letter in November of 2020, and actually found out later that the Sustainability Commission, an appointed commission from the city of Eugene, had actually been pushing the city on specifically eliminating gas in buildings since 2019. So we weren’t the first to really start this conversation, but we brought a lot of grassroots organizing power and energy into really pushing for these common sense policies.
Miller: Is it fair to say that what started with a real climate focus then turned into using the health concerns as another way to buttress your argument?
Plummer: I wouldn’t say we were using those health concerns to buttress our argument. But I would say that when we started off, we weren’t really aware of this body of literature, documenting the significant health impacts of burning gas and homes. And as our campaign really started moving and we were doing more and more research about the other cities that had passed similar policies, these studies kept coming back up and working with our key coalition partners like the NAACP Eugene Springfield, Beyond Toxics, and Springfield Eugene Tenants Associations - all organizations that are extremely focused on economic and racial justice - these health concerns, were really alarming. And became, just naturally organically, a key part of the reason why we were advocating for this transition because we know that low income communities, BIPOC communities, are oftentimes disproportionately impacted by ambient air pollution and the associated illnesses. And that’s only further exacerbated when they’re living in homes with gas, especially rental units that might not have good ventilation or might have other safety concerns associated with them such as asbestos and lead paint.
Miller: We did get a statement from Northwest Natural this morning. I’m going to read it in full:
‘Eugene City Councilors yesterday in a 5 to 3 vote passed a natural gas ban that eliminates energy choice for new homes, despite consistent polling that shows 70% of Eugene voters are opposed to this action. By being unwilling to put this issue out for a public vote, the Council also ignored the thousands of residents, workers, and community leaders that registered their opposition in writing and in public comment. The climate benefit the City has published to support this ban is 1/10 of 1% of an emissions reduction benefit in 2037. In response to the Council’s actions, Northwest Natural will work with community members and partners to evaluate next steps.’
Dylan Plummer, I want to give you a chance to respond to that statement.
Plummer: Well, I think there’s a lot to unpack there. And I’ll start with the last piece of it regarding the City’s projected emissions reductions from electrification. Northwest Natural and its allies have continued to spout misleading and explicitly deceptive information about the benefits to the climate that electrification would have. The specific statistic about there being less than 1/10 of a percent of an emissions reduction is so patently false that the City felt compelled to correct the record at the State Legislature where Northwest Natural made the exact same claim.
So when we start from the knowledge that they are explicitly lying about the emissions reduction potential of electrification [with] that statement, then it’s hard to take seriously their other claims about broad support for the continued use of fossil fuels, especially in a progressive and very climate friendly city like Eugene. The vast majority of our City Council runs on climate every four years. And there’s clear polling that showed that Eugene residents want climate action and that our council has a mandate to act. And that’s just what they did.
Miller: Jeff Brady, the Multnomah County Health Department released a review of the evidence on public health and gas stoves last fall. It recommended transitioning away from gas appliances They also heard testimony from an epidemiologist named Julie Goodman who has represented tobacco and oil and gas companies. The New York Times ran an exposé last week noting that while she called into question the data linking gas used to negative health effects, she failed to disclose that she was there on behalf of Northwest Natural. What did the company have to say about that?
Brady: I did talk with Northwest Natural about this and in written testimony, they said it right there in the first sentence that she was there representing them. But I listened to that, before the Multnomah County Commission and didn’t hear Northwest Natural mentioned. But I think what’s really important is something that I mentioned before. What she was doing there was again highlighting those areas, we just don’t have complete science about this yet, and highlighting those things that aren’t exactly known yet, but we have all these indications. But focusing in on those things that we don’t know and casting doubt over the whole enterprise. And that’s the big part of the industry strategy right now - to essentially stay in business.
Miller: Dylan Plummer, another Oregon city, Milwaukee, is moving forward with a similar ban on gas and new construction. That could go into effect in March of 2020 if it’s approved by City Councilors. But obviously, like in a lot of other states around the country, this is a city by city effort. What would you like to see statewide?
Plummer: Yeah, that’s a great question, Dave. There is a lot of momentum happening, like you said, at these different cities across the state. But there’s also a lot of work happening at the State Legislature right now and at statewide regulatory bodies. So specifically though, last legislative session, there was a bill passed to create the rebuilding task force, that’s the Resilient and Efficient Buildings Task Force. And that body was tasked with providing recommendations to the Legislature in order to decarbonize buildings and what those policies would need to look like.
So while we don’t actually have bill text yet for a number of the policies that were suggested in that report, we are anticipating that they will come in the next few weeks. We’re really enthusiastic about expanding subsidies for heat pumps and heat pump hot water heaters, highly efficient electric appliances that offer both heating and, more importantly I think in this warming climate, mechanical cooling. And then there’s also policies to look at electrifying state-owned buildings and state-owned schools.
And then additionally, one other policy that’s really caught our attention that we’re very excited for is Representative Mark Gamba is advocating for. He has introduced a policy to codify the city local governments rights to electrify, basically, as a means by which to protect local jurisdictions from overly litigious gas utilities like Northwest Natural, which, as you probably could tell from their statement, are taking on a pretty threatening tone with the City Council in Eugene now. Because as Jeff mentioned earlier, this is a corporation that’s facing an existential crisis in a state that’s very, very concerned with climate change and has committed to transitioning off of fossil fuels entirely in the coming decades.
Miller: Jeff, before we go, I want you to turn back to the national picture because it seems like there’s been a big change in this. Just in the last few weeks, groups like Dylan Plummer’s have been trying, with a lot of success in specific cities for years now, to get these bands in place. Some states have prevented these bands from being able to be implemented in cities. But just a few weeks ago, Richard Trumka, a Commissioner of the Consumer Product Safety Commission, said his agency might take steps to regulate gas stoves in the future. And that it seems like it changed a lot. It immediately turned what had been a city by city or, in some cases, state by state issue into a national one, in a much more partisan way. What do you think that’s going to mean going forward?
Brady: I think it’s going to be really interesting. He stepped right in the middle of the culture wars there. Because all of a sudden you started seeing these conservative politicians putting up a picture of a gas stove, like you’re going to pry it away from my cold dead hands. The memes were extraordinary and they’re continuing. But there’s another dynamic in here that I think is going to be really important to watch. Because if you look where people have gas stoves, it’s not a lot of those conservative parts of the country. It’s a lot of more liberal parts of the country, on the coast, California, New York, Pennsylvania where I am. And it’s going to be interesting as this becomes a more partisan issue and people kind of have to choose where they are. This could really backfire on some of those utilities and really play into that existential crisis we’ve talked about.
Miller: Jeff Brady and Dylan Plummer, thanks very much.
Brady / Plummer: Thank you.
Miller: Jeff Brady is NPR’s climate and energy correspondent. Dylan Plummer is a senior campaigner with the Sierra Club and a member of Fossil Free Eugene. It’s a group that pushed, now successfully, for the Eugene City Council to ban new gas hookups in residential buildings going forward.
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